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Feminism and Liberalism


Revisited: Has Martha Nussbaum
Got It Right?

Article in Constellations · December 2002


DOI: 10.1111/1467-8675.00229

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Review Essay

Feminism and Liberalism Revisited:


Has Martha Nussbaum Got It Right?

Anne Phillips*

The relationship between feminism and liberalism has always been an uneasy
one. In the first instance, this was because liberals were so hesitant about recog-
nizing that their new understanding of politics had implications for women’s
equality. Liberalism was born somewhere in the seventeenth century – some-
where between the illiberal egalitarianism of Thomas Hobbes and the contractual
conservatism of John Locke – and it was clear from the start that it raised trou-
bling questions about the authority of men inside the family. Once you conceived
of political authority as based (in however tenuous a way) on the consent of the
ruled, you were almost inevitably drawn to question the grounds for domestic
authority. Once you conceived of human beings as being (however tenuously)
equal, you had to justify why women should nonetheless be treated differently
from men. Critics were certainly quick to spot the connection, and often ridiculed
the new ideas by pointing out that those who thought along these lines would have
to consider women as having an equal claim with men to wield authority within
the family, or women as having an equal claim to political power. Most liberals,
of course, managed to dodge these implications. With some notable exceptions
(Condorcet at the time of the French Revolution, John Stuart Mill in the mid-nine-
teenth century), they usually managed to come up with subsidiary arguments that
justified women’s continuing subordination. But there was an uneasiness about
women born in the founding moments of the liberal tradition, a suppressed anxi-
ety about whether it meant you had to regard men and women as equals.
In the later stages of the relationship, it was the feminists who were more
concerned to keep liberalism at arm’s length. The reasons for this are partly
conjunctural. Feminism re-emerged in the 1960s and 70s in a period when liber-
alism was shorthand for everything stodgy, unambitious, and dishonest: a glorifi-
cation of rights and freedoms that paid scant attention to the inequalities of
income and power; a discourse of complacency designed to keep things as they
are. In that moment in history, to be radical was almost by definition not to be
liberal: witness the familiar taxonomy from the 1970s that divided feminisms into
their liberal, socialist, and radical varieties, and rather patronized the liberal sort.
Beyond that historical moment, what is it that feminists have so disliked about

Constellations Volume 8, No 2, 2001. © Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JF, UK
and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
250 Constellations Volume 8, Number 2, 2001

liberalism? A key objection is one that has always been leveled at liberalism: that
in promoting a merely formal equality between the sexes, it fails to deliver
substantive equality of power. Liberalism might promise women legal equality
with men, might even develop this into equality of opportunity; but its association
with a market economy ultimately paralyzes its best efforts in this direction, and
offers no plausible solution to the organization of child-care or domestic labor. In
this criticism, political and economic liberalism are seen as two sides of the same
coin, promoting a freedom of choice for the individual that generates gross
inequalities between groups, and then appealing to the freedom of this individual
to resist the collectivist measures that would redress the resulting inequalities.
More recently, however, we have become more willing to see political and
economic liberalism as separate (so that you might favor one without being
committed to the other). We have also become less able to envisage complete
alternatives to the market system (so while there are more or less egalitarian
versions, it is hard now to credit abolition of the market per se). In this changed
context, feminist opposition to liberalism threatens to become something of a
mantra: a comforting repetition whose originating arguments have been lost in
history and have less and less purchase on our other beliefs.
This is where Martha Nussbaum’s Sex and Social Justice comes in.1 Nussbaum
has been particularly exercised by what she sees as the turn against normative
politics, and the “moral passivity”2 she associates with this. Her larger target, in
much of her recent writing, is those who retreat behind a (usually post structural-
ist) cultural relativism, who become so obsessed with the dangers of a “do-gooder
colonialism”3 that they find it impossible to differentiate between just and unjust
practices, or so philosophically disturbed by invocations of human nature that
they can no longer think of people as having an equal moral worth. Nussbaum
counters this with a theory of human justice that is liberal, humanist, and femi-
nist. In doing so, she tackles head on the supposed conflict between liberalism and
feminism, arguing that “liberal individualism, consistently carried through,
entails a radical feminist program.”4
Though the targets she has been pursuing in recent arguments – romantic
supporters of emotion against reason, irresponsible poststructuralists who can’t
recognize the urgency of women’s needs – are sometimes oversimplified or
misrepresented,5 I share Nussbaum’s perception that the conflict between liber-
alism and feminism has been exaggerated and is due for re-assessment. I agree
with the general point she reiterates through her argument, to the effect that
liberalisms are various, and that criticisms appropriate to one kind of liberal miss
their mark when aimed at others within the tradition. I also agree with her that
feminism is impoverished if it finds itself unable to make evaluative and norma-
tive claims. But her endorsement of a liberal understanding of autonomy begs
too many questions; and in combining a classically liberal emphasis on choice
with a feminist understanding of unjust social power, she is driven into a curi-
ously illiberal liberalism. I argue for a different understanding of the relationship

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Nussbaum’s ‘Illiberal’ Liberalism: Anne Phillips 251

between equality and autonomy that reinstates equality as the central feminist
concern.6

