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Wellbeing, Freedom and Social Justice

Ingrid Robeyns

1. Introduction

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1.1 Why the capability approach?

1Many people who encounter the capability approach for the first time find the ideas embedded within it intuitively attractive. The basic claim of the capability approach is that, when asking normative questions, we should ask what people are able to do and what lives they are able to lead. That claim resonates with widespread ideas among citizens, academics, and politicians about how to make policies, views about what social justice requires, or bottom-up views about development and social progress. Perhaps the most important contribution the capability approach makes is to prompt us to ask alternative questions, and to focus on different dimensions when we make observations or when we gather the relevant data for making evaluations or judgements.

  • 1 The exact definition and description of the capability approach that I will develop in this book i (...)

2What is the capability approach? This book will answer that question in detail. But let us start with a first, preliminary description, taken from a quote by Amartya Sen, who introduced the theoretical idea of the capability approach in his 1979 Tanner Lecture (Sen 1980a) and soon after in empirical work (Sen and Sengupta 1983; Sen 1985a). According to Sen, 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 2009a, 16). As we will see later in this book, I will propose a definition and an account of the capability approach that does not exactly equal Sen’s but rather can be interpreted as a generalisation of Sen’s definition.1 Yet Sen’s definition is a good way to start, since it highlights that the capability approach is concerned with aspects of people’s lives such as their health, the education they can enjoy and the support they enjoy from their social networks; it is also concerned with what people can do, such as being able to work, raise a family, travel, or be politically active. The capability approach cares about people’s real freedoms to do these things, and the level of wellbeing that they will reach when choosing from the options open to them. It is a rich, multidimensional approach.

  • 2 See, among others, Klasen 2000; Laderchi, Saith and Stewart 2003; Qizilbash 2002; Reddy, Visaria a (...)

3Here’s an example illustrating the difference the capability approach makes. Everyone agrees that poverty needs to be combatted — but who are the people that suffer from poverty? Which conceptual and normative framework do we use when we identify the poor? Which definition of poverty do we use when we analyse the incidence of poverty in a country? As empirical research has shown, it does matter whether one uses the widespread income-based metric, or whether one takes a capability perspective and focuses on a set of thresholds of basic functionings, the lack of which indicates a dimension of poverty. Caterina Ruggeri Laderchi (1997) used data from a Chilean household survey to investigate the extent to which an income-based measure is able to capture some basic functionings that could arguably be seen as central to poverty analysis: basic education, health and nutrition. She found that the income variable in itself is insignificant as a determinant of the shortfall in health, schooling and child nutrition and that the role that income plays is highly non-linear and depends on a number of other personal, household and regional characteristics. In other words, looking at the income level in a household to determine whether the members of that household are poor may be an unreliable indicator for the prevalence of poverty. The difference between, on the one hand, the income-based measurements and, on the other hand, measurements based on a selection of basic indicators that reflect how people are doing has also been confirmed by a large number of other studies in the last twenty-five years.2 It is for that income-based approach that the capability approach offers an alternative — but, as will be explained in this book, it is also an alternative to many other approaches and theories, such as the happiness approach or resources-based theories of justice.

  • 3 See section 1.4 for a more detailed discussion of the scope of the capability approach, and some r (...)

4While the capability approach has been used to identify the poor, it has also been used for many other purposes. Over the last twentyfive years, the range of fields in which the capability approach has been applied and developed has expanded dramatically, and now includes global public health, development ethics, environmental protection and ecological sustainability, education, technological design, welfare state policies and many, many more.3 Nor has the use of the capability approach been restricted to empirical research only. Some of its purposes have been theoretical, such as the construction of theories of justice (Anderson 1999; Nussbaum 2000; Nussbaum 2006b; Claassen 2016), or the development of a riches-line, which allows us to identify the rich (Robeyns 2017b). Other uses of the capability approach have combined theoretical and empirical research, such as Jonathan Wolff and Avner De-Shalit’s (2007) study of disadvantage.

  • 4 Some capability scholars, in particular Martha Nussbaum, have extended the capability approach to (...)

