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Martha Nussbaum and Jim Sterba share strong commitments to feminism and to policy relevant philosophical reflection.   See Nussbaum, “Women and Human Development, The Capabilties Approach.”  Cambridge. 2000.   Along with colleague Amartya Sen, she has proposed a cross-culturally valid list of basic human capabilities:
•1.  Able to live to the end of a human life of normal length.
•2.  Having good health, nourishment, shelter, reproductive health
•3.  Physical integrity: mobility, freedom from abuse, coercion.   Access to sexual satisfaction, choice in reproduction.
•4.   Ability to think and express oneself in work and activity of one’s choice   (religion, math, science, literature, music)
•5.   Freedom from fear and anxiety; capability for emotional expression,   freedom to love, grieve, experience longing, gratitude, justified anger
•6.  Capability to form and critically reflect upon one’s conception of the   good, capability to form a plan of life; liberty of conscience.
•7.  Affiliation, assembly.  Social basis of self-respect. Capacity for   empathic engagement in social interaction, friendship;  protection against discrimination on basis of race, sex, sexual   orientation, religion, caste, ethnicity, national origin
•8.  Able to live with concern for and in relation to the world of nature.
•9.  Play.  Being able to enjoy recreational activities.
•10.  Control
–    Political participation.  Right to own property; equal employment opportunities; freedom  from unwarranted search and seizure.
She views access to opportunities for development of each and everyone of these ten capabilities as having sufficient rank to limit trade-offs and cost/benefit analyses.
Her position raises a number of policy relevant questions for Jim:  “Is equality a necessary condition for opportunity to develop these capabilities?”   “Are such opportunities likely to be equally weighted by rich and poor?”
By the way,  I’m embarrassed by my earlier crack about Lazarus and the pyramids.

One Response to ““central human capabilities,” Nussbaum, M”

  1. Ed Manier says:

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think Sterba ever answered my question concerning the necdessity of egalitarianism in insuring the fulfillment of all people’s basic human needs.

    Forgive a lengthy posting of some reflections about obstalces to inter-disciplinary communication.

    20 years or so ago, I published an article, “Turbulence in the Flow of Scientific Information,” based on the attempt, by Nobel prize winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel, to offer a “molecular alphabet of classical conditioning.” Kandel claimed to have identified a neural circuit, with attendant molecular processes, which could account for the properties of classical conditioning described by leading behavioral psychologist Robert Rescorla.

    One clear cause of the “turbulence” I noted was that Kandel worked on sea snails (a marine invertebrate) and Rescorla worked on rats. This difference was understandable since the sea snail has a relatively small number of relatively large neurons while the laboratory rat has been standard for behavioral studies for generations.

    The problem arose because of the great differences in our knowledge of the behavioral repertoire of the rat and the dearth of comparable knowledge of the sea snail, and because the rat’s natural environment is much more readily simulated in the laboratory than is the case with the sea snail, an inter-tidal organism. Kandel worked on one particular reflex in the sea snail: its defensive response to various levels of tactile (pain) stimulation. This response involves retraction of the sea snail’s vulnerable gill under the protective coating providing by a tough outer membrane called the mantle.

    In contrast, of course, Rescorla could exploit a much larger variety of stimulus-response relationships in the rat, noting, in particular, how difficult it was to control for the rat’s tendency to develop conditioned responses to a wide variety of contextual stimuli, e.g., to features of the experimental apparatus.

    Rescorla’s experimental problem was linked to a feature of the rodent’s neuro-behavioral repertoire that is key to the biological fitness of a scavenger, the necessity of avoiding naturally occurring toxins in its food supply. Rescorla developed a paradigm in which the rat could be conditioned (“one trial learning”) by a single pairing of the odor/taste stimuli of a particular food pellet, with a subcutaneous injection of LiCl, causing acute gastric convulsions several hours after exposure to the food material. Rescorla was able to exploit this paradigm to show that classical conditioning in the rat is actually a very sophisticated cognitive process, capable of a wide array of calculations estimating the relative value/reliability of a range of innocuous environmental signals enabling the rat to avoid lethal poisons in its food.

    Nothing comparable has ever been shown in the sea snail, but Kandel has his Nobel prize, and an ego to match.

    But there is final, ironic note to this sad story.

