There are two notions in the CA that are key – the notions of ‘functioning’ and ‘capability’. Since most of the discussions on the CA are about human beings, I will restrict the discussion now to human functionings and capabilities, and devote a separate post later to nonhuman capabilities. So unless specified otherwise, all references in what follows [in this and future posts] will be to human capabilities.
Capabilities are what a person is able to do or to be; functionings are those capabilities that are realized. Thus, functionings are ‘beings’ and ‘doings’. Examples of the former (the ‘beings’) are being well-nourished, being undernourished, being housed in a pleasantly warm but not excessively hot house, being educated, being illiterate, being part of a supportive social network, being part of a criminal network, and being depressed. Examples of the ‘doings’ are travelling, working, taking part in social events, caring for a child, voting in an election, taking part in a public debate, taking drugs, killing animals, eating animals, donating money to charity, consuming lots of fuel to heat one’s house.
Capabilities are a person’s real freedoms or opportunities to achieve functionings. For example, while travelling is a functioning, the real opportunity to travel is the corresponding capability. The distinction between functionings and capabilities is between the realized and the effectively possible, in other words, between achievements, on the one hand, and freedoms or opportunities, on the other.
From these examples we can draw a couple of observations. First, these examples indicate that many features of a person could be described either as a being or as a doing: we can say that a person is housed in a pleasantly warm house, or that this person does consume lots of energy to keep her house warm. Yet other functionings are much more straightforwardly described as either a being or a doing, for example ‘being healthy’ or ‘killing animals’.
Second, some functionings are very closely related to resource-holding or consumption. One main difference would be that in the case of functionings we have some information on the reason for the consumption, information on why consumption takes place. Consuming fuel comes very close to simply a category of spending, and hence a regular notion in consumer theory; what is added by considering this act from a capability lens is that we know why the fuel is consumed – namely to keep one’s house warm.
The third observation is that the notion of ‘functionings’ is a conceptual category that is in itself morally neutral. Functionings can be univocally good (e.g. being in good health) or univocally bad (e.g. being raped). But the goodness or badness of various other functionings may not be so straightforwardly determined, but rather depend on the context and/or the normative theory which we endorse. For example, is the child care of a mother who is caring full-time for her child a valuable functioning or not? A conservative-communitarian view [accounts which endorse ideals of ‘traditional’ motherhood] will most likely mark this as a valuable functioning, whereas a feminist-liberal theory [accounts stressing individual freedom and the unfairness of traditional gender norms] will only do so if the care work is the result of an autonomous choice made against a background of equal opportunities and fair support for those who have duties to care for dependents.
The terminology in the literature on the capability approach has changed over time, and this has led to some confusing use of certain terms, and also to difficulties in properly interpreting the earlier contributions to this field. This is importantly exemplified by the different interpretations of the term ‘basic capabilities’. Martha Nussbaum (2000: 84) uses the term ‘basic capabilities’ to refer to “the innate equipment of individuals that is necessary for developing the more advanced capabilities”, such as the capability of speech and language, which is present in a newborn but needs to be fostered. Amartya Sen (1980) mentioned the term ‘basic capability’ as his first rough attempt to answer the ‘equality of what?’ question, but changed his terminology in subsequent work (what he called ‘basic capability’ would later become ‘capability’). In later work, Sen reserved the term ‘basic capabilities’ to refer to a threshold level for the relevant capabilities. A basic capability is “the ability to satisfy certain elementary and crucially important functionings up to certain levels” (Sen 1992: 45 n. 19). Basic capabilities refer to the freedom to do some basic things considered necessary for survival and to avoid or escape poverty or other serious deprivations. The relevance of basic capabilities is “not so much in ranking living standards, but in deciding on a cut-off point for the purpose of assessing poverty and deprivation” (Sen 1987: 109).
Hence, while the notion of capabilities refers to a very broad range of opportunities, among development scholars and economists basic capabilities refer to the real opportunity to avoid poverty or to meet or exceed a minimal threshold of well-being. Basic capabilities will thus be crucial for poverty analysis and in general for studying the well-being of the majority of people in poor countries, or for theories of justice that endorse sufficiency as their distributive rule. In affluent countries, by contrast, well-being analysis would often focus on capabilities that are less necessary for survival. It is important to acknowledge that the capability approach is not restricted to poverty and deprivation analysis but can also serve as a framework for, say, policy evaluations or inequality measurement in non-poor communities. Sen’s and Nussbaum’s extensive writings on the capability approach may mislead us into thinking that the capability approach is about poverty and development issues only, but there is no reason to restrict its scope in this way, neither on conceptual nor on normative grounds.
Note also that some philosophers, especially those interested in notions of basic rights, would use the term ‘basic’ in another sense, namely as ‘central’ or ‘most worthwhile protecting’. While in terms of implications those two usages of ‘basic’ may coincide, that need not be the case. For example, in most accounts of human rights, the right to have an equal say in political decision making is seen as ‘basic’, but this is seldom discussed by development economists who discuss ‘basic capabilities’ in the context of determining who counts as poor; there the focus is on socio-economic or material dimensions of well-being, and not on political and civic liberties. In our exploration of the CA we will come across many instances of one word or notion being differently used in different disciplines, often causing confusion: this is a first example.
Capability or capabilities?
Another confusion in the literature is the difference between ‘capability’ and ‘capabilities’. In Sen’s earliest work, every person has only one capability, which consists of a combination of potential functionings. Functionings could therefore be either potential or achieved. In this earliest use of the capability language, ‘capability’ was synonymous for ‘capability set’. This kind of language is especially familiar to social choice scholars or theorists working on formal accounts of freedom, where the focus of the analysis is often the opportunity set. A person’s capability is best thought to be the equivalent of a person’s opportunity set, where the opportunity set refers to the set of achievable combinations of beings and doings, hence combinations of potential functionings. But many other scholars working in the capability paradigm, including Martha Nussbaum, have labelled these potential functionings ‘capabilities’. In their terminology the capability set consists of a number of capabilities, in the same way as a person’s overall freedom is made up by a number of more specific freedoms. In Sen’s earlier work, one does not find this plural usage of capabilities, and in his later writings he employs both uses of the word ‘capability’ interchangeably. Yet the plural use of ‘capabilities’ is widespread in Nussbaum’s work, in the work of Sen’s commentators and in the work of most other capabilitarian scholars. In 2010, at a conference I organized on Sen’s philosophy, he was pressed on this distinction, and he responded something to the effect that sometimes one just has to go with the flow and adapt to what has become the dominant way of using a set of notions. Whereas the ‘older’ terminology that Sen used is today still used by a small minority of scholars, it is clear that the fact that the definitions shifted over time, without clear highlighting by either Sen or Nussbaum, doesn’t make it easier to understand the CA for those who also make the effort to read the first papers by Sen, or who are going back and forth between different disciplines.
Questions/themes postponed for later:
1. Martha Nussbaum’s distinction between different types of capabilities.
2. Des Gasper’s proposal to distinguish between S- and O-capabilities.
3. Other ways to distinguish between different capabilities, e.g. general vs. specific.
4. Do functionings and capabilities have to be individual, or can there be ‘collective capabilities’?
5. Non-human capabilities: animals, organizations?
6. Discussion of Nussbaum’s list of capabilities: are they all capabilities, and should they all be on that list?
[feel free to add themes/questions!]
Nussbaum (2000) Women and Human Development, CUP.
Sen (1980) ‘Equality of What?’ Tanner Lectures on Human Values.
Sen (1987) The Standard of Living, CUP.
Sen (1992) Inequality Reexamined, Oxford: Clarendon Press.