[CA03] Unpacking functionings and capabilities, part 1: internal capabilities, combined capabilities, basic capabilities (Nussbaum)

by Ingrid Robeyns on March 19, 2014

One of the areas in which not much work is done within the CA is in a further unpacking and development of the key notions of functionings and capabilities. Let us take a first look at ways to make the notions ‘functionings’ and ‘capabilities’ more sophisticated (We will have more posts on the question of the precise nature of ‘functionings’ and ‘capabilities’ over the next months).

A first distinction, introduced by Martha Nussbaum, is between ‘[combined] capabilities’, ‘basic capabilities’, ‘internal capabilities’ and ‘external circumstances’. For Nussbaum, combined capabilities, or in shorthand ‘capabilities’, are the answer to the question “what is a person able to do and to be?”. “They are not just the abilities residing inside a person but also the freedoms or opportunities created by a combination of personal abilities and the personal, social and economic environment” (2011: 20). Internal capabilities are “the characteristics of a person (personality traits, intellectual and emotional capacities, states of bodily fitness and health, internalized learning, skills of perception and movement)” (2011: 21). Combined capabilities are the internal capabilities in combination with the social, political, economic and cultural conditions of someone’s life. So a government (or other actor) wanting to enhance human capabilities, should try to enhance people’s internal capabilities but also to shape the external conditions in such a way that they are capabilities-enhancing.

One could summarize this as follows:

[combined] capabilities = internal capabilities + external circumstances.

Note that in much earlier work in the 1980s and 1990s, Nussbaum used another terminology, namely
external capabilities = internal capabilities + external circumstances
but Nussbaum (2000: 84, fn 94) mentions that David Crocker convinced her to change this terminology, rightly so I think.

I think that the substantive distinction that Nussbaum makes here is helpful. It helps those who want to apply the CA, or develop it further theoretically, to have a more refined set of notions to work with.

A final category that Nussbaum introduces is basic capabilities. These are “innate powers that are either nurtured or not nurtured… Basic capabilities are the innate faculties of the person that make later development and training possible” (2011: 23-24). The basis capabilities are thus part of what the ‘natural lottery’ gives us – though how the basic capabilities are developed is at least to some extent in human hands.

Here, I think the terminology is confusing. ‘Basic’ was used by Sen in a different sense, and is also used in contemporary political theory/philosophy in yet another different sense, as I explained in post [CA01]. Under those circumstances, in which a term is already used in two widespread ways, I think it is not helpful to introduce it in yet another way, especially not if there would have been equally good alternative terms. Perhaps ‘inborn capabilities’ would have been a better term?

References
Nussbaum, M. (2000) Women and Human Development: The capabilities approach, Cambridge UP.
Nussbaum, M. (2011) Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach, Belknap/Harvard UP.

{ 25 comments }

1

MPAVictoria 03.19.14 at 12:58 pm

Really interesting. Thank you.

2

Straightwood 03.19.14 at 1:03 pm

I think defining the substructure of “capabilities” with Aristotelian thoroughness is a waste of effort. The locus of difficulty in Sen’s theory is not the meaning of capabilities; it is the incongruity of desires that those capabilities must serve. Optimizing capabilities, as a matter of policy, only makes sense if you posit a global consensus on human priorities, a consensus that history and current cultural diversity clearly deny.

3

MPAVictoria 03.19.14 at 2:13 pm

“Optimizing capabilities, as a matter of policy, only makes sense if you posit a global consensus on human priorities, a consensus that history and current cultural diversity clearly deny.”

But shouldn’t it be technically possible to create an environment that allows everyone to explore their capabilities as they see fit? If we able to provide food, shelter, healthcare and educational opportunities to everyone and the spare time to explore/build their capabilities as they see wish that would cover the priorities of 99.9% of people surely?

Or am I misunderstanding something?

4

Z 03.19.14 at 2:52 pm

Ingrid, How does the capability approach deals with the massive retroaction obviously taking place between internal capabilities and external circumstances? Is it important, for instance, that one carefully distinguishes between a confident personality in a child being an internal capability or the product of a loving environment in infancy (an external circumstance for the infant)? Or, at least as a simplifying assumption, is the idea that the diagnosis internal/external should be made at a specific point in the life of the individual, with no consideration to history?

Of course, what I have in mind is an application of the capability approach to what I consider one of the hardest moral questions of advanced societies: unequal childhoods.

5

Val 03.19.14 at 4:54 pm

In a sense unequal childhoods is an “easy” moral question because it so clearly undermines the assumptions of competition and “free choice”. I think it appears hard because of the political reluctance of the rich and powerful to confront the implications of it.