    Since the goals of contemporary neuroscience include the explanation of behavior and/or the elucidation of the neural, hormonal, and other molecular substrata of specific behavioral/cognitive/emotional functions, it has become obvious that a good strategy for training individuals equally competent in both molecular neuroscience and careful, experimental, behavioral analysis is to provide individuals who have successfully completed a PhD program and/or a post-doc in one of the two fields, with an opportunity to take a second post-doc in an appropriate lab in the other field. Thus, “Hawk” (Robert Hawkins) in Kandel’s lab had earlier completed a PhD in the laboratory of xxx Thompson, a specialist in the analysis of conditioning in the rabbit (the nictitating membrane response in the eye).

    So it was natural for an extremely well-trained post-doc from Rescorla’s lab (she had previously earned a PhD from the most prestigious conditioning lab in the UK) to take a second post-doc in Kandel’s lab. I interviewed her toward the end of her term.

    She had, initially, been very enthused about the prospects of developing a more sophisticated behavioral analysis of the sea snail. After all, the sensory-motor system of the sea snail must be capable of conditioning other reflexes than the defensive reflex associated with gill retraction and mantle extension. (No one has argued that sea snails have lots of innate ideas.)

    The intrepid English post-doc reasoned appropriately that the sea snail must have a variety of other reflexes that might be subject to conditioning, e.g., reflexes including different locomotor responses to different substrate types (uneven rocks, flat or gradually sloping sand), reflexes associated with feeding responses appropriate for different sorts of food, reflexes associated with responses to changes in the salinity (or other chemical changes) in the ambient sea water, reflexes associated with changes in water temperature and/or wave action. Good behaviorist that she was, she had no trouble creating experimental schemes for a wide range of other reflexes associated with the adaptive behavior of the sea snail in its natural environment.

    Since the sea snail has no natural predators (its defenses include dispersal of a noxious cloud of iodine based materials) responses to painful stimuli are not likely to be its most elaborately controlled adaptations to changes in its environment.

    But here the story takes a turn that had tragic consequences for her subsequent career.

    No one in Kandel’s lab was interested in, or would support, her ideas for the expansion of our understanding of the way the behavioral repertoire of the sea snail enables it to survive and reproduce in its natural ecological setting.

    In fact, for neuroscientists as dedicated to plumbing every molecular and synaptic aspect of nervous systems as Kandel, the very notion of analyzing “ecologically adaptive behaviors” is anathema. The emphasis is on the discovery of experimental paradigms that combine the desirable traits of strong experimental control, strong replicability, and clear significance for a basic question.

    Almost simultaneously with the appearance of the English post-doc in Kandel’s lab, just such an experimental paradigm shift was sweeping through neuroscience labs in the US and the UK.

    This paradigm addressed a much simpler neural process than classical conditioning. It opened up the prospect of a neuro-chemically exhaustive analysis of the most elementary form of “learning,” the formation of a new synaptic link between two neurons.

    In practice, this meant that experiments could be conducted entirely “in vitro” rather than “in vivo,” in other words, they could be conducted on two neurons in a dish, a much more suitable circumstance for precise and thorough chemical analysis. In fact, the new paradigm involved the use of slices of the rabbit hippocampus containing two neurons and a naturally occurring synapse connecting them. The “long-term potentiation” (LTP) (activation) of a connection between two neurons can be caused by the application of tetanizing stimuli to each in an appropriate time sequence.

    Of course, there is nothing whatsoever “ecological” about this paradigm. The tetanizing stimulus is of much greater magnitude than anything a rabbit would encounter in its natural habitat. The “learning” is of the most elementary (monosynaptic “sensitization”) sort. But these behavioral considerations are overwhelmed by the vastly superior molecular data that can be derived from this experimental design.

    The moral of this tragedy? Disciplinary interests/cultures tend to privilege different types of data and methods in ways that seriously handicap the authentic flow of information between two sub-disciplines within the same larger discipline (molecular neuropsychology). The difficulties confronting inter-disciplinary communication are exponentially greater when the disciplines are as disparate as moral philosophy and PET scans of a functioning brain.

    The remedy? The only hope, IMHO, is a much greater dose of humility than I observed in Eric Kandel, and a much greater empathy for disciplinary cultures alien to one’s own.

    My advice to the “youth”? Good luck.