Earlier, in Martha Nussbaum’s problematic first capability: what is ‘the end of a human life of normal length’? Part 1 I believe I have provided enough reason to doubt the thinking behind the current phrasing of the first capability related to a human life of normal length. I showed that understanding the ‘normal’ in ‘the end of a human life of normal length’ in a descriptive, statistical and quantitative manner either as ‘average life expectancy’ or ‘typical modal age of death’ makes it impossible to enforce such a policy to all humans in a society.
Today we will think through another interpretation of ‘normal’.
Normal as ‘minimally acceptable’ or ‘ok acceptable’
What if ‘normal’ in ‘the end of a human life of normal length’ means ‘minimally or ok acceptable’?
First, let’s observe that ‘Acceptable’ can be understood as ‘minimally’ or ‘barely’ acceptable or as ‘ok acceptable’, which is something like ‘satisfactory’ in an ‘all right’ sense. When the object of the acceptable judgement is a quantity like human lifespan, then ‘minimally’ or ‘ok’ acceptable can cover different quantities.
Second, the question is whether it is acceptable to whom: the individuals, the government, the society at large? Either of these, the term ‘acceptable’ in this context has a normative/prescriptive spin as in what length of human life is considered to be good enough or prescribed enough.
The framework of the Capability Approach maintains that:
Capabilities belong first and foremost to individual persons, and only derivatively to groups. The approach espouses a principle of each person as an end.Martha Nussbaum: Creating Capabilities Loc 396 of 2324 (on Amazon Kindle)
Based on this central role attributed to individuals within this approach, the answer seems to be that individuals themselves are at the wheel when prescribing themselves human lives of acceptable length in this interpretation. But then the wish list gets subjective, which is not a problem in general, but turns out to be a problem when it comes to such a concrete, quantitative variable as lifespan.
Let me ask now 2 questions from the readers of this post (the smart solution would be to insert a survey here):
- How long would you like to live that you think is ‘minimally acceptable’ for you?
- How long would you like to live that you think is ‘ok acceptable’ for you?
Now I leave you to figure out the temporal indexes of these questions as those can easily impact your answer. I mean you might think differently about this now at your current chronological age and 30 years from now.
The point is that based on this subjective ‘acceptability’ measure it might be highly impractical (impossible but that is a strong modal concept so am cautious not to overuse it) to draw the line in terms of where is the threshold level minimally acceptable or even the ok acceptable. My expectation is that the older we are the longer we stretch our expectation to live with good reason. But if ‘normal’ in ‘the end of a human life of normal length’ means ‘acceptable’ subjectively, individually, prescriptively and normatively, then the concept ceases to be about a minimal, enforceable threshold the theory expects it to be. And it opens up to a different interpretation that leads to the main point am going to make in the follow-up post. Bear with me.
 I am taking this idea derivately from Cass Sunstein’s The Power of the Normal who introduced this paper in a whole another context, the ‘hostility and ugliness of social media’, here’s my Twitter question to Sunstein.