I. Individualism
In a key essay on “The Feminist Critique of Liberalism,” Nussbaum identifies
three charges feminists have commonly leveled against the liberal tradition: that
it is too ‘individualistic’; that its ideal of equality is too abstract and formal; and
that the emphasis it places on reason underplays the significance of care and
emotion in moral and political life. (The choice of topics is significant in itself,
for while she correctly identifies the major themes in recent feminist discourse,
none of these quite captures that earlier objection about liberalism failing to
address the substantive conditions for sexual equality. The critique of abstraction
comes closest, but recent writing has tended to focus on the abstraction from
gender difference, and resulting identification of equality with sameness, rather
than the relationship between formal and substantive equality.)
The burden of the first objection, as Nussbaum understands it, is that liberal-
ism envisages individuals as islands unto themselves, as solitary, egoistic, self-
sufficient, and not only sees them as such but actively promotes this egoism and
self-sufficiency as a normative ideal. Nussbaum agrees that this would be an ethi-
cally impoverished position – with a caveat about whether self-sufficiency is such
a bad thing for women to pursue – but argues that the characterization does not
capture the tradition as represented by key figures such as Kant or Mill or Rawls.
She goes on to make a strong claim about the centrality of individualism to the
liberal position, but understood now as a recognition of the separateness of indi-
viduals “who always continue to have their separate brains and voices and stom-
achs, however much they love one another.”7 This recognition, she argues, is
crucial for women, whose needs and personae have too often been subsumed
under the ‘greater good’ of the family or community or state. Women desperately
need to be recognized as separate beings, whose well-being is distinct from that
of a husband’s. They need more rather than less liberal individualism. They need
the flourishing of individual human beings to be made prior to the flourishing of
the state or nation or religious group.
The defense of individualism comes as a breath of fresh air, reminding me of
the defiantly titled journal, The Egoist, which was briefly published in Britain in
the 1910s with feminists like Rebecca West among its contributors. There has
been a good deal of unnecessary anxiety about individualism implying a ruthless
self-centeredness, and in the worrying over this, it has been easy to forget the
crucial importance to women of being recognized as individuals in their own
right. Insisting on the importance of each separate individual does not commit one
to a view of human beings as rational calculating machines, self-interested
egoists, or misanthropic hermits. Failing, however, to insist on the importance of
the individual can mean capitulation to the worst forms of female oppression. As

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252 Constellations Volume 8, Number 2, 2001

Nussbaum reminds us, there are many women around the world whose individu-
ality is so little recognized that they are systematically passed over in the distrib-
ution of food or health care, or required to sublimate their own needs and desires
in the perpetuation of family honor. The results are not just unpleasant but all too
often deadly. In the famous calculation by Drèze and Sen (based on comparison
of male to female ratios around the world), one hundred million women are miss-
ing – missing, one can only assume, because girls and women have been system-
atically ignored and denied in the allocation of foodstuffs and medical supplies.8
Against this background, it is hard to disagree with Nussbaum on the radical
implications of liberal individualism – hard, indeed, to see why any feminist
would want to disagree.
But liberalism is not just about recognizing the equal importance of each
individual, nor is it the only tradition that stresses this point. Rousseau’s
condemnation of the condition of dependency (dependency between men, that
is, for he never seemed so bothered by relations of dependency between
women and men) can also be read as asserting the importance of each separate
individual; while Marx’s critique of alienation and commodification highlights
the denial of individuality under the domination of capitalist power. Moreover,
while liberalism puts the individual at the center of its analysis, it took an
embarrassingly long time to turn its individualism to the service of women.
Nussbaum acknowledges this last point, noting that as recently as the 1970s,
John Rawls was still imagining a social contract in which the actors were
(male) heads of households, looking after the interests of other family
members.9 She attributes this failing in liberalism to its concern with freedom
of choice, a concern that made liberals particularly resistant to interference in
the family, and encouraged them to regard the family as an untroubling,
harmonious whole.
It seems more plausible to me to take it as evidence that liberalism is primar-
ily driven by its commitment to free choice rather than its recognition of individ-
uals as equal and separate. Historically, the references to equality were more
descriptive than normative – as when Hobbes noted that the weakest could always
employ cunning to overcome the strongest, and that there was no reliable consen-
sus about ‘natural hierarchy.’ Even those who talked of equal rights as derived
from God were hardly committing themselves to strong positions on the equal
worth of each human being; while the utilitarians were often quite explicitly prag-
matic, merely noting that there was no secure basis for saying one person counted
for more than another or that one kind of activity had greater intrinsic value. If the
tradition were as centrally concerned with the equality and distinctness of indi-
viduals as Nussbaum’s account suggests, it really is difficult to make sense of its
tardy appreciation of women’s claims. The conundrum becomes less puzzling if
we recognize that liberalism is driven by its critique of authoritarian and (later)
interventionist government rather than any grand thesis about each individual
being of equal worth. Liberal individualism has been primarily about choice, and

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Nussbaum’s ‘Illiberal’ Liberalism: Anne Phillips 253

it was only after a long process of internal and external criticism that it took more
seriously its own statements about the equality of individuals.
The radicalism Nussbaum reads into the tradition is still more implicit than
overt, and she barely engages with the additional elements attached to its under-
standing of individualism that have been the object of much feminist critique.
What, for example, of the arguments Carole Pateman develops against liberal
contractarianism in The Sexual Contract or The Disorder of Women?10 Pateman
makes two large charges against the liberal contractarian tradition. The first is
that liberalism for men was based on subordination for women, so that the social
contract concluded between separate and autonomous men was premised on a
prior sexual contract that delivered them control of the women. Fair enough,
Nussbaum might say, but that was in the bad old days of early liberalism, and not
something intrinsic to the liberal tradition.11 The object of Pateman’s second
critique is less easily located in liberalism’s pre-history. She also argues that
liberalism generated an understanding of individuals as the owners of their own
bodies and capacities, not therefore beholden to anyone else for the disposition
of these (this is where the anti-authoritarianism comes in), but entitled to enter
into contracts with the other (separate) individuals for the use of their talents or
capacities.
The resulting model of human interaction is, in Pateman’s view, profoundly
unsatisfactory; and one of her illustrations is the Baby M case in the USA where
a woman who entered into a contract to become a surrogate mother changed her
mind in the course of the pregnancy, but was ordered by the court to surrender the
child. Pateman draws on Marx’s critique of the wage contract to pinpoint the
fiction involved in this: the fiction that there is a ‘commodity’ provided by the
surrogate mother – the service of her body – that can be treated as separable from
herself. “To extend to women the masculine conception of the individual as
owner, and the conception of freedom as the capacity to do what you will with
your own, is to sweep away any intrinsic relation between the female owner, her
body and reproductive capacities.”12 The model was not dreamt up to deal with
women as autonomous beings, and the moral impoverishment of its understand-
ing of freedom becomes transparent when it is later extended in this way.
What is at issue here is not whether “taking money for bodily services” (to
quote another essay in Sex and Social Justice) is intrinsically wrong, for while
Nussbaum adopts a more robust position than Pateman on prostitution and surro-
gacy, the question is not whether prostitution should be banned or surrogacy
contracts legally upheld. Pateman’s deeper point is that liberalism has drawn on
notions of self-ownership for its understanding of freedom and choice, and that in
doing so, it reflects a misleadingly masculine model of human interaction. When
freedom was first figured as the capacity to do what you will with your own, the
things that were ‘your own’ included not just property but people: your servants,
your children, your wife who had no right to withhold sexual services and could
still be beaten at will. The subsequent extension of this freedom to women (rather

