Martha Nussbaum’s Creating Capabilities

by Ingrid Robeyns on August 29, 2011

Last April, Martha Nussbaum’s book Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach came out. Too late for being included in my entry on the capability approach at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, but I’m immediately making up for that omission since I’m working on a book review for the Notre Dame Philosophy Reviews. My verdict? It’s a useful introduction for undergrads and policy makers, but given its length it doesn’t (and cannot) have much depth. (for me, that’s not a criticism: it’s by definition almost impossible for introductory books that cover such a broad range of disciplines to have much, if any, depth). Yet I think it is somewhat more problematic that something is missing that many undergraduates and most policy makers reading this book will want to know, since it doesn’t cover the empirical work being done. Hence the book also ignores all the questions related to measurement, which is, in my experience, the #1 question asked by economists who want to understand this framework, and by policy makers looking for an answer to the question whether the approach has any bite.

One could be inclined to believe that this is merely a teaching book, and it is with that assumption that I read it; yet there is also something in there for scholars of the approach. They will also discover some new claims and statements – some of which I endorse, and some of which I contest.

Nussbaum describes the capabilities approach as a new theoretical paradigm in the development and policy world, which poses the questions: “What are people actually able to do and to be?” Put differently, the capabilities approach asks which genuine opportunities are open to people. By starting from this question, we will shift the focus of policy and development analysis from resources (incomes at micro-level, and GDP per capita at national level) to people’s capabilities: the substantive freedoms or opportunities that are created by a combination of the abilities residing inside a person (like capacities and skills) with their social, economic and political environment.

The first chapter offers, through the narrative of the life of Vasanti, a poor Indian woman, an illustration of how the capability approach conducts social evaluations. Chapter two proceeds to offer a more detailed description of the approach, which contains a characterization of the nature of the capability approach which I haven’t found in Nussbaum’s earlier work, and which will interest not only students but also scholars of the approach. According to Nussbaum, there are two different purposes of the capability approach, namely as a theory of social justice, and for comparative quality of life assessment, whereby Nussbaum’s work exemplifies the first purpose, and Amartya Sen’s work the second purpose. The two purposes which Nussbaum distinguishes are obviously closely related, and she argues that both share some essential elements: (1) the principle to treat each person as an end, rather than looking at averages; (2) to focus on choice or freedom rather than achievements; (3) to be pluralist about value, which entails that different capabilities are incommensurable; (4) to be deeply concerned with entrenched social injustice and inequality; and (5) and to give a clear task to government and public policy.

Nussbaum uses the capabilities approach in constructing a theory of basic social justice. As we know from her previous work, Nussbaum has developed a theory of universal fundamental political entitlements. Those entitlements are given, in general terms, by a list of ten central capabilities: Life; bodily health; bodily integrity; senses, imagination and thought; emotions; practical reason; affiliation; other species; play; and control over one’s environment (pp. 33-34). These entitlements impose duties on the governments, who must ensure that all people meet minimal thresholds of those capabilities. In addition to the use of the capabilities approach for thinking about social justice, the approach has also been used by Amartya Sen for purposes of quality of life assessment, which also led to a change of the development debate (most famously illustrated by the analyses presented in the Human Development Reports).

Chapter 3 elaborates in more detail on the capabilities approach as a development theory, and gives an overview of the work that Amartya Sen and his collaborators have been doing in development economics. Nussbaum rightly notes that in economic policymaking we need a ‘counter-theory’ for those policies that focus primarily or exclusively on material well-being, or, at the aggregate level on economic growth. It would have been informative for the readers, though, if more had been said on the capability-like initiatives that have already been developed in recent years: more and more economists are trying to measure capabilities (or decent proxies), more and more statistical offices are interested in the approach, and trying to see what difference it makes in practice. Moreover, significant progress has been made by the economists of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative to develop multi-dimensional poverty measures. It would have been good for an introduction to the capability approach to at least have flagged this work on measurement and the increasing acknowledgement of the capability framework by economists, since the results of their studies one important way to judge to what extent the capability approach makes a difference in practice.

