Gray on Nussbaum’s Latest

In The Nation, John Gray reviews Martha Nussbaum’s Frontiers of Justice.

That Rawls’s theory has little to say on many of the issues that are currently most politically contested has not prevented his heirs from trying to extend his work to precisely these questions. Martha Nussbaum’s most recent book, Frontiers of Justice, is the latest such effort. She aims to widen the reach of Rawlsian theory by addressing questions it has thus far largely neglected, such as the role of distributive justice in international relations, the claims of disabled people and the moral status of nonhuman animals. Nussbaum’s resourceful and imaginative exploration of Rawls’s work displays a command of the longer tradition of political philosophy that matches and even surpasses that of Rawls, along with a notably richer sensitivity to the history and variety of constitutional arrangements. The result is a notable contribution to philosophical inquiry that merits the most careful study by all who try to think seriously about public policy.

Still, a puzzle remains as to why Nussbaum has chosen to view the issues with which she is concerned through the lens of Rawlsian theory, when she could–perhaps more profitably–have examined them in the light of her own views. As she is fully aware, applying Rawls’s theory to these areas is no easy matter. His vision of a scenario in which principles of justice are adopted is an idealized version of rational choice by competent human adults. Since the theory makes no reference to disabled persons, children or nonhuman animals, it is hardly surprising that the principles that emerge from it give no clear guidance as to how they are to be treated. Again, Rawls’s theory was constructed to apply within modern states. It was never meant to be a charter for global redistribution. In later work he tried to develop some account of morality in international relations, but he was clear that his conception of justice reflected a moral consensus that exists (so he believed) within nation-states and could be implemented only by nation-states. When Rawls failed to apply his theory to the issues Nussbaum raises, it was not an oversight. It was because the structure of the theory he constructed precluded it from being applied in these ways.