Objections to Universal Normative Theories

Nussbaum addresses three objections to theories of universal norms: the cultural argument, the diversity argument, and the argument of paternalism. I will address the diversity argument, what it entails, how Nussbaum responds to it, and if her response is sufficient.

The argument of diversity, referring to cultural diversity, includes several components. The total argument is that a universal normative theory would replace the valuable diversity of ideologies and opinions that exist within and among cultures in favor of another ideological system. By breaking down this argument, we find two main components. First, the argument includes the idea that “each cultural system has distinct beauty;”culturally-specific beliefs and practices are intrinsically valuable (50). Second, the diversity argument suggests that the other system of morality is flawed (Nussbaum defines the other system as an American system).

Nussbaum responds to this argument by breaking down the two parts and critiquing their relevancy to universal normative theory. She states that the second piece of the argument, referring to a flawed American system of morality, “doesn’t yet say anything against universal values, it just suggests that their content should be critical of some American values” (50). She then responds to the first piece of the argument (this piece actually deals with the necessity of diversity). She points out that some cultural practices actually harm people and says that because cultural practices can result in harm, we, in fact, need a universal system to determine which practices should be kept and which should be discarded. She then points out that cultural practices should not be maintained simply “because they are there or because they are old” (51). ┬áIn her final response to the argument of diversity, Nussbaum describes the cross-cultural similarities in areas of injustice with the example of sex hierarchy. She points out that many cultures show similar patterns in the areas of male dominance, and how this may be yet another reason lad;alsfkdaskl

Nussbaum’s response to this objection is fairly sufficient, but she could support herself better in a few key areas. Much of her argument rides on the idea that some cultural practices are definitely harmful, but she only states this idea once, which means it is easy to miss, leaving the reader unsure of her main point. She may have lacked support in this area because of the preceding multi-page response to culture, which included similar ideas. However, as a whole, her deconstruction of why people value diversity reveals the validity in their sentiments while pointing out how this valuation can work in tandem with universal normative theory.


Why Philosophy?

Those who study philosophy in college are commonly criticized for their separation from the realities of the world. The discipline asks its students to tackle issues with the head, not the hands. However, for the head-oriented, philosophy in fact dictates the actions of the hand through normatively-justified reasoning. The sentence you just read was full of philosophical jargon. To put it plainly, philosophies guide actions.

Martha Nussbaum, in Women and Human Development, defines theory as “the systemization and critical scrutiny of thoughts and perceptions that exist in daily life and are frequently jumbled and unexamined” (35). Let’s unpack that overstuffed suitcase of a statement, shall we?

Start with the thoughts and perceptions; we all have thoughts, and we all perceive things in different ways based on context, biases, upbringing, etc. Nussbaum narrows the idea of thoughts and perceptions into just the category of those that are found frequently in daily life. These thoughts may be subconscious and directed at other people, common activities, or institutions. These daily perceptions are left jumbled and unexamined, meaning that while moving through the motions of our lives, we do not necessarily examine our immediate (and often subconscious) reactions to our surroundings. Thus, philosophical theory allows us to take a critical eye to everyday behaviors that may be considered normal, and instead scrutinize this behavior and systematize it.

Unfortunately, scrutinized behavior is often described with terms that are not used in everyday language, which is why philosophy can seem disconnected from the so-called “real world.” However, Nussbaum argues that these specific terms must be used in order to “sort out confused thoughts,” where confused thoughts are the everyday thoughts are perceptions of individuals. The thoughts and perceptions are confused not because the people thinking them are unintelligent, but rather because so many connotations can apply to one word. For example, if someone self-identifies as a feminist and does not explain his or her specific ideologies, another person could assume that the feminist holds one of many (often stereotypical) viewpoints. However, if we take the time to use philosophical theories to unpack the term “feminist,” we would see that the individual’s perspective is difficult to pin down because of the many definitions of feminism.

In short, philosophy allows everyone to think about the “why” of what they do (of their actions, positive or negative), because without the why, we become victims of our own habits and assumptions.