Chapter 4 then moves on to discuss a number of philosophical questions in what Nussbaum regards as the second pillar of the capability approach, namely a theory of social justice. Nussbaum provides a helicopter view of the many philosophical questions that need to be addressed if one wants to develop a capability theory of justice: the selection of relevant capabilities, the question of justification, its differences with informed-desire accounts of welfarism and with social contract theories, and questions of stability and implementation. Nussbaum also includes a few pages on the question whether the capability approach should be seen as a deontological approach or rather as a consequentialist theory. The exact characterization of the capability approach is an interesting philosophical question, but, in my view, it is also a question that is highly unlikely to interest the broad and non-specialist readership of this book. Moreover, from a scholarly-philosophical point of view much more needs to be said on this issue then is possible in an introductory book. For example, does the capability approach fit the categories of deontological vs. consequentialist theories in the first place? Some guidebooks to ethical theory classify theories as deontological, consequentialist, or as being an alternative to these two classical families. Perhaps the capability approach, at its most general level, belongs to the latter category?

In the following chapters, Nussbaum discusses a range of questions that have been much discussed in the capability literature, or are of special importance for this field. Chapter 5 focuses on the questions of cultural diversity and the approach’s claim to universality. Chapter 6 addresses the important question of global poverty and global injustices, drawing on Nussbaum’s earlier work in this area, especially in Frontiers of Justice. Chapter 7 traces the historical roots of the capabilities approach, including Aristotle and the Stoics, Adam Smith and Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill and T.H. Green. Chapter 8 surveys a number of topics and issues that have recently been taken up by scholars working on the capabilities approach, such as disadvantage in affluent societies; gender issues; disability, ageing and the importance of care; education; animal entitlements; environmental questions; and constitutional law.

The book has two appendices, which are both for very different reasons quite intriguing, and mainly of interest to scholars. Appendix A is entitled ‘Heckman on Capabilities’, and discusses the work of the economist James Heckman on human capital and the economics of early childhood interventions. Nussbaum argues that Heckman’s work should illuminate and enrich the capabilities approach, and that bridges should be build between those working on the capability approach, and the work done by Heckman and his team. Yet Heckman’s use of ‘capabilities’ really is only the internal side of how capability scholars understand the word; it is about skills, talents, character formation, and personal potential for achievement. So I am puzzled to why Heckman should be considered a privileged discussion partner for capability scholars. He uses the term ‘capabilities’, but he is really doing research on something quite differently (incidentally, I think that research on early childhood intervention is very important, but that’s another matter). In educational studies capability scholars have at length and in great detail explained why we should move from a human capital to a human capability framework if we want to move beyond an economic approach to education. So rather than going into dialogue with a line of research that uses the same term but focuses on something much more narrowly than the capability approach does, shouldn’t scholars of the capabilities approach engage in dialogues and build bridges with those who are pursuing very similar research under different terminology, such as for example the ‘social indicators’ movement in Europe that has existed since the 1970s, or the work done in development ethics that started primarily in Latin-America a few decades ago?

