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April 2nd is World Autism Awareness Day, a day when we are called upon to raise awareness of autism. I have been working in the last months on a paper on how to [philosophically] conceptualize the well-being of people with autism/autistic people*, but alas, that project is not finished yet. But if you’re interested in new philosophical work on autism, check out this book that Jami L. Anderson and Simon Cushing edited, which contains some interesting chapters. And check out this interesting blog post by Richard Ashcroft, on a workshop that Raffaele Rodogno organized last year, which was absolutely fascinating for the reasons that Richard spells out.

I want to raise two issues: one about the diversity of people with autism, and the possible epistemological consequences. [click to continue…]

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).
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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.
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[CA 01]: Functionings and capabilities

by Ingrid Robeyns on March 6, 2014

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. [click to continue…]

So, finally the previously announced capability project will start. Recall that the plan is to have a series of post, from now for at least a few weeks but possibly a few months, discussing the capability approach at a slow pace, and starting from scratch, hence assuming no background knowledge. Before I upload the first post, it may be good to be clear about why I am doing this, and what you can expect.
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Announcing the Capability Project

by Ingrid Robeyns on February 15, 2014

Within a week or so, I will start writing a series of posts on the capability approach, a theory/paradigm/framework that is used in philosophy and the social sciences for a variety of purposes (wiki, IEP, SEP). This Capability Project is in part a self-binding mechanism to make sure that by the end of the Summer I will not have to write to my editor at Open Book to tell them that, for the third year in a row, I need another year to finish my book on the capability approach; and the post series is also in part a chance to publicly respond to some issues that students and others have been emailing me about privately, or issues that have popped up in seminars or teaching.

If you have topics that you want to see discussed, or if you have questions about the capability approach, you can send them to me at ingrid.robeyns [at]; I will most likely not respond to those emails [apart from possibly acknowledging safe receipt] but hope to address all or most of them in due course here on our blog. Other Timberites have also done some work on the capability approach, so perhaps they may also join the party at some point.

Socialism in America

by Ingrid Robeyns on February 12, 2014

Paul Krugman has an interesting piece in which he argues that huge disparities in incomes undermine the dignity of the worst-paid workers. This sentence struck me most:

we live in the age of the angry billionaire, furious if anyone should suggest that his wealth doesn’t entitle him to acclamation as well as luxury.

On that topic, I’m inviting all American billionaires to attend a talk at the Stanford Center for Ethics in Society on Thursday where I will be arguing that the billionaire has a duty not to be rich. [If you’re not a billionaire, you’re equally welcome.] I think there are a couple of good arguments to give for this view, including arguments along the line that Chris wrote here recently. I’ve presented these arguments before to British, Dutch and mixed European audiences, and am curious whether the reactions of Americans will be different.

I’m prepared to be surprised. Even more so given a scene that happened on Sunday at a plantation in Louisiana that I visited, after a great tour in which I learnt a lot about the horrible conditions under which slaves had been working so that the plantation owners could build their wealth:

Me [asking a sales person in the plantation shop]: “How much should I tip the tour guide? What is the custom?”
Sales person: “Whatever you feel like.”
Me: “But I have no idea. I live in a country where we don’t tip anyone.”
Sales person: “Really? That’s not a good idea!”
Me: “We don’t tip because we pay decent wages.”
Sales person (with voice raised) “But that is socialism!”

Now if even an ordinary American, working on a former slavery plantation where he is every day reminded of a past of exploitation and gross violations of human dignity, believes that ‘decent wages’ implies ‘socialism’, then I start to understand that Krugman faces an uphill battle generating a reasonable debate about income inequality and human dignity. Let’s just hope that my encounter at the plantation wasn’t representative for the range of categories in which people are thinking.

Epistemic humility

by Ingrid Robeyns on November 7, 2013

A colleague who lost his teenage son due to a traffic accident 3 years ago, told us about the ‘black halo’ which remains above his head, and which only others who have lost a child are able to see. I do not doubt for a second that this is the case – that people who have not lost a child are, perhaps a very few exceptions aside, not able to truly understand what it means to lose a child, and how it changes the person you are. It reminds me of a friend who lost her father about a year after I lost mine. She had been very supportive when my father was terminally ill and died, but told me after her father died that she had no idea how hard it was until she experienced it herself. Good intentions are simply not enough to understand certain experiences.

