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Wellbeing, Freedom and Social Justice

Ingrid Robeyns

3. Clarifications

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3.1 Introduction

1This chapter aims to deepen our understanding of the capability approach, by analysing and clarifying a range of questions that a student of the capability approach may have. My aim has been to include the most frequently asked questions raised by students of the capability approach, as well as a few cases which, in my view, currently lead to confusion in the literature. The questions and issues which are much more a matter of debate or contestation have been collected in chapter 4. Admittedly, the distinction between questions that require clarification on the one hand, and issues of debate on the other, is not a neat one. But that should not bother us: nothing much hangs on whether a topic is included in chapter 3 or rather in chapter 4; what matters is that students of the capability approach are able to find answers to the questions they have.

2In this chapter, the following topics are clarified and analysed: How do the terminologies used by Sen and Nussbaum differ, and which additional terminological refinements have been proposed in the literature? (Section 3.2) Can ‘capabilities’ properly be described as freedom, and if so, which types of freedom are capabilities? And is it always a good idea to speak of capabilities in terms of freedom? (Section 3.3) Which considerations should play a role in making the relevant choices in module B6 — the choice between functionings or capabilities (or both) — for one’s capability theory? (Section 3.4) How exactly does the capability approach account for human diversity, and why is human diversity given so much importance in the capability literature? (Section 3.5) What does the notion ‘collective capability’ refer to? (Section 3.6) Which notion of wellbeing does the capability approach give us? (Section 3.7) How does the capability approach differ from the happiness approach, and what are the reasons that capability scholars do not adopt the happiness approach? (Section 3.8) To what extent — and how — can the capability approach deal with adaptive preferences? (Section 3.9) Can a capability theory also be an explanatory theory, or is that not possible? (Section 3.10) Can the capability approach be used to study all normative questions, or is it not a suitable framework for some normative questions? (Section 3.11) The capability approach is often positioned as an alternative for resourcist theories — but what exactly is the role of resources in the capability approach? (Section 3.12) Finally, we consider how the capability approach relates to two established literatures: theories of justice and theories of human rights. Which choices in module B and module C are needed in order to construct a capability theory of justice? (Section 3.13) And how do capabilities and human rights relate to each other? (Section 3.14)

3.2 Refining the notions of ‘capability’ and ‘functioning’

3While at a very introductory level, the terms ‘functionings’ and ‘capability’ seem to be easy and straightforward, the terminology used in the literature is, alas, not always clear. There has been quite considerable confusion in the use of the terminology, although — if one takes a meta-disciplinary helicopter view — it is possible to discern that particular uses of certain terms are more dominant than others. The confusion has several sources. First, Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum have used the same terminology somewhat differently to each other, and since most capability scholars are more influenced either by Sen or by Nussbaum, its use in the wider literature is not standardised. Moreover, both Sen and Nussbaum have changed their use over time, without always making this explicit. Thirdly, there are differences in terminological choices that can be traced back to established differences in different disciplines, which are having their effect on the different disciplinary streams in the capability literature.

4There are at least four terminological issues that need to be noted: (1) ‘capability’ understood as a single opportunity versus ‘capability’ understood as an opportunity set; (2) Nussbaum’s more complex terminology; (3) the quite different meanings given in the literature to the term ‘basic capabilities’; and (4) additional refinements — both some that have been proposed in the literature, as well as a proposal that I will put on the table, namely to take the robustness of a capability into account. Let’s look at these four issues in turn.

3.2.1 Capability as an opportunity versus capability as an opportunity set

5Let us first look at Sen’s original terminology. The major constituents of the capability approach are functionings and capabilities. Functionings are the ‘beings and doings’ of a person, whereas a person’s capability is “the various combinations of functionings that a person can achieve. Capability is thus a set of combinations of functionings, reflecting the person’s freedom to lead one type of life or another” (Sen 1992a, 40). According to Sen, a person has only one capability (or capability set), which consists of a combination of possible, reachable functionings.

6A person’s functionings and her capability are closely related but distinct, as the following quote illustrates:

A functioning is an achievement, whereas a capability is the ability to achieve. Functionings are, in a sense, more directly related to living conditions, since they are different aspects of living conditions. Capabilities, in contrast, are notions of freedom, in the positive sense: what real opportunities you have regarding the life you may lead. (Sen 1987, 36)

7Sen thus used the term ‘a capability’ for what we could also call ‘a capability set’. The advantage of each person corresponds to one capability (hence ‘a person’ s overall freedom to do the things they want to do and be the person they want to be’). In the original terminology, each person had one capability, and the use of the word ‘capabilities’ therefore had to refer to the capabilities of various persons.

8In Sen’s original terminology, a person’s capability consisted of a range of potential functionings, out of which a particular combination of functionings could be chosen. Functionings could therefore be either potential or achieved. This kind of language is most familiar to social choice scholars and scholars in formal welfare economics, where the focus of much of the analysis is on the opportunity set.

9However, many other scholars working on the capability paradigm, including Martha Nussbaum, have labelled these potential functionings ‘capabilities’, and only use the term ‘functioning’ for an outcome. In that terminology, the capability set consists of a number of capabilities, in the same way as a person’s overall freedom is made up of a number of more specific freedoms. One does not find this usage of ‘capabilities’ (meaning the separate elements of one person’s capability set) in Sen’s earlier writings, and in his later writings he (perhaps reluctantly) uses the word ‘capability’ in both senses interchangeably.

10What, then, is the terminology that is now predominantly used? As was explained in chapter 2, a functioning is a state of one’s being (such as being healthy or ill), or something one is doing (such as going on a trip or raising children). The real opportunity to accomplish such a functioning, is the corresponding capability. Hence if my sister goes on a trip and invites me along, but I decide to stay at home because I want to do something else, then I have the capability to go on a trip, but I chose not to have the corresponding outcome — the functioning. Each functioning corresponds exactly to one capability.

  • 1 For a seminal analysis of the differences between Nussbaum’s and Sen’s conceptual and terminologic (...)

11This plural use of capabilities is widespread in the contemporary literature on the capability approach — with the exception of those working in social choice theory, formal welfare economics and related fields. The terminology as used by the broader group of scholars working on the capability approach seems to be more straightforward and less technical, but when reading Sen’s (earlier) work it is important to know that the term ‘capability’ started with a different definition.1

3.2.2 Nussbaum’s terminology

12In Women and Human Development, her first book-length work on her capabilities theory, Martha Nussbaum used the following terminology, which she still uses in her recent book on the capability approach (Nussbaum 2011, 20–25). Human capabilities are “what people are actually able to do and to be” (Nussbaum 2000, 5). From those human capabilities, Nussbaum identifies a list of ten “central capabilities” which have the status of rights: they “may not be infringed upon to pursue other types of social advantage” (Nussbaum 2000, 14). According to Nussbaum’s minimal account of social justice, these central capabilities have to be protected up to a certain threshold level.

13Nussbaum helpfully distinguishes between three further notions to unpack the concept of ‘human capabilities’: basic capabilities, internal capabilities, and combined capabilities (Nussbaum 2000, 84–85). The term basic capabilities refers 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 new-born but needs to be fostered before it can develop into a true capability. Internal capabilities are “the matured conditions of readiness” — the internal aspect of the capability. If I have the skill and meet the physical preconditions of walking, then I may or may not be able to go for a walk — depending, for example, on whether as a woman I am legally allowed to leave the house without a male relative, or whether there is not currently a hurricane posing a real danger if I were to leave my house. If those suitable external conditions are in place, we can speak of combined capabilities.

14Finally, a functioning is an “active realisation of one or more capabilities. […] Functionings are beings and doings that are the outgrowths or realizations of capabilities” (Nussbaum 2011, 25). Hence, in Nussbaum’s terminology, a functioning stands in relation to a capability as an outcome stands in relation to an opportunity.

15While the substantive distinctions to which Nussbaum’s terminology refers are very helpful, the specific words chosen may be not ideal. There are two problems. First, for many capability scholars, the reference to the term ‘capability’ refers to the real opportunity to do something or be the person one wants to be; ‘internal capabilities’ do not fit that category. They are, starting from that perspective, simply not a capability, but rather necessary elements of a capability, or a precondition for a capability. It would have been better to call ‘internal capabilities’ simply ‘internal characteristics’ or else ‘skills, talents, character traits and abilities’. Such terminology would also make the link with various other behavioural and social disciplines much easier.

16What Nussbaum calls ‘combined capabilities’ could then simply be called ‘human capabilities’, which consist of the presence of those skills, talents, character traits and abilities, together with suitable external conditions and circumstances. Second, Nussbaum uses the term ‘basic capability’ after it had already been used in two other different ways, as the next section will show. Why not simply call these ‘innate human characteristics’?

3.2.3 What are ‘basic capabilities’?

17The way readers from different disciplines use terminology in particular ways is clearly exemplified by the various interpretations of the term ‘basic capabilities’.

18One interpretation is Nussbaum’s. As was mentioned before, 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 new-born but needs to be fostered. Yet of the four ways in which the term ‘basic capabilities’ is used in the literature, this one may be the least prevalent.

  • 2 The ‘equality of what?’ debate was prompted by Sen’s Tanner lecture with the same title (Sen 1980a (...)

19Sen (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’).2 In his later writings, 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 1992a, 45 fn 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).

20A third way in which the term ‘basic capabilities’ can be used is, as in analytical political philosophy, to refer to essential (moral and/or political) entitlements that signify a higher level of moral urgency, according to the philosopher’s own normative commitments. For example, Rutger Claassen, who has been developing an agency-based capability theory of justice, has been using the term ‘basic’ in that sense (Claassen 2016).

21A fourth way to use the term ‘basic capability’ has been proposed by Bernard Williams. Yet this has, to the best of my knowledge, not been taken up by anyone. Williams has argued that it is important to distinguish between the capability to choose yet another new brand of washing powder from, say, Adam Smith’s often-cited capability to appear in public without shame. Williams rightly notes that “what you need, in order to appear without shame in public, differs depending on where you are, but there is an invariant capability here, namely that of appearing in public without shame. This underlying capability is more basic” (Williams 1987, 101). I agree with the need for the distinction that Williams makes, but I would rather call these underlying capabilities the general capabilities, so as to avoid confusion with Sen’s use of basic capabilities. I will turn to the discussion of general versus specific capabilities in section 3.2.4, but first I want to ask the question: how should we interpret the term ‘basic capability’?

22My reading is that, within the capability literature, the most widespread (and hence dominant) use of ‘basic capabilities’ is Sen’s use, referring to poverty or deprivation. Hence, while the notion of capabilities refers to a very broad range of opportunities, ‘basic capabilities’ refers to the real opportunity to avoid poverty or to meet or exceed a threshold of wellbeing. By focusing on ‘basic’ capabilities, we are limiting the set of all capabilities in two ways: first, by having a selection of capabilities (i.e. those that are key to capturing wellbeing, and those that are centrally important), and second, by imposing a threshold at which those capabilities will be evaluated (i.e. at a low or poverty-like level).

23Basic capabilities are thus crucial for poverty analysis and in general for studying the wellbeing of large sections of the population in poor countries, or for theories of justice that endorse sufficiency as their distributive rule. In affluent countries, by contrast, wellbeing analysis often focuses on capabilities that are less necessary both for survival and the avoidance of poverty. 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, project or policy evaluations or inequality measurement in non-poor communities. Sen’s and Nussbaum’s extensive writings on the capability approach in the context of poverty alleviation and development questions have misled some of their readers into thinking that the capability approach is about poverty and development issues only. Yet as has been absolutely clear from the description and account of the capability approach presented in chapters 1 and 2, there is conceptually or normatively no reason to restrict its scope in this way. The term ‘basic capabilities’ is helpful since it can signal to the reader when the capability approach is specifically used in this context.

3.2.4 Conceptual and terminological refinements

24Over the years, several proposals have been made to refine the notions of ‘functioning’ and ‘capability’, or to add additional qualifications which may be helpful in capability analyses.

25The first refinement — which is straightforward but still very helpful — is the distinction between general and specific functionings and capabilities (Alkire 2002, 31). Suppose we are concerned with questions about what is needed for people not to be socially excluded. Sen has repeatedly referred to Adam Smith’s example that, in order to be able to appear in public without shame, one needed (in the time and place Smith lived) a linen shirt. Yet in other countries one would need a sari, or a suit, or something else. We all know that in every specific time and place, there are certain types of clothes one shouldn’t wear if one doesn’t want to be frowned upon or be seen as inappropriately dressed. We could say that, for women in place A, being able to wear a sari is important, and for men in another place, being able to wear a suit is important, in order not to be excluded. ‘Being able to wear a sari’ and ‘being able to wear a suit’ are specific capabilities; ‘being able to wear the clothes that are considered appropriate’ is the more general capability. Thus, if we formulate the relevant capabilities at a higher level of generality, it will be easier to reach agreement on what those are, than if we focus on more specific capabilities (Sen 1992a, 108–09). General capabilities are thus the more generic and more abstract capabilities. The idea of general versus more specific functionings and capabilities is also entailed by Nussbaum’s idea of the multiple realisability of capabilities that are under scrutiny: the selected capabilities “can be more concretely specified in accordance with local beliefs and circumstances” (Nussbaum 2000, 77).

26A second conceptual refinement to consider is the concept of ‘refined functioning’. Sen (1987, 36–37) has proposed the concept of ‘refined functioning’ to designate functioning that takes note of the available alternatives. Sen (1992a, 52) notes: “‘fasting’ as a functioning is not just starving; it is choosing to starve when one does have other options”. The aim of this proposal is to try to bridge the choice between functionings and capabilities by a conceptual move. That is, one could focus on achieved functionings levels but — where appropriate — include the exercise of choice as one of the relevant functionings (Fleurbaey 2002). This allows us to stay within the realm of (observable) achievements, but because the act of choosing is included, one can derive from that functioning relevant information about whether one had options or not.

27A third conceptual refinement — this time a qualification or property that we can attribute to a functioning or a capability — has been proposed by Avner De-Shalit and Jonathan Wolff. They have argued that what is relevant for the most disadvantaged persons is not so much whether they have any functionings, but rather whether those functionings are secure (Wolff and De-Shalit 2007, 2013). The idea here is that we are not only interested in the functionings that people can achieve, but also in the prospects that a person has to sustain that level — that is, the risk and vulnerability of losing that functionings achievement should be taken into account, even if the risk never materialises. The objective fact of risk and vulnerability itself should be seen as having an influence on how we normatively judge a functionings achievement (Wolff and De-Shalit 2007, 63–73).

28Another qualification that we could add to capabilities is their robustness — referring to the probability of a capability being realisable. The standard definition of a capability is that it is a genuine option: if we have the capability and we choose this opportunity, then we should also enjoy the outcome — the functioning. But this presents us with a very dichotomous view of our options: either we have an option with a 100% probability, or else, if the probability is significantly less, it is implied that we do not have the capability. That is, arguably, a rather unhelpful way of thinking about real life processes. For example, the problem with women’s opportunities in advanced economies is definitely not that women have no capabilities to achieve professional success; rather, the problem is that, given a variety of mechanisms that are biased against female professionals, the robustness of the capabilities they are given is weaker. If an equally talented man and woman both want to succeed professionally, they may, in a liberal society, both have that capability — but the probability that the man will be able to succeed will be higher than the woman’s. She does have some opportunity, but that opportunity is less robust. Probabilities of success if one were to want to exercise that capability would be a way to express this. In the above gender case, the source of the different probabilities lies in the social and environmental conversion factors. But the source of the difference in robustness could also lie in internal factors. For example, a person with a psychiatric condition may have some opportunities for finding a job, but those opportunities may be much more precarious then they would be if she didn’t have those psychiatric challenges.

3.3 Are capabilities freedoms, and if so, which ones?

29Amartya Sen (1990c, 460) has described capabilities as

the freedom[s] to achieve valuable human functionings, which can vary from such elementary things as being well-nourished and avoiding escapable morbidity and mortality, to such complex achievements as having self-respect, being well-integrated in society, and so on. Capabilities thus reflect the actual freedoms that people respectively enjoy in being able to lead the kind of lives they have reason to value.