Also I don’t think that you can ever distinguish between external and internal categorically – it is always a process. Anna Freud actually suggested that maybe fifty years ago in the intelligence debates, but her insight seems to have been largely ignored until the ‘hard science’ of epigenetics started supporting it.

As per an earlier discussion, that doesn’t mean you can’t think about it mathematically, but it is always an a x b = x relationship rather than an a + b = x relationship. I think you also have to allow for a lot of different factors ( including feelings as well as things), a lot of complexity, and certain amount of randomness in all this eg as to why a child born in poverty in Kenya with loving parents might still be “better off’ than a child born in New York with unhappy parents. I absolutely think this is all worth doing, but it is complicated.

6

Trader Joe 03.19.14 at 5:43 pm

@5 Val
“In a sense unequal childhoods is an “easy” moral question because it so clearly undermines the assumptions of competition and “free choice”. “

While I understand the implications of unequal childhoods, I see that as byproduct of wealth inequality – which is a thing policy might fix – not as undermining competition and free choice.

My assumption would be that biologically, parents regardless of wealth or nationality are predisposed to maximizing the chances of their children. A wealthy American might carry this out differently than a wealthy Chinese or a middle income German or a poor Kenyan but all are seeking to deploy what resources they control to the benefit of their children.

The state of a child having rich or poor parents might be an element of external circumstances, as defined above, but not particularly an element I’d choose to have policy actions address per se. The policy should be addressing the distribution of wealth not how parents deploy it, or not, to enhance the capabilities of their children.

If I’ve missed some element of your intent my appologies, this isn’t really my area of expertise (I’ve diligenty trying to follow the whole CA thought process) but I somewhat reject the notion that rich parents are somehow guilty of doing something bad for society by trying to help their children since that’s a rather ingrained behaviour across many species.

7

Z 03.19.14 at 5:51 pm

In a sense unequal childhoods is an “easy” moral question because it so clearly undermines the assumptions of competition and “free choice”. I think it appears hard because of the political reluctance of the rich and powerful to confront the implications of it.

What makes it hard is that it is that parents giving their children a good education is an unquestionable good, but that will entail inequalities. Or to put it more concretely, I believe both that 1) it is good for my children to grow up in a house full of books and 2) that children should have roughly equal opportunities to flourish in school. Yet these two beliefs are contradictory. What you say about the reluctance of the privileged (like me) to confront the implications is true and makes the problem even harder, but there is a hard problem to start with.

That said, I don’t think this thread should become a discussion about childhoods.

8

mud man 03.19.14 at 6:18 pm

I am only an egg, but this has the feel of object-oriented programming* to me … maybe if this were thought of as a tool separated logically from policy prescription? That is, a language for modeling social behavior, in which social policy can be defined and simulated?

Seems like that would clean things up for Straightwood #1.

* … in which “objects” (which also have internal state … memory or experience) have “methods” or actions they can be called upon to perform, like “internal capabilities”. As part of their internal state, objects can reference other objects in various relations (“part of”, “kind of”, “next to”, etc), representing “external conditions”.

9

Bill Murray 03.20.14 at 12:42 am

“What makes it hard is that it is that parents giving their children a good education is an unquestionable good, but that will entail inequalities. Or to put it more concretely, I believe both that 1) it is good for my children to grow up in a house full of books and 2) that children should have roughly equal opportunities to flourish in school. “

I think you missed a possibly more common 2) it is good for my children if many other children do NOT grow up in a house full of books

10

gavinf 03.20.14 at 1:56 am

What about the extent to which culture is part of and/or influences the development of internal capabilitities. i.e. the language and the cultural setting affect the intellectual and emotional capacities. Inborn potential may be a better term than capabilities.

11

W R Peterson 03.20.14 at 2:02 am

MPAVictoria @3
“But shouldn’t it be technically possible to create an environment that allows everyone to explore their capabilities as they see fit? If we able to provide food, shelter, healthcare and educational opportunities to everyone and the spare time to explore/build their capabilities as they see wish that would cover the priorities of 99.9% of people surely?”

This isn’t exactly a response to you so much as that what you wrote made me think for some reason of an episode I once heard of a public radio show…This American Life…
http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/490/transcript
The episode looks into why Hale County, Alabama has 25% of its population on disability.
The gist of it is that many of the disabled are people who cannot stand for 8 hours a day in a community where there are no desk jobs.
The people have food, shelter, healthcare and time (not so much education) but I don’t get the impression they’d rate their well being highly.