5For all these endeavours, the capability approach asks: What are people really able to do and what kind of person are they able to be? It asks what people can do and be (their capabilities) and what they are actually achieving in terms of beings and doings (their functionings). Do the envisioned institutions, practices and policies focus on people’s capabilities, that is, their opportunities to do what they value and be the kind of person they want to be? Do people have the same capabilities in life?4 Or do global economic structures, domestic policies or brute bad luck make people’s capabilities unequal, and if so, is that unfair and should we do something about that? Do development projects focus on expanding people’s capabilities, or do they have another public policy goal (such as economic growth), or are they merely serving the interests of a dominant group? The capability approach thus offers a different perspective than alternative approaches that focus on the accumulation of material resources, or the mental states of people, such as their overall satisfaction with their lives.

1.2 The worries of the sceptics

  • 5 Several more specific critiques on the capability approach will be discussed in chapter 4.

6Although the capability approach appeals to many readers, others have wondered whether this theory is really any different from other more established theories, or whether the capability approach is promising as a theory with sufficient bite. For example John Rawls (1999, 13), while acknowledging that the idea of basic capabilities is important, calls it “an unworkable idea” for a liberal conception of justice. John Roemer (1996, 191–93) has criticized the capability approach for being insufficiently specified — a complaint that is also echoed in the critique made by Pratab Bhanu Mehta (2009). Others have questioned the practical significance of the capability approach for policy making and empirical assessment. For instance, Robert Sugden (1993, 1953) has questioned the usefulness of the capability approach for welfare economics — a critique to which we will return in section 4.10. In addition, at seminars and other scholarly gatherings, an often-heard criticism is that the capability approach is old wine in new bottles — it aims to do what the non-economic social sciences have been doing all along. If that is the case, then why should we bother?5

7There are two types of answer to the sceptics. The first is conceptual or theoretical and that answer will be given in the remainder of this book. In a nutshell, the reason the capability approach is worth our time and attention is that it gives us a new way of evaluating the lives of individuals and the societies in which these people live their lives. The attention is shifted to public values currently not always considered most important — such as wellbeing, freedom and justice. It is an alternative discourse or paradigm, perhaps even a ‘counter-theory’ to a range of more mainstream discourses on society, poverty and prosperity.

8Moreover, it brings insights from several disciplines together, and gives scholars a common interdisciplinary language. Nevertheless, it doesn’t follow that the capability approach will always offer a framework that is to be preferred over other frameworks: as this book will show, the capability approach can contribute something, but we should be careful not to overplay our hand and believe that it can do a better job for all ethical questions.

9The second answer to the sceptic is empirical — to show the sceptic what difference the capability approach makes. The earlier mentioned study by Ruggeri Laderchi (1997) and dozens of similar studies do exactly that. In 2006, I provided a survey of the studies in which the capability approach had been put into practice (Robeyns 2006b) — a task that I think is no longer feasible today in a single paper or chapter, given that the empirical literature of applications of the capability approach has grown dramatically. But in order to illustrate in somewhat greater depth this kind of answer to the sceptic, let us focus on one type of empirical application of the capability approach: namely how we perceive and evaluate our lives at a macro level, and how we evaluate the social arrangements in which we live those lives.

1.3 A yardstick for the evaluation of prosperity and progress

10For many decades, the dominant way to measure prosperity and social progress has been to focus on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or Gross National Product (GNP) per capita. The more we produce, the more developed our country has been taken to be. Yet a large literature has emerged showing that GDP per capita is limited and often flawed as a measure of social and economic progress (Fleurbaey 2009; Stiglitz, Sen and Fitoussi 2010; Fleurbaey and Blanchet 2013; Coyle 2015).

  • 6 An even earlier empirical study, in which the capability approach is referred to as the right eval (...)