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254 Constellations Volume 8, Number 2, 2001

like the extension of male models of employment, which in the man’s case had
depended on a wife) means it begins to crack at the seams.
When freedom is given more general application, it becomes more thoroughly
individuated. It also becomes more turned in on itself. For the majority of the
population, the property one can freely dispose of basically comes down to one’s
bodily and mental capacities, for what other property do most people own? It may
indeed be better to have this kind of freedom than to be disposed of by somebody
else: better to be in a position where one can charge for the use of one’s body, for
example, than to be handed over as the spoils of victory or married off at one’s
father’s will. But as Pateman and others have suggested, the equation of freedom
with the freedom to dispose of oneself is still a pretty impoverished understand-
ing – and not one feminists should too readily endorse.
In a related critique of liberal conceptions of autonomy, Jennifer Nedelsky
observes that women are more likely than men to recognize the centrality of rela-
tionships in constituting the self, to know that we do not spring up like Hobbes’
mushrooms, but take our being at least in part from our relations to others. The
irony, as she notes, is that women know this centrality of relationships through
oppressive experience, through a long history of being defined by reference to
men.13 The individuality Nussbaum celebrates plays a key role in challenging this
oppression, but we will not get very far if we think of individuality “in isolation
from the social context in which that individuality came into being.”14 Nedelsky’s
point here (which, in other contexts, Nussbaum seems happy to endorse) is that
certain social relations will enable autonomy while other make it far more diffi-
cult, and that simply stressing our individuality or separation is not enough of a
guide. The separateness of individuals is more complicated than is suggested by
the reminder that we have different brains and voices and stomachs; and a sepa-
rateness that implies ownership or mastery – disposing of oneself as one chooses,
or living a life that is finally one’s own – has been regarded by many feminists as
neither a possible nor desirable ideal.
A rather different worry is the ethnocentrism implicit in autonomy: that auton-
omy may be being interpreted in a very culture-specific way;15 or that the high
value liberals attach to autonomy takes what has become a central preoccupation
of western cultures and turns it into a universal norm.16 Nussbaum recognizes that
individuals will make different choices in their pursuit of their life’s goals, that
some may choose to identify personal fulfillment with the furtherance of their
group or community, while others adopt more individually defined objectives. In
her conception of the good life, however, such decisions should always emerge as
the individual’s own choice. If the alternative is that decisions are imposed on the
individual by others, I presume no feminist would want to disagree, but Nuss-
baum’s approach raises difficult questions about how we are to view the ‘choices’
people make in cultures that attach less value to autonomy, and most importantly,
how we are to view the ‘choices’ of women in such cultures. I shall return to this
later.

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Nussbaum’s ‘Illiberal’ Liberalism: Anne Phillips 255

The third way to approach these issues is through poststructuralist critiques of


the subject – not Nussbaum’s favorite intellectual resource. Poststructuralist crit-
ics have accused liberalism of an absurdly over-blown conception of the individ-
ual, as rational, autonomous, expressing (or to the economist, revealing) his or her
‘true’ self through the choices he/she makes, and delving into this self as the
source of universally valid moral laws. Western liberals know, of course, that
some individuals act more autonomously than others. The difference with post-
structuralism is not empirical; it is not that one side sees people as go-getting
choosers and the others as trapped in webs of power. When Nussbaum, for exam-
ple, calls on us to understand women “first and foremost, as human centers of
choice and freedom,”17 this has to be read as a claim about how women can or
should be rather than a statement of how they are; otherwise one could make no
sense of her point about too many women being treated as means rather than as
ends. Liberals see autonomy as a struggle, something to be achieved against both
external and internal constraints. The issue with poststructuralism – and from a
different direction, also with psychoanalytic theory – is about whether this is the
right struggle to join. Once you start to see the self as in some sense a fiction, or
the compulsion to be in control of your life as indeed a compulsion, then the idea
of autonomy as the goal of politics begins to seem less convincing.
There are two aspects to this. The first is that autonomy becomes a more slip-
pery notion once we muddy the sense of self as either origin or goal; the second
is that the pursuit of autonomy might itself be viewed as constraint. Feminists
have usually seen identity as in some sense socially constructed, and have often
worked with a notion of an authentic human identity waiting behind the masks of
male and female, the person we will turn out to be once we throw off all those
stereotypes and expectations and roles. If one assumes a true self behind all the
rubbish, it makes sense to talk of ‘freeing’ the individual from the artifices of
social convention; it makes sense to treat the autonomy of that individual as the
central feminist goal. But what if there is no ‘doer behind the deed,’ what if who
and what we are is always fragmented, shifting, incomplete, what if there is a
circularity about the self such that we call ourselves into being through the very
activities we might have thought of as expressions of the self? Nussbaum dislikes
this kind of argument, but in her critique of Judith Butler (one of those responsi-
ble for promoting these doubts), she does not engage with the question-marks
poststructuralism puts around autonomy, focusing rather on what she sees as the
moral passivity and refusal to articulate moral norms. I am close enough to Nuss-
baum on this last issue, and share her impatience with those who use the ‘death of
the subject’ to justify a retreat from normative politics. (I just don’t think there are
as many people doing this as she does.) I also share what I would assume to be
Nussbaum’s position: that ditching the implausible belief in a pre-formed subject
does not mean abandoning all notions of human agency and identity. The post-
structuralist account does not provide the definitive riposte to liberalism, but it still
raises questions about the self, identity, and autonomy that hamper a politics