So I am getting some appreciation for what CA brings beyond what you’d get from simpler metrics.

12

gavinf 03.20.14 at 2:18 am

@10 I should say, affect the development of those capabilities.

13

Oxbird 03.20.14 at 2:56 am

MPAVictoria @3
“But shouldn’t it be technically possible to create an environment that allows everyone to explore their capabilities as they see fit? If we able to provide food, shelter, healthcare and educational opportunities to everyone and the spare time to explore/build their capabilities as they see wish that would cover the priorities of 99.9% of people surely?”

Are you not in fact overlooking the history of human conflicts that make this not the case? Is it a question of environment or fundamental differences in world view — many of which may be abhorrent — that lead some to want to dictate what people of other faiths or political views or different sexual orientation can do; or want to exercise power and control that precludes others from exercising their rights? One can try to avoid the issue by playing with what “technically possible to create an environment” means but as I see it some of the abuses of intolerance and control may be subject to education and modification; others appear to be inherent in what human beings appear to be for better or, in many cases, worse.

14

Dave OB 03.20.14 at 3:12 am

I wonder if it’d be interesting to take Nussbaum’s tripartite distinction among kinds of capabilities, but define the extension of each kind of capability relative to the question to which one is applying the CA. So, for instance, in the context of overall assessment of wellbeing, basic/internal/combined capabilities would each have the extension Nussbaum intends. But when assessing, say, educational policy, one instead takes ‘basic’ capabilities to be those that infants have at the start of education; ‘internal’ capabilities to be the relevant subset of emotional and cognitive skills; and a student S’s ‘combined’ capabilities to be the opportunities resultant from S’s ‘internal’ capabilities combined with his educational environment. (One could also take the Sen-basic capabilities, in the educational context, to be those necessary for performance of certain central intellectual tasks, or somesuch.)

Why make that amendment? Well, perhaps it makes the CA a slightly sharper tool for policy analysis in different contexts, alleviates some of the measurability problems, and so on.

(Note: just realized a not-dissimilar suggestion is made in an earlier comment.)

15

js. 03.20.14 at 6:32 am

A final category that Nussbaum introduces is basic capabilities…

I’m having a bit of difficulty with this notion of basic capabilities, esp. squaring up ‘innate powers’ etc. with ‘natural lottery’. Three things, I guess:

(1) On one natural reading, the social circumstances of the parents one is born to is part of the ‘natural lottery’ in one’s life, and if one wants to isolate a category like a natural lottery within a moral philosophy then that sort of thing should be included within it, surely. That is, things that look nothing like inborn capacities are part of the natural lottery (or so it would seem).

(2) Why pick this this notion of inborn capacities, or potentialities, as the relevant one (where again, what’s in view is a moral philosophy, very broadly speaking)? That is, why pick a notion of ‘inborn capacity’ that functions sort of like ‘natural talents’ (in the Rawlsian sense) rather than a notion of basic capabilities qua those basic competences that we all as humans can achieve (given favorable external circumstances) and that help us function well. This is a genuine question, not a rhetorical one — I don’t see why differentiating natural talents are an important category in moral reflection.

(3) Sort of gavinf said @10—if I understand him (her?–just going by gavin). Are we sure that we can isolate what’s innate, in a way that’s not affected by the circumstances into one which born (or conceived)?

Which sort of circles back to my (1). I get why the idea of a natural lottery is important: how what one’s handed there will affect how one does in life, and how it will interact with the provision of resources to (partially or mostly) determine one’s functionings. I don’t see why the notion of inborn capacities, in the differential, natural talents sense is similarly important.

(Apologies for any misunderstandings.)

16

MPAVictoria 03.20.14 at 1:56 pm

“The people have food, shelter, healthcare and time (not so much education) but I don’t get the impression they’d rate their well being highly.”

True but maybe if they had educational opportunities and were not part of a society that denigrated them for not having , a non-existent, job they would?

17

W R Peterson 03.20.14 at 2:56 pm

I think you are right MPAVictoria.
And if my rudimentary understanding of CA is correct non-denigration would one of
“… the different things a person has reason to value doing or being.” (Sen 2009: 16)

On a side note, I may have been improperly denigrating about the education of the residents of Hale, Ala. The transcript I linked said that many had graduated high school and of the rest it is most likely that they stayed in school at least long enough to learn to read. I also checked and there is a public library in Hale.
Relative to some other parts of the US this may be “not so much” but relative to some other parts of the world they might be considered advantaged.