30But several philosophers and social scientists have questioned the understanding (or, for philosophers: ‘conceptualisation’) of capabilities in terms of freedoms, asking whether capabilities could plausibly be understood as freedoms, whether Sen was not overextending the use of freedom, whether freedom is all there is to the capability approach, and whether it is wise to use the terminology of freedom for the goals of the capability approach (e.g. Cohen 1993; Gasper and Van Staveren 2003; Hill 2003; Okin 2003, 291–92). Let us therefore clarify and analyse the conceptualisation of capabilities as freedom by answering three questions. First, capabilities have been described as positive freedoms, but how should we understand that notion, and is that the best way to describe what kind of freedoms capabilities are? (Section 3.3.1) Secondly, is there a better conceptualisation of freedom that captures what capabilities are? (Section 3.3.2) Thirdly, if it is the case that capabilities can coherently be conceptualised as freedoms, are capabilities then best understood as freedoms, or is it better to avoid that terminology? (Section 3.3.3).

3.3.1 Capabilities as positive freedoms?

  • 3 Other statements equating capabilities with positive freedoms can be found in Sen (1982, 6, 38–39; (...)
  • 4 According to Sen (2009c, 282) this is the understanding of positive and negative freedom in welfar (...)

31Sen has often used the distinction between positive and negative freedoms, thereby describing capabilities as positive freedoms. For example, Sen (1984b, 315) has stated that he is trying “to outline a characterization of positive freedoms in the form of capabilities of persons”.3 In some discourses, especially in the social sciences, the term ‘positive freedoms’ is used to refer to access to certain valuable goods, such as the freedom to affordable high quality health care or education. Positive freedoms are contrasted with negative freedoms, which refer to the absence of interference by others, such as the freedom to own a gun.4 Yet these are by no means standard understandings of positive and negative freedom.

32In making the claim that capabilities are positive freedoms, Sen often approvingly refers to Isaiah Berlin’s canonical distinction between positive and negative freedom, but unfortunately doesn’t explain in detail how we should read Berlin. This is potentially confusing, since Berlin’s use of the term ‘positive freedom’ is far from crystal clear.

33Let us start from the clearest concept in Berlin — his notion of negative freedom — which Berlin (1969, 122) defines as follows: “I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no man or body of men interferes with my activity”. The opposite of having negative freedom is being coerced — the deliberate interference of other persons in an area of my life in which I could, without the interference, act freely. Negative freedom thus corresponds to freedom as non-interference, and Berlin speaks approvingly of this kind of freedom: “[…] non-interference, which is the opposite of coercion, is good as such, although it is not the only good. This is the ‘negative’ conception of liberty in its classical form” (1969, 128).

34On positive freedom, there is much less clarity in Berlin’s work. Berlin first introduces positive freedom as the freedom to be one’s own master:

I wish to be the instrument of my own, not of other men’s, acts of will. I wish to be a subject, not an object; to be moved by reasons, by conscious purposes, which are my own, not by causes which affect me, as it were, from outside. I wish to be a somebody, not nobody, a doer — deciding, not being decided for; self-directed and not acted upon by external nature or by other men as if I were a thing, or an animal, or a slave incapable of playing a human role, that is, conceiving goals and policies of my own and realizing them. (Berlin 1969, 131)

35Berlin argues that the metaphor of self-mastery historically developed into the idea that a person has two selves, a dominant self which is identified with reason and a ‘higher nature’, and a ‘heteronomous self’ which follows desires and passions and needs to be disciplined. Berlin continues that the first self, the ‘real self’, may become seen as wider than the individual,

as a social whole of which the individual is an element or aspect: a tribe, a race, a church, a state, the great society of the living and the dead and the yet unborn. This entity is then identified as being the ‘true’ self which, by imposing its collective, or ‘organic’ single will upon its recalcitrant ‘members’ achieves its own, and therefore their ‘higher freedom’. (Berlin 1969, 132)

36Put differently, men are “coerced in the name of some goal (let us say, justice or public health) which they would if they were more enlightened, themselves pursue, but do not, because they are blind or ignorant or corrupt” (132–133). Berlin acknowledges that one could, in principle, develop the same justification of tyranny starting from the definition of negative freedom, but continues to argue that this is easier with the positive conception of freedom. The reason is that the idea of positive freedom as self-mastery entails a distinction between my ‘true’ self and an ‘untrue self’. It is therefore possible that someone else other than you knows better what your true self is, which opens up a space for another person to coerce you in the name of your ‘true self’. Berlin believes that this has historically been the case with tyrannical regimes that propagated an ideology entailing a notion of positive freedom as self-mastery, whereby everything can be justified in the name of some true or higher self that needs to master other impulses and desires.

37It is not difficult to see that positive freedom in Berlin’s sense is not the kind of freedom that capabilities represent, especially not when understood against the historically tyrannical shape that this ideal (according to Berlin) took. Capabilities are not about people’s internal attitudes towards what they should do with their lives. At the political level, the capability approach would advocate that we should organise our political life in such a way as to expand people’s capabilities, whereby the capability approach will judge that two persons had the same initial equal freedom if both of them had the same initial set of valuable options from which to choose. The capability approach, therefore, is not strongly perfectionist and teleological, as is the positive freedom doctrine in Berlin’s sense. In sum, capabilities are very different from Berlin’s notion of positive freedom, and Berlin’s understanding of positive freedom is not the best way to capture the kinds of freedom that capabilities are.

38In later work, Sen acknowledged the potential for confusion that his equation of capabilities with positive freedom and his references to Berlin’s work had made, and provided a clearer description of his own understanding of positive freedom. In his Arrow lectures, Sen (2002a, 586) wrote:

positive freedom has also been variously defined, varying on one side from the general freedom to achieve in general, to the particular aspect, on the other side, of freedom to achieve insofar as it relates to influences working within oneself (a use that is close to Berlin’s conceptualization of positive freedom). In my own attempts in this field, I have found it more useful to see ‘positive freedom’ as the person’s ability to do the things in question taking everything into account (including external restraints as well as internal limitations). In this interpretation, a violation of negative freedom must also be — unless compensated by some other factor — a violation of positive freedom, but not vice versa. This way of seeing positive freedom is not the one preferred by Isaiah Berlin.

39This quote also draws attention to another drawback of defining capabilities in terms of positive freedom. Violations of negative freedoms will, according to Sen, always lead to violations of positive freedoms; yet for Berlin this need not be the case. In a totalitarian state which espouses a doctrine of positive freedom, in which the state will help the citizens to ‘liberate their true selves’, a violation of a range of negative freedoms, such as the freedom of expression or of the freedom to hold property, will not violate positive freedom; on the contrary, within the parameters of that doctrine, violations of such negative freedoms may even enhance the state-aspired positive freedom.

40So where does all this terminological exegesis lead us? It has often been remarked that there are many available definitions of negative and positive freedom. Berlin’s conceptualisations are canonical, but his definition of positive freedom is very different from Sen’s. Moreover, as Charles Taylor (1979, 175) rightly pointed out, the debate on negative and positive freedoms has been prone to polemical attacks that caricature the views of both sides. One therefore wonders what is to be gained by describing capabilities in terms of positive freedoms — at least, if one is aware of the philosophical background to this term. Perhaps it may be wiser to look further for an alternative conceptualisation that is less prone to creating misunderstandings?

3.3.2 Capabilities as opportunity or option freedoms?

  • 5 In fact, even this is not entirely correct, since in his earlier work and especially in his work w (...)

41Luckily, in other parts of Amartya Sen’s writings we can find the answer to the question of what kind of freedoms capabilities are (if any at all). Although Sen’s first descriptions of capabilities were couched exclusively in terms of positive freedoms, he soon offered an alternative description in terms of opportunities.5 In his 1984 Dewey Lectures, Sen (1985c, 201) defended a conceptualisation of wellbeing freedom in terms of capabilities, and defined wellbeing freedom as:

whether one person did have the opportunity of achieving the functioning vector that another actually achieved. This involves comparisons of actual opportunities that different persons have.

42Similarly, in Inequality Reexamined, Sen (1992a, 31) writes:

A person’s position in a social arrangement can be judged in two different perspectives, viz. (1) the actual achievement, and (2) the freedom to achieve. Achievement is concerned with what we manage to accomplish, and freedom with the real opportunity that we have to accomplish what we value.

43Given Sen’s descriptions of the freedoms that the capability approach is concerned with in terms of opportunities, it seems a natural suggestion to investigate whether the concept of ‘opportunity freedom’ better captures the nature of capabilities.

44Charles Taylor, in his discussion of Berlin’s distinction between negative and positive freedom, has argued that beneath the distinction between positive and negative freedom lies another set of distinctions, namely between an exercise concept of freedom and an opportunity concept of freedom. The exercise concept of freedom refers to an agent being free “only to the extent that one has effectively determined oneself and the shape of one’s life”, whereas according to the opportunity concept of freedom “being free is a matter of what we can do, of what is open to us to do, whether or not we do anything to exercise these options” (Taylor 1979, 177). According to Taylor, theories of negative freedom can be grounded on either an exercise or an opportunity concept, but theories of positive freedom can never be grounded merely on an opportunity concept. Taylor’s goal is arguing in favour of the exercise concept of freedom, and shows that the crude view of negative freedom (which, he argues, Berlin is defending) is untenable. Taylor (1979, 177) describes the opportunity concept of freedom thus: “being free is a matter of what we can do, of what it is open to us to do, whether or not we do anything to exercise these options. […] Freedom consists just in there being no obstacle. It is a sufficient condition of one’s being free that nothing stand in the way”.

45Is Taylor’s opportunity concept of freedom the kind of freedom we are searching for in our attempt to understand the nature of capabilities? His concept comes close, but it is narrower than the conception of freedom contained in the idea of capabilities. For Taylor, only external obstacles count in the definition of negative freedom (Taylor 1979, 176, 193; Kukathas 2007, 688). He holds that the acknowledgement of internal obstacles to action, including the action to choose between different opportunities, merges an element of the exercise concept of freedom into the opportunity concept. The notion of opportunity in Taylor’s concept of opportunity freedom thus resembles a formal notion of opportunity more closely than a substantive notion.

46Here’s an example to illustrate the difference between Taylor’s opportunity concept of freedom and the notion of ‘capabilities’. If, in a patriarchal community, men have all the power, and in a verbally aggressive manner they teach girls and remind women that their place is inside the house, then surely these women do not have the same opportunity freedom to find employment in the nearest city where women from more liberal communities are holding jobs. In formal terms, the women from both communities may be able to work outside the home since there are jobs available to women in the city, they are able-bodied and are able to commute to the city. Yet the women from the patriarchal community would face much bigger costs and would need to gather much more courage, and resist the subtle working of social norms, before they could effectively access this formal opportunity. Put in capability terms, we would say that the first group of women has a much smaller capability to work outside the home than the women living in less patriarchal communities. If the costs and burdens borne by the women from strongly patriarchal communities are excessive, we could even conclude that the capability to work in the city is virtually nonexistent.

47Luckily, more recent debates in political philosophy have further developed this discussion, in a way that is helpful in answering the question of how capabilities should be understood. Philip Pettit (2003) has argued that the philosophical debate on social freedom could benefit from being clear on the distinction between option-freedom and agency-freedom. While option-freedom is a property of options, agency-freedom is a property of agents. Agency-freedom relates to the long tradition in philosophy of seeing the slave as the prime example of someone who is not free: he is subjugated to the will of others. Agency-freedom focusses on the question of how a person relates to their fellows, and is a matter of social standing or status, not of the options that they enjoy (Pettit 2003, 394–95).

48Options are the alternatives that an agent is in a position to realize. Pettit argues that option freedom is a function of two aspects: the character of access to options, and the character of options themselves. First, option freedom is a function of the character of the agent’s access to the options. Some philosophers would hold that the physical possibility of carrying out an option is sufficient for access, and thus would conclude that the agent has option freedom. Alternatively, one could defend the position that access to an option does not only depend on the physical possibility of carrying out the option, but that non-physical barriers are relevant too. Pettit distinguishes two possibilities: either an agent is objectively more burdened than another agent when trying to access an option, whether by difficulty or by penalty, or an agent is subjectively burdened in the sense that he believes that access to an option is not possible. The second aspect of option freedom is the character of the options. Here a wide range of views exist, such as the number of options that are accessible, their diversity, and whether they are objectively significant or subjectively significant (Pettit 2003, 389–92).

  • 6 It doesn’t follow, of course, that capability theories would not be able to pay attention to agenc (...)

49Capabilities are precisely this kind of option freedom. What counts in the capability approach is indeed the access that a person has to a wide range of valuable alternative options. In sum, capabilities can be understood as opportunity or option freedoms, but are broader than Taylor’s rather narrow opportunity concept of freedom. We can therefore conclude that it is conceptually sound to understand capabilities as freedoms of this sort.6

3.3.3 Are capabilities best understood as freedoms?

50The detailed analysis in the previous section doesn’t settle all questions, though. It may well be the case that it is coherent to see capabilities as freedoms, but that there is another notion, such as human rights, basic needs, or something similar, that much better captures what capabilities are.

51The answer to that question has to be contextual in the following sense. The capability approach is a deeply interdisciplinary approach, yet scholars from different disciplines will have different associations with certain terms. Philosophers may well have very different associations with the word ‘freedom’ than, say, anthropologists or development sociologists. Similar remarks can be made when the capability approach is being applied for policy and political purposes, since the term ‘freedom’ has in some countries a particular historical connotation, or is being claimed by extreme right or extreme left political parties, in the sense that if they were to come to power, they would use that power to drastically curtail the capabilities of (some sections of) the population. However, one should also not forget that the word ‘capabilities’ is non-existent in many languages, and may itself also lead to mistaken connotations, for example with skills or capacities in its French translation (capacité).

52When developing a particular capability theory or capability application, should we frame the capability approach in terms of freedoms? My suggestion would be to answer this question in a pragmatic fashion. If the context in which the capability approach is applied makes it likely that the use of the term freedom will lead to the application being misunderstood, then I would suggest that one defines, describes and illustrates the word ‘capabilities’ and introduces that term. Yet for moral philosophers and political theorists who are eager to further develop the capability approach into a coherent political theory, a clear understanding of capabilities as option freedoms may pave the way for work that lies ahead. Pettit’s analysis of option freedoms, and the established literature to which he is referring in his analysis, give the capability scholar a neat overview of the choices that need to be made if one wants to turn the underspecified capability approach into a well-specified moral or political capability theory. For the political philosopher, there is therefore less reason to be worried about being misunderstood when referring to capabilities as option freedoms, or as opportunity freedoms.

3.4 Functionings or capabilities?

53We now move to examine the issue that is central to module B6: should we, when developing a capability analysis or capability theory, focus on functionings, capabilities, or a mixture of both? After all, this question is not settled. It is one of the core features of the capability approach that it uses ‘functionings’ and ‘capabilities’ as core notions (property A1, as discussed in 2.6.1) and that every capability analysis endorses the claim that functionings and/or capabilities form the evaluative space (property A5, as discussed in 2.6.5). But this still leaves the question unanswered whether we should focus on functionings, or on capabilities or on a combination of functionings and capabilities. Perhaps we have good reasons sometimes to focus on functionings, and sometimes on capabilities, for example for different types of applications, or for different groups of people?

  • 7 General discussions surveying different reasons to choose for functionings, capabilities or both, (...)

54Luckily, this question is not new to the capability literature, and there is by now a lively debate with many different types of arguments about whether the appropriate wellbeing metric should be capabilities or functionings, hence opportunities or achievements. What reasons or considerations have been argued to be relevant for this choice?7

55The first consideration concerns anti-paternalism. It is a normative consideration: by focusing on capabilities rather than functionings, we do not force people into a particular account of good lives but instead aim at a range of possible ways of life from which each person can choose. Thus, it is the liberal nature of the capability approach, or an anti-paternalist commitment, that motivates a principled choice of capabilities rather than functionings. Obviously, the strength of this argument depends on how bad one takes paternalism to be. There may be good reasons to believe that some paternalism is unavoidable, or even desired (Nussbaum 2000, 51–56; Robeyns 2016b). Moreover, some scholars have argued that some element of paternalism in the capability approach may well be unavoidable. One reason is that the protection of the capacity to choose from one’s capability set requires certain functionings, such as mental health and education, to be promoted as achievements, rather than merely as freedoms (Gandjour 2008). Another reason is that the protection of certain specific capabilities requires either previously certain functionings-levels, or else requires certain levels of achievement of other capabilities, or requires that enough other people have functionings achievements within those capabilities (e.g. Robeyns and Van der Veen 2007; Claassen 2014; Robeyns 2016b). Rutger Claassen has identified five different types of mechanisms in which capability protection leads to the promotion of functionings, and has concluded that “any capability theory will have to confront the issue of paternalism” (Claassen 2014, 72).

