Martha Nussbaum begins Political Equality by questioning equality’s relation to people, posing questions such as what makes people equal and what gives them the right to be so. Having listed all her questions regarding equality, she states that she will attempt to define equality in a political meaning and the “basis of human equality” which she mentions would be backed by the “minimalist argument”. Before delving into that, she first states that “equality” is a political and ethical value that bleeds into law and politics, predominantly based on Christian doctrines. However, she argues, society currently contains a wide variety of opinions and ideologies where some aren’t necessarily connected to the Christian values or the Christian doctrine of equality. Nussbaum goes as far as claiming that it seems “disrespectful” to build political principles of equality on specific religious doctrines, namely Christianity. She believes that basing political doctrines on specific religions seems to be indoctrinating, similar to forcing people to ‘convert’ to specific religions to fit in society. 

Here, it can be argued that though specific nations have their own private religions and some of their citizens do not accept the religion, many do follow the rules set up by said religion (mostly Christianity or Buddhism). One doesn’t necessarily have to accept the religion to follow the doctrines. Patrick Devlin on Morals and the Criminal Law, had argued that even if people do not follow the religion, it is only right to follow the law that was set up by the religion or it will result in the “disintegration” of society. Like such, despite the fact that not all people follow the Christian value of equality, if it is embedded in the constitutional law, or just society in general, people would be obliged to follow it. Similarly, Nussbaum also argues that as long as people accept political equality (but privately believe otherwise) all would be fine, stating: “Answer them in your own way. So long as you accept the political ideal, nothing more needs to be said.”. However, since philosophers and political leaders are never satisfied with any answers, more should be said to determine the basis of equality. 

To say that human beings are equal means that people are not ranked in a hierarchical ordering but instead have “worth or dignity” in an equal amount. Nussbaum outlines some arguments that defend this statement, primarily using arguments of other philosophers such as Hobbes who claimed that people have equal abilities physically and psychologically that deems them equal. Others argued that it was people’s capability to determine right or wrong that gives them the right to be equal. Some would bring up the “relationship between man and God” to justify equality. However, Nussbaum believes that these arguments are more suited to “ethical choices” rather than political ones, and thus proposes the “minimalist answer”. The minimalist answer goes as follows: “so long as a living creature is of the human species (born of human parents) and possesses some degree of agency or striving and some consciousness, that being is, for political purposes, the full equal of all other humans in worth and dignity.” Or, in short, human people with consciousness and an ability to think  are equal to one another, including in politics. 

However, one question that can arise from this answer is: What about other animals? Why are humans at a higher level of political significance or prioritisation compared to other species? Some might argue that other animals do not have moral rationality. But, as Nussbaum proposes, in a minimalistic view, even humans with severe mental disabilities are viewed as equal, despite the fact that they might not be able to make profound moral judgements. Nussbaum answers this question by arguing that human political rights and equality do not extend to other species because it is not “relevant” to them. She gives an example of voting rights; if a person, with a mental incapability or not, was refused the right to vote, it would be an offence to their human dignity. On the other hand, since other animals do not have any relevance to the human voting system, as “voting is a good [only] within the human community”, they do not take offence in not getting a right to vote. 

One thing that can be pointed out is that to a mentally handicapped person, their relevance would not necessarily point to political activity, but rather recovering to become a mentally stable person. The majority of the people do not take offence in not giving a child a right to vote or the right to run as a president mainly because they are mentally unprepared to take on such responsibilities. However, it would be wrong to say that all children are not conscious or incapable of making moral judgements. Similar things could be said for the mentally unstable people. While they are conscious, some are still incapable of taking on political responsibilities as they require assistance. Some are lacking in moral conscientiousness, such as those with ASPD, or Antisocial Personality Disorder, who lack in human empathy, removing any moral inhibitions. These disorders might prevent them from making a proper judgement. In this case, people’s focus should not be on making sure they have equal ‘political rights’ but rather proper treatment so they would eventually be able to have those rights. 

Then Nussbaum moves onto the connection between one’s equal worth and political obligations. She first argues that “material and institutional conditions” should be viewed as pivotal matters to human lives, going against Stoicism which, while arguing for human equality, states that these conditions did not influence human dignity. Despite what Stoicism claimed, people care deeply about the said conditions, which involves wealth, freedom, honour, or any forms that people believe influence their dignity. Nussbaum then moves onto her second argument on this topic: people need a “conception of the job of government” or simply, a form of a government. The government also has some requirements to be met, and Nussbaum uses the U.S government and the constitution as an example, which are said to “provide at least minimum threshold conditions that enable a life that is worthy of basic human equality”. However, Nussbaum claims this idea of a government is too vague and intuitive; in theory, though a government should give each and every being full rights, in practice, it is often not the case. 

There is also the case on the level of equality people should have. Some believe in equal education, health care, and wealth, or simply materialistic equality. Though there were some attempts to reach that idea, some argued that it would result in an excess of government intrusion to their freedom. It would be wrong for the government to distribute wealth based on equality, not individual strength and effort. Thus, Nussbaum concludes, though people could be satisfied with unequal materialistic distribution, one should be striving for political equality.

Young Ju (Theresa) Lee

Content Creator of NLCS Hub


Leave a Reply

You May Also Like
close up photo of brown hawk
Read More

Eye the gate of lux

Eyes allow species to visualise and detect others or terrains. Eye converts light from the outside world into…
Read More

Republic – Book 1 

The word justice has been thrown around for decades, but the actual definition of the word differs from…