11In one of the very first empirical applications of the capability approach, Amartya Sen (1985a) used some very simple statistics to illustrate how deceiving GDP per capita can be as a measure of prosperity and progress.6 Sen showed that, in the early 1980s, the (roughly equivalent) GNP per capita of Brazil and Mexico was more than seven times the (roughly equivalent) GNP per capita of India, China and Sri Lanka — yet performances in life expectancy, infant mortality and child death rates were best in Sri Lanka, better in China compared to India and better in Mexico compared to Brazil. Important social indicators related to life, premature death and health, can thus not be read from the average national income statistic. Another finding was that India performs badly regarding basic education but has considerably higher tertiary education rates than China and Sri Lanka. Thus, Sen concluded that the public policy of China and especially Sri Lanka towards distributing food, public health measures, medical services and school education have led to their remarkable achievements in the capabilities of survival and education. What can this application teach us about the capability approach? First, the ranking of countries based on GNP per capita can be quite different from a ranking based on the selected functionings. Second, growth in GNP per capita should not be equated with growth in living standards.

  • 7 Those other countries are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Cambodia, Haiti, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Moldo (...)

12Sen has often made use of the power of comparing the differences in the ranking of countries based on GDP per capita with indicators of some essential functionings. Recently Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen (2013, 46–50) used the capability approach to develop an analysis of India’s development policies. For example, as table 1.1 shows, they compared India with the fifteen other poorest countries outside sub-Saharan Africa in terms of development indicators.7

13Of those sixteen countries, India ranks on top in terms of GDP per capita, but ranks very low for a range of functionings, such as life expectancy at birth, infant mortality, undernourishment, schooling and literacy. Other countries, with fewer financial means, were able to achieve better outcomes in terms of those functionings. Once again, the point is made that focussing on income-based metrics such as disposable income at the household level, or GDP per capita at the national level, gives limited information on the lives people can lead.

Table 1.1. Selected Indicators for the World’s Sixteen Poorest Countries Outside Sub-Saharan Africa

Table 1.1. Selected Indicators for the World’s Sixteen Poorest Countries Outside Sub-Saharan Africa

Source: Drèze and Sen (2013, 47).

14This type of illustration of the power of the capability approach, whereby at the macro level the quality of life in a country is compared with GDP per capita, is not restricted to poor countries only. For example, the capability approach has recently also been taken up by the ‘Better Life Initiative’ of the OECD, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The aim of this initiative is to track wellbeing, both in the present day and historically, by looking at ten dimensions of wellbeing: per capita GDP, real wages, educational attainment, life expectancy, height, personal security, the quality of political institutions, environmental quality, income inequality and gender inequality. Several of these dimensions can be conceptualized through a capability lens and others (such as per capita GDP or real wages) are needed for a comparison between capability dimensions and income dimensions, or can be seen as core capability determinants or capability inputs. In a recent report, which reconstructed the outcomes on those dimensions between 1820 and 2000, it was found that some dimensions, such as education and health outcomes, are strongly correlated with per capita GDP, but others are not — such as the quality of political institutions, homicide rates and exposure to conflicts (Van Zanden et al. 2014).

15Another example that illustrates the difference the capability approach can make is the analysis of gender inequality, for which it is clear that we are missing out the most important dimensions if we only focus on how income is distributed. There are two main problems with an income-based approach to gender inequalities. The first is that it is often assumed that income within households will be shared. Yet that assumption makes most of the economic inequalities between women and men invisible (Woolley and Marshall 1994; Phipps and Burton 1995; Robeyns 2006a). Moreover, gender scholars across the disciplines have argued that one of the most important dimensions of gender inequality is the distribution of burdens between men and women (paid work, household work and care work); the fact that women are expected to do the lion’s share of unpaid household work and care work makes them financially vulnerable and restricts their options. Any account of gender inequality that wants to focus on what really matters should talk about the gender division of paid and unpaid work, and the capability approach allows us to do that, since both paid and unpaid work can be conceptualized as important capabilities of human beings (e.g. Lewis and Giullari 2005; Robeyns 2003, 2010; Addabbo, Lanzi and Picchio 2010).

16Moreover, for millions of girls and women worldwide, the most important capability that is denied to them is extremely basic — the capability to live in the first place. As Sen showed in an early study and as has been repeatedly confirmed since, millions of women are ‘missing’ from the surface of the Earth (and from the population statistics), since newborn girls have been killed or fatally neglected, or female foetuses have been aborted, because they were females in a society in which daughters are more likely to be seen as a burden, especially when compared to sons (Sen 1990b, 2003b, 1992b; Klasen 1994; Klasen and Wink 2003). In sum, tracking the gap between women’s achievements in income and wealth or labour market outcomes will not reveal some crucial dimensions of gender inequality, whereas the capability approach draws attention to these non-income-based dimensions.