56As this literature shows, there are many reasons why one can reasonably decide sometimes to promote functionings, rather than capabilities. Here, I will only give one example, namely limits to our capacities to make informed choices in a voluntary, autonomous way. Let us start with an uncontested case: infants and the severely cognitively disabled. The concept of functioning has particular relevance for our relations to those human beings who are not yet able to choose (infants), who will never be able to make complex choices (severely mentally disabled individuals), or who have lost this ability through advanced dementia or serious brain damage. Whether or not these persons can decide to be well nourished and healthy, it is generally held that we (through families, governments, or other institutions) have the moral obligation to promote or protect their nutritional and healthy functioning. All capability theorists agree that in these cases, we should focus on functionings rather than capabilities. The implicit underlying assumption in the claim that capabilities have normative priority over functionings is that we assume the presence of a sufficient level of agency in the individuals who will be given the power to make their own choices from their capability sets. If we have strong reason to believe that such agency cannot be attributed to a person, we should not let the person herself decide on which options to choose; however, we should find ways of compensating for that lack of agency — either by having a steward make the choices for her or by guiding her in the choice-making process. Thus, we will shift our normative concern from capabilities to functionings for those who are incapable of deciding for themselves. In empirical research, this implies, for example, that it is fine to study the quality of life of small children by focussing on a range of functionings (e.g. Phipps 2002).

57But the paternalism claim is not limited to the case of infants and the severely cognitively disabled: one could also apply this argument — at least to some extent and in some areas — to all adults. Adults, too, often make systematically irrational or mistaken choices. We are often not able to choose what is best for us simply because of our psychological makeup; many of our choices are the result of the impulsive, unreflective, habit-driven part of our brain rather than the deliberative and reflective part. There is mounting empirical evidence of our systematic failures in choice-making, that we are influenced by a large number of arbitrary factors in making choices and that we often harm our own interests in non-deliberate and non-intentional ways (e.g. Ariely 2010; Kahneman 2011). It is entirely consistent for a capability theory to argue that we have strong reasons to protect people against their own systematic irrationalities, just as it is consistent for the capability approach to argue that there are stronger reasons why we should allow people to make the errors that follow from their own systematic irrationalities: both positions follow from choices made in the B-modules.

58Summing up, we have here a first normative consideration that can help us to decide whether some (limited or fuller) focus on functionings rather than capabilities is acceptable, namely the question of whether there are mechanisms that justify paternalism.

59A second normative consideration in the choice between capabilities and functionings stems from the importance given to personal responsibility in contemporary political philosophy. If one believes that the moral aim should be to establish equality of opportunity, then it follows that one should, at least as an ideal, favour equality of capability over equality of functionings. If equality of capability becomes the ideal, then each person should have the same real opportunity (capability), but once that is in place, each individual should be held responsible for his or her own choices. It is important to stress, however, that philosophers and social scientists working on issues of social justice do not at all agree on whether equality of opportunity (capabilities) should be the goal, rather than equality of outcome (functionings). On the one hand, the responsibility-sensitivity principle is widely endorsed not only in political philosophy but also in the mathematical models being developed in normative welfare economics. If one wants to endorse and implement this principle of responsibility-sensitivity, then specifications and applications of the capability approach should focus on capabilities, rather than functionings. On the other hand, scholars have objected to the weight given to personal responsibility, both within the highly abstract theorising about ideals and when considering more applied and practical issues. At a highly abstract theoretical level, philosophers disagree on whether we should endorse responsibility-sensitivity in developing the capability approach (Fleurbaey 2002; Vallentyne 2005; Wolff and De-Shalit 2007). Moreover, for applied work, serious epistemological hurdles may ultimately lead us to drop the responsibility-sensitivity principle for practical reasoning about the actual world: in practice, it is often impossible to know what the causal factors were that led someone to make decisions that lowered her achieved wellbeing, and hence it is difficult or even impossible to know whether the causal factors are those for which one could be held morally responsible or not.

60Thirdly, there may be institutional considerations that have an influence on whether we choose functionings, capabilities, or a mixture (Robeyns 2016b). Take the example of a government that has, with the broad support of the population, set up a welfare state arrangement, which includes certain welfare rights. Then this government may demand from citizens who want to be part of this societal arrangement that they proactively aim to master, secure, or maintain certain functionings, such as being able to read and write, or to speak a language that does not exclude one from holding a job. A welfare state arrangement that offers citizens relatively generous welfare rights can legitimately induce or perhaps even force citizens and legal residents to choose certain functionings that are needed in order to justly participate in that welfare state arrangement. But here, again, one has to pay attention to detail and be careful, since we would want to distinguish between those who didn’t exercise a functioning but had the capability versus those who didn’t exercise a functioning but due to inability didn’t have the capability in the first place. For example, if the political community believes that it is a fair requirement in order to enjoy the benefits of the welfare state that one learns the major dominant local language, then we have to make a distinction between those who do, those who don’t but could, and those who don’t but are unable. In practice, that distinction may sometimes be very hard to make. Nevertheless, the general point to take home is that an outcome-oriented theory of justice needs to be bolstered with an account of what justice requires from the institutional design for a state or coalition of states. Reasons of reciprocity, feasibility, and stability may justify a focus on functionings rather than merely on capabilities.

61Fourthly, there are pervasive cases of interdependence between people’s capabilities that may prompt us to look beyond the capability of a single person. One important type of case is that in which a capability is available to a person but only if other people do not also want to realize that capability (Basu 1987, 74). For example, two spouses may each have the capability of holding demanding jobs which are each incompatible with large caring responsibilities. However, if these spouses also have infants or relatives with extensive care needs, then at best only one of them may effectively realize that capability. Another type of case is that in which the capability of one person is only possible if enough other people have chosen to realise the corresponding functioning (Claassen 2014, 67–68). Take the example of being protected against dangerous infectious diseases such as polio or measles by way of a vaccine. In order genuinely to have that capability, one does not only need access to a vaccination, but enough other people need to choose to be vaccinated, since protection requires that a certain minimal number of people are vaccinated. In other words, my child’s capability to be protected from the debilitating effects of polio or the measles depends on your choice to exercise that capability and opt for the functioning — that is, to vaccinate your children.

62Since capability sets may thus include freedoms that are conditional (because they depend on the choices of other people), it might be better to focus both on the individual’s capability set and also on what people have been able to realize from their own capability sets, that is, their functionings or wellbeing achievements. The question of who decides or should decide this sort of question highlights the importance of agency and procedural fairness, which are often additional normative commitments included in the capability theory that is developed.

63Finally, note that in many empirical applications, an analysis of functionings is used as a proxy for an analysis of the capability set. In the case of comparison of inequalities between groups, it has been argued that group-inequalities in functionings should be taken to reflect group-inequalities in capabilities, except if a plausible reason can be offered for why the members of those groups would systematically choose differently (Robeyns 2003; Kuklys and Robeyns 2005). Tania Burchardt and Rod Hicks have stressed that if inferences about capabilities based on information about functionings are made, one should be explicit about the underlying assumptions, and that three different situations could occur, namely:

(1) situations in which all difference in outcomes might reasonably be attributed to differences in capabilities (such as where a person is assaulted); (2) situations where differences in preferences may result in differences in outcomes, but where for the purposes of public policy it may be possible to assume that any differences are a result of differing levels of capabilities; and (3) situations in which additional evidence may be needed in order to determine whether differences in outcomes are genuinely a result of differences in capability. (Hick and Burchardt 2016, 80)

  • 8 I therefore think that Nussbaum’s (2011c) claim that it is a core property of the capability appro (...)

64What is the upshot of all these considerations? In my view, there are sound reasons why one would limit oneself to capabilities, there are sound reasons why one would rather focus only on functionings, and there are sound reasons why one would prefer a mixture. The choice depends on the purpose of the capability theory, but also on the additional ontological choices one endorses (e.g. one’s idea of human nature — are we fully rational or not, and what, if anything, should be the consequences for policy making and institutional design), on the normative principles one adds to the core of the capability approach when developing a capability theory (e.g. endorsement of neutrality or not), and on practical constraints one is facing. We cannot say in general that the capability approach should focus exclusively on capabilities, or exclusively on functionings. It all depends on additional theoretical choices and normative commitments, which can be made in modules B and C, when developing a capability analysis.8

3.5 Human diversity in the capability approach

65In the previous chapter, it was already highlighted that diversity among human beings is a key motivation as well as a conceptual characteristic of the capability approach (module B3). Given how central human diversity is to the approach, it is worth saying a few more words on this topic. There are two important points to make: first, the mechanisms that the capability approach has at its disposal to account for diversity, and second, the attention given to diversity within the existing capability literature.

66The capability approach takes account of human diversity in at least two ways. First, by its focus on the plurality of functionings and capabilities as important evaluative spaces. By including a wide range of dimensions in the conceptualization of wellbeing and wellbeing outcomes, the approach broadens the so-called ‘informational basis’ of assessments, and thereby includes some dimensions that may be particularly important for some groups but less so for others. For example, in standard outcome assessments, women as a group virtually always end up being worse off than men. But if the selection of outcome dimensions is shifted to also include the quality and quantity of social relations and support, and being able to engage in hands-on care, then the normative assessment of gender inequality becomes less univocal and requires much further argument and normative analysis, including being explicit about how to aggregate different dimensions (Robeyns 2003, 2006a).

67Secondly, human diversity is stressed in the capability approach by the explicit focus on personal and socio-environmental conversion factors that make possible the conversion of commodities and other resources into functionings, and on the social, institutional, and environmental contexts that affect the conversion factors and the capability set directly. Each individual has a unique profile of conversion factors, some of which are body-related, while others are shared with all people from her community, and still others are shared with people with the same social characteristics (e.g. same gender, class, caste, age, or race characteristics). In the account of the capability approach presented in chapter 2, this is made very explicit by having module A3 focus on the conversion factors, which is an important source of interpersonal variations (the other source is how structural constraints affect people differently). As Sen (1992a, xi) has argued, interpersonal variations should be of central importance to inequality analysis:

Investigations of equality — theoretical as well as practical — that proceed with the assumption of antecedent uniformity (including the presumption that ‘all men are created equal’) thus miss out on a major aspect of the problem. Human diversity is no secondary complication (to be ignored, or to be introduced ‘later on’); it is a fundamental aspect of our interest in equality.

68Indeed, if human beings were not diverse, then inequality in one space, say income, would more or less be identical with inequality in another space, like capabilities. The entire question of what the appropriate evaluative space should be would become obsolete if there weren’t any interpersonal difference in the mapping of outcomes in one space onto another. If people were all the same and had the same needs and abilities, then the capability approach would lose much of its force and significance, since resources would be excellent proxies for our wellbeing and wellbeing freedom. But as it happens, human beings are very diverse.

69However, we also need to acknowledge that there is significant scholarly dispute about the question of which dimensions and parameters of human diversity are salient, and which are not. Scholars embrace very different accounts of human diversity, which is why we have module B3 in the capability approach. One’s account of human diversity can often be traced back to the ontological accounts one accepts of diversity-related factors, as well as the role of groups in explanatory accounts. An example of the former is the account of gender and race that one embraces. If one holds a theory of gender and race that regards these as rather superficial phenomena that do not have an important impact on people’s behaviour and opportunities in life, then the attention given to diversity in a capability application or capability theory will be rather minimal. This is logically consistent with the structure of capability theories (as laid out in chapter 2), but it is also a view that has not been widely embraced in the capability literature. Instead, the capability approach attracts scholars who endorse accounts of dimensions of gender, race, and other dimensions of human diversity that are much richer. Presumably, these scholars recognise the ways in which the capability approach can account for human diversity, hence this may explain why most capability scholars endorse rich accounts of such diversity.

70A strong acknowledgement of human diversity has therefore become a hallmark of the capability approach as that literature has developed. Its criticism of other normative approaches is often fuelled by, and based on, the claim that human diversity is insufficiently acknowledged in many normative frameworks and theories. This also explains why the capability approach is often favourably regarded by feminist scholars, and by academics concerned with global justice, race or class relations, or care and disability issues. One of the main complaints of these scholars about mainstream philosophy and economics has been precisely this issue: the relative invisibility of the fate of those people whose lives do not correspond to that of an able-bodied, non-dependent, caregiving-free individual who belongs to the dominant ethnic, racial and religious groups.

3.6 Collective capabilities

71Several scholars have proposed the introduction of a category of ‘collective capabilities’ or ‘community capabilities’ (Evans 2002; Ibrahim 2006, 2009, 2017; Schlosberg and Carruthers 2010; Murphy 2014). The idea of ‘collective capabilities’ is used in different ways in the literature, and not always spelled out very carefully. I will try to reconstruct what ‘collective capabilities’ could mean, and then discuss to what extent these are different from human capabilities tout court.

  • 9 Self-help groups are “any informal income-generating or social activity initiated by a poor commun (...)

72It is instructive, first, to see in which contexts different authors introduce the idea of ‘collective capability’. Here are a few typical examples from the literature. Solava Ibrahim (2006, 2009, 2017) argues for the importance of collective capabilities from the perspective of the work done by self-help groups of poor people fighting to overcome their poverty, which is an issue also discussed by Stewart (2005).9 David Schlosberg and David Carruthers (2010) argue for the importance of the idea of collective capabilities to understand the struggles of indigenous peoples for ecological justice. And Michael Murphy (2014) argues that political self-determination (of an indigenous group) should be considered to be a collective capability which should be a central aim for development.

73What is shared in those cases, and what makes the idea of ‘collective capability’ plausible, is that a group or collective is needed to engage in collective action in order to reach the capability that the members of that group find valuable.

74Sen (2002b) points out that we should be careful not to confuse this with a capability that he calls “socially dependent individual capability” — a person’s capability, which that person enjoys, but for which the person is dependent on others to have that capability realised. Perhaps we should not use the term ‘individual capability’ but rather ‘personal capability’, since for many defenders of ‘collective capabilities’ the word ‘individual’ evokes pejorative images of persons living by themselves on an island. There are no such human creatures; we all live interdependently, and none of us could grow up without prolonged care from others, or, as adults, have a decent chance of surviving and living a minimally adequate life. Human beings are, just as other mammals, animals who live in groups. Although philosophers are used to working with terms outside their everyday use, and most philosophers (especially those with an analytical background) will not have these pejorative connotations when they hear the term ‘individual capabilities’, I will proceed with the term ‘personal capabilities’ in order to facilitate the discussion in this section.

75Now, if we are very strict in our terminological distinctions, then collective capabilities are also personal capabilities, since it is individual persons who enjoy the capabilities that are thus secured. Still, there are two justifications to proceed with the term ‘collective capability’ — one fundamental one, and one additional one which is especially weighty from a practical point of view.

76The fundamental reason to keep and use the term ‘collective capability’ is that we may want to make a distinction between capabilities that are only realisable with the help of others, versus capabilities that require a group or collective to act in order to secure a capability for the members of that group. An example of the former would be learning a foreign language. It is impossible to do that without the help of others; one needs a teacher, or at the very least books and audio-tapes or internet lessons that help one with self-study. Still, that doesn’t suffice to say that learning a language is a collective capability. There is no group involved, and no collective action of that group is necessary in order to achieve the functioning. A different case is acquiring the capability to vote in elections for groups that are not yet given suffrage. Fighting for that capability is not possible on one’s own. One needs collective action — e.g. the first wave women’s movement, or the civil rights movement in the US, or the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa — to act collectively so that the group is granted the capability, and all persons who belong to that group can enjoy the newly won freedom.

77The second reason to accept the notion of ‘collective capability’ is because it is already present in the practice of certain justice movements, whose demands fit very well with the capability approach, for example because they embody claims of diversity or because they fight for a notion of the good life or of justice that goes beyond a narrow materialist or economistic view of what is valuable. Examples include the disability movement, the women’s movement and indigenous struggles.

78So the idea of a collective capability can be understood and can be justified. Nevertheless, two warnings are in order, which may be needed to avoid conceptual confusion as well as an overuse or inflation of the notion. The first comment is that all that has been said so far does not permit one to conclude that one has personal (individual) capabilities and collective capabilities as two mutually exclusive categories. Rather, collective capabilities are a subset of personal capabilities, namely those personal capabilities that require for their realisation action by a group or a collectivity. Secondly, we should be very careful to be clear to keep our concepts distinct and correct when developing a capability theory. The modular account of the capability approach has ample conceptual and theoretical space to account for collective processes, the social embedding of persons, the influence of social structures on our choices and opportunities, a proper acknowledgement of social processes of preference formation as well as the crucial role of social institutions and norms in shaping a person’s capability set. But if we want to account for a social process, we shouldn’t just jump to the claim that we have now found a collective capability. Rather, we should use the quite complex and multi-layered framework that was presented in figure 2.1, and be clear when something is a social structure that is shaping our capabilities, rather than a capability itself. Means to ends (capabilities) and the ‘capability determinants’ (the social structures, social norms, institutions, etc.) can all be part of our evaluation — we just need to keep in mind which parts of what we evaluate are the means, which are the ends and why we evaluate a certain dimension. In the case of the evaluation of the means, one important reason could be to see how those means have changed over time, as well as whether there is any scope to improve the contribution that those particular means can make to the increase of capability sets.

