I'm reading Martha Nussbaum's book Frontiers of Justice, which is pretty good. She criticizes the worthy and prominent theory of justice of John Rawls, which draws from a long tradition in philosophy of looking at justice as if societies were formed through contractual agreements. The basic idea is that we can understand justice by imagining that societies are supposed to be mutually beneficial to all who would choose to join them. Rawls' theory of justice is probably the most robust and interesting version of the social contract, as Nussbaum argues, because it includes a moral concept: we would have to consider these contractual agreements under a "veil of ignorance" preventing us from knowing how to rig the contract to our own personal advantage. So, the terms of the deal would have to be such that anyone could be benefitted, not just oneself. Egoism is not possible in this scheme.
Cool, but not cool enough, Nussbaum says, because it has a limited view of human life, and a limited view of how the social contract would affect those who don't get to negotiate its terms because they aren't "normal" in their capacities for reason. Nussbaum goes a different way, saying that the contractarian idea has to be thought of in terms of human capabilities that are basic to human dignity. In other words, instead of self-interested negotiation, we should think about social justice by asking whether a society provides for each and every member the means and opportunity to live decent, dignified human lives. She lists 10 capabilities that are essential to dignified lives, and gives very general definitions of each. (I'm not going to go into these. My favorite is the capability to play.)
Very cool, but I'm not convinced by one thing Nussbaum does. She makes the case well for using capabilities instead of rights as a way to think about justice. She also argues against using suffering as a way to think about justice. She does so, in part, because capabilities are more fully representative of human dignity, but I think also because it's more positive. She also says that suffering is too minimal a standard, and reduces suffering to sentience, meaning something like the capacity to be aware of harm, injury and harmful, injurious conditions.
Through roundabout associations as I was reading this morning (arguments about the moral wrongness of lying, leading to considering how odd it is that lying is rejected not only tout court but tout suite by principlist moral philosophy, considering its such a fundamental kind of behavior, leading to considering a statement made by an erstwhile pal of mine that he would much rather be lied to compassionately than told the truth righteously), I started to consider whether suffering could be the basis for a theory of morality or justice. I don't think suffering is taken very seriously in Western philosophy, neither in general, nor as a basis for understanding morality and justice. But maybe it should.
First of all, suffering is universal, and I think it could be argued that it is more universal than rights or capabilities. A suffering-based theory would not have to justify why "human dignity" is the right standard, nor define dignity, though it would have to articulate and justify the standard of suffering itself (i.e., how much is acceptable, maybe also from what, etc.)
One reason suffering isn't taken seriously, ironically enough, is that it is universal: our intuition is that animals too suffer, and a suffering approach, some might say, begs the question whether animal suffering ought to be important, or whether human life, morality, and justice ought to be weighed in terms of something that non-humans are also subject to. Nussbaum wouldn't want to accept these claims, really, since she's also interested in understanding our relation to non-human animals in terms of justice. But it is clear that Nussbaum's dismissal of suffering is too quick. I say she reduces it to sentience, to mere sentience, and that this ignores the dimension and texture of suffering. Though universal, suffering happens to us in every way we connect to the world, and in the same depth. Suffering is different for different beings, varying in one way because we have different learned capacities for connecting to the world: some of us can suffer aesthetically in ways others of us don't, or at least not as much.
I'm pretty sure a phenomenology of embodiment would provide some key insights for an account of morality or justice on the basis of suffering -- in fact, I know a few people have worked on this. There's also some obvious, if superficial, analogies to Buddhist ideas. In any case, it's a thought I've had in the back of my mind for a long time, and reading Nussbaum has helped me see more clearly why it's appealing to me.