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256 Constellations Volume 8, Number 2, 2001

defined so crucially around the individual’s capacity for choice – and I don’t think
Nussbaum addresses these.
Her own understanding of choice is about exploration and creation rather than
any simpler notion of ‘discovering’ an original self, but she operates with distinc-
tions between a human core and disposable contingencies that continue to suggest
a relatively unproblematic notion of human identity and human freedom.
Consider this statement:

Liberalism does think that the core of rational and moral personhood is something
all human beings share, shaped though it may be in different ways by their differ-
ing social circumstances. And it does give this core a special salience in political
thought, defining the public realm in terms of it, purposefully refusing the same
salience in the public political conception to differences of gender and rank and
class and religion. This, of course, does not mean that people may not choose to
identify themselves with their religion or ethnicity or gender and to make that iden-
tification absolutely central in their lives. But for the liberal, choice is the essential
issue; politics can take these features into account only in ways that respect it.18

This is at one level unexceptional. People clearly vary in the strength of their
identification with their gender or ethnicity or religion, and people clearly choose
– to change or give up their religions, to leave brutal partners, to bring up their
children very differently from the way they were brought up themselves. But the
formulation suggests a highly contingent understanding of gender (as something
we can ‘choose’ to identify with).19 This contrasts with widely shared feminist
views on embodiment, and the impossibility of conceiving of individuals as
distinct from the bodies through which they live their lives.
The body is not something we can readily ‘transcend’: we cannot distance
ourselves from our supposedly contingent bodies in ways that will generate a non-
sexed, non-gendered individuality. Nor can we seriously conceive of ‘stripping
off’ the accidents of height, weight, skin color, body shape, genitalia, so as to
approach some deeper human core. When Nussbaum distinguishes between
‘core’ and other, she does so to assert the moral irrelevance of gender when it
comes to claims about human equality: I have no quarrel with this. When the
distinction is carried over, however, into our political or psychological existence,
it becomes much less plausible. Gender is hardly a contingent characteristic in
political life, and when democracies refuse to recognize this (as when people
grandly proclaim that voters should be more interested in the candidates’ ideas
than whether they are female or male), they reproduce and reinforce existing
inequalities. Gender is also pretty inseparable from who we are in a more every-
day sense – it is not just a detachable contingency. One implication is that the
choices we face are more constrained than Nussbaum would allow. This is partly
because we are dealing with how others see as well as how we see ourselves (I
may decide not to identify with my gender, but cannot stop others from viewing
me in this way); it is also because the choosing individuals are already constituted

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Nussbaum’s ‘Illiberal’ Liberalism: Anne Phillips 257

by the elements they are supposedly rummaging through and deciding to pick up
or drop.
The other reservation about autonomy is that the compulsion to be in control
of one’s life can itself be viewed as a trap. One of the lessons I have drawn
(rightly or wrongly) from Foucault is that processes previously conceived of as
liberation – working to get clearer about who and what you are, working to ensure
that choices made really are your own choices and not just subservience to exter-
nal pressures – might themselves operate as regimes of power. I don’t mean by
this just that choice can be a burden as well as a liberation – though it is worth
pondering the agonizing dilemmas women go through in this age of more reliable
contraception over whether or not to have a child, and the surprising frequency of
the wish that it could all be left to chance. No one said freedom was going to be
a picnic, but when we set autonomy at the center of our moral or political lives,
we are forced to assume more responsibility than many of us can cope with for
the forces that structure our lives, and we come to regard anything that is not a
result of autonomous choice as thereby a failure. Nussbaum simplifies the issue
when she asks us to consider whether we want a world where women live their
own lives, or live lives as dictated by others: put like this, there is clearly no
contest. But there is still a lot at issue in what is meant by ‘separate individual’;
whether autonomy means being able to do what one chooses with one’s own;
what counts as ‘one’s own’; and whether thinking of freedom in this way
concedes too much to a masculine model. Autonomy is a complex and slippery
notion. To anticipate my later argument, feminism is on surer ground when it
focuses on equality rather than autonomy per se.

II. Abstract Equality


The second objection addressed by Nussbaum is that liberalism promotes a
formal equality of treatment and in the process abstracts from a real asymmetry
of power. Nussbaum’s response here is to accept the criticism but point out that
many liberals have already anticipated it. Many now recognize the weakness of a
classically ‘sex-blind’ approach to equality that insisted on identical treatment for
women and men, regardless of their different location in the social hierarchy; and
some leading liberals (Ronald Dworkin springs to mind) support programs of
affirmative action. Though I think Nussbaum underplays the power of liberalism
in resisting these developments, she is surely right to contest the notion that all
liberals are committed to a merely formal understanding of equality. Equality of
opportunity – never to be confused with its horrific other, equality of outcome –
has become established as one of the key principles of contemporary liberalism,
and most of those who take equal opportunities seriously recognize that it implies
some attention to background inequalities. Some also believe it requires a tempo-
rary suspension of formal equality in order to balance background inequalities, as
when political parties adopt gender quotas to raise the proportion of women