Appendix B analyzes and assesses Amartya Sen’s distinction between well-being freedom and agency freedom. Nussbaum doesn’t use this distinction, and believes that “the distinction is obscure and not useful to one who, like Sen, has rejected (on good grounds) utilitarian notions of well-being” (p. 200). Nussbaum believes that by focusing on capabilities rather than functionings, and by giving some capabilities, such as practical reason a central place on her list of fundamental entitlements, that there is no need for the distinction between agency freedom and well-being freedom. Instead, she argues, “because what is valued is the freedom to do or not to do, agency is woven throughout” (p. 201). Yet many philosophers working on the capability approach, such as David Crocker, have endorsed the distinction between well-being and agency, and find it a useful distinction. For example, agency can also refer to certain sacrifices one may want to make to one’s own well-being out of commitment to collective values (e.g. the environment or the quality of the public debate), or out of commitment to the value of the quality of life of other people (e.g. the decision of an adult child to care intensively under difficult circumstances for her terminally ill parent). To my mind, there is epistemic value in separating the well-being of those people from their agency. The reason why they made certain choices out of their capabilities is not because they are not interested in these options and hence choose what they prefer for themselves; rather, they choose certain options despite what they would prefer if the only thing they would consider was their own well-being. Hence I do find agency versus well-being a useful distinction, both to understand personal choices but also to analyze population-level phenomena, such as the decrease in well-being of informal intensive care-givers who have made a deliberate choice to care by themselves rather than having someone else care for their dependents. It would be a valuable contribution to the scholarly literature if Nussbaum would expand her arguments from the mere 4 pages in this appendix, and would engage with the arguments by the capability scholars who have argued in defense of Sen’s agency/well-being distinction.

So what is my main point of disagreement with Creating Capabilities? This book succeeds well in providing an accessible introduction to the capabilities approach. Yet introductory books, especially those written by leading scholars in the field, tend to skew the understanding of a theory into their own favorite interpretation. It is important to highlight that other understandings are also around. In my discussion of the chapters I have already pointed at some aspects where not everyone would agree with the interpretation which is given in Creating Capabilities. Yet in my view the most significant point of disagreement may well be the description of the capabilities approach itself. Nussbaum sees it as a theory with two legs – theorizing about social justice on the one hand, and comparative quality of life assessment on the other. In the former she is the most prolific author, in the latter Sen is the most canonical figure. Yet I think it is possible to describe the capability approach in more general terms, namely as a theoretical framework that entails two core normative claims: first, the claim that the freedom to achieve well-being is of primary moral importance, and second, that freedom to achieve well-being is to be understood in terms of people’s capabilities, that is, their real opportunities to do and be what they have reason to value.

This general description can then be developed into a variety of more specific normative theories, including, most famously, Nussbaum’s (partial) theory of social justice and Sen’s account of comparative quality of life assessment and development, but also as the basis for (or part of) social criticism, ethnographic studies, policy design in the area of family policies in welfare states, or even –potentially- as part of the design of a revolutionary blueprint of a post-capitalist economic system. By describing the capability approach as being either focused on social justice or on comparative quality of life issues, Nussbaum is not sufficiently recognizing the large varieties of ways in which the approach is currently already used, and underestimating its potential. To my mind, the capability approach should be defined in more general and abstract terms, as a theory with a scope potentially as wide reaching as utilitiarianism. Philosophers should think of the capability approach as ‘capabilitarianism’.

Lifting the definition of the capabilities approach to this higher level of generality also has consequences for the question what the ‘essential elements’ of the approach are. Recall that Nussbaum argues that these are the following elements: (1) to treat each person as an end, rather than looking at averages; (2) to focus on choice or freedom rather than achievements; (3) to be pluralist about value, which entails that different capabilities are incommensurable; (4) to be deeply concerned with entrenched social injustice and inequality; and (5) and to give a clear task to government and public policy.

Yet I think this suggests a consensus that does not exist. Not all ‘capabilitarian theories’ will necessarily endorse the view that we should only focus on choice or freedom. Seeing the capability approach as the umbrella, or a family, of normative theories opens up space for more paternalistic accounts of policy making that defend a mix of capabilities (freedoms) and the functionings (achievements), which Nussbaum’s version clearly rejects. Similarly, by dragging the description of the capability approach to a higher, more general, plane, it allows for capability theories of justice that see the role of the state as very limited but rather give the most significant duties of justice to non-state agents. This enlargement of the scope of the capability approach could drastically increase the contribution it can make to non-ideal theorizing of justice, as well as to ethical theory and practice in general.