3.7 Which notion of wellbeing is used in the capability approach?

79The capability approach is closely related to notions of wellbeing and the quality of life. Sometimes it is assumed that the capability approach is a theory of wellbeing, which cannot be quite right since the capability approach can be used for many purposes, such as the construction of a theory of justice, poverty measurement or policy evaluation. Yet on the other hand, with its proposition that interpersonal comparisons be made in terms of functionings and/or capabilities, the capability approach is clearly also involved in offering us an account of wellbeing (Sen 1984c, 1985c, 2009a; Alkire 2016; Qizilbash 2013). But what, exactly, is the nature of the account of wellbeing in the capability approach? I will argue in this chapter that the more precise formulation is that the capability approach entails several slightly different accounts of wellbeing, which can be used for different purposes. Different capability theories have different purposes (module B1) and different meta-theoretical commitments (module B7), and the choices made in those modules will require different accounts of wellbeing for such capability theories.

80When one looks at the accounts of wellbeing in the various disciplines in which the notion of ‘wellbeing’ plays a central role, one quickly notices that there are a range of quite different accounts proposed in different paradigms or disciplines, and that there is very limited discussion between those fields (Gasper 2010). In particular, there is surprisingly little interaction between the very large philosophical literature on wellbeing (Crisp 2013; Fletcher 2015) and the (theoretical and empirical) literature in psychology and economics, or the uses of the term wellbeing in particular fields, such as development studies or medical care. There are a few scholars who have tried to grasp this discrepancy, as well as explain why the philosophical and theoretical literatures, as well as the debates in different disciplines, are so little connected (e.g. Alexandrova 2013; Rodogno 2015b, 2015a). This is the background against which we must try to understand the place of the capability approach in thinking about wellbeing, and try to understand the accounts of wellbeing used in capability theories. I therefore believe that it is helpful first to try to grasp that scholarly context in somewhat more detail (section 3.7.1). Then we will briefly look at the standard typology of wellbeing theories (section 3.7.2), before analysing the question of which account (or rather, accounts) of wellbeing are entailed in the capability approach (section 3.7.3).

81Before we start, one further clarification may be helpful. Recall that the capability approach includes a notion of achieved wellbeing (focussing on functionings) as well as a notion of wellbeing freedom, represented by one’s capability set (Sen 1985c, 1993a). The distinction between achieved wellbeing and wellbeing freedom is virtually absent from the wellbeing literature. In contemporary philosophy, most philosophical accounts focus on how well life is going for a person, hence on achieved wellbeing. But clearly, for policy purposes, we will often focus on wellbeing freedom, since other values, such as respect for personal autonomy or even human dignity, may prevent us from having a specific wellbeing outcome as a legitimate policy goal. When in the capability approach the term ‘wellbeing freedom’ is used, it refers to what philosophers elsewhere would call ‘opportunities for wellbeing’. This notion is especially relevant in moral theories where we try to balance a concern for wellbeing with a concern for individual freedom to choose: the term ‘wellbeing freedom’ tries to bring together and integrate those two values.

3.7.1 The aim and context of accounts of wellbeing

82Philosophical discussions of wellbeing typically start out from a rather general definition of wellbeing, stating that wellbeing is about how well the life of a person is going for that person. The addition ‘for that person’ is important, since it means that in the philosophical literature wellbeing is generally conceived as what we could call a personal value, or a first-person value, rather than an institutional value — a value that we have to consider when we think about how to organise our collective life. While this demarcates ‘wellbeing’ from other public values such as ‘justice’ or ‘efficiency’, this is still a very general notion that can be elaborated in many different ways. Moreover, as was already mentioned, if we look at the debates in contemporary philosophy of wellbeing, we notice that they hardly relate at all to the empirical discussions in policy studies and the social sciences (with the exception of the relatively recent boom in subjective wellbeing analysis, which will be discussed in section 3.8).

83Anna Alexandrova (2013) argues that the diversity in scholarship on wellbeing can be explained by the fact that the meaning of the use of the term ‘wellbeing’ differs depending on the context in which it is used. If the word ‘wellbeing’ is used by a medical doctor, or a policy maker, or a sociologist, or an adolescent reflecting on her options for her future life, they all use the term ‘wellbeing’ for different purposes and in a different context. I would like to add that, in particular, the aim or the purpose of our use of the term ‘wellbeing’ is crucial. That is, the term ‘wellbeing’ is never used in a vacuum; each use of that term plays a role in either explanatory or else normative projects. Normative projects always have a purpose, that is, something to judge, evaluate or recommend, which is precisely the choice that has to be made in module B1 in the account of the capability approach presented in chapter 2. Depending on whether we use the term ‘wellbeing’ for policy making, or for purely descriptive work, or for deciding what we owe to each other as fellow citizens, the term wellbeing will play a different function.

84Most work on wellbeing in contemporary analytical philosophy is concerned with answering the question “What would be the best for someone, or would be most in this person’s interests, or would make this person’s life go, for him, as well as possible?” (Parfit 1984, 493). This is especially the case for the literature since the publication of Derek Parfit’s typology of theories of wellbeing. While Parfit’s typology is arguably crude, it has been very influential, and still serves an important function as an influential attempt that a philosopher has made to classify accounts of wellbeing.

85In the next section, we will consider how (if at all) the capability approach fits into Parfit’s typology. But it is important to note that this highly abstract, very detailed and analytical strand in philosophy is only to a very limited degree concerned with (a) empirical applicability and measurement or (b) practical consequences, in the sense of action-guidance such as the establishment of normatively sound policy making or the question of which social arrangements we should want. The dominant contemporary philosophical literature on wellbeing is concerned with philosophical investigation in the sense of finding truths, and typically focussed on the entire lives of people from their own, first-person, perspective. That literature is much less concerned with wellbeing as an institutional value, with asking which account of wellbeing would be best when deciding what institutions we should implement — a question that can only be answered after taking feasibility considerations into account, or considering what would be best from the point of view of ethically sound policy making. However, as Alexandrova (2013, 311) rightly points out, “the context of an all-things-considered evaluation of life as a whole privileged by philosophers is just that: one of the many contexts in which wellbeing is in question”. Since most uses of the term ‘wellbeing’ in other debates, e.g. in applied philosophy or other disciplines, are concerned with overall evaluations of states of affairs and/or policy making, it shouldn’t surprise us that there is very little cross-fertilisation between those philosophical debates and the policy oriented and empirical literatures in other disciplines. This will have an influence on how we will, in the next section, answer the question how the capability approach fits into the standard typology of theories of wellbeing used in philosophy.

3.7.2 The standard taxonomy of philosophical wellbeing accounts

86In Appendix I of his influential book Reasons and Persons, Parfit (1984, 493) suggests that we should make a distinction between three types of philosophical wellbeing theories.

On Hedonistic Theories, what would be best for someone is what would make his life happiest. On Desire-Fulfilment Theories, what would be best for someone is what, throughout this life, would best fulfil his desires. On Objective List Theories, certain things are good or bad for us, whether or not we want to have the good things, or to avoid the bad things.

87In interdisciplinary conversations, hedonistic theories are today better known under the label ‘happiness theories’. Interpreted from the perspective of the capability approach, hedonistic theories (or the happiness approach) entail that the only functioning that matters is happiness. The capability approach stresses what people can do and be (module A1) and ‘happiness’ or one’s hedonic state at best refers to one aspect of one’s being, not the various aspects of what we can do. The capability approach and the happiness approach do share some common characteristics, such as the fact that both focus on what they take to be of ultimate value. Yet the two approaches have very different ideas of what that ‘ultimate value’ should be, with the happiness approach defending an exclusive choice for a mental state versus the capability approach defending the focus on a plurality of aspects of our lives. It is therefore not plausible to see the happiness approach, or hedonism, as a specific case of the capability approach. However, more can be said about the precise relation between the capability approach and hedonistic or happiness approaches, which will be done in section 3.8.

88How about the desire-fulfilment theories, or the objective list theories? Can the notion of wellbeing embedded in the capability approach plausibly be understood as either of those? Let us first very briefly describe the two types of theories, and then ask how the capability approach fits in.

89Desire-fulfilment theories of wellbeing claim, essentially, that wellbeing is the extent to which our desires are satisfied. These desires could be our current, unquestioned desires. In philosophy, that is a view that cannot count on many defenders, since it is very easy to think of examples of current desires that will harm us in the near future, or else desires for something that is, arguably, not good for us, such as a desire for excessive amounts of food or alcohol. Philosophers have therefore proposed more sophisticated views of desires, called ‘informed desires’ (e.g. Sumner 1996). Those are desires that meet additional conditions, and different proposals have been made for what those conditions should be. Examples of such additional constraints include not being ignorant of facts, but also not being deceived, or not suffering from mental adaptation — which ranges from having adapted one’s aspirations to one’s dire circumstances, to having adapted one’s desires to one’s extremely affluent circumstances, to a more general ‘preference adaptation’ which applies to all of us in societies with social norms and the widespread use of advertisements.

90For a philosophical theory of wellbeing, which merely asks the metaphysical question what is wellbeing for the person who is living that life, and which has no consequences for the choice of social arrangements or policy making, the informed desire theory has a very important attraction: it gives the authority to decide what would make life better to the person whose wellbeing we are investigating. We also see this account of wellbeing being helpfully put to work in various other contexts. For example, if the daughter of a family-owned business has no interest at all in continuing that business, and argues that her strongest desire in life is to become a medical doctor, then her parents may, regretfully, decide that it is indeed better for her to study medicine, since that is what she really wants. They may perhaps urge her to talk to a friend who is a medical doctor to get a better understanding of what that profession entails (that is, to ‘test’ whether her preferences are properly informed). Yet in such a context, the desire-fulfilment theory of wellbeing seems apt and appropriate.

91The problems with the informed desire-fulfilment theory of wellbeing are especially relevant in other contexts where an account of wellbeing is needed for policy making or social change. The most significant is that our desires are moulded, not fully informed, and subject to social norms and other forms of societal pressures and expectations. For example, critics of capitalism argue that advertisement by profit-seeking companies form our preferences, and make us want things we would be better off without. There are many subtle forms of manipulation possible. Students of marketing learn that the products put at eye-height are more often taken by customers shopping in a supermarket. At the macro-level, the culture of late-modern capitalism tells us to find happiness in material success and in trying to achieve higher status in the dominant social order. We are socialised into these patterns, often not even aware of their existence. But why would those desires give us the highest level of wellbeing? Another interesting case is the standards of beauty that women are expected to meet, which will make them more attractive and ultimately happier. Dominant norms of beauty put a huge pressure on women (and increasingly also on men), leading to anxieties, low self-esteem, and even unhealthy conditions and illnesses such as anorexia (Lavaque-Manty 2001). What if we could ‘reset’ our cultural and social norms, which would lead to less pressure, stress and fewer anxieties? Some alternative views of living, such as those advanced by deep ecology thinkers (e.g. Naess 1973, 1984), are based on the view that with a different set of desires, and a different appreciation of certain experiences and values, we would be able to live not only in an ecologically sustainable way, but also have higher levels of wellbeing. In sum, the desire-fulfilment theory is interesting and arguably plausible at the individual level, and also at the general level as a theoretical approach to wellbeing, which can make ample use of counterfactual and hypothetical thinking and conditions. But it is much trickier to think about wellbeing from a macro or third-person perspective in the world as it is, in which we don’t have information on how each person’s preferences have been formed and influenced.

92How does the objective list theory fare? Objective list theories are accounts of wellbeing that list items that make our lives better, independent of our own view on this. The claim of objective list theories is that there is an irreducible plurality of issues that make up wellbeing; wellbeing is plural and cannot be reduced to a single thing. Secondly, those items are objectively good for us, whether or not we attach any value to (or desire) those items. Hence items such as being healthy, or having friends, or feeling well, are all good for us, whether we personally value them or not.

93What are some of the main strengths and weaknesses of the objective list theories? Objective list theories are generally criticised for not respecting people’s views about their own lives, and hence taking away the authority to decide the quality of those lives from the agents leading them: in other words, for being paternalistic. Who is to decide that, say, social relationships are good for us? Now, this seems a very valid critique if we use an objective list theory for purely descriptive and first-person truth-seeking purposes, as the vast literature in philosophy does. But if one uses accounts of wellbeing for policy or political purposes, the public nature of the dimensions of wellbeing is rather important. This relates to what political philosophers have called ‘the publicity criterion’: if wellbeing is used for purposes of institutional design or policy making, those principles used need to be capable of being known by all to be satisfied in society (Rawls 2009; Anderson 2010, 85).

94Indeed, this directly relates to an advantage of objective list theories: many of the items that have been proposed by such theories have been translated into specific indicators such as health or social policy, or else overall assessments have been made that can be used for an entire population. The long-standing literature on social indicators can be situated in this tradition (Boelhouwer and Stoop 1999; Boelhouwer 2002; Hagerty et al. 2001).

3.7.3 The accounts of wellbeing in the capability approach

95So how does the capability approach fit in this standard taxonomy? The capability approach is often categorised as being an objective list theory, since functionings and capabilities are plural and the selection of dimensions gives us a list of items which are judged to be valuable for persons. However, in my view there is not merely one wellbeing account in the capability approach, but several wellbeing accounts.

96So why is there not one, but several accounts of wellbeing in the capability literature? As was mentioned in the introduction to this section, the reason is that there are a variety of capability theories in the general capability literature, and those theories need different accounts of wellbeing. If a capability theory is used for a first-person perspective, for example by an adolescent contemplating what to do with her life, she may ask herself what she really wants: to study hard and work hard and become a medical doctor? Or does she have a stronger desire to build a family and search for a job that makes it possible to spend enough time with her children? Does she want to devote her life to fighting for a good cause? In this personal deliberation, the account of wellbeing she then uses can be seen as a desire-fulfilment account in which the desires all refer to functionings.

97In the design of institutions, there is also often implicitly a desirefulfilment account, by trying to create valuable options (capabilities) for citizens, but by not forcing them into those outcomes (functionings). But policy making can’t be done by trying to enlarge a non-specific general account of freedom to realise one’s desires: what would that look like? In policy making, we often assume that what we owe to each other are specific freedoms, not a general vague notion of overall freedom (Anderson 2000b). Therefore, at the policy level we can often see that the implicit account of wellbeing is desire-fulfilment, whereby it is assumed that the desires refer to particular functionings (such as being able to enjoy higher education or leisure activities in green spaces in cities), or, alternatively, policies provide the resources (money, and sometimes time) that are inputs for a wide range of desires that people may have.

98If a capability theory is made for macro-level poverty analysis, then the researchers will select a number of functionings that they have reason to believe are good for people, such as their health, educational outcomes, and the kind of shelter in which they can live. The notion of achieved wellbeing entailed in this normative exercise is an objectively good account, although one could also argue that one has reason to assume that these are dimensions of the quality of life that people would want for themselves (hence their desires) and that, given that one is working with very large numbers, it is a safe assumption to proceed this way.

99There are at least two interesting things to notice. First, for policy making we often have to choose either an approach that uses resources as a proxy for wellbeing (although this cannot account for differences in conversion factors between people) or else policy makers will try to provide a range of options to us, where ideally the policy maker assumes that these options are things that many people want. Second, the often-heard view that the account of wellbeing given by the capability approach is an objective list theory doesn’t seem to be true. Rather, depending on the kind of capability theory one is pursuing (in particular, the choice in B1) it is more accurate to see this as a desirefulfilment or an objective list account.

3.8 Happiness and the capability approach

100In section 3.7.2, we encountered hedonist theories of wellbeing as an important subgroup of theories of wellbeing. The debates about hedonism and the happiness approach are closely related. Hedonism is the philosophical view that wellbeing can be captured by the balance of pleasures over pains. The core aspect is the exclusive focus on mental states, and on a person’s subjective assessments of their own mental state. In recent decades, this approach has been revitalised in ‘the happiness approach’, although empirical scholars prefer the term ‘subjective wellbeing’ (SWB). The happiness and SWB literatures have in recent years gone through a revival.

  • 10 See, for example, Veenhoven (1996); Kahneman et al. (2006); Schkade and Kahneman (1998); Diener an (...)