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258 Constellations Volume 8, Number 2, 2001

selected as political representatives, or universities adopt affirmative action


programs so as to increase the enrolment of students from minority groups. You
can be a liberal and still accept all this. To that extent, the feminist opposition is
misplaced.
Nussbaum’s own version of liberalism is particularly sensitive to the material
conditions necessary for the flourishing of human autonomy, and much less open
to the standard complaint about liberalism giving us the right but not the real
opportunity to choose. The position she adopts relates to a larger project she has
worked on with Amartya Sen, what has come to be known as the “capabilities
approach” to human development.20 From the capabilities perspective, the key
question is not what rights individuals have, nor what resources they enjoy
(though both of these will be relevant), but what individuals are able to do and to
be. What capabilities have they been able to develop? What capabilities have they
been denied? And underpinning this: “What activities characteristically
performed by human beings are so central that they seem definitive of a life that
is truly human?”21 What are the functions without which a life is barely worth
living, hardly a human life at all?
The questions direct Nussbaum to an ambitious list of conditions for human
flourishing – far indeed from ‘merely’ formal notions of equality. To illustrate
with just a few examples from her list, the central human capabilities would
include being able to live one’s life through to a normal length (when we consider
the horrifying variations in mortality rates across the globe, this would be an
astonishing achievement), being adequately nourished and sheltered, being secure
against rape, violence, and sexual assault, having one’s capacities for thought and
reason developed by an adequate education, and being able “to form a conception
of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s own
life.”22 The conditions are set pretty high: no one could object that this was a
minimal program, and achieving it would clearly involve a significant redistribu-
tion of resources both within and between countries. The key premise, however,
is choice rather than equality; and it is sufficiency rather than equality that is the
goal.
What matters is not what resources we have – “the capabilities approach main-
tains that resources have no value in themselves, apart from their role in human
functioning”23 – and certainly not whether our bundle is the same size as every-
one else’s. What matters is that all human beings, wherever they are, should be
able to develop their capabilities for choosing. Now in one sense, this shift of
emphasis from resources to capabilities is pretty uncontroversial, for part of what
is at issue is simply that individuals need different resources in order to achieve
the same capabilities. If your leg is paralyzed, for example, you need a wheelchair
to achieve the kind of mobility others enjoy at no cost; if you migrate to a coun-
try where people speak a different language, your children may need extra
language tuition in order to have the same educational capabilities as their peers.
The point is also to establish a humane minimum that all governments should be

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Nussbaum’s ‘Illiberal’ Liberalism: Anne Phillips 259

required to provide – and focusing on a minimum is good practical politics, even


when the minimum is set so high.
This may well be the most effective way to proceed with eliminating global
poverty (I do not take issue with it on that score), but it is important to recognize
how far it moves from a discourse of equality. Equality is relational: you may
have all you need to live a decent human existence, but we are still unequal if I
have ten times more. The capabilities approach speaks to a perception that equal-
ity in that sense is no longer on the agenda, and glosses over what might other-
wise be seen as a retreat by making freedom of choice the central concern. This
retreat has been replicated across the literature on economic inequality, which is
now far more concerned with distinguishing ‘deserved’ from ‘undeserved’
inequalities than tackling structural inequalities that cannot be understood in such
individualist terms.24 It also meshes with an almost universal shift in social-
democratic politics, where the problem of poverty has supplanted the problem of
inequality, and ensuring a humane minimum has taken over from worries about
the overall income gap.
This is still as far as the best liberal goes. In Sex and Social Justice, Martha
Nussbaum redefines the liberal tradition so as to make it more thoroughly ‘mate-
rialist,’ more centered on substantive conditions for individuality and choice. The
emphasis, however, is still on freedom of choice, and while this can generate
strong positions on equalizing either opportunities or capabilities, it does not
provide for further criticism of the inequalities that may then ensue. There is no
space here for worrying about the overall distribution of resources: worrying
about the after-the-event inequalities as well as those that limit our point of depar-
ture; worrying about what happens when the gap between rich and poor reaches
previously unimaginable proportions; worrying about the emptiness of proclaim-
ing people political equals when the disparity of their incomes and life-styles
means they inhabit almost separate worlds. As applied to the relationship between
the sexes, this points in a rather troubling direction, suggesting we would have to
swallow objections about ultimate inequalities between women and men so long
as the original capabilities were firmly in place. Personally, I want more than the
capabilities that allow me to flourish; mean-minded as it may seem, I will still feel
aggrieved if the men beside me end up with more time or more money or more
power. And there is a good reason for this, for there is no real gap between equal-
ity of capabilities and equality of outcome when it come to sexual (and also
racial) equality. If the outcome is not equal – if women, for example, end up with
the primary responsibility for child-care while men run the affairs of state – then
the opportunities were clearly not equal.
Liberalism has come a long way in recent years. It has redefined itself so as to
make an initially rather descriptive egalitarianism more central; it has lent an ear
to the opposition and incorporated some of its best ideas. In the process, it has
given the lie to some of the older feminist complaints against liberalism. We
cannot so easily say that liberalism treats equality always as a matter of sameness,

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260 Constellations Volume 8, Number 2, 2001

that it offers identical treatment to all individuals regardless of the asymmetries


of power. Nor can we so easily say it ignores the substantive conditions under
which choice becomes a meaningful concept, that it fails to recognize the
constraints imposed by women’s lack of education or employment, and sails on
regardless with its hymn to autonomy and choice. But the equality now incorpo-
rated into liberalism still falls a long way short of equality of outcome. For femi-
nists (and not only feminists!), this has to remain a cause for concern.