I think it’s not just with experiences, but also with varieties of ‘differences’ and with social practices, being ill, and other features of human life. It is not just the death of someone near and dear that we have a hard time to understand if we haven’t experienced it ourselves; or what it means to have autism, or to live with and/or care for someone who has autism (in my experience, most people don’t understand, despite what they believe themselves about their understanding); or what it is to be constantly subjected to racism. I am confident that I have no clue what it means to grow up in abject poverty, or to live through a civil war, or to be the victim of domestic abuse.

My worry is that this category of experiences, differences, practices, and other features of human life that we cannot understand without first-person experience, is much larger than we generally tend to assume. And that as a consequence, we believe that we know much more than we actually do know. And, as a further consequence, that we too often are wrong in our judgements of aspects of the lives of people significantly different than ourselves.

Somehow it strikes me as wise, and possibly even as a precondition for social justice, if we would rehabilitate epistemic humility at the core of our educational and social practices.

Economics as a moral science

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 31, 2013

For a while I have been working on a paper on democracy, expert knowledge, and economics as a moral science. [The financial crisis plays a role in the motivation of the paper, but the arguments I’m advancing turn out to be only contingently related to the crisis]. One thing I argue is that, given its direct and indirect influence on policy making and for reasons of democratic accountability, economics should become much more aware of the values it (implicitly or explicitly) endorses. Those values are embedded in some of the basis concepts used but also in some of the assumptions in the theory-building.

The textbook example in the philosophy of economics literature to illustrate the insufficiently acknowledged value-ladenness of economics is the notion of Pareto efficiency, also known as ‘the Pareto criterion’. Yet time and time again (for me most recently two days ago at a seminar in Oxford) I encounter economists (scholars or students) who fail to see why endorsing Pareto efficiency is not value-neutral, or why there are good reasons why one would not endorse the Pareto-criterion. Here’s an example in print of a very influential economist: Gregory Mankiw.
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Surprising support for the Post-Crash Economics Society

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 31, 2013

Economics students from the University of Manchester have set up the Post-Crash Economics Society. The subtitle of their website summarizes their mission:

The world has changed, the syllabus hasn’t – is it time to do something about it?

I am probably getting old but in any case can’t suppress a déjà-vu feeling.

Paris June 2000.
Cambridge University June 2001.
The Kansas City Proposal August 2001.
Harvard University November 2011.

and there surely were more that I don’t recall.

Yet what’s interesting is that the Post-Crash group get strong support from a surprising corner. Is there someone out here/there who can tell us what an ‘early day motion’ in British Parliament precisely means, politically?

The Reason I Jump

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 27, 2013

Recently I read the book The Reason I Jump: One Boy’s Voice from the Silence of Autism. This is a very unusual book, for both its content and its format. The writer, Naoki Higashida, wrote this book when he was 13. It consists of 58 questions and answers that give a picture of autism from the inside – and this time not from one of the few people with autism who are also verbally strong (often people with Asperger’s), but written by a boy who has sever communication problems. He wrote the book using an alphabet grid; a helper can then transcribe what he wants to tell us.

Naoki gives answers to questions such as “Why do you echo questions back at the asker?” or “Why do you take ages to answer questions?” or “Why don’t you make eye contact when you’re talking?” – and the question that gave the book it’s title “What’s the reason you jump?”. The answers are highly interesting and revelatory of the autistic mind – at least, of one autistic mind. It takes ages to answer a question because “by the time it’s our turn to speak, the reply we wanted to make has often upped and vanished from our heads … and all the while, we’re being bombarded by yet more questions. I end up thinking, this is just hopeless. It’s as if I’m drowning in a flood of words.” [his italics]. And the reason he jumps? “When something happens that affects me emotionally, my body seizes up as if struck by lightening. … it means I am not free to move the way I want.” [click to continue…]

And the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics…

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 14, 2013

Wait, why do we have actually have The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel ? If you have ten minutes to spare, Philip Mirowski will give us part of the answer, and tell us about his research project investigating this issue.