{ 45 comments }

1

John Quiggin 08.29.11 at 10:36 pm

This is v useful, Ingrid. Not having read the book I can’t offer much in the way of commentary on it, so I’ll do the standard blog thing and go off on thoughts raised by your post.

I’m thinking about ways of formalising the relationship between capabilities and functionings, and it doesn’t seem to me that there is necessarily a conflict between the two. If the term “capabilities” means anything it means that these characteristics (both personal endowments/acquisitions and the environment) are valued because of the functions they make possible (ie make you capable of attaining). Slightly more controversially, it seems unlikely that we would value a capability more if it allowed a functioning that no one could ever conceivably want (given the variety of human tastes and desires, that probably doesn’t rule much out anyway). So the value of a capability is derived from the value of the functionings it makes possible, and (at least as I set the problem up, following the economic literature on menus), you can represent that by something that looks like an expected utility, though the interpretation is quite a bit different. Anyway, that probably doesn’t make a whole lot of sense without the paper (coming soon, I hope), so I’ll leave it there.

2

absurdbeats 08.29.11 at 11:18 pm

I’ve used Women and Human Development in an intermediate pol sci course I teach, and have considered replacing it with her latest book—so thanks for the review.

I do have a question regarding (3), that a plurality of values entails an incommensurability of capabilities. In WHD she offers her list of ten capabilities as that which is minimally necessary to a fully human life. No one capability may be traded (by a government) for any other: all must be be available to each individual. She does allow that trade-offs may be necessary above the threshold of justice, a circumstance which she calls “tragic”, but it’s pretty clear that in no way do the capabilities conflict with one another.

Now, any one individual may choose from the menu of opportunities options which preclude still other choices on that menu—to maintain celibacy, to live as a hermit, to submit to authority—and that those of us who don’t choose to restrict ourselves must nonetheless respect the capabilities of those who do. Choices or outcomes of capabilities, in other words, may be incommensurable, but I don’t see how this means that the capabilities themselves are incommensurable.

3

Paul Kelleher 08.30.11 at 1:48 am

@Ingrid: Thanks very much for that. I’ll note for those unaware: the very best introduction to the amorphous thing referred to by different theorists as “the” capability approach is the entry in the Stanford Encycolpedia of Philosophy by….Ingrid Robeyns: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/capability-approach/

@John: You conclude: “So the value of a capability is derived from the value of the functionings it makes possible…” Yes, but not entirely from the value of the functionings, right? The value a capability lies in both the functionings that it makes possible *and* the freedom one has to access or not access that functioning. Can this freedom aspect be represented by an expected utility (that’s a genuine question)? I would think it can’t *if* expected utilities are ipso facto part of a maximizing framework that leaves no room for decisions to refrain from maximizing expected utility.

4

Alex 08.30.11 at 10:27 am

I do like the capabilities approach as an intellectual approach, but I wonder why it’s been so hard to translate it into a political program. You could frame it as an argument about positive liberty as opposed to negative liberty, freedom to.. rather than freedom from.., but that seems so obvious that there must be a problem with it.

5

philofra 08.30.11 at 2:26 pm

I like this idea of the “capability approach”. I am thinking about the “Arab Spring” and the capability of those countries involved to enact democracy. Let us see what their approaches amount to. And do they have the capability approach?

I do think the Arab Spring countries have a ‘will’ for democracy. So where there is a will there may be a capability.

6

straightwood 08.30.11 at 3:34 pm

The notion that the lamp of reason will reveal systems of justice that will be eagerly adopted once their benefits are clear is highly dubious. As long as a significant fraction of mankind relishes the failure of the weak, social justice will remain a hobby of altruists who are very poorly represented in the councils of power. The central driver of injustice is the evolutionary selection of individuals with zero-sum social values. As long as history continues to generate cyclic survival scenarios in which those with zero sum values prevail, we will have large numbers of people who view injustice as not only desirable but necessary.