17Using the capability approach when thinking about prosperity and social progress has another advantage: it will impede policy makers from using mistaken assumptions about human beings in their policies, including how we live together and interact in society and communities, what is valuable in our lives and what kind of governmental and societal support is needed in order for people (and in particular the disadvantaged) to flourish. For example, in their study of disadvantage in affluent societies, in particular the UK and Israel, Jonathan Wolff and Avner De-Shalit discuss the effects of a government policy of clearing a slum by moving the inhabitants to newly built tower blocks. While there may be clear material advantages to this policy — in particular, improving the hygiene conditions in which people live — a capabilitarian analysis will point out that this policy damages the social aspects of people’s wellbeing, since social networks and communities are broken up and cannot simply be assumed to be rebuilt in the new tower blocks (Wolff and De-Shalit 2007, 168, 178–79). Since social relationships among people are key to their wellbeing, this may well have additional derivative effects on other dimensions of people’s lives, such as their mental health. Understanding people as beings whose nature consists of a plurality of dimensions can help governments to think carefully through all the relevant effects of their policies.

1.4 Scope and development of the capability approach

18The previous section provides one type of answer to those who are sceptical about the capability approach, namely by showing what difference it makes in practice. The other strand in answering the sceptic who asks “Why bother?” is to explain in detail how one should understand the capability approach as a conceptual and theoretical frame and how it differs from other theoretical frameworks. After all, a proper understanding of what the capability approach precisely is (and is not) should also help in making clear what difference it can make. While this book is not framed as a reply to the sceptic, implicitly such an argument is made in the chapters to come.

19Nevertheless, we should not simply assume that the added value of the capability approach is equal across cases, fields and disciplines. In some areas, the difference between the capability approach and the dominant ways of thinking and evaluating are so significant that we can rightly speak of a ‘counter-theory’. In other debates and discussions, the difference that the capability approach makes to the prevailing modes of analysis has been more limited. Moreover, the development of the capability approach itself is uneven within different disciplines.

  • 8 For some examples from the huge body of literature in development economics, development studies a (...)

20In some debates, the capability approach has been so much studied, developed or applied that we should no longer speak of “the potential of the capability approach” or “the promises of the capability approach”, since the work that has been done has made quite clear what difference the capability approach actually makes. The prime example is the literature and debate on the very idea of what development is. The capability approach has made a crucial foundational contribution to the growth of the human development paradigm which is now wellknown, especially through the work of the Human Development Reports, which are annually published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). In addition, the most well-known of Sen’s books among the wider public is Development as Freedom, which uses the capability approach as a key element of his alternative vision on development (Sen 1999a). In economics, Sabina Alkire, James Foster and their collaborators have made major contributions to the development of poverty measures based on the capability approach, with the development of the Multidimensional Poverty Index (Alkire and Foster 2011; Alkire et al. 2015). In the area of development studies, the capability approach is no longer a new and emerging alternative (as it was twenty to thirty years ago), but rather one of the major established frameworks.8

  • 9 See e.g. Anderson (1999, 2010); Nussbaum (1988); Nussbaum (2000; 2006b); Richardson (2000); Kaufma (...)
  • 10 E.g. Grewal et al. (2006); Ruger (2006, 2010); Coast et al. (2008); Coast, Smith and Lorgelly (200 (...)
  • 11 E.g. Oosterlaken (2009, 2011, 2015); Zheng (2009); Zheng and Stahl (2011); Kleine (2010, 2011, 201 (...)
  • 12 E.g. Anand and Sen (1994, 2000); Robeyns and Van der Veen (2007); Scholtes (2010); Schlosberg and (...)
  • 13 E.g. Nussbaum (2002a); Burchardt (2004); Zaidi and Burchardt (2005); Terzi (2005, 2007, 2008); Was (...)
  • 14 E.g. Terzi (2008); Walker and Unterhalter (2007); Lozano et al. (2012); Boni and Walker (2013); Ap (...)