III. Reason, Emotion, and Choice


The third part of Nussbaum’s argument addresses the reason/emotion dichotomy,
and the role this has played in recent feminist thought. Feminists have frequently
noted that dichotomies between mind/body, reason/emotion, justice/care get
transposed onto the division between men and women. They have challenged this
in a variety of ways, including reversing the hierarchy – so that body and emotion
come out on top instead of mind and reason – and, perhaps more commonly,
querying the division itself. Nussbaum reads this as a worry that “liberalism is far
too rationalistic: that by placing all emphasis on reason as a mark of humanity, it
has emphasized a trait that males traditionally prize and denigrated traits, such as
emotion and imagination, that females traditionally prize.”25 I don’t think this
quite captures it: I thought the argument was that men and women alike prized
reason over emotion, while conniving in the view that men are rational and
women emotional; and the critiques have not necessarily attributed to women a
greater capacity for imagination or emotion. But the reason/emotion dichotomy
has certainly emerged as one of the feminist objections, and part of Nussbaum’s
response is that it misses its mark. Some liberals have treated reason as the master,
viewing the emotions as an unintelligent source of disorder, but this is not char-
acteristic of the tradition as a whole.
Beyond her (surely correct) point about the varieties of liberalism, Nussbaum’s
position draws on two key sources. She has long rejected the supposed associa-
tion of men with reason, women with emotion: she thinks there is little empirical
evidence for a gendered distribution of reason and emotion; and that what there
is testifies to a social conditioning that has encouraged women (but not men) to
cultivate their emotional range. Nussbaum is relentlessly social constructionist,
and has no time for the idea that there are essential differences between the sexes
in the exercise of either reason or passion. This places her a long distance from
anyone who has felt called upon to defend the superior powers of emotion
because of some belief that these are intrinsically female.
The second point draws on her work on Aristotle and the Stoic tradition, and
her analysis of the emotions as themselves forms of evaluative judgement. Fear,
for example, arises when we perceive certain individuals or situations as threat-
ening, and the emotion will dissipate if we later discover that our beliefs were
misplaced; jealousy is based on a particular interpretation of what others are

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doing; resentment can be transformed into affection if we come to see it as an


expression of our own insecurity rather than a legitimate response to another’s
qualities or actions. Emotions cannot be treated as a pre-conceptual given: “subra-
tional stirrings,”26 as she puts it in another essay, that can only be given in to or
stamped on, fed or starved. One part of this argument (the one she dwells on most
in her discussion of the relationship between feminism and liberalism) is that
emotions and preferences are formed under unjust social conditions, and that we
cannot then take the preferences people express, the emotions they feel, or indeed
the way they experience sexual desire, as the last word in what individuals want
or need. Emotions are shaped and deformed by social norms or expectations, and
not therefore to be trusted. “The liberal tradition holds that emotions should not
be trusted as guides to life without being subject to some sort of critical
scrutiny.”27
The second part (more fully developed in her writings on ethics) is that work-
ing on our emotions so as to make them more rational, less framed by false beliefs
or mistaken judgements, is a crucial part of moral life. Nussbaum looks to the
“ordering of the passions through the critical work of reason”28 as a major
element in the battle against racism or sexism. Unruly passions are not just a fact
of life, to be harnessed or regulated or subdued; they always involve both beliefs
and judgments, and we should be cultivating these passions and emotions so as to
make them more rational and sustain our moral existence. The point to note about
this is that while Nussbaum challenges the dichotomy between reason and
emotion, she does so in a way that seems to reinforce the centrality of reason. She
takes issue with the dichotomy between reason and emotion, but has been more
concerned to insist on the rational component of emotions than the emotional
component of reason. She queries the dichotomy but leaves the hierarchy still in
place.
Apart from this last point, I find myself in broad agreement with Nussbaum.
Like her, I am pretty much of an unreconstructed social constructionist; like her,
I tend to the view that we will discover no significant differences between the
sexes once (if) we get away from the effects of unjust social power. Like her, I see
preferences as shaped and constrained by the surrounding social conditions, and
not to be taken as the final word on what people either want or need. We know
that people living in unjust or impoverished conditions adjust their expectations
downwards in order to survive and remain sane; we know that women can live
their lives by images of femininity that do immense damage to their self-esteem;
we know that people living in relations of domination often find it hard to imag-
ine themselves living under anything else. Much of the critique of ballot-box
democracy depends on a similar understanding of preferences as open to trans-
formation: not just the givens of the political process but available for revision
and expansion and reform.
The question that concerns me is that when the social analysis of preference
formation is coupled with a classically liberal emphasis on choice, it can

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262 Constellations Volume 8, Number 2, 2001

generate disturbingly authoritarian distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’


emotions, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ preferences, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ choice. Nussbaum
quotes approvingly from John Harsanyi: “Any sensible ethical theory must make
a distinction between rational wants and irrational wants, or between rational
preferences and irrational preferences. It would be absurd to say we have the
same moral obligation to help other people in satisfying their utterly unreasonable
wants as we have to help them in satisfying their very reasonable desires.”29 So
it’s not what people say they want that matters; it is only those wants we can
recognize as rational. At this point, Nussbaum’s understanding of autonomy
makes it difficult for her to regard certain choices as authentic – and the ones she
finds least convincing are those where people seem to be choosing to align them-
selves with cultures that minimize their individual autonomy.
Note that for some critics, this would be an illiberal position. Generations of
liberals have fulminated against the totalitarian impulse that refuses to accept
people’s declared wishes as their real interests, that claims some higher knowl-
edge of what will really make people happy, and ends up with troubling formula-
tions about forcing us to be free.30 Nussbaum’s philosophy is in one sense entirely
choice-centered – the primary source of human worth is “a power of moral choice
within humans”;31 women must be seen “first and foremost, as human centers of
choice and freedom”32 – and yet when it comes to it, she does not set enough store
by the actual choices individuals make. I too think it reasonable to be skeptical of
people’s choices: Nussbaum is right to point out that choices are socially
constrained and constructed, and fully justified in reminding us that this is a long-
held feminist belief. But to weld this onto a philosophy that makes the capacity
for choice the defining human characteristic is more peculiar.
Nussbaum finds herself in a position where she is simultaneously hooked on
the idea of choice and critical of most people’s choices.33 She is very conscious
of the way perceptions of what is desirable get constrained by perceptions of what
is possible, and refuses (rightly, in my view) to take the easy option of saying all
we can go on is what people say they want. The fact that most women may toler-
ate an unequal division of labor in the household does not tell us much about what
women ‘really’ want. The fact that a woman living in a society where girls are
considered unmarriageable if they freely enjoy their sexuality will insist on the
genital mutilation of her own daughters does not require us to regard the practice
as what women ‘choose.’ I share Nussbaum’s position on these matters, though I
am uncomfortably conscious of the difficulties of saying what does then count as
an ‘authentic’ choice or preference, and who would ever be in a position to know.
Nussbaum acknowledges a problem about ethnocentricity – that we might unwit-
tingly include certain prejudices of our own culture in what we think to be univer-
salistic claims – but she does not otherwise address the power relations between
cultural groups. She tends to presume that it is men – the most powerful voices in
traditional communities – who invoke cultural tradition; and she is generally
scathing about the claims of religious or ethnic groups on the broad grounds of