One woman, two votes

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 13, 2013

I became a Dutch citizen earlier this year. That is, I became a Dutch citizen given the definition of ‘citizen’ that most political scientists would use – someone with full political rights, including the right to vote and the right to stand for election. The process was partly Kafkaesque – perhaps I’ll tell you some more about that another time.

The reason I wanted Dutch citizenship is that I want to be able to vote in the country in which I live, in which I plan to stay, in which my children grow up, in which I work, in which I pay taxes, and – perhaps the most important – where I care a lot about how institutions are being redesigned and policies implemented. The reason I didn’t apply for Dutch citizenship earlier on, is that it has only recently become possible for me to acquire Dutch citizenship without losing my Belgian citizenship. And I didn’t want to give up Belgian citizenship, since at the ‘personal identity’ level it feels like a denial of part of oneself if one has to give up the nationality that has shaped the person one has become. I think people should be able to hold two passports since one’s nationality does not only reflect which political community one regards oneself most engaged with, but also one’s identity at a deeper level – whatever one prefers to call this – the psychological level or related to one’s personal self-narrative, or something similar.

But now I am in this remarkable position to be a person with two votes. I can vote for the national and regional elections in Belgium, and for local, national and European elections in the Netherlands. Isn’t this a violation of the deep democratic principle we all know by the slogan ‘one man, one vote’? Some friends have suggested that there is nothing wrong with having two votes, since after all one has ties with both countries. But that doesn’t seem quite right to me, since it would still mean that one person overall has greater political power than their co-citizens.

So I guess my position is this: Two passports: fine. Two votes: not OK. We should have a set of rules such that those of us who hold two passports should prioritise them: the first one gives one all the rights of all other citizens, and the second one gives one all the rights of the citizens except the right to vote.

De Correspondent

by Ingrid Robeyns on September 30, 2013

Today I finished grading more than 250.000 words of MA-theses (that’s what you get when students who don’t graduate by September need to pay fees for an additional year). It feels wonderful, to have an evening in which I can bring the kids to bed without stressing about all that still needs to be done, to make a cup of tea, sit down, and ask myself: ‘So, what shall I do tonight?’.

So lucky me, since today is also the day that De Correspondent got launched, a new completely on-line advertisement-free ‘newspaper’ (not really, no). 100% funded by crowdsourcing – by people who want journalists who serve the readers rather than the stockholders, who don’t want sensation on their frontpage, nor censorship of and selfcensorship by the journalists.

You have to be ‘a member’ to be able to read all the pieces, and it’s all in Dutch. I read a few pieces – on income and wealth inequality in the Netherlands, on the increasing numbers of walls on Earth that separate countries or areas, and a column by Arnon Grunberg—and my first thoughts were: this looks really good. The lay-out is great, it’s user-friendly. I like it. Yet content-wise, it’s much more like our place here then like a newspaper. But with much more power: they have money (more than 20.000 ‘members’ who donated money), and with those monies they could hire journalists – I mean, ‘correspondents’. Some of these correspondents will be writing full-time for De Correspondent, but some will hold other positions, like Ewald Engelen, who holds a chair in financial geography at the University of Amsterdam.

Since the platform is online-only, since pieces will be released at several moments during the day, and since readers can leave comments, I would think that the correspondent is a blog, really – though very likely and hopefully a high-powered blog. It’s interesting that they don’t present themselves as such. Why that would be – I have no idea. In the meantime I’m really glad they are there, proud to be a supporter of this adventure (oops, I should say ‘member’), and looking forward to watching their impact on the quality of the public debate.

New kings in the Low Countries

by Ingrid Robeyns on July 21, 2013

As I am writing this, a new King is being inaugurated in Belgium, King Filip/Philippe. That is only a few months after the Netherlands also saw a change of Royal power, where Queen Beatrix made room for King Willem-Alexander. The new Kings share one thing in common – they both have wives that are more popular than themselves, and both Queens are said to be very smart, warm and sympathetic. But that’s where the comparison ends.
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