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I have been working on a paper entitled “The Capabilities Approach, Religious Practices, and the Importance of Recognition” that looks into cases where Nussbaum’s capabilities approach and religious practices seem to clash. The paper can be downloaded free here. The paper’s abstract is:

“When can ever be justified in banning a religious practice? This paper focusses on Martha Nussbaum’s capabilities approach. Certain religious practices create a clash between capabilities where the capability to religious belief and expression is in conflict with the capability of equal status and nondiscrimination. One example of such a clash is the case of polygamy. Nussbaum argues that there may be circumstances where polygamy may be acceptable. On the contrary, I argue that the capabilities approach cannot justify polygamy in any circumstance. Her approach rules out polygamy, but may not rule out all non-monogamous relationships, such as polyamory. Finally, I conclude that the capabilities approach would benefit from a more robust understanding of recognition.”

I would be very interested to hear from readers whether they agree or where the paper could be improved more. Any comments most appreciated!


  1. 1. Posted by Stentor Danielson | July 6, 2008 5:40 pm

    I think this paper needs some major work. Two points:

    1. You should introduce and defend the distinction between polygamy and polyamory at the beginning of your discussion. Right now the paper reads as a bait-and-switch. You spend a lot of time denouncing polygamy, during which I was thinking “but all these things could be easily corrected” — e.g. there’s no reason why multiple-partner marriages need be limited only to opposite-sex relationships. Then suddenly you propose just the reforms I was thinking of, but present them as if they’re an entirely distinct institution called “polyamory.” It’s as if I wrote a paper that went on and on about how the draft is unacceptable because only men are drafted, then at the end said “oh, but *conscription* is OK because conscription would be applied to everyone.”

    2. You don’t wrestle explicitly enough with the clash between religious and gender equality capabilities in your discussion of polygamy, even though your introduction uses that clash as the motivation for the paper. You mostly just say “polygamy violates gender equality, ergo it’s not OK” — with little consideration of the alleged harm to religious capabilities.

  2. 2. Posted by Ronni Sadovsky | July 8, 2008 10:20 pm

    (This is completely trivial, but there’s a typo in the first sentence: “When can WE ever be justified….”)

  3. 3. Posted by Andy Lamey | July 28, 2008 11:41 am

    I often lurk on the Brooks blog and am a big Brooks fan, but I have to confess, I had the same reaction as Stentor Danielson, above, regarding polygamy and polyamory. At first the reader gets the impression that you oppose plural marriage as such, but late in the paper it turns out that there are in fact many forms of plural marriage you endorse. Making this clearer from the beginning would really help.

    While I’m delurking in regards to Thom Brooks, I must recommend his very helpful publishing guide to all my fellow philosophy grad students. I was inspired by this guide to write a book review and journal article, both of which were published. I recommend any unpublished PhD student dowload the guide from SSRN and follow up on what it says.

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