21Another area is philosophical thinking about the metric of distributive justice (that is: what we ought to compare between individuals when we make statements about whether certain inequalities between people are unjust). In this literature too, the capability approach has by now established itself as an important alternative.9 And while work on development and on justice perhaps stands out, there are now significant bodies of literature on the capability approach in many fields, such as health economics and public health,10 technology,11 sustainability analysis and environmental policy studies,12 disability studies,13 and the vast amount of literature in educational studies that works with the capability approach.14

22However, in other academic fields it is more disputed to what extent the capability approach has been shown to make a real difference. For example, in ethical theories within the systematic/analytical strand of philosophy, the capability approach hasn’t yet been much developed. Similarly, one can doubt whether the capability approach has contributed to a significant change in mainstream economic thinking. The development of the capability approach within different academic disciplines and discussions thus differs significantly, and the effect the capability approach has had on developing new policies also differs drastically between different policy fields.

23In the debates where the capability approach is now well-established, the development of that literature has often raised new questions. For example, in philosophical theories of justice there are now enough convincing arguments that the capability approach makes a difference, but the very possibility of a capability theory of justice has also allowed us to be much more explicit about which questions remain unaddressed in case one wants to make a substantive theory of (distributive) justice (Freeman 2006; Robeyns 2016d). This is a ‘normal’ way in which a paradigm develops. It therefore shouldn’t be surprising that we have just as many questions about the capability approach as we had a few years ago. We may even have more, but they are different to those that were raised a decade or two ago.

24Whatever the unevenness in its uptake and development between disciplines, and independently of the new questions that the capability approach has raised, the current state of the literature which I will present in this book confirms that the capability approach is here to stay. It makes a difference in many debates. It is one of those rare theories that strongly connects disciplines and offers a truly interdisciplinary language. And it leads to recommendations on how to organise society and choose policies that are often genuine alternatives for prevailing views.

1.5 A guide for the reader

25This book has an extremely simple structure. There are five chapters — an introduction (this chapter), a short concluding chapter (chapter 5) and three very long chapters in the middle. In chapter 2 we start with a rather simple explanation of the capability approach, and then present a more detailed account of capability theories, focusing in particular on their structure and properties. I will present the capability approach by describing it as having a modular structure — whereby each specific capability theory combines the core elements of the non-optional module with a range of non-core modules. This way of looking at the capability approach helps those who want to apply the capability approach to a particular question or problem to see clearly which elements are needed for such an application; it also makes it very clear that the capability approach can be specified in diverse ways. One could see chapter 2 as trying to provide the anatomy of the capability approach — to try to see behind its skin, to detect what its various organs are, how they interact and which ones are essential, whereas others may be more tangential.

26In chapter 3 we discuss further details and try to clear up some misunderstandings. The capability approach is a field that is notoriously prone to misunderstandings, in part because of its interdisciplinary nature, but also because the terminology differs somewhat between different authors. Chapter 3 tries to present the literature as neutrally as possible and describes how it has been evolving.

27Chapter 4 then zooms in on a range of critiques that have been made of the capability approach, such as the argument that it is too individualistic, or that it cannot properly account for power. In this chapter, my own voice will be more prominent, as I will engage with these claims, agreeing with some of them (and, as philosophers do, giving reasons why I agree), but also arguing against some other critiques. Here, it will become clear what the value is of the distinction between the general capability approach and more specific capability theories, which I introduced elsewhere (Robeyns 2016b) and explain again in section 2.3. As it turns out, some of the critiques are valid against particular capability theories, but make no sense against the capability approach in general. I hope that the adoption of this distinction between capability theories or applications on the one hand, and capability approach on the other, will clear the capability literature of many confusing and unnecessary criticisms, so that we can devote our energy to those that are powerful and with which we need to engage. Moreover, let us not forget that the capability approach is a tool and not an end in itself; we should master it as well as we can, perhaps also as efficiently as we can, and then move on to use it in the work that really matters.


1 The exact definition and description of the capability approach that I will develop in this book is broader than Sen’s own. The reason, as will become clear in due course, is that the “having reason to value” clause in Sen’s definition is, in my view, a special case of the general definition of the capability approach.