101On the empirical front, significant progress has been made in the last few decades by an international network of economists and psychologists, such as Andrew Clark, Ed Diener, Ada Ferrer-i-Carbonell, Bruno Frey, Richard Layard, Andrew Oswald, David Schkade, Bernard van Praag and Ruut Veenhoven.10 Many of these scholars have concluded that sufficient scientific progress has been made for public policies to focus on subjective wellbeing. The measures of subjective wellbeing have been tested and refined, and much is supposedly known about the determinants of happiness that the government can influence. The happiness and SWB approaches are strongly focussed on empirical analysis and policy design, and this is also, therefore, the main lens that will be used in the comparison with the capability approach, although we will very briefly discuss the comparison between the theoretical happiness approach and the capability approach.

  • 11 This section draws on, yet also modifies and expands, the analysis presented in Robeyns and Van de (...)

102From the perspective of the capability approach, the happiness approach raises three questions: First, what is the happiness approach, exactly? Second, what are its strengths and weaknesses? Third, what role can happiness play in the capability approach?11

3.8.1 What is the happiness approach?

103The happiness approach is based on the assumption that wellbeing (or quality of life) is constituted by the subjective experiences of a person, expressed in terms of utility, happiness, or satisfaction. Satisfaction can be expressed in terms of overall satisfaction with life, or satisfaction within particular domains, such as income, health, family relationships, labour, and so forth.

104In the happiness approach, life satisfaction is understood as a concept that combines two components: how we normally feel in everyday life — the affective or ‘hedonistic’ component — and how we judge the degree to which our preferences and aspirations in life have been realized — the cognitive component. In order to find out how ‘happy’ a person is, respondents are asked, for example, to rate how satisfied they are with their life on a scale from 1 to 10 (to measure the cognitive component) and to report their mood at particular moments of the day, sometimes even with the aid of a buzzer set to go off at random times (to measure the affective component). In another method, the respondents are asked to imagine the worst possible life and to give that life a value of 0, to imagine the best possible life and give that a value of 10, and then to rate their own life on a scale from 0 to 10.

105The view in the happiness literature is that overall life satisfaction should be adopted as the official ‘policy guide’, and the task of the government is to aim for the highest possible average level of life satisfaction (Hagerty et al. 2001; Layard 2011). For comparisons in the long term, Ruut Veenhoven also proposes to measure the quality of life based on ‘happy life expectancy’. This is an index obtained from multiplying life expectancy in a country with average overall life satisfaction (Veenhoven 1996).

106Is the happiness approach, or the SWB approach, the best basis for thinking about wellbeing and the quality of life, especially against the background of policy design? The happiness approach certainly has a number of attractive features. Firstly, it puts the human being centre stage, rather than focusing on the means that human beings use to improve their quality of life. Hence the approach satisfies the core criterion from module A that means and ends should not be conceptually confused. Secondly, in considering the means to happiness, the subjective approach is not limited to material means, which is the major shortcoming of the dominant economic empirical methods. Income has only a limited (but not unimportant) role to play in generating happiness.

107In conclusion, the happiness approach does have some significant strengths, but it also gives rise to some concerns. We will briefly discuss the main theoretical problem, and then look in more detail at the worries raised for empirical research and policy making.

3.8.2 The ontological objection

  • 12 Obviously, Nozick didn’t use the terminology of the capability approach, but his account of what i (...)

108The theoretical worry is an ontological worry, that is, it asks what wellbeing is, and questions whether this can be captured by mental states only. This objection was forcefully made by Robert Nozick (1974, 42–45) when he introduced the ‘experience machine’ thought experiment. Nozick ask us to imagine that we are invited to be plugged into a machine, which would stimulate our brain and make us feel as if we were having a range of experiences that we could choose beforehand; all the time, we would be floating in a tank with electrodes attached to our brain. Would we choose such a life? Nozick claims we would not, and interestingly enough the arguments he gives to justify this claim refer to our functionings and capabilities.12 According to Nozick, three things matter to us in addition to our experiences. First, we do not only want to have the experience of doing certain things (which we could have by sitting and taking drugs) but we also want to do certain things. Second, “we want to be a certain way, to be a certain sort of person” (Nozick 1974, 43). Third, we don’t want to limit our experiences to a man-made reality (the experience machine) but also to have the opportunity to be in contact with deeper significance. The insight from Nozick’s thought experiment is thus that a good life cannot be reduced to mental states, but must also contain some genuine activities and states of being. According to Nozick (1974, 43), “someone floating in a tank is an indeterminate blob”, not a human being to whom we can describe human wellbeing. There is thus more to human wellbeing then merely feeling happy. If decent labour, knowledge, appreciating art and culture, and intimate relationships are to be valued only, or even primarily, because of their contribution to overall or specific life satisfaction, then we could say this is a misrecognition of the contribution they make to how well our lives progress. Phenomenologically speaking, this is an implausible account of wellbeing.

3.8.3 Mental adaptation and social comparisons

  • 13 A more fine-grained analysis than that presented in this section would need to make the distinctio (...)

109How about the worries related to empirical research and policy making? The first worry at this level is raised by processes of mental adaptation and social comparisons. Our satisfaction is to some extent influenced by mental adaptation issues that emerge from comparisons with the situations of others. This can have problematic implications for public policies aiming at the highest happiness for the greatest number. Take the mental adaptation processes first. How do these emerge? First of all, there can be shocks in our lives that have a major effect on our wellbeing, such as immobility after an accident. People confronted with a major setback in health and mobility through such an impairment will first experience a strong deterioration of their subjective wellbeing, but after a while this effect will weaken. Obviously, this adaptation to circumstances is good, since a disabled person will not remain deeply unhappy for the rest of her life due to her limited abilities to move around without pain. However, the question is what this implies for policy. A utilitarian will say that the government has to limit itself to creating provisions such that a disabled person can return to an acceptable level of life satisfaction, taking into account the corresponding welfare costs for others.13 A utilitarian would even say that there is no reason to invest in prevention if this is more expensive than rehabilitation. But one could also argue that a cost-sensitive policy has to try to reach an acceptable level of functioning for a disabled person, even if this makes little difference to her subjective judgement about her wellbeing after adapting to the accident. Subjective indicators focus automatically on the first goal, but this may imply that the quality aspects that relate to the things a person still can do after the accident remain out of sight.

  • 14 Yet the phenomenon of ‘adaptive preferences’ can also potentially create problems for some capabil (...)

110Secondly, people can adapt to an objective disadvantage that is not caused by an external shock, but that shows a more stable pattern. This is the problem of ‘adaptive preferences’, which is particularly relevant for the happiness approach.14 Amartya Sen has pointed out repeatedly that people living at the very bottom of the social ladder (such as ‘exploited labourers’ or ‘oppressed housewives’) adapt to their situation and come to suffer less intensely. Another example is the effect of racism. If a society becomes gradually less tolerant towards cultural minorities and increasingly accepts racist practices, then cultural minorities might get used to a racist social climate. Perhaps they will change their behaviour, in order to avoid contact with openly racist people. By changing their behaviour and mentally preparing for racist practices, it is possible that after a while the negative wellbeing effect of racism on minority groups will be partially wiped out. However, a policy that anticipates such adaptation processes is morally and politically problematic: racism should not be tolerated in society, even if it were not to have a significant impact on the subjective wellbeing of its victims. In order to judge that racism is not morally permissible and hence that policies should try to minimize racism, we don’t first need to investigate whether racism makes its victims less happy: that’s simply beside the point. Even if the victims of racism acted stoically and didn’t let racism affect their happiness levels, that wouldn’t make racism any less undesirable.

111Another form of mental adaptation which is relevant for the government is the adjustment response to income changes. Subjective wellbeing judgements about income have been shown to adapt asymmetrically to income changes. Income increases go together with higher aspirations for the future, with only one third of the increase being reflected by improvements of subjective wellbeing (Frey and Stutzer 2002). Panel-analysis over a period of ten years shows that we adapt strongly to an increase in income, but much less so to a drop in income (Burchardt 2005). Thus, if people change positions in an income distribution which itself remains unchanged, then aggregate satisfaction of the population will decrease. The people who move up the ladder will be more satisfied for a short time, but quickly adapt to the new situation, whereas people who move downwards experience a larger drop in satisfaction — and this effect lasts longer as well. Tania Burchardt (2006) argues that due to similar phenomena of adaptation, people’s positions in the distribution of income, health and marital status should preferably remain immobile, according to utilitarianism. Clearly this is a policy conclusion that goes against the principle that people should receive equal opportunities, even if the effect of one person’s upward social mobility is not compensated by the effect of another person’s downward social mobility.

112How serious are these problems of mental adaptation for the subjective approach? In part, the response to this question depends on our normative judgements about the counter-intuitive and sometimes perverse implications of a policy that single-mindedly aims to promote maximal average utility. It also depends, however, on the empirical question of how strong these mental adaptation processes are in reality. According to Veenhoven, overall life satisfaction is primarily determined by the affective component, and therefore it is much less vulnerable to the effects of mental adaptation than satisfaction in particular domains, which he judges to be much more vulnerable to adaptation. However, the work of Kahneman and Krueger (2006, 17–18) shows that mental adaptation processes are clearly present even when predominantly affective measures of overall happiness experiences are adopted.

113There are additional concerns related to the subjective wellbeing findings in particular domains, such as income or education. Recall the literature reporting on the findings that subjective wellbeing is also strongly influenced by social comparisons with reference groups. In particular, the wellbeing effect of income, but also of education, is affected by the levels reached by members of the reference groups to which individuals compare their own situation. As a consequence, increases in income, or additional educational credentials, contribute less to satisfaction in these domains, the more income or educational progress is achieved within the reference groups. Apparently, these resources have a stronger positional component than other resources do, in particular leisure time, where the comparison effect appears to have a much weaker impact on wellbeing obtained from an additional unit of free time.

114In conclusion, there seems to be little consensus in the subjective wellbeing literature on the question of whether, and to what extent, phenomena of mental adaptation and reference groups cause problems for the measurement of overall life satisfaction. However, all researchers do acknowledge that satisfaction in some domains is susceptible to these phenomena, and this may result in the counter-intuitive policy implications we mentioned earlier.

3.8.4 Comparing groups

115The second worry about the happiness or SWB approach concerns the effect of group differences, which will be a problem if we need an account of wellbeing to compare wellbeing levels between groups. The subjective wellbeing approach focuses on the affective and cognitive responses of people to their lives overall, or in particular domains. If groups differ on average in their responses to a situation, then this may cause problems for policies, if those differences correlate with the objective circumstances that one would intuitively judge as important. There are two symmetric possibilities: (1) groups who are in the same objective situation have different levels of life satisfaction, or (2) groups with the same level of life satisfaction are in different situations, whereby it is clear that one situation is worse than the other independently of subjective wellbeing.

  • 15 A similar strong and significant gender effect has been found by Eriksson, Rice and Goodin (2007).

116Research has indeed shown that the average level of life satisfaction between demographic groups differs systematically. In other words, if we control for the relevant factors, then some groups are significantly less satisfied with their lives than others. For example, recent Australian research (Cummins et al. 2003) shows that women report a higher level of overall life satisfaction than men, after taking a number of control-variables into account.15 The researchers cannot pinpoint the exact causes of this finding, but they do not exclude the possibility that women are ‘constitutionally’ more satisfied than men. This may have a biological explanation, but it may also be the consequence of processes of adaptation that men and women experience differently over their lifetimes.

117If the aim of the account of wellbeing is to inform public policy, then the question is how government should deal with these findings. From a utilitarian perspective, it would be efficient to develop a policy that is advantageous to men. For example, if due to unemployment men experience a larger drop in happiness than women, as reported by Frey and Stutzer (2002, 419), then a policy that gives men priority on the labour market will minimise the average wellbeing damage in terms of happiness. But the fact that one demographic group (women, the worst off, the elderly, and so forth) are made less unhappy due to a certain event than other groups can cause perverse policy implications if life satisfaction is declared to be the guideline for policies. Fundamental political principles such as non-discrimination and equality of opportunities for all citizens are thereby put into jeopardy. This would also be true in the symmetric case where the average level of life satisfaction of discriminated or marginalised groups does not differ significantly from the average level of a group that is not faced with these disadvantages. I do not want to claim here that the subjective wellbeing approach will always lead to such injustices. But I do think that a central focus on subjective wellbeing will make policies less sensitive to signalling and combating these injustices. Hence Burchardt (2005, 94) is right in pointing out that “satisfaction — the best proxy we have for the concept of utility — is unsuitable for assessing current wellbeing, justice or equality”.

3.8.5 Macro analysis

118A third worry concerns the applicability of the subjective wellbeing approach at the national or regional levels of policy making. One may agree that the happiness approach can be very helpful when it can offer persons with low affect (negative moods and feelings) concrete strategies to change that, such as engaging in mindfulness training and practice. Yet what about policy making? Are the happiness indicators sufficiently refined and sensitive for policy at lower levels of aggregation than the level of a country? In their discussion of the criteria that an index of the quality of life should meet, Hagerty and his co-authors (2001, 2) include the criterion that the index must help policy makers to develop and evaluate policies at all levels of aggregation. Thus, the index should not only be useful for the national government, but also for governments in cities, communities, and regions. As Robert van der Veen and I argued in earlier work, overall life satisfaction does not satisfactorily meet this criterion (Robeyns and Van der Veen 2007); it is too crude for these purposes. It is even less suitable for the evaluation of specific policy interventions (Cummins et al. 2003). The effect of one policy measure such as improved child care facilities will be reflected hardly or not at all in reported overall life satisfaction, even if such policies have significant effects on the real opportunities of parents to organise their lives as they think best — hence on their capabilities. Overall ‘happy life expectancy’ is, by contrast, well-suited for comparing the effects of fundamental political and economic institutions on subjective wellbeing. This emerges clearly from the work of Veenhoven (1996), which concentrates on studies whereby the unit of analysis is the country. In other words, Veenhoven mainly uses happy life expectancy as an indicator for macroanalysis. The variables that emerge as the determinants of happy life expectancy are therefore typically system variables such as the degree of political freedom, or the presence of rule of law. But the quality of life in a micro-situation (say, living in a particular community or neighbourhood) is also influenced by many other variables.

3.8.6 The place of happiness in the capability approach

119The previous sections argued that happiness can’t be taken to represent a person’s wellbeing for many purposes, including policy purposes. Yet it would also be deeply counter-intuitive to say that happiness doesn’t matter at all. It may be the right concept of wellbeing for other aims. How, then, can happiness be given a proper place within the capability approach?

120The first possibility is to see happiness, or some more specific capabilities that are closely related to the affective component of subjective wellbeing, as one important dimension to be selected. In fact, Amartya Sen has for many years argued that we could take ‘feeling happy’ as one of the functionings to be selected. For example, Sen (2008, 26) wrote:

happiness, however, is extremely important, since being happy is a momentous achievement in itself. Happiness cannot be the only thing that we have reason to value, nor the only metric for measuring other things that we value, but on its own, happiness is an important human functioning. The capability to be happy is, similarly, a major aspect of the freedom that we have good reason to treasure. The perspective of happiness illuminates one critically important element of human living.

121Indicators of happiness are already included, for example, by incorporating dimensions of mental health into capability applications. Certain specific functionings, which make up an overall ‘mental health’ functioning, already contain such affective items: whether, over the last week, the respondent has felt down or worthless, for example, or whether one is free from worry.

  • 16 Perhaps criminals would disagree.

122Second, we can try to capture the cognitive aspect of happiness, that is, a person’s satisfaction with her capability set, or with particular options from that set. We can then compare that person’s level of satisfaction with her capabilities, which should allow us to compare the objective situation with a person’s satisfaction with that situation. For example, the absence of criminality is a valuable functioning.16 But there is a long-standing finding in criminology that there are discrepancies between the objective incidence of being safe versus the subjective feeling of being in danger of becoming a victim of crime. For example, even if the incidence and impact of criminality goes down, it can still be the case that the population is more worried about crime than before and feels less safe. The discrepancy between objective outcomes and subjective perception is instructive here; it may imply, for example, that the government should communicate more effectively about its success in reducing crime, so as to make the subjective perception more in line with the objective reality, or it should work directly on factors that impact on the subjective experience of safety feelings.