Academic social theorists are engaged in puzzle-solving exercises that are inconsequential to the zero-sum political players. Those who wish to become politically engaged are usually ejected from their universities (Noam Chomsky is a blessed counter-example) by the long arm of the power elite. The devil’s bargain for academic social theorists is that they buy intellectual attainment at the price of political irrelevance. Thus we have a steadily improving accumulation of sophisticated theory on social justice in a world with steadily increasing poverty and political instability.

7

bob mcmanus 08.30.11 at 4:15 pm

6:Yeah. But it has practical political applications. Looks like emotional compensation for losers and tools against the equally weak for what remains of the table scraps. Or battles within elites, title 9 fights at Harvard.

The only war is class war, the only justice soc1alism

…it allows for capability theories of justice that see the role of the state as very limited but rather give the most significant duties of justice to non-state agents.

This way to the neo-liberal future.

8

straightwood 08.30.11 at 4:32 pm

It is amusing to witness attempts to drain the ocean of world poverty through the soda straw of politically correct technocratic reform in the hands of “efficient” neo-liberal non-state agents. Someone should compile a humorous scrapbook of Tom Friedman’s cab driver epiphanies and paens to micro-lending. (See! If we unleash everyone’s greed they can live in a mansion like me!)

Nothing short of the political suppression of zero-sum people will secure large-scale global reductions of poverty, and this leads to the paradoxical repression of the unjust. This is where we came into the movie of the problem of social justice.

9

LFC 08.30.11 at 6:31 pm

The central driver of injustice is the evolutionary selection of individuals with zero-sum social values.

What about the role of complicated, seemingly impersonal institutions that have unjust effects but are, for various reasons, difficult to change?

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straightwood 08.30.11 at 7:09 pm

What about the role of complicated, seemingly impersonal institutions that have unjust effects but are, for various reasons, difficult to change?

You can save yourself a lot of trouble agonizing over institutional complexity by asking Cui bono? It is usually a small number of zero sum people, who are easily identified. The problem with land reform is not institutional complexity, it is taking land away from wealthy and powerful individuals. The problem with Zimbabwe is not institutional structures; it is Robert Mugabe and his pals.

11

Aulus Gellius 08.30.11 at 7:27 pm

You can save yourself a lot of trouble agonizing over institutional complexity by asking Cui bono?

Well, yes, and you can save even more trouble by chalking it all up to the whims of an inscrutable deity. But if you want to actually have any predictive or explanatory power, or any evidence for your claims, you’re going to have to take a bit of trouble (sorry!). Is Zimbabwe actually more populated with zero-sum people (a category with extremely fuzzy boundaries, I would add) than better-off countries? Has publicly and severely punishing the most powerful and nasty people generally been a successful way of reducing poverty in a country? What is the evidence for, really, any of the claims you’ve made on this thread?

If there’s one thing that, historically, has been less useful in improving the world than intellectual theories of social justice, surely it is the tendency to say “we can replace all those theories with this one brief and near-meaningless platitude, which I am confident I do not have to defend, and whose prescriptive implications, I trust, will not require any sort of theorizing to figure out.”

12

Ingrid Robeyns 08.30.11 at 8:17 pm

Why do non-state agents have to be neoliberal?

The people I was thinking of are more like grassroots organizations who have been waiting for decades for their governments to deliver, and have discovered that if they form (socialist-type!) cooperations they get more done. Other examples of non-state agents on my mind: development charities, human rights organizations, courageous groups of citizens.

Nothing neoliberal about them, rather more ‘republic’, I’d think. But it is instructive for me to learn that some of us think of very different things when they read ‘non-state agents’.

13

straightwood 08.30.11 at 8:37 pm

Has publicly and severely punishing the most powerful and nasty people generally been a successful way of reducing poverty in a country?

Yes, actually, it has. In Castro’s Cuba, the forcible redistribution of wealth dramatically reduced poverty, at the cost of oppressing those who concentrated wealth (by fair or foul means) in their own hands. The key problem here is that there is no unitary theory of social justice that can please both zero-sum and non-zero-sum people.

