For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Moving Towards a Capability for Meaningful Labor"

by Weidel, Timothy (2018)


Martha Nussbaum argues that the capability approach to human development is grounded in an intuitive conception of what a life worthy of human dignity entails. This image is coupled with a conception of truly human functionings as a measure for development. It is not enough to establish what goods people require, but rather to consider what they can actually do or become with those goods. Nussbaum acknowledges that the philosophical grounding for her list of central human capabilities is influenced by Aristotle through the early Marx. Despite admitting this influence, I argue that Nussbaum's incorporation omits a central facet of Marx's image of truly dignified humans: the importance of meaningful labor. This omission seriously undercuts the possibility of the capabilities approach providing persons with a life worthy of human dignity. In this paper, I develop and defend an argument for including a capability for meaningful labor in Nussbaum's list of central human capabilities. After an explication of Marx's understanding of a fully human life, I will discuss the limits of Nussbaum's capabilities list with respect to the topic of meaningful labor. I also consider how Nussbaum's discussion of a capability to hold property elucidates both the necessity and feasibility of a capability for meaningful labor. Lastly, I consider some potential political implications of this proposed capability.

Key Passage

In order to best combat the harms caused by a lack of meaningful labor, Nussbaum’s capabilities approach cannot focus solely on providing broad opportunities to seek employment. It must be amended to include a capability for meaningful labor, so that each individual person may engage with her environment and community in ways that help her to actively shape herself into a more fully human person. (p.86)


Marx, Meaningful Work, Political Economy, Nussbaum, Dignity


Meaningful Work

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