123Third, capability scholars would, of course, hope that an enlarging of people’s functionings and capabilities would, as a further effect, increase their feelings of happiness and satisfaction, and serve as a (sometimes rough) indicator of people’s satisfaction with their functionings and capabilities (Sen 2008, 26–27). Not all functionings will lead to people becoming happier, yet their lives may still be better: more flourishing, or more meaningful, or with a higher quality of life, or with a greater degree of freedom that could be realised. An interesting example is the case of writing a PhD dissertation. Very few PhD students would say that this is what makes them happy in the sense outlined above. So why, then, do so many graduates want to earn a doctoral degree, and give some of the best years of their lives to what often becomes a stressful time? It is hard to understand this, if one doesn’t take into account the meaning it brings to their lives. The capability approach can capture this — taking on a difficult and challenging project such as writing a PhD dissertation can plausibly be conceptualised as a general functioning (consisting of a set of more specific functionings) that we may want to include in our capability analyses, including in our capabilitarian theories of wellbeing for public policies.

124I would thus defend the position that various roles for happiness are potentially possible within capability theories, and that it depends on the exact purpose and scope of the capability theory or application, as well as the aim that wellbeing plays in that capability theory, what the best role (if any) for both the affective and cognitive aspects of happiness would be.

3.9 The capability approach and adaptive preferences

125As we saw in the previous section, a widely-voiced reason offered for rejecting the happiness approach as an account of wellbeing is the phenomenon of adaptive preferences, which has been widely discussed in the literature (e.g. Elster 1983; Sen 1985c, 3, 1992a; Nussbaum 2000; Teschl and Comim 2005; Burchardt 2009; Khader 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013; Conradie and Robeyns 2013). Phenomena of mental adaption are a problem if we take happiness or desire-satisfaction to be our account of wellbeing. Yet we also concluded in section 3.7.3 that the capability approach sometimes boils down to a desire-fulfilment account of wellbeing. Hence we need to ask: how do processes of adaptation affect the desire-fulfilment view of wellbeing, and what are the implications for the capability approach?

126In the most general terms, preferences formation or adaptation is the phenomenon whereby the subjective assessment of one’s wellbeing is out of line with the objective situation. Two persons who find themselves in the same objective situation will have a very different subjective assessment, because one is happy with small amounts of ‘objective goods’, whereas the other is much more demanding. In the capability literature, the general concern is with deprived persons who, over time, adapt to their objectively poor circumstances, and report a level of subjective wellbeing which is higher than the objective circumstances warrant.

127The idea of adaptation can take different forms. Jon Elster (1983) referred to one particular type of adaptation, in which being unable to fulfil a preference or realise an aspiration leads one to reject that preference or aspiration. This phenomenon is known as ‘sour grapes’: the fox who cannot pick the grapes, because they are hanging too high for him, starts telling himself that they are sour anyway, and no longer desires to eat them. On Elster’s account, adaptation occurs at a non-conscious level, as a reaction to the painful process of cognitive dissonance that a person who can’t fulfil her unreachable desires or aspirations feels. Elster’s notion of adaptive preferences only refers to a process, and makes no reference to an objective notion of wellbeing. These psychological aspects of adaptation are echoed in Sen’s reference to this phenomenon, when he writes that “considerations of ‘feasibility’ and of ‘practical possibility’ enter into what we dare to desire and what we are pained not to get” (Sen 1985a, 15). Adaptive preferences are a reason for Sen to reject a focus on mental metrics, such as utility or happiness, as the metric of wellbeing. After all, someone who is in an objectively dire situation may have adapted to that situation and learnt to be pleased with little. As Sen (1985c, 21) puts it, “A person who is ill-fed, undernourished, unsheltered and ill can still be high up in the scale of happiness or desire-fulfilment if he or she has learned to have ‘realistic’ desires and to take pleasure in small mercies”.

128Serene Khader (2011) has argued that not all cases that we tend to consider as cases of adaptive preferences fit Elster’s conceptualisation. Khader believes that an account of adaptive preferences must make reference to an objective notion of flourishing, even if that notion remains vague and only focusses on basic flourishing (since there is more intercultural agreement on what basic flourishing entails). She develops the following definition:

An adaptive preference is a preference that (1) is inconsistent with a person’s basic flourishing, (2) was formed under conditions nonconducive to her basic flourishing, and (3) that we do not think a person would have formed under conditions conductive to basic flourishing. (Khader 2011, 51)

129A similarly perfectionist, but much less systematically developed account of adaptive preferences can be found in Martha Nussbaum’s work. She understands adaptive preferences as the preferences of people who do not want to have items of her list of capabilities, whereby these preferences are deformed due to injustices, oppression, ignorance and unreflective habit (Nussbaum 2000, 114).

130What questions do adaptive preferences raise for the capability approach? At the very minimum, they raise the following questions: first, why would adaptive preferences pose a problem for capability theories? Second, do we have any evidence about the prevalence of adaptive preferences? And third, how can capability scholars deal with adaptive preferences in their capability theories and applications?

131Let us start with the first of these questions: why would adaptive preferences pose a problem for capability theories? There are at least two reasons. The first lies in module B2, the selection of dimensions. If that selection is done in a participatory or democratic way, then it may be vulnerable to adaptive preferences. A group that is systematically socialised to have low aspirations and ambitions will perhaps not put certain capabilities on its list, thereby telling themselves that they are unachievable, whereas objectively speaking they are achievable, albeit perhaps only after some social changes have taken place. The second reason is that a person with adaptive preferences may objectively have access to a certain capability, but may believe that either this capability is not available to her, or else that she should not choose it, and hence she may pick from her capabilities set a suboptimal combination of functionings. If we then assume that this person (or group) has non-adaptive preferences, then we will wrongly interpret the choice not to exercise certain capabilities as a matter of personal agency, which a capability theory that focusses on capabilities rather than functionings, should respect. The capability approach by default regards adults as agents rather than patients, but this may be problematic in the case of adaptive preferences.

132So we can conclude that adaptive preferences can pose a problem for capability theories in which the choice of dimensions is made democratic, or in which we focus on capabilities rather than functionings. But a critic may raise the question: do we have any evidence about the prevalence of adaptive preferences? Is this not a theoretical problem invented by philosophers who like complex puzzles, or by western scholars who pity the lives of poor people in the Global South?

133There are at least two answers to be given to this question. The first is that there are indeed good reasons to be very careful with the conclusions we draw when studying adaptive preferences, especially in a context with which one is not familiar. Serene Khader (2011, 55–60) provides a nuanced and convincing discussion of the various mistakes that can be made when we try to identify whether a person or group of persons living under unjust conditions expresses adaptive preferences. There are at least three ‘occupational hazards’ that those trying to identify adaptive preferences may make: we run the risk of psychologizing structural constraints, of misidentifying possible tradeoffs between various dimensions of wellbeing that a person makes, or we may be unable to recognise forms of flourishing in very different culture or class settings. All this shows that thinking about adaptive preferences needs to be done with great attention to contextual details and in a very careful manner; it is not an analysis that can easily be done by applying a rigid formula. Scholars should therefore be very cautious before concluding that someone or a group shows adaptive preferences, and carefully investigate alternative interpretations of what they observe, since otherwise they run the risk of seeing adaptive preferences where there are none.

134Having said this, it is clear from the literature that adaptive preferences are a genuine phenomenon. For example, Serene Khader (2011) discusses real cases of groups of women who had adaptive preferences. Tania Burchardt analysed the 1970 British Cohort Study and found that “among those able to formulate agency goals, the aspirations expressed are conditioned by their socio-economic background and experience” (Burchardt 2009, 13). She also found evidence that adaptation may play a role in the selection of functionings from one’s capability set, since among the sixteen-year-olds who have the capability to continue fulltime education, the choice whether or not to do so is highly influenced by past deprivation and experiences of inequality. Burchardt rightly concludes that if the influence on people’s choices is so systematically related to previous experiences of disadvantage, that this is a case of injustice. Hence the need, for capability theorists and not just for those endorsing the happiness approach or the desire-fulfilment theory of wellbeing, to take processes of adapted preferences and adapted aspirations seriously. On the other hand, as David Clark (2009, 32) argued in the context of development studies, adaptive preferences may not be as widespread as some capability theorists make it out to be: “the available evidence only provides limited support for the adaptation argument and is not always easy to interpret”. Given the “occupational hazards” that those trying to identify adaptive preferences face (Khader 2011, 55–60), it is important not to ‘see’ adaptive preferences where there are none. In conclusion, the capability scholar will have to balance the tricky tasks of neither ignoring processes of adaption, nor making the adaptation problem bigger than it really is.

135This brings us to the last question: can the capability approach deal with these issues? Given that capability theories and applications can be very diverse, we will need different methods to handle the issue of adaptive preferences for different capability theories and applications.

136In the context of action-research, small-scale projects and grassroots strategies, what is required above all is deliberation and interaction with people of whom one may be worried that their preferences may show signs of adaption, as exemplified by Ina Conradie in her project with women in a South African township (Conradie 2013; Conradie and Robeyns 2013). Khader (2011) has developed ‘a deliberative perfectionist approach to adaptive preference intervention’, in which a practitioner who suspects that a group of people has adaptive preferences will first attempt to understand how the suspected preferences affect their basic flourishing. This must be done via deliberative processes — a strategy that we also see in Conradie’s research. If the practitioner has good reasons to suspect that some of the preferences are adapted, she can involve those with the alleged adaptive preference in a discussion and together search for a strategy for change. Note that there is an interesting parallel here with the grassroots-based development model that has been proposed by Solava Ibrahim (2017), in which ‘a conscientization process’ is an integral part of the development process. In this process, a person reflects critically on her life, develops aspirations for better living conditions, and makes a plan of action to bring about the desired change (Ibrahim 2017, 206). While, as Ibrahim rightly notes, adaptive preferences and aspirations may provide a challenge for this conscientization process, they are also very likely to be challenged and hence changed via such a process.

137What about capability applications that involve the empirical analysis of large-scale datasets? How can adaptation be dealt with in those applications? Here, the capability approach needs to use insights from the disciplines that have built most expertise in large-scale adaptation processes, such as sociology and social policy studies. Based on the insights from those disciplines, we know the likely candidates to be dimensions of adaptation — such as social class, caste or gender. We can then use indicators of those dimensions to study whether preferences and aspirations systematically differ, as in the earlier mentioned study by Tania Burchardt (2009). But it is clear that this can only help us to identify adapted preferences or adapted aspirations; it will not always tell us whether for each application it is possible to ‘launder’ the data so as to clean them from processes of unjust adaptations.

3.10 Can the capability approach be an explanatory theory?

138In almost all capability applications and theories, the capability approach is developed for conceptual and normative purposes, rather than for explanations. If it is used for conceptual work, then capability theories do not explain poverty, inequality, or wellbeing, but rather help us to conceptualize these notions. If capability analyses are used for normative work, then they help to evaluate states of affairs and prescribe recommendations for intervention and change.

139Nevertheless, the notions of functionings and capabilities in themselves can be employed as elements in explanations of social phenomena, or one can use these notions in descriptions of poverty, inequality, quality of life and social change. In those cases, the properties A1 to A4 from module A would still hold, but characteristics A5 (functionings and capabilities as the evaluative space), A6 (other dimensions of intrinsic values can be important for normative analyses) and A7 (normative individualism) are not applicable.

140To the best of my knowledge, few scholars use the capability approach in this way. Probably this should not be surprising, since the capability approach may not make a significant difference to this type of work. Still, there are parallels with existing studies. For example, there is a large literature on the social determinants of health (e.g. Marmot 2005; Wilkinson and Marmot 2003; Marmot et al. 2008). The goal here is to establish a set of functionings related to the general functioning of being healthy, and the determinants are investigated so that social interventions are possible. The same is done for other functionings — not surprisingly, since explaining the determinants of valuable social states is one of the main aims of social scientists.

141This raises the question of whether the capability approach should aspire to do this kind of explanatory capabilitarian analysis. The answer depends on a further question: whether the capability approach would have any added value in conducting explanatory capability analyses. If not, then it is unclear why this should be part of the capability approach, since there seems to be very little value in doing what others are already doing successfully.

142But this pessimistic dismissal of the potential of explanatory capability analyses may be too quick. Perhaps the capability approach has a role to play in synthesising and connecting these field-specific lines of explanatory research; since it is a strongly interdisciplinary approach, it may perhaps also have a role to play in bringing different disciplines within the social and behavioural sciences together. Another very important task of the capability approach is to reach out to those disciplines in order to make bridges between the normative and the explanatory analyses — one valuable element of the truly postdisciplinary agenda to which the capability approach aims to contribute.

3.11 A suitable theory for all normative questions?

143The capability approach is primarily a normative theory, but are there also restrictions on which normative questions it can help to address? Or is it suitable for all normative questions?

144In order to answer this, it is helpful to remind us of the key distinction in philosophical ethics between the right and the good. Questions about the good focus on what makes life valuable and include discussions about wellbeing, autonomy, freedom, and love. Questions about the right focus on how we should act in order for that action to be morally sound, as well as discussions about how institutions and policies should be designed so as not to violate universal moral rules. Here, the central issues concern fairness, respect and the avoidance of harm. Different moral theories give different answers to the question of how the good and the right relate to each other.

  • 17 An influential exception are utilitarians and other consequentialists, who define the morally righ (...)

145In philosophical ethics, if we say that an issue is a moral issue, this implies that we have duties to comply with the moral norm, no matter how we feel about it. These are very stringent and universal duties. An example is: do not kill an innocent person; or: respect the human dignity of all persons. Normative questions are much broader, and can also entail other values, such as prudential value (wellbeing). Questions about the right are questions about morality, whereas for most ethical frameworks questions about the good are questions about other areas of normativity, but not morality straight.17

146The modular view that has been presented in chapter 2 has in the core module A only normative properties related to the good. Properties A1 and A2 define functionings and capabilities, and property A5 claims that a person’s advantage should focus on functionings and capabilities: this gives the capability approach the core of its theory of the good. The complete theory of the good may be extended by additional choices made in module C4.

147What does the core of the capability approach (module A) have to say about the right? The only property related to the right is normative individualism. There are no additional claims related to the right included in module A. Hence, the only conclusion we can draw is that the capability approach would claim that, if and whenever rightness involves a notion of the good, one should use the theory of the good as entailed by the core characteristics of the capability approach. Hence, if we believe that the right thing to do is to prioritise the lives of the worst-off, then a capabilitarian version of this claim would say that we should prioritise the functionings and/or capabilities of the worst-off rather than their happiness or their command over resources.

  • 18 Philosophical arguments on the moral permissibility of abortion come to widely divergent conclusio (...)

148Yet many claims concerning the right make no reference to an account of the good. The core of the capabilities approach is, thus, orthogonal to other aspects of the theory of the right, except for ethical individualism, which is only a very small part of a theory of the right. The fact that the capability approach has, at its very core, more to offer in terms of the theory of the good than in terms of the theory of the right has an important implication, namely that the capability approach is not very suitable for ethical issues that only concern questions about the right. For example, the capability approach is not a very helpful theory when analysing the morality of abortion since so much of that ethical debate is about issues of the right rather than about issues of the good. That is, most of the philosophical debates on the ethics of abortion concern the moral status of the foetus, notions of personhood, or questions about the autonomy and self-ownership of the pregnant woman — issues on which the capability approach remains mute.18 It is therefore not surprising that the capability approach is more useful and more widely used as a theory analysing socio-economic policies where there is a consensus on those aspects that are questions about the right or where the questions about the right are much less weighty than those about the good. Examples include debates about poverty alleviation, distributive justice, environmental ethics and disability ethics. In sum, the capability approach is not a very helpful (or the most illuminating) framework for normative analyses in which elements regarding deontological duties and rights, which are not conceptually closely related to notions of wellbeing, play the most important role — that is, where aspects of the right are crucial in addressing the normative questions.

3.12 The role of resources in the capability approach

149In section 2.6.4 we discussed property A4, which stresses the importance of the difference between means and ends in the capabilities approach. In section 2.6.5, we discussed property A5, which claims that in the capability approach functionings and capabilities form the evaluative space. From these two core properties from module A, some may draw the conclusion that resources are no longer important in the capability approach. This is a mistake. Resources are important, although in an instrumental manner.

