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The Capabilities Approach

Amartya Sen was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1998 for his work challenging traditional economic theory stating it should focus on developing people’s capabilities rather than on producing more goods or maximizing utility (Pressman & Summerfeld, 2000). Emanating from his concerns regarding the goals of economic policy, Sen’s capability approach to social justice describes a system that is at odds with the goals of both utilitarian and Rawlsian justice. The goal of “happiness” at the root of utilitarianism is a very minimalistic goal in Sen’s eyes. It can be achieved by a very small incremental betterment of an individual’s position, one that may still leave him in a disadvantaged position and may not even provide for his basic needs. At the same time, Rawls’s concentration on the primary goods reflects a concern with the means to achieve the individual’s goals and not with the way they are used or whether the individual is capable of achieving his desired end result. “The problem with the Rawlsian accounting,” states Sen, lies in the fact that, even for the same ends, people’s ability to convert primary goods into achievements differs, so that an interpersonal comparison based on the holdings of primary goods cannot, in general, also reflect the ranking of their respective real freedoms to pursue any given-or variable- ends. (Sen, 1989/2003, p. 7)

Sen’s capability approach focuses on the ends, not on the means, on the freedoms, which he defines as “being able to lead the kind of lives [people] have reason to value” (Sen, 1990, p. 460), and not on the ability to secure them, and on people’s actual capability to make use of the goods, services, and opportunities available to them rather than on mere access to or ownership of those goods (Sen, 1980). Indeed, Sen’s capabilities approach has had far-reaching practical policy implications. Its best- known impact has been on the human development approach (HDA) that serves as the basis for the Human Development Reports (HDRs) developed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). HDRs are designed “to shift the focus of development economics from national income accounting to people centered policies” [Haq (1995), as cited in Fukuda-Parr (2003), p. 302].

While supporting Sen’s basic idea, which sets capabilities as the focus of social policy, Nussbaum (2003) argues that Sen’s approach gives us

a general sense of what societies ought to be striving to achieve, but because of Sen’s reluctance to make commitments about substance (which capabilities a society ought most centrally to pursue), even that guidance remains but an outline. And they give us no sense of what a minimum level of capability for a just society might be (p. 35).

As a result, Nussbaum argues, reports such as the HDRs are only comparative in nature as they provide insight into how much more a person needs if she is in a position of disadvantage to another; however, they do not provide any guidance as to what specific capabilities we should aim for all humans to have. Nussbaum believes that the approach can become useful only after a specific list of the most central capabilities is developed, “a set of basic entitlements without which no society can lay claim to justice” (p. 36), however “open ended and subject to ongoing revision and rethinking” (p. 42). Nussbaum’s Central Human Capabilities include life; bodily health; bodily integrity; senses, imagination, and thought; emotions; practical reason; affiliation; other species; play; and control over one’s environment. For his part, Sen (2004a) is insistent that such a list is not required. Creating such a list based on theoretical conceptions of scholars, he claims, denies the subjects of the rights to these capabilities from participating in the deliberation, which leads to the creation of the list for the list developers themselves.

Nussbaum (2003), however, does not stop at critiquing Sen’s lack of specificity of capabilities; she also criticizes his lack of specificity with regard to the freedoms a society should aspire to promote. Human freedoms need to be evaluated, she says, since every freedom carries with it the price of limiting the freedom of another. Merely calling freedom a virtue is not the same as depriving it of value. Not all freedoms are created equal; they need to be evaluated against each other on the understanding that some are good, some are trivial, and some are bad. And while Sen has stated that “freedom per se is always good, although it can be badly used” (Nussbaum, 2003, p. 46), he has also indicated that “[t]here have to be some ‘threshold conditions’ of (i) importance and (ii) social influ- enceability for a freedom to figure within the interpersonal and interactive spectrum of human rights” (Sen, 2004b, p. 329).

Sen’s focus on freedom serves as a basis for his theory of human rights, whose identification is an outcome of the freedoms they protect. It also serves to differentiate his work from both utilitarianism and Rawlsian justice. Regarding the former, accepting that freedoms have a standalone value, which creates obligations that society must meet, differentiates the goal of public policy from the utilitarian notion that it is enough that a person is incrementally made happier in order to achieve the ethical goal of the policy. At the same time, focusing on a person’s freedom makes it possible to direct policy on providing her with real opportunities as based on her personal needs, rather than claiming she has achieved them if she has access to a predetermined primary good.

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