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methodological individualism.34 I find it difficult to square this skepticism about


actual choices with an understanding of humanity so centered on the capacity for
choice.
In my view, it is philosophically easier – if politically more testing – to formu-
late the critique of social injustice in terms of equality rather than choice. In Sex
and Social Justice, we are presented with the following either/or option. Either we
take the preferences people express at their face value: this is admirably liberal in
one sense, non-interventionist, non-dictatorial, but fails to engage with the known
effects of unjust social power. Or we set out a schedule of the capabilities we have
identified as necessary to human flourishing: this is much more challenging to the
status quo, but it requires a more confident conception of the human good than
many contemporary liberals would be willing to endorse – and it is not, as I have
argued, about equality.
A third alternative is to make equality the driving concern. This provides the
indictment Nussbaum also wants of those systems of domination and oppression
that order individuals according to their race, ethnicity, or sex. It directs us just as
effectively as the capabilities approach to the urgent problems of material depriva-
tion – but does so without the philosophically contentious underpinning about what
constitutes a ‘good’ human existence or what human beings most need. And
because it treats each person as of equal worth, it will be as insistent as Nussbaum
is that individuals should be able to make their own lives and not be dictated to by
others. Focusing on equality also, however, means we have to recognize that there
are issues of domination between cultures – between majority and minority cultures
within a nation-state, between winning and losing cultures on a global stage.
When people feel that their cultural practices or religious beliefs are being
disparaged by the wider society – and as the term ‘denigration’ reminds us, this
disparagement is often bound up with racism – they are taking issue with one of
the inequalities in contemporary societies: the inequality between majority and
minority cultures, or between cultures that are politically dominant and those
denied social voice or political power. Since the disparaged practices – ranging
through the horrors of genital mutilation to the seclusion of women, arranged
marriages, and the segregation of the sexes in education and worship – often
involve stark inequalities between women and men, it is not open to egalitarians
simply to support claims made on behalf of ‘cultures.’ But shifting the balance
from autonomy to equality makes it easier to spot parallels between assuming a
hierarchy of cultures and assuming a hierarchy between women and men; and
perhaps less likely that people will impose their own hierarchy of ‘modern’ versus
‘traditional’ cultures.
One of the themes running through recent debates on the tension between
sexual and cultural equality is that feminist critics of multiculturalism have too
readily adopted a view of non-western or immigrant cultures as defined by patri-
archal interests, and too readily presumed that western liberal cultures are
untouched by patriarchal power.35 As far as Nussbaum is concerned, the latter

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264 Constellations Volume 8, Number 2, 2001

criticism is clearly mistaken, and one of the essays in Sex and Social Justice is
explicitly devoted to what is wrong with American society. Her individualism
does, however, make her profoundly skeptical of claims generated of behalf of
cultures, tending to see these as representing the self-serving interests of men in
patriarchal communities, or the self-denying support of women so depressed by
their conditions of subordination that they are as yet unable to articulate their
needs and concerns. As regards religion, Nussbaum defends a political liberalism
that respects different religious conceptions, even when these entail metaphysical
positions about the superiority of men over women, or individuals choosing to
live non-autonomous lives.36 But this respect for the choices people may make in
a liberal society only highlights the tension in her thinking (perhaps, in the end, it
is the tension in trying to marry Aristotle to Rawls) when it comes to less liberal
contexts. Her analysis of preference formation still leads her to a position from
which she can view women in illiberal cultures only as active critics or passive
dupes.
In her re-assessment of the feminist critique of liberalism, Martha Nussbaum
lays some but not all of the ghosts to rest. She encourages us to stop treating indi-
vidualism as a dirty word; to recognize the varieties of liberalism, rather than
focusing on its worst excesses; and give up on uncritical endorsement of the
emotions as if what we feel is always going to be right. What she leaves us with,
however, is a curiously illiberal liberalism that presumes the fundamental sepa-
rateness of human beings and sees them as charged with making choices and
pursuing their autonomy – but has to reject many of those choices as products of
unjust social power.
A feminism driven primarily by equality would face some parallel problems:
there would still be tensions, for example, between claims for sexual and cultural
equality, and these are not always so neatly resolved by saying it is the men who
make the cultural claims. But because equality is relational, it directs us more
urgently to differential powers and capabilities – not just whether individuals
have the minimum necessary for choice, but whether their positioning in social
hierarchies shapes their choices in unequal ways. The old complaint against liber-
alism is that it sets up individual freedom as more important than social equality.
This would be an unfair complaint against Nussbaum, whose understanding of the
basic capabilities necessary to human flourishing involves a clear perception of
the material conditions implied in this. The move, however, is from equal to basic,
and this mirrors a wider retreat from egalitarianism that has been characteristic of
the last twenty years. It sets Nussbaum what may be unnecessary philosophical
conundrums about determining the minimum capabilities for a human existence,
and leaves her on the rather shaky ground where she has to criticize choices in the
very name of choice. We have become accustomed to think of equality as a more
ambitious demand than autonomy, and so far as the distribution of resources is
concerned, this undoubtedly remains the case. But if we want to address the prob-
lem to which Nussbaum directs us – the social formation of preferences and the

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Nussbaum’s ‘Illiberal’ Liberalism: Anne Phillips 265

danger of presuming that what people put up with is what they want or need – it
is better to focus directly on equality, not slip this in via autonomy and choice.
Even when extended in the way Nussbaum suggests (to address material condi-
tions for ‘genuinely’ free choice) we cannot get what we need simply from ideals
of autonomy and choice. We have to combine these with strong notions of equal-
ity. In my view, this means addressing end-state inequalities as well as those that
limit our point of departure.

