Assuming we now have a basic understanding of the notions of ‘functioning’ and ‘capability’, we can ask what the capability approach is. The best way to answer this question is by first taking a helicopter view, and having a not-too-detailed look at the entire terrain we will be covering. Perhaps an outsider would expect that this is an easy question, but alas it is not. In my view, it is poorly analyzed in the literature, sometimes misleadingly discussed, and also the source of many confusions and possible flawed arguments [arguments for this view will be provided in future posts, not now!].
Here’s how Amartya Sen described the CA in a paper devoted to clarifying the approach:
“[The capability approach] is an intellectual discipline that gives a central role to the evaluation of a person’s achievements and freedoms in terms of his or her actual ability to do the different things a person has reason to value doing or being.” (Sen 2009: 16)
Sen clearly opts for a general description the CA, that doesn’t tie it to one particular scholarly discipline or debate. I agree with the general trust of Sen’s description. Yet let’s try to get this a bit more specific.
Here’s how I see things. In its most general description, the capability approach is a flexible and multi-purpose normative framework, rather than a precise theory of well-being, freedom, ‘advantage’, justice, or anything else. At its core are the notions of ‘functionings’ and ‘capabilities’ and two normative claims: first, that the freedom to achieve well-being is of central moral importance, and second, that freedom to achieve well-being is to be understood in terms of people’s valuable capabilities, that is, their real opportunities to do and be what they have reason to value. This framework can be used for a range of evaluative exercises, including most prominently the following: (1) the assessment of individual well-being; (2) the evaluation and assessment of social arrangements, including assessments of social and distributive justice; and (3) the design of policies and proposals about social change in society, which is at the core of social ethics. In all these normative endeavors, the capability approach prioritizes (a selection of) peoples’ beings and doings and their opportunities to realize those beings and doings, for example their genuine opportunities to be educated, their ability to move around or to enjoy supportive social relationships. This stands in contrast to normative frameworks which endorse other accounts of value, like mental states or which focus on instrumental values (e.g. resources). All capabilitarian theories focus on what a person is able to be and to do (her capabilities) and/or those capabilities that she has realized (her functionings).
This first description raises a host of questions. What does it mean to say ‘those capabilities people have reason to value’? Who are those ‘people’ – are that individuals, or is this a collective process? How does this approach exactly differ from other established approaches, such as recourcism, utilitarianism, etc.? Can this approach at all be developed into a plausible theory of justice? Is the CA not informationally overdemanding? Can functionings and capabilities at all be measured? Is this a viable approach for the further development of welfare economics? Can the CA be helpful for those who believe that economics should again self-identify as a moral science? Is the CA not simply a sociological turn in anglo-american political philosophy and indeed also in economics? etc etc etc. [yes: zillions of questions].
I hope we can take up many of those questions over the next weeks and months. For the moment, I want to make one single point, which however I think is hugely important, and therefore it deserves a post of its own. The CA is not merely a theory of justice. The CA is not merely part of the foundations of a new variant of nonwelfarist welfare economics. The CA is not the just [part of] a theory of wellbeing. The CA is not merely the foundation of an normative account of freedom. The CA is, instead, a much vaguer thing, and at the same time the CA can be further developed in all of the above.
So this implies the following: the CA can be developed into any of the above more specific theories [whether the capabilitarian theory that then emerges is coherent and plausible, is a separate question]. But one cannot, without additional arguments, generalize from something that one thinks holds for the CA in one of those domains to all those domains. Take the following hypothetical example. Suppose we have good arguments for why in capabilitarian theories of justice the selection of capabilities should be done by method X which relies on a justificatory process Y. It does not follow that method X and justification Y are thereby the right method and justification across the board within the CA; rather, it may well be that in developing a capabilitarian pedagogy, or in developing a capabilitarian welfare economics, we need different methods and different modes of justification.
This also implies that every time someone says something about the CA, we need to ask ourselves immediately: is this a statement about the CA as a general framework, or the CA within welfare economics, or within development studies, or a capabilitarian theory of justice, or another area in which the CA is used?
1. All questions mentioned in this post.
2. (How) does this differ from Nussbaum’s account of the CA?
Sen (2009) ‘Capability: Reach and Limit’, in: Enrica Chiappero-Martinetti (ed.), Debating Global Society. Reach and Limit of the Capability Approach, Milan: Feltrinelli, pp. 15-28