One way to look at global justice is to find a way to define a social minimum according to which global justice can be defined. Although there are many different ways in which this minimum as the core of global social justice can be defined, I’d like to take a look at the so-called capabilities approach.
I find the capabilities approach to define a social minimum for human dignity an interesting approach as it tries to look for actual measurable capabilities that leave the comprehensive outlook of life untouched. It does not try to find a definition of human dignity (Kant) which is informed by a certain view on what a human is. By leaving aside the question of what a human being is, true freedom of choosing one’s own comprehensive moral outlook on life is guaranteed. By not going into a basic minimum of needs (Miller) the difficult questions regarding the legitimacy of claim-rights and regarding whose responsibility it is to make sure the basic needs are met, are avoided.
However, the practical manner in which this capability approach is further specified by Nussbaum and Sen is not per se ideal. Nussbaum’s list of central capabilities is very broad, but this makes it perhaps less practical to implement. When leaving the way in which these capabilities are crystallised up to the individual and the individual’s preferences according to his or her own comprehensive outlook, the non-imposing of a specific paradigm is guaranteed. But the strength which is needed to rely upon the list of capabilities as enforcement of social justice is thereby heavily undermined. The other extreme, to focus on full capability equality with the priority of liberty as Sen argues for, is on the other hand to demanding and not free from dictating the manner in which human life should be developed.
Personally I am in favour of the idea of human empowerment, which is implied by the capability approach. By thinking in terms of capabilities, a statement is made on what human potential is, while leaving each country / group / person to decide whether and how to develop the capabilities in question. This leaves each person to decide on their own integrity and does not involve imposing a certain human ideal on others. I believe that the capabilities as listed by Nussbaum are indeed important ones, but when thinking about social justice, certain capabilities are essential that will bring about other capabilities. When a person is empowered to take control over their own lives, both politically as environmentally, his capability to live, health, integrity and independent thought are guaranteed.
Empowerment should not be thought of as material. Instead it is a mental, spiritual manner of fundamental respect for those that live in unjust conditions, to focus on their capability, their potential for humanness. By increasing their own thoughts and control of life, they will be able to better their own lives. This also creates a just relationship between the one who needs help and the one who helps. It does require complete selflessness on the part of the helper, as the person in need should be empowered in such a way that they can decide their own life. This approach to capabilities as the basis for social justice can be compared to good education. Education is not about making other people think the same things and in the same way as the teacher does. Instead, the teacher helps the student to develop their own capacities, takes the student by his hand only until she can stand on his own feet. Without imposing any ideals, the teacher should be able to look upon the student as “a mine rich in gems of inestimable value” (Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, US Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1988, p. 162.), without trying to decide what the ‘gems’ (capabilities) are and how they should be used. This is how true liberty and integrity of social justice is guaranteed. The natural result of this type of education is a sense of dignity and honour, without predetermining what the essence of this dignity must look like. Although social justice as empowerment cannot be claimed as a right as it cannot be demanded or implemented by force, it does very much work towards a more just society.
Governments as well as individuals are confronted by their responsibility towards themselves and all other human beings on the planet, and they cannot hide themselves behind the idea that they deserve the wealth they enjoy more than others do. Every man’s wealth depends on the fact that someone else has empowered him to be wealthy. The same goes for health and the other types of capabilities that Nussbaum lists. By acknowledging one’s own dependence on the help of someone else (be it a parent, or the state), responsibility towards those who still need this empowerment in order to reach their potential, is firmly grounded in individual and governments.
Another important aspect of this empowerment approach is that there is no-one who can say that nothing has to be done. When all needs are satisfied, Miller would argue that justice is present and altruism would be unnecessary. Yet the empowerment approach looks towards development no matter which level of development one is at. This focus on the development of human potential will truly bring forth a network of social justice that need have no maximum. It will make sure each society, each government and each human being will always look critically towards himself and his surroundings as to what potential still needs to be empowered in order to be turned into an implemented capability.