Date of Award

Fall 2016

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Tobin, Theresa W.

Second Advisor

Gibson, Kevin W.

Third Advisor

Monahan, Michael

Fourth Advisor

South, James B.


This dissertation attempts to preserve the central tenets of a global moral theory called “the capabilities approach” as defended by Martha Nussbaum, but to do so in a way that better realizes its own goals of identifying gender injustices and gaining cross-cultural support by providing an alternative defense of it. Capabilities assess an individual’s well-being based on what she is able to do (actions) and who she is able to be (states of existence). Nussbaum grounds her theory in the intuitive idea that each and every person is worthy of equal respect and dignity. The problem with grounding a theory in a version of intuitionism is that it runs the risk of authoritarian moral reasoning. I argue Nussbaum, in fact, is the final arbiter who decides which intuitions are mistaken, which are not, and how to interpret what people say to fit into her own framework. This method of justifying capabilities is most problematic in cases of social inequality whereby dominant group members do not feel they need to check their intuitions against non-dominant group members, and even if they did, they are not forced to take the non-dominant group’s intuitions seriously. I find capabilities as a global moral theory to be very promising, and I agree with Nussbaum that a list of capabilities is beneficial for identifying people who are not able to live a truly dignified human life. However, I am also sympathetic to the criticism of defending capabilities using a version of intuitionism. So, I offer an alternative method of justifying the capabilities rooted in the discourse ethics tradition. This method seeks all persons that are affected by the outcome to freely and equally share their opinion. This avoids the charge of authoritarian moral reasoning, because (1) it seeks perspectives other than simply one’s own, but unlike traditional ethics, it (2) pays special attention to the ways in which power relations shape dialogue. Ultimately, I hope to have preserved the central tenets of the capabilities approach while better realizing Nussbaum’s commitment to defending a theory that is gender sensitive and has gained cross-cultural support.