Zero sum people believe that there must be losers, and they view the removal of losers as perverse and harmful, not only to their own interests, but to the health of society. These beliefs are viewed as “nasty” by humanists and truly religious people, but they are publicly and privately held by a significant fraction of mankind, the descedants of survivors favored by this trait.

14

Nick 08.31.11 at 11:28 am

“Nothing short of the political suppression of zero-sum people will secure large-scale global reductions of poverty, and this leads to the paradoxical repression of the unjust.”

That sounds like pretty zero-sub thinking right there. Surely, we all engage in zero-sum thinking now and then, very often inappropriately.

And in Cuba, they have remarkably limited access to things like toothpaste or toothbrushes, and many have missing teeth. I would count being able to eat without being in severe pain to be a capability. Toilet paper is scarce, and half of all their metal fittings in bathrooms are gone. Not saying freer states are necessarily much better for the poor (Dominican Republic looked marginally better off for the poor), but they haven’t exactly solved basic problems of poverity in Cuba either.

15

Tim Wilkinson 08.31.11 at 11:52 am

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Nick 08.31.11 at 2:06 pm

… is a brilliant cover for Cuba’s failed domestic policies. It should be removed immediately and should never have been put in place, but it isn’t the primary cause of their hardship. They have plenty of willing trading partners, just a lack of things to sell.

17

John Quiggin 08.31.11 at 2:26 pm

Paul@3 In the approach I’m taking, the expected utility of a capability goes something like this. We start with a capability representing things like health and education status, access to financial and other resources etc, which makes possible some range of functionings.

At this point, things like individual preferences are unspecified. So, we do something a bit like Rawls. Consider a variety of possible future selves, place a weight on each of them (this isn’t a probability, but it works like on in the Expected Utility calculation) and evaluate the functioning that self would choose, given the choices feasible for their capability (the evaluation is the utility bit).

In this setup, there’s no need for the “possible selves” to maximize expected utility in the usual sense. On the other hand, it turns out that any “reasonable” rule for society in choosing capabilities subject to a resource constraint can be represented as maximising expected utility in the way I described it above.

18

Sebastian H 08.31.11 at 4:19 pm

Tim, do you somehow believe that the US embargo prevents trade with other nations, like say for example France, Germany, the UK? The US embargo definitely isn’t an explanatory response to any lack that exists in Cuba.

19

engels 08.31.11 at 6:06 pm

do you somehow believe that the US embargo prevents trade with other nations, like say for example France, Germany, the UK?

I haven’t looked at a map but aren’t those ones a bit further away, Sebastian?

20

Tim Wilkinson 08.31.11 at 6:10 pm

That’s right, 30+ years of punitive withholding of trade, restrictions on goods passing through US docks, pressure on others to embargo, etc does not constitute any economic disadvantage at all.

Though I think there was something in the Lancet a while back which claimed the blockade was directly responsible for shortages of medicines. Don’t know how cogent it was.

21

engels 08.31.11 at 6:16 pm

Always good to see a bunch of ‘libertarians’ falling over themsevles to point out that trade embargoes aren’t anything to be concerned about though.

22

Henri Vieuxtemps 08.31.11 at 6:45 pm

The embargo, actually, does prevent trade with other nations. Companies that trade with Cuba are banned from trading with the US.

23

Jonathan Mayhew 08.31.11 at 8:01 pm

Really, so Spain and the rest of the European Union countries do no trade with Cuba? Do you really believe that? Even the US is the 5th largest importer of goods into Cuba.

24

Henri Vieuxtemps 08.31.11 at 8:24 pm

Well, to ascertain the effect of the embargo, we would need, I suppose, to compare the trade volume and composition with and without the embargo.

25

Tim Wilkinson 08.31.11 at 10:13 pm

I mentioned the ‘bargo partly because it looks rather like what straightwood calls zero-sum thinking. It’s also about 50 years by now, not just 30+ [that’s enough Cuba – ed].