150Firstly, a focus on functionings and capabilities does not necessarily imply that a capability analysis would not pay any attention to resources, or to the evaluation of social institutions, economic growth, technical advancement, and so forth. While functionings and capabilities are of ultimate concern, other dimensions can be important as well, but in an instrumental way, or as indicators for what ultimately matters. For example, in their evaluation of development in India, Drèze and Sen have stressed that working within the capability approach in no way excludes the integration of an analysis of resources:

It should be clear that we have tended to judge development by the expansion of substantive human freedoms — not just by economic growth (for example, of the gross national product), or technical progress, or social modernization. This is not to deny, in any way, that advances in the latter fields can be very important, depending on circumstances, as ‘instruments’ for the enhancement of human freedom. But they have to be appraised precisely in that light — in terms of their actual effectiveness in enriching the lives and liberties of people — rather than taking them to be valuable in themselves. (Drèze and Sen 2002, 3)

151Second, once we have decided which capabilities are relevant, we need to investigate the determinants of those capabilities — the factors which affect their emergence, size and robustness. As figure 2.1 illustrates, these determinants include resources, a person’s set of conversion factors and structural constraints. Hence if we want to expand the capabilities of a person or a group, these are the levels at which we could intervene. Resources are not the only things that matter, and for some capabilities that we try to expand or try to equalise, resources may not be the most effective factor of intervention. At the same time, it is also clear that resources are very important for most capabilities and there are hardly any capabilities where resources play no role at all. Being able to buy presents enhances the capability of affiliation and social interaction; being able to get the best medical care enhances the capability of health; and being able to afford time off and time to travel enhances the capability to enjoy nature. Hence even those capabilities that could be seen as non-material dimensions of advantage are nevertheless also aided by the availability of resources, albeit probably not in a linear way, and perhaps only up to a certain threshold level. If a capability analysis is aimed at making an intervention, then the exact relationship between resources and functionings needs to be studied for each capability analysis, rather than being assumed to have a certain shape.

152Third, in empirical research there are often data constraints that force scholars to work with resources as proxies for valuable functionings. There is nothing inconsistent in taking that path, as long as one is careful in the conclusions that one draws from an analysis of resources. Moreover, if one uses multiple resources, such as a combination of income, time, and human and social capital (e.g. Burchardt 2010), then the informational riches of the analysis increases, compared to a one-dimensional monetary analysis.

3.13 The capability approach and theories of justice

  • 19 In particular, see the overview of different types of capability study in section 2.4.

153Discussions about inequality and justice are very important within the capability literature. In fact, they are so important that many philosophers studying the capability approach have made the mistake of believing that it is a theory of equality, or a theory of justice. But as the descriptions of the capability approach in chapter 2 have shown, that is not the case. Here, too, we need to make use of the distinction between the general capability approach and more specific capability theories: theorizing justice is only one among many different purposes that capability theories can have, that is, one of the possible choices we can make in module B1.19 Still, given that the capability approach offers a distinct view on interpersonal comparisons of advantage, it should not surprise us that the capability approach has been widely used in thinking about inequality and justice.

154The literature that develops the relevance of the capability approach in theories of justice falls primarily within the domain of normative political philosophy, but there is some overlap with the work done by welfare economists and other scholars. In order to get a grip on what the capability approach does in the literature on distributive justice, or, vice versa, what thinking goes on about theories of distributive justice within the capability literature, let us start with a brief primer on the theoretical literature on justice in the next section. Then, in section 3.13.2, I pose the question of what is required for the construction of a complete capability theory of justice. The final section, 3.13.3, explores the implications of a capability-based approach to justice in practice.

3.13.1 A brief description of the literature on theories of justice

155Justice is an essentially contested concept: there is no generally accepted definition of justice, and thus no consensus on what the appropriate subject matter of theories of justice is or should be. Of course, it does not follow that nothing at all can be said about the notion of justice. David Miller’s description of social justice is a good starting point. He claims that when arguing about justice, we are discussing:

how the good and bad things in life should be distributed among the members of a human society. When, more concretely, we attack some policy or some state of affairs as socially unjust, we are claiming that a person, or more usually a category of persons, enjoys fewer advantages than that person or group of persons ought to enjoy (or bears more of the burdens than they ought to bear), given how other members of the society in question are faring. (Miller 1999, 1)

156Theories of justice do not cover the entire spectrum of moral issues. Social justice theorists generally agree that parts of morality fall outside the scope of justice. Charity is such a case: you may not have a duty of justice to help a frail, elderly neighbour, but you may nevertheless decide to help that person as an act of charity and compassion. Another example is morally laudable behaviour, such as being a volunteer for social activities in your neighbourhood. Such behaviour may be morally praiseworthy, but it may at the same time not be required as a matter of justice. Hence, justice is not all that matters, if we consider how to make the world morally better.

157Can we describe justice, and theories of justice, by their properties, as philosophers often do? First, justice is a property that has been ascribed to both individuals and institutions: justice is a virtue of individuals in their interactions with others, and justice is also a virtue of social institutions (Barry and Matravers 2011). Thus, we can say that a certain society is more or less just, or we can say that the behaviour of some persons is just or unjust. Theorists of justice tend primarily to discuss the justice of social arrangements, that is, of social institutions broadly defined; justice as an individual virtue is sometimes regarded as a matter of ethics rather than of political philosophy (although not every political philosopher would agree with this way of demarcating justice from ethics). Moreover, an increasing number of theorists define social institutions more broadly so as to include societal structures related to class or caste, as well as social norms; under such broad definitions, conceptualising justice as a virtue of institutions touches upon many of the same aspects we would discuss if we were to see justice as a virtue of persons. For example, if a society has widely shared racist social norms, such as the disapproval of interracial love relationships, then a person who shows her disapproval of an interracial love relationship is acting upon an unjust social norm, but also showing non-virtuous behaviour.

  • 20 It doesn’t follow that all concerns of theorists of recognition are best expressed by using the ca (...)

158Second, while sometimes the terms ‘social justice’ and ‘distributive justice’ are used as synonyms, it makes sense to understand ‘social justice’ as somewhat broader than ‘distributive justice’. Distributive justice always deals with an analysis of who gets what, whereas social justice may also relate to questions of respect or recognition, or the attitudes that a certain institution expresses. The capability approach is mainly discussed in theories of distributive justice, although it is to some extent able to integrate the concerns of theorists of recognition about what they conceive to be the narrow or mistaken focus of theories of distributive justice.20

159A third point to note about the literature on justice is that there are several different schools within social justice theories. According to Brian Barry and Matt Matravers, it is helpful to classify theories of social justice according to four types: conventionalism, teleology, justice as mutual advantage and egalitarian justice. Conventionalism is the view that issues of justice can be resolved by examining how local conventions, institutions, traditions and systems of law determine the divisions of burdens and benefits. Barry and Matravers rightly point out that this approach, which has been defended by Michael Walzer (1983), can lead to the acceptance of grossly unjust practices because they are generally endorsed by certain communities, even if they may be seen as unjust if judged on the basis of values and ideas not currently present (or dominant) in that society. Teleology is the view that social arrangements should be justified by referring to some good they are aiming for. Some examples are utilitarianism, natural law theory or Aquinas’ Christian philosophy. For teleological theories, what justice is follows from an account of the good, and thus the account of justice depends on the account of the social good itself. A criticism of teleological theories is that they necessarily rely on an external source (to specify what ‘the good’ is), such as utility, the natural law or God’s authority. Teleological accounts of justice therefore necessarily depend on notions of the ultimate good. However, in pluralistic societies characterised by a variety of religious and non-religious worldviews, it is hard to see how justice can be derived from notions of the good that are not endorsed by all. Many contemporary political philosophers therefore argue that teleological theories cannot be defended since people have competing ideas of the good, and we cannot call upon a generally-accepted external source that will tell us which idea of the good should be imposed on all.

  • 21 There is a large literature on the differences and complementarities between the capability approa (...)

160The third and fourth schools of social justice, in comparison, share a commitment to some form of liberalism that recognizes the diversity of views of the good life, which a just society should respect. These schools experienced a major revival after the publication of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice in 1971, which is generally regarded as the single most important work on social justice written in the last century.21 Rawls turned to the social contract tradition, in which justice is understood as the fair distribution of benefits of social cooperation. The core idea is that rules of justice are ultimately more beneficial to everyone than if each were to pursue their own advantage by themselves. Some of these theories (though not Rawls’s!) take the relative power or bargaining strength of every individual in society as given, and one may therefore question whether in situations of unequal bargaining power, justice will be done (Nussbaum 2006b). The other liberal school of justice is egalitarian justice, which is premised on the idea that people should be treated with equal respect and concern (Dworkin 2000). The most basic claim of those theories is that people are morally equal: each person should be treated as a being of equal moral worth. However, that general and abstract claim can be further developed in many different ways, and it is in specifying these further details that philosophers disagree. Distributive justice requires equality of something, but not necessarily equality of outcome in material terms (in fact, plain equality of resources is a claim very few theorists of justice would be willing to defend, since people have different needs, are confronted with different circumstances and, if given the same opportunities, are likely to make different use of them). Hence, Rawls’s theory of justice can be seen as an egalitarian theory of justice, but so are theories that come to very different substantive conclusions, such as Robert Nozick’s (1974) entitlement theory. Other major contemporary theorists of justice who can be labelled ‘liberal egalitarian’ are Brian Barry (1995), Philippe Van Parijs (1995), and Ronald Dworkin (2000), among many others.

161Of those four schools, it is primarily liberal egalitarian theories that are discussed in relation to the capability approach. While there is internal diversity within this group of liberal egalitarian theories, these theories share the commitment to the principle that there should be considerable (although by no means absolute) scope for individuals to determine their own life plan and notion of the good, as well as a commitment to a notion of equal moral consideration, which is another way to put the principle of each person as an end, or normative individualism (see section 2.6.8).

162Of the four schools of social justice, only the last two regard justice and equality as being closely related values. Under conventionalism, justice is guided by existing traditions, conventions and institutions, even if those existing practices do not treat people as equals in a plausible sense. Teleological theories also do not understand justice as entailing some notion of equality; instead, the idea of the good is more important, even if it implies that people are not treated as moral equals. In some theories of conventionalism and teleology, social justice could be consistent with a notion of equality, but this is not necessarily the case for all these theories. The social contract tradition and liberal egalitarianism, in contrast, derive their principles of social justice from a fundamental idea of people as moral equals. However, the notion of equal moral worth does not necessarily lead to the notion of equality of resources or another type of equality of outcome, as will be explained in what follows. Social justice and equality are related in these theories, but not always at the level of material inequality, but rather at a more fundamental level of treating people as moral equals or with equal respect and concern.

163For a proper understanding of mainstream philosophical literature on theories of justice, it is helpful to know that the literature itself is highly abstract, and often rather detached from questions about policy design or political feasibility. Sen (2006, 2009c) has recently criticised such theories, and in particular Rawls’s work, for being overly “transcendental”. Such ideal theories give an account of the perfectly just society, but do not tell us what needs to be done to get closer to that very ideal, how we can make the world less unjust and which of two situations might be more unjust than the other. Another critique of contemporary theories of justice is that they are often based on so-called idealisations or strong assumptions, which may introduce significant biases or exclude certain groups of people from the theory. For example, Dworkin (2000) sets his egalitarian theory against a set of background assumptions that rule out racist and sexist attitudes and behaviours, as well as the adaptation of preferences to unfair circumstances (Pierik and Robeyns 2007). Certain assumptions and meta-theoretical as well as methodological choices also put philosophical theories of justice at risk of being too far removed from practical applicability. When we try to apply contemporary theories of justice to the actual reality of our chaotic and often messy world, there are all sorts of complications that need to be taken into account, such as trade-offs between different values, power imbalances between different social groups, unintended consequences of justice-enhancing interventions and policies, or interests of individuals and groups that may conflict with concerns for justice (e.g. a desire for re-election on the part of government administrations).

164Debates about the practical relevance of contemporary philosophical theories of justice have gained momentum in the last decade. It remains unclear whether the outcome will change the way theories of justice are constructed in the future. It may well be that we will see a turn towards more non-ideal, empirically-informed, ‘directly useful’ theories that are easier to translate into practice. In any case, it is fair to say that most capability theorists working on justice are among those who strongly advocate this turn to make theories of justice more relevant to practice.

3.13.2 What do we need for a capability theory of justice?

165In the previous section I gave a very brief account of the philosophical literature on theories of justice. What contribution can the capability approach make to this field? The first thing to note is that Martha Nussbaum has written at great length developing a capabilities theory of justice (e.g. Nussbaum 1988, 1992, Nussbaum 2000, 2002a; Nussbaum 2006b). Her capabilities theory is the most detailed capability theory of justice that has been developed up till now. Her theory is comprehensive, in the sense that it is not limited to an account of political justice, or to liberal democracies. Her account holds for all human beings on earth, independently of whether they are living in a liberal democratic regime, or of whether they are severely disabled. However, Nussbaum’s theory of social justice doesn’t amount to a full theory of social justice. The main demarcation of Nussbaum’s account is that it provides only “a partial and minimal account of social justice” (Nussbaum 2006b, 71) by specifying thresholds of a list of capabilities that governments in all nations should guarantee to their citizens. Nussbaum’s theory focuses on thresholds, but this does not imply that reaching these thresholds is all that matters for social justice; rather, her theory is partial and simply doesn’t discuss the question of what social justice requires once those thresholds are met. Not discussing certain things is not necessarily a flaw of a theory: this may be theoretical work that Nussbaum will do in the future, or it may be work that will be done by other scholars. Moreover, it is quite possible that Nussbaum’s account of partial justice is consistent with several accounts of what justice requires above the thresholds.

  • 22 I have presented this overview of steps that need to be taken in earlier publications (e.g. Robeyn (...)

166Yet, while Nussbaum’s theory of justice has been worked out in great detail and has received a lot of attention, it would be a grave mistake to think that there can be only one capability theory of justice. On the contrary, the open nature of the capability framework allows for the development of a family of capability theories of justice. This then prompts the question: what is needed if we want to create such a capability theory of justice?22

  • 23 An accessible explanation of the method of reflective equilibrium can be found in Knight (2017).

167First, a theory of justice needs to explain on what basis it justifies its principles or claims of justice. For example, Rawls uses the method of reflective equilibrium, including the thought experiment of the original position.23 Dworkin’s egalitarian justice theory starts from the meta-principle of equal respect and concern, which he then develops in the principles that the distribution of burdens and benefits should be sensitive to the ambitions that people have but should not reflect the unequal natural endowments with which individuals are born (Dworkin 1981, 2000). One could also develop a capability theory of justice arguing that the ultimate driving force is a concern with agency (Claassen and Düwell 2013; Claassen 2016) or with human dignity (Nussbaum 2000; Nussbaum 2006b). If capability scholars want to develop a full theory of justice, they will also need to explain on what bases they justify their principles or claims. As mentioned earlier, Nussbaum starts from a notion of human dignity, whereas the Senian strand in the capability approach stresses the importance of what people have reason to value, hence an account of public reasoning. However, little work has been done so far to flesh out this embryonic idea of ‘having reason to value’, and it therefore remains unclear whether the capability approach has a solid unified rationale on the basis of which a full account of justice could be developed.

168Second, as indicated above, in developing a capability theory of justice we must decide whether we want it to be an outcome or an opportunity theory; that is, whether we think that we should assess injustices in terms of functionings, or rather in terms of capabilities, or a mixture. At the level of theory and principles, most theorists of justice endorse the view that justice is done if all have equal genuine opportunities, or if all reach a minimal threshold of capability levels. Translated to the capability language, this would imply that at the level of theory and principles, capabilities are the relevant metric of justice, and not functionings. However, among theorists of justice, not everyone subscribes to this view. Anne Phillips (2004) has been a prominent voice arguing for equality of outcome, rather than opportunities. In the capability literature, Marc Fleurbaey (2002) has argued against an approach that takes only capabilities into account and has defended a focus on ‘refined functionings’ (being the combination of functionings and capabilities).

169A third issue which needs to be solved if one hopes to develop a capability theory of justice is to decide and justify which capabilities matter the most. There are at least two ways of answering this question: either through procedural approaches, such as using criteria from which the relevant capabilities are derived, or by defending a specific list of capabilities. This selection of relevant capabilities for the purpose of justice can be done at the level of ideal theory (without taking issues of practical feasibility and implementation into account), at the level of abstract principles (Anderson 1999; Nussbaum 2006b; Claassen 2016) or at an applied theoretical level, which is useful for practical assessments of unjust inequalities (e.g. Robeyns 2003; Wolff and De-Shalit 2007).

  • 24 An analysis of this comparison between social primary goods and capabilities was made by the vario (...)
  • 25 For comparisons of the capability view with Dworkin’s egalitarian theory, see Sen (1984b, 321–23, (...)

170Fourth, a capability theory of justice may need to engage in a comparison with other ‘metrics of justice’. In the literature on social justice there are several terms used to indicate what precisely we are assessing or measuring: the metric of advantage, the currency of justice, or the informational basis for the interpersonal comparisons for the purpose of justice. Within theories of justice, the main arguments are with Rawlsian resourcists24 and with defenders of Dworkinian resourcism.25 Other possible metrics are basic needs or the many different types of subjective welfare or preference satisfaction. A full capability theory of justice would need to show why it serves better as a metric of justice than these other metrics.