NOTES

* I wrote this paper in the spring of 2000, courtesy of a Research Fellowship at the Research
School of Social Sciences, Australian National University. It was first presented at a workshop on
Feminist Social and Political Theory held at ANU, and subsequently at the Universities of Sydney
and Cambridge, and I am indebted to all participants for their comments and criticisms. I would also
like to thank Susan Mendus, Martha Nussbaum, and Ingrid Robeyns for detailed comments on an
earlier draft.
1. Martha C. Nussbaum Sex and Social Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
2. She applies this term to Judith Butler, who (in Nussbaum’s reading) views all normative
positions as inherently dictatorial. “The Professor of Parody,” The New Republic 22, no. 2 (1999):
37–45.
3. Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, 32.
4. Nussbaum, “The Feminist Critique of Liberalism,” Sex and Social Justice, 67.
5. I think this applies to her discussion of Nel Noddings in “The Feminist Critique of Liberal-
ism”; of Annette Baier in “Virtue Ethics: A Misleading Category?” The Journal Of Ethics: An
International Philosophical Review (1999); and of Judith Butler in “The Professor of Parody.”
6. Though Nussbaum employs the liberal language of autonomy in Sex and Social Justice, her
usual preference (guided by what she sees as the specific western history of the concept of auton-
omy) is for more “neutral” terms like choice or practical reason. I have nonetheless focused on
autonomy in this paper, because I see the concept as central to assessing the relationship between
feminism and liberalism.
7. Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, 62.
8. Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen, Hunger and Public Action (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989).
9. Rawls did not, of course, say that the contracting parties were male, but he failed to see the
sexist implications of treating them as household heads.
10. Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Cambridge: Polity, 1988); The Disorder of Women
(Cambridge: Polity, 1989).
11. Pateman would not accept this characterisation, for she explicitly presents her analysis of
the origins as a thesis about what continues to constitute contract theory. I find this the less convinc-
ing of her claims.
12. The Sexual Contract, 216.
13. Jennifer Nedelsky, “Reconceiving Autonomy: Sources, Thoughts and Possibilities,” Yale
Journal of Law and Feminism 1, no. 7 (1989).
14. Nedelsky, 36.
15. Sawitri Saharso argues for a modified understanding of autonomy that is worthy in western
liberal eyes but also compatible with what she sees as a different kind of autonomy characteristic of
Asian cultures. “Female Autonomy and Cultural Imperative: Two Hearts Beating Together,” in Will
Kymlicka and Wayne Norman, eds., Citizenship in Diverse Societies (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2000).
16. Bhikhu Parekh makes this stronger claim, arguing that when liberals set up autonomy as the
central moral norm, they deny the authentic otherness of non-liberal cultures. See, for example, “A

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266 Constellations Volume 8, Number 2, 2001
Varied Moral World,” in Susan Moller Okin et al., Is Multiculturalism Bad For Women? (Prince-
ton: Princeton University Press, 2000); and Rethinking Multiculturalism (London: Macmillan,
2000).
17. Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, 70.
18. Ibid.
19. This helps clarify what is otherwise an oddly deterministic reading of Judith Butler. In her
essay on “The Professor of Parody,” Nussbaum excoriates Butler for treating us as “doomed to repe-
tition of the power structures into which we are born” or thinking that the only subversion we can
engage in is parody (40). This strikes me as a misinterpretation of Butler, but if you see freedom as
that process where the human core exercises its powers of choice over contingent elements, you
won’t see much “freedom” in Butler.
20. See Marthan Nussbaum and Amartya Sen, eds., The Quality of Life (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1993); and Martha Nussbaum and Jonathan Glover, eds., Women, Culture, and
Development (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995).
21. Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, 39
22. Ibid., 41.
23. Ibid., 34
24. I develop my critique of this in Which Equalities Matter? (Cambridge: Polity, 1999); and
“Equality, Pluralism, Universality: Current Concerns in Normative Theory,” British Journal of
Politics and International Relations 2, no. 2 (2000).
25. Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, 72.
26. Nussbaum, “Virtue Ethics: A Misleading Category?” The Journal Of Ethics: An Interna-
tional Philosophical Review (1999): 173.
27. Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, 74.
28. Nussbaum, “Virtue Ethics,” 187.
29. Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, 150.
30. Isaiah Berlin, for one, in “Two Concepts of Liberty.”
31. Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, 57.
32. Ibid., 70.
33. This is not a position that is peculiar to her, but John Stuart Mill finessed it rather better.
34. What, she asks, is a “group” anyway? A “plurality of individuals, held together in some
ways but usually differing in many others. The voices that are heard when “the group” speaks are
not magically the voice of a fused organic entity; they are the voices of the most powerful individ-
uals; these are especially not likely to be women.” Sex and Social Justice, 109.
35. See various contributions to Okin et al., Is Multiculturalim Bad For Women?; also Leti
Volpp, “Talking ‘Culture’: Gender, Race, Nation and the Politics of Multiculturalism” Columbia
Law Review 96, no. 6 (1996).
36. See her essay on “A Plea for Difficulty,” in Okin, Is Multiculturalism Bad For Women?

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