26

novakant 08.31.11 at 11:26 pm

“The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore.”

Fidel Castro

27

KLAUS BARNA 09.01.11 at 10:55 am

Mr. Quiggin, I have been following your writings and discussions on a new paradigm for Liberal Democracy and hoped that you might comment on the point Alex(4) made above as to why it seems so difficult–if that is the case–to translate the Creating Capabilities approach into a political program. The reason I second Alex’s comment is that I think that the concerns and issues the capabilities approach attempts to address are a natural fit for many of the current issues: the Arab Spring; the lack of a consensus on a just social and economic order after the financial crisis; naturally, issues related to education. Additionally, I think that the Capabilities Approach might be relevant to issues related to the environment and Green politics. Does the Capabilities Approach have any relevance to your thinking on Liberal Democracy, and How so? Thanks for any reflections you can provide. And if the author, or anyone else for that matter could chime in.

28

Tim Wilkinson 09.01.11 at 12:23 pm

(novakant – that must have sparked a fascinating exchange, exploring what FC meant: which model, not working in what way, what has changed etc. Where can I find it?)

29

philofra 09.01.11 at 3:32 pm

KLAUS BARNA@ “Does the Capabilities Approach have any relevance to your thinking on Liberal Democracy, “

The relevance is that liberal democracy is the capabilities approach, the one and only. The combination of the two, liberal and democracy, are the “double helix” of the modern world. Through the tension and dynamics of the two do we find our capabilities and possibilities.

30

philofra 09.01.11 at 3:32 pm

KLAUS BARNA@ “Does the Capabilities Approach have any relevance to your thinking on Liberal Democracy, “

The relevance is that liberal democracy is the capabilities approach, the one and only. The combination of the two, liberal and democracy, are the “double helix” of the modern world. Through the tension and dynamics of the two do we find our capabilities and possibilities.

31

Watson Ladd 09.01.11 at 3:43 pm

How does the capabilities approach deal with the problem of unforseen opportunities? For example in 1940 no one would have said “It is essential to human welfare to not get polio” because there would have been no way to translate that into a reality. But in 1960 that would be considered worth spending millions on. Is the capabilities approach really as divorced from material conditions as we have imagined? Shouldn’t we think instead of the development of society and its members as an approach to welfare that corresponds with our intuitions about welfare being historical as well?

32

hartal 09.01.11 at 7:30 pm

What role is there for coercion in the capabilities approach? People may not be willing to sacrifice what they consider to be their individual well-being for the common good or even the sustainability of life itself? Are restrictions on lifestyles allowed by the capability approach, given its valorization of choice and freedom? It seems to be just another variant of narrow individualism.

33

Anon 09.01.11 at 10:55 pm

Is there a good book or article that connects environmental justice to the capabilities approach?

34

Watson Ladd 09.02.11 at 9:20 am

@hartal: The common good is a fiction. Society can have no aim beyond the aims of its members, and so any coercion is nothing less then one imposing their will on another. I know you have aims because I assume you are a person, but society doesn’t seem like a person to me, so how can I think of it as having aims?

35

engels 09.02.11 at 9:32 am

Watson, you’re sounding a bit dogmatic. Why is the common good a fiction? Why can’t associations of peope have aims (ever read a corporate mission statement?) Even if they can’t, why would this entail your first statement?

36

Watson Ladd 09.02.11 at 10:16 am

Associations of people can have aims, but this is nothing less then the inviduals achieving an aim through cooperation. I think any analysis of a corporation in terms of it as a rational entity aiming to achieve its aims is misleading as personal incentives matter much more. A corporation cannot think. How then can it have an aim and think about how to achieve it? The language of aims is anthropomorization gone wild. Or to put it another way: how does a corporation determine what it thinks if you think it thinks?