2 See, among others, Klasen 2000; Laderchi, Saith and Stewart 2003; Qizilbash 2002; Reddy, Visaria and Asali 2009; Alkire et al. 2015.

3 See section 1.4 for a more detailed discussion of the scope of the capability approach, and some references to the various fields in which it is now applied and developed.

4 Some capability scholars, in particular Martha Nussbaum, have extended the capability approach to include the functionings of non-human animals. In this book, I restrict the discussion to human functionings and human capabilities. This is not to deny that the functionings of non-human animals are important, nor that for some ethical questions we need to consider both humans and non-human animals. There is a literature that analyses whether the capability approach can plausibly be extended to include non-human animals, which will not be discussed here, given the focus on humans (Nussbaum 2006b; Schinkel 2008; Cripps 2010; Wissenburg 2011; Holland and Linch 2016). Note that there is also a large literature on ‘the capabilities of firms’, which is not related to how the term ‘capabilities’ is used in the capability approach. In this book, the term ‘capabilities’ refers only to the capabilities of members of the human species.

5 Several more specific critiques on the capability approach will be discussed in chapter 4.

6 An even earlier empirical study, in which the capability approach is referred to as the right evaluative framework, was done by Amartya Sen and Sunil Sengupta (1983).

7 Those other countries are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Cambodia, Haiti, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Moldova, Nepal, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Yemen.

8 For some examples from the huge body of literature in development economics, development studies and development ethics that builds on the capability approach, see Alkire (2002); Clark (2002, 2005); Conradie (2013); Crocker (2008); Deneulin (2006a, 2006b, 2014); Drydyk (2011, 2013); Gasper (2004); Ibrahim (2011); Klasen (2000); Qizilbash (1996) and Qizilbash and Clark (2005).

9 See e.g. Anderson (1999, 2010); Nussbaum (1988); Nussbaum (2000; 2006b); Richardson (2000); Kaufman (2007); Wolff and De-Shalit (2007); Brighouse and Robeyns (2010); Arneson (2010, 2013); Claassen (2014, 2016); Nielsen and Axelsen (2017). See also section 3.13.

10 E.g. Grewal et al. (2006); Ruger (2006, 2010); Coast et al. (2008); Coast, Smith and Lorgelly (2008); Venkatapuram (2009, 2011, 2013); Bleichrodt and Quiggin (2013); Entwistle and Watt (2013); Mitchell et al. (2016, 2017).

11 E.g. Oosterlaken (2009, 2011, 2015); Zheng (2009); Zheng and Stahl (2011); Kleine (2010, 2011, 2013); Fernández-Baldor et al. (2014).

12 E.g. Anand and Sen (1994, 2000); Robeyns and Van der Veen (2007); Scholtes (2010); Schlosberg and Carruthers (2010); Rauschmayer, Omann and Frühmann (2012); Schlosberg (2012); Crabtree (2013); Voget-Kleschin (2013, 2015); Schultz et al. (2013); Holland (2014).

13 E.g. Nussbaum (2002a); Burchardt (2004); Zaidi and Burchardt (2005); Terzi (2005, 2007, 2008); Wasserman (2005); Mitra (2006); Qizilbash (2011); Harnacke (2013); Robeyns (2016c).

14 E.g. Terzi (2008); Walker and Unterhalter (2007); Lozano et al. (2012); Boni and Walker (2013); Apsan Frediani, Boni and Gasper (2014); Unterhalter (2003a, b, 2009, 2013); Hart (2009, 2012); Peppin Vaughan (2011, 2016); Peppin Vaughan and Walker (2012); Saito (2003); Nussbaum (2002b, 2006a); Walker (2003, 2005, 2008, 2010, 2012a, 2012b), Loots and Walker (2015, 2016); Mutanga and Walker (2015); Wilson-Strydom and Walker (2015).

Table des illustrations

Titre Table 1.1. Selected Indicators for the World’s Sixteen Poorest Countries Outside Sub-Saharan Africa
Légende Source: Drèze and Sen (2013, 47).
Fichier image/jpeg, 232k


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