18

Ingrid Robeyns 03.23.14 at 4:39 am

sorry to be absent from the discussion – I was traveling (really long distance) and giving a paper – will be responding (to the extent that I can) after I’ve slept and my brain is working again.

19

Ingrid Robeyns 03.23.14 at 4:37 pm

Straightwood @ 2: “Optimizing capabilities, as a matter of policy, only makes sense if you posit a global consensus on human priorities, a consensus that history and current cultural diversity clearly deny” – the OP is indeed assuming that one would be interested in expanding capabilities, and you are right that one of the biggest matters of contestation in the CA is to get an agreement (not necessarily consensus) on priorities. I’ll write about that soon.

20

Ingrid Robeyns 03.23.14 at 5:24 pm

Z: “Or, at least as a simplifying assumption, is the idea that the diagnosis internal/external should be made at a specific point in the life of the individual, with no consideration to history?” – I think one can make a capability analysis of unequal childhoods that is overly simplistic and not accounting for how someone’s history and the circumstances in her upbringing have affected her internal capabilities, or one could make a much more sophisticated analysis (which would however become complicated, no doubt). I see the CA as a toolbox with a range of tools, some of which are useful for some normative/evaluative questions and others less so. But in all cases it’s a matter of craftsmanship: you have to keep thinking about how to apply these tools sensibly and in a non reductionist way, rather than simply having a simply blueprint/algorithm that one can follow. For some scholars/policy makers, this is so frustrating and disappointing that they prefer another approach; but others like the fact that it is flexible and requires not just technical expertise but judgement all the way till the end of the analysis one is doing.
Sorry that I can’t be more specific, but that’s precisely because it has this craftmanslike nature..

21

Ingrid Robeyns 03.23.14 at 5:29 pm

js. @ 15: I’ve always read NUssbuam as your #1 – hence the natural lottery interpretation (I don’t have my books here with me so can’t check). And it is definitely true that when a child grows up, it will become increasingly difficult to disentangle the natural lottery part from that part of our talents that developed over time when being raised and educated. Yes as a heuristic divice, I can imagine situations where this ‘natural lottery’ part is useful – especially for certain type of theories, like ‘luck egalitarian’ – since the natural lottery is a form of ‘brute luck’ and hence under their radical view of fairness one should not have a lesser chance of having a good life simply because of the effects of the natural lottery. So all in all I think that for some applications of the CA it will be a useful distinction, not so for others.

22

Val 03.23.14 at 8:22 pm

@6 Trader Joe
Sorry this is a bit late, I hope you are still following this. I agree policy ‘might’ fix wealth inequality, and that’s why I meant it was in a sense a ‘morally ‘ easy choice – because while people might argue that wealth differences between adults are at least in part related to their own actions and choices, this is clearly not the case with children. But it’s a hard issue in practice because people don’t want to share their wealth, of course.
And the reason it undermines theories about competition being a good thing is that those theories are based on an assumption that we all start equal, which of course when you look at poor and rich children, is exposed as a false premise.

I don’t suggest that the problem lies with the individual responsibilities of rich parents though – the more important problem is the social consensus around inequality, that it’s ok. Not all human societies have thought that way. William Thomas, the original “Protector of Aborigines” in colonial Victoria (Australia), was struck by the fact that in Aboriginal encampments ” … none lacketh while others have …”.

Anyway although this is related to the question of capabilities (since the whole theory is about inequality and what to do about it in the end), it’s clearly getting a bit off topic for this particular thread, so I had better leave it there.

23

js. 03.24.14 at 7:42 pm

Ingrid @21:

Thanks. That’s helpful.

24

Trader Joe 03.24.14 at 7:58 pm

@23 Val
Thanks for the clarification and I agree (as Z also commented) that understanding the role of unequal childhoods doesn’t make it any easier in practice to gather consensus towards creating better equality. Thanks also for circling back around, I appreciate your perspective on these types of topics.

25

Val 03.25.14 at 2:32 pm

@24 thank you, much appreciated!
Somewhat contrary to what Z said and in some ways to what I said though, I think talking about childhood (indeed talking about the unborn child and the infant) is central though, because it does illustrate that inequality is literally reproduced – and in spite of my pessimism, I agree with you that it is the hardest moral challenge, if I can take that to mean most important and most convincingly justified. We had a prime minister once though who said no child would grow up in poverty, and it’s become a kind of political object lesson in not promising more than you can deliver. But that’s no reason to abandon hope, I hope.
Anyway I should think as Ingrid works through the specifics for us, these bigger questions will emerge more clearly.

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