Rousseau notoriously held that society could have a general will distinct from that of its individuals to which all individuals had to subordinate their aims. “On the Social Contract” is the text. But this is ridiculous: in forming society men would not agree to anything the terms of which they did not know in advance. Furthmore the General Will cannot be known. If no one can lay claim to the General Will, how are we to ask about it? Kant’s views on the matter are ones to which I am much more sympathetic, but they categorically rule out any objection to “freedom”. Hartal is someone who I would like to expand out his beliefs: I disagree, but would like to see more to disagree with.

37

LFC 09.02.11 at 5:51 pm

@Watson Ladd
A corporation cannot think. How then can it have an aim and think about how to achieve it?

If you look in the literature of international-relations theory, you can find a whole debate about the degree to which states and other groups should be ‘anthropomorphized,’ drawing on sociological lit. on ‘corporate agency’. Footnote: When Henry posted his Institutions & Politics syllabus a little while ago, two readers — one at CT and one at The Monkey Cage — suggested that he add Mary Douglas’s How Institutions Think.

38

Aulus Gellius 09.02.11 at 6:09 pm

Watson Ladd: I think you’re stealing a base by assuming that we can unproblematically talk about the goals or aims of an individual person. A person, after all, includes a lot of parts, with conflicting aims and desires, which change over time: when we talk about “my/his/her/your” aims and interests, we have to imply some sort of negotiation between them all (see: http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2356#comic). Why can’t we do the same for a group of people, in some circumstances?

39

Watson Ladd 09.04.11 at 9:27 am

@Aulus Gellius: But I can ask someone “what do you want?”and they will say. They might not want what makes them happy, but they will answer with something that they will pursue as an action. Is that the same for a group of people?

40

Chris Bertram 09.04.11 at 10:11 am

_Rousseau notoriously held that society could have a general will distinct from that of its individuals to which all individuals had to subordinate their aims._

Every political philosophy in the modern era holds that in order for people to co-exist freely in society they need to limit their freedom by being subject to laws binding on everyone. Rousseau thought that people also ought to choose those laws to which they are subject. That’s all it means, basically. When you talk about “individuals had to subordinate their aims”, you are talking about something that you normally find unexceptionable. So, I subordinate my aim of enriching myself to the law, when I respect your property and do not rob you. Simple as.

(My Rousseau book is available via Amazon, Watson.)

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John Quiggin 09.04.11 at 10:59 am

@Klaus Barna – I’ve only just started thinking about the capability approach, but the kind of argument you suggest appeals to me. It will probably take a while before I can write anything substantive, I think

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Watson Ladd 09.05.11 at 8:04 am

Chris, Rousseau insisted that the general will was not the will of the majority or of anyone in society. That´s a major difference from Kant´s ethics and political thought with its focus on the possibility of the individual reasoning his or her way into morality. Rousseau would on my reading include social goods that are not the sums of the goods of individuals, whereas Kant would not. Part of this is a deeply personal preference for the Kantian world of actors discussing freely what the world should look like, over the Rousseaian violence of another resort the the General Will.

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Chris Bertram 09.05.11 at 8:17 am

Watson, I appreciate the lecture, but I’m afraid you don’t know what you’re on about.

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Watson Ladd 09.05.11 at 4:57 pm

I’ve read both The Social Contract and the Discourse on Inequality. Both were translations, but I don’t doubt the translators accuracy. So I do know what I am speaking of. Rousseau explictly disclaims that individuals negotate the social contract, rather they agree to adhere by whatever is produced by the formation of society. That’s a difference Rousseau attempts to preserve, which I think your reading flattens out.

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Chris Brooke 09.05.11 at 7:16 pm

Watson Ladd: “Rousseau notoriously held that society could have a general will distinct from that of its individuals to which all individuals had to subordinate their aims”; “Rousseau insisted that the general will was not the will… of anyone in society”.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, book 1, chapter 7: “In fact, each individual, as a man, may have a particular will contrary or dissimilar to the general will which he has as a citizen.”

Do you see the problem?

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