171Fifth, a capability theory of justice needs to take a position on the “distributive rule” (Anderson 2010, 81) that it will endorse: will it argue for plain equality, or for sufficiency, or for prioritarianism, or for some other (mixed) distributive rule? Both Martha Nussbaum’s and Elizabeth Anderson’s theories are sufficiency accounts, but from this it does not follow, as one sometimes reads in the secondary literature, that the capability approach entails a sufficiency rule. Sen may have given the (wrong) impression of defending straight equality as a distributive rule, by asking the question “Equality of what?” (Sen 1980), though a careful reading shows that he was merely asking the question “If we want to be defending equality of something, then what would that be?” In fact, Sen has remained uncommitted to one single distributive rule, which probably can be explained by the fact that he is averse to building a welldefined theory of justice but rather prefers to investigate how real-life unjust situations can be turned into more just situations, even if perfect justice is unattainable (Sen 2006, 2009c). The capability approach clearly plays a role in Sen’s work on justice, since when assessing a situation, he will investigate inequalities in people’s capabilities and analyse the processes that led to those inequalities. Yet Sen has an eclectic approach to theorizing, and hence other notions and theories (such as human rights or more formal discussions on freedoms from social choice theory) also play a role in his work on justice. The presence and importance of the capability approach in Sen’s work is thus undeniable, but should not be seen as the only defining feature.

172Sixth, a capability theory of justice needs to specify where the line between individual and collective responsibility is drawn, or how this will be decided, and by whom. There is a remarkable absence of any discussion about issues of responsibility in the capability literature, in sharp contrast to political philosophy and welfare economics where this is one of the most important lines of debate, certainly since the publication of Dworkin’s (1981, 2000) work on justice and equality which led to what Anderson (1999) has called “luck-egalitarianism”. Nevertheless, whether one wants to discuss it explicitly or not, any concrete capability policy proposal can be analysed in terms of the division between personal and collective responsibility, but this terminology is largely absent from the capability literature. In part, this might be explained by the fact that much of the work on capabilities deals with global poverty, where issues of individual responsibility seem to be less relevant since it would seem outrageous to suggest that the world’s most destitute people are personally responsible for the situation they are in. That doesn’t mean that the responsibility question is not important: it is indeed of utmost importance to ask who is responsible for global poverty reduction or the fulfilling of international development targets, such as the Sustainable Development Goals on which political philosophers have written a great deal (Singer 2004, 2010; Pogge 2008). The point is rather that philosophical puzzles, such as the issue of expensive tastes (for expensive wine, caviar, fast cars, or you name it), are simply beyond the radar of the child labourer or the poor peasant. However, while this may perhaps justify the absence of any discussion about personal responsibility among capability scholars concerned with poverty, it does not absolve theorists of justice who deal with justice in affluent societies (or affluent sections of poor societies) from discussing the just division between personal and collective responsibility (Pierik and Robeyns 2007, 148–49).

173This brings us to a related issue: a theory of justice generally specifies rights, but also duties. However, capability theorists have remained largely silent on the question of whose duty it is to expand the selected capabilities. Nussbaum passionately advocates that all people all over the world should be entitled, as a matter of justice, to threshold levels of all the capabilities on her list, but apart from mentioning that it is the governments’ duty to guarantee these entitlements (Nussbaum 2006b, 70), she remains silent on the question of who precisely should bear the burdens and responsibilities for realizing these capabilities. Yet as Onora O’Neill (1996, 122–53) has argued, questions of obligations and responsibilities should be central to any account of justice.

174This section makes clear that a capability theory of justice is theoretically much more demanding than the basic presupposition of the capability approach that ‘functionings’ and ‘capabilities’ are the best metric for most kinds of interpersonal evaluations. While much has been written on the capability approach in recent years by an increasing number of scholars, including philosophers, much of the philosophical work needed for turning the open-ended capability approach into a specific theory of justice remains to be done.

175Note, however, that not all capability theorists working on issues of justice believe that such a fully worked-out theory is required. Sen (2009c) himself has argued at length that we don’t need a theory that describes a utopian ideal, but rather we need theorising to help us with making comparisons of injustice, and to guide us towards a less unjust society. Similarly, Jay Drydyk (2012) has argued that the capability approach to justice should focus on reducing capability shortfalls, for which a utopian account of perfect justice is not needed. Some capability theorists may want to work out a full theory of justice by addressing the various specifications outlined above, while others may want to change the very nature of theorising about justice, moving it more to applied, non-ideal or grounded theories (Watene and Drydyk 2016).

3.13.3 From theories of justice to just practices and policies

176Before closing this section on capabilitarian theorizing about justice, let us briefly shift from theory to practice. Since theories of justice are mainly developed at a highly abstract level, often entailing ideals of perfect justice, we may wonder whether the capability approach to social justice and equality is of any use in telling us what justice-enhancing strategies and policies to develop. Indeed, this has sometimes been phrased as a serious concern, namely, that theories of justice are too abstract and do not help us with social justice struggles on the ground. One may well argue that we roughly know what is going wrong and we need political action rather than more and more detailed theorising. Moreover, some think that in the real world the subtleties of theories of justice are easily abused in order to justify gross inequalities, as may have been the case with philosophical discussions on individual responsibility. For example, Brian Barry’s (2005) later work exemplified this concern with the direct application of theories of justice to political change and the reform of the welfare state, rather than with further philosophical refinements of theories of justice. Related charges have been aimed at the capability approach as well. For instance, it has been argued that not enough attention has been paid to issues of social power in the capability writings on justice, and Feldman and Gellert (2006) have underscored the importance of recognising the struggles and negotiations by dominated and disadvantaged groups if social justice is ever to be realised. Such questions of power politics, effective social criticism, successful collective action, historical and cultural sensitivities, and the negotiation of competing interests are indeed largely absent from the philosophical literature on theories of justice. These ideal theories develop standards of a just society, but often do not tell us what institutions or policies are necessary if just societies are to be constructed, nor do they tell us what social and political processes will help advocates implement these social changes in concrete ways.

177But the capability approach can be linked to more concrete justice-enhancing policy proposals that have been developed. For one thing, the Millennium Development Goals could be understood as being a practical (albeit specific and also limited) translation of the capability approach in practice, and their successors, the Sustainable Development Goals, can also be seen as influenced by the capability approach.26 In fact, at the level of severe global poverty, any concrete poverty-reduction strategy which conceptualises poverty in a capability sense is, for most accounts of justice, a concrete justice-enhancing strategy, since these theories would include the absence of severe poverty as a principle of justice.

178If we move from the area of poverty-reduction strategies to the question of just social policies in countries or regions with higher levels of affluence, we observe that there are much fewer actual examples of justice-enhancing policies that have been explicitly grounded in, or associated with, the capability approach. Yet many concrete policies and interventions could be interpreted as such, or are consistent with the capability perspective itself. One example relates to a policy of providing, regulating and/or subsidising child-care facilities. This can arguably be justified as a prerequisite for gender justice in capabilities since, due to gender norms, women will in effect not be able to develop themselves professionally if they are not supported in their need for decent quality-regulated (and possibly subsidised) child-care facilities. Mothers at home may be materially well-off if their husbands earn a good income but, if they do not have the genuine opportunity to hold jobs, then their capability sets are severely constrained and gender justice in capabilities cannot be achieved. An income metric which assumes equal sharing in the household may not detect any moral problem, but a capability metric will claim that women have more limited freedoms than men, since the provisions are not there to ensure that both parents can hold jobs, and gender norms and other gendered social mechanisms make it highly unlikely that men will volunteer to stay at home with their children. At the same time, men are also losing out since they have a very limited capability to spend time with their newborn babies.

179A slightly different example concerns a justice-enhancing intervention that can be found in the form of adult volunteers who visit disadvantaged families to read to the children in order to enhance their language skills.27 It is well-known that many children of immigrants are disadvantaged at school since they are very likely to enter school with weaker knowledge of the language of instruction than non-immigrant children. For this reason, in several cities there are networks of volunteers to read books to small immigrant children in their own homes. In this way, they effectively reduce the gap in educational opportunity between immigrant children and non-immigrant children. This example also illustrates that justice-enhancing strategies are not confined to public policy, but can also be initiated by persons and groups at the grassroots. The government is not the only agent of justice; we can all do our part.

3.14 Capabilities and human rights

180Several capability theories are closely related to accounts of human rights. Within the capability literature, some scholars have developed capability theories that they regard as a human rights theory. In the human rights literature, scholars have examined to what extent the capability approach can help to develop stronger theories of human rights. The same topics (e.g. provision of or right to basic health or basic education) are defended based on both approaches, or are defended appealing both to human rights and capabilities (e.g. Osmani 2000). Amartya Sen has in several of his publications analysed the relationship between human rights and capabilities (e.g. Sen 2004b, 2005). In addition, Martha Nussbaum has claimed that her capabilities theory is a version of human rights theory, which has drawn much attention to the question about the relationship between capabilities and human rights.

181It should not be surprising that there are so many scholars and practitioners interested in both the human rights framework and the capability approach, since they share some important aspects. First, they are both widely endorsed ethical frameworks. Second, they seem to share an underlying motivation, namely to protect and enhance people’s freedoms. Third, they are both used for global as well as domestic questions. Fourth, both frameworks want to build strong links between theory and practice: they are studied and used by scholars but also used by practitioners (political parties, activists, policy makers, etc.). Finally, both discourses are strongly interdisciplinary in nature.

182All this raises some questions. What is the relationship between human rights and capabilities? Can we say that capabilities are the objects of human rights? If so, do human rights theories and analyses have something to gain by developing capabilities-based human rights theories? Can the capability approach deliver all that is important in human rights theories? And what should we make of the alleged disadvantages of using the capability approach in thinking about human rights?

3.14.1 What are human rights?

183Human rights are rights each human being is entitled to in order to protect her from severe harms that could be inflicted by others — either by deliberate actions, or else by the failure to protect human rights caused by institutional design. They are norms aimed at protecting people from severe social, political and legal abuse (Nickel 2014, 1). Examples of human rights are the right to life, the right to food, the right to freedom of assembly, the right to freedom of religion, the right to a fair trial when charged with a crime, the right not to be tortured, and the right to privacy.

184Human rights are not all the rights that people have. As Sen (2004b, 329) writes, “there have to be some ‘threshold conditions’ of (i) importance and (ii) social influenceability for a freedom to figure within the interpersonal and interactive spectrum of human rights”. Take the ‘importance threshold’ first. Here is an example of a right that is not a human right, because it does not meet the threshold condition of importance: the right to parental leave. In many European countries, parents who are employed have a right to paid parental leave upon the birth of their child or when they adopt a child. While many have argued that such a right would help meet our duties towards children and parents as well as advance gender justice (e.g. Gheaus and Robeyns 2011), it is not at all plausible to argue that this should be seen as a human right. It has a much weaker moral urgency than the right to a fair trial, let alone the right to life. Human rights thus correspond to a subset of the domain of justice, and focus on those questions that are of utter importance, the protection of which should have a greater urgency than the support of other normative claims. The second threshold — social influenceability — implies that even if something valuable is hugely important, as long as there is no or very limited social influenceability, its protection cannot be a human right. For example, it makes no sense to speak of a human right to be protected from volcano eruptions, or a human right to be protected from cancer. However, one can say that there is a human right to be warned about volcano eruptions if the government has the relevant information. To the extent that there is more social influenceability, the scope to speak coherently of human rights increases.

185Human rights have corresponding duties. But on whom do those duties fall and what kind of duties are they? A broad, inclusive account of duties is given by Pablo Gilabert (2009, 673) who writes:

[Human rights impose] a duty of the highest priority for individuals and governments to identify ways to protect certain important interests through (a) specific rights and entitlements, but also, when these are insufficient or not presently feasible, through (b) urgent goals of institution-building.

  • 28 This relates to a complex discussion in legal and political philosophy on whether human rights can (...)

186Note that this definition does not limit the duty to protect human rights to governments only, and that it does include institution-building as an important path towards protecting human rights.28

3.14.2 The interdisciplinary scholarship on human rights

187The human rights literature is, just like the capability approach, deeply multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary. The philosophy of human rights “addresses questions about the existence, content, nature, universality, justification, and legal status of human rights” (Nickel 2014, 1). How can human rights exist in the first place? What should be the content of human rights, that is, what kinds of harms or abuses should they protect us from? What kind of rights are human rights — are they moral claims, or legal claims, or political claims, or something else? The question of justification asks: on what grounds can we say that people have human rights? Is it because humans have rational capacities or agency? If so, does that mean that newborn babies do not have human rights? All these questions are studied in the vast philosophical literature on human rights.

188Note that while the relationship between normative political philosophy, justice and human rights is not entirely disputed, the dominant view in the contemporary literature is that the domain of human rights is a subset of the domain of justice, which in turn is a subset of the domain of morality. The reason is that “[n]ot everything that is desirable to be realized in politics is a matter of human rights, and not everything that is a matter of justice is a matter of human rights. Human rights constitute the most urgent demand of basic global justice” (Gilabert 2009, 676).

189Legal scholars are interested in questions related to the treaties and constitutions in which human rights are codified. The idea of human rights gained momentum with the 1948 adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which over time received a canonical status in legal and political debates. The UDHR subsequently served as a template for human rights instruments that are legally binding, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights and the African Charter of Human and People’s Rights. One question this raises is to what extent national constitutions are consistent with those legally binding treaties, or with the UDHR. Another question frequently asked by legal scholars is to what extent national jurisprudence can be in tension with — and violate — a human right that is part of an international treaty to which that particular nation signed up. For example, in the famous ‘Lautsi case’, the question emerged whether the Italian state’s policy to have a compulsory crucifix in the classroom of public schools was in violation of the human right to the freedom of religion as codified in the European Convention on Human Rights (Weiler 2010; Pierik 2012; Pierik and van der Burg 2011).

190In the social sciences and international relations, questions are asked about what role human rights play in politics. How do countries differ in the degree in which they protect human rights? What are the effective instruments that support human rights in countries in which they are not violated? Is it effective to condemn human rights violations in other countries, or is silent support for grassroots human rights activists a more effective strategy?

191Of course, human rights are hugely important for human right activists, who are working on actual human rights protections. Other activists, such as those focusing on the empowerment of disadvantaged groups, often take a more instrumental attitude towards human rights, and ask whether such rights are effective instruments to reach their goals of inclusion, development and combatting forms of injustice and oppression.

3.14.3 Why a capability-based account of human rights?

192After this brief sketch of the huge literature on human rights, we can now explore the relation between human rights and capabilities. The first question that needs to be asked is: why would we be at all interested in a capabilities-based theory of human rights? What could be gained by theorizing human rights, or trying to protect human rights, by referring to capabilities?

193The first reason is philosophical, and concerns the justification of human rights. Human rights are norms or instruments to protect certain valuable things (which are called ‘the objects of human rights’). But every time we claim an object is so important its protection must be enshrined as a human right, we must argue why that object has this special importance. Part of the philosophical literature on capabilities does precisely that — to justify why we need to protect certain valuable personal states. Both Sen (2004b, 2005) and Nussbaum (1997, 2011a) have argued that human rights can be seen as entitlements to certain capabilities. However, Sen’s views are more qualified, since he has argued that the object of some but not necessarily all human rights can be viewed as capabilities. There are plausibly also other objects of human rights, such as process freedoms and liberties.

194The second reason builds on the first. If some human rights can be understood in terms of capabilities, and poverty can also be conceptualized in terms of the denial of capabilities, then poverty can be conceptualized as a human rights violation (Osmani 2005). This is important for various reasons, including the strong rhetorical force that a human rights violation has in comparison with other claims, and also because socio-economic human rights have sometimes been regarded as more in need of conceptual foundations, in comparison with the civic and political human rights whose status as human rights has been less contested.

195This relates to the third reason why it can be helpful to conceptualise human rights in terms of capabilities, which is the often-stated worry that the protection of human rights, especially social and economic rights, is infeasible (Gilabert 2009). To counter that pessimism, we need greater clarity on the chain of steps that are involved in socio-economic human rights protection. Capabilities are the objects of our rights, and we know, from our understanding of how capabilities relate to resources and social structures, which parameters can influence the capabilities that people enjoy (see the figure in section 2.12). Hence, if we want to protect human rights, in particular socio-economic rights, which sceptics believe cannot effectively be protected, the capability approach helps us see that “promoting socioeconomic rights may require attention to specific parameters that affect the capabilities of people” (Gilabert 2009, 666). In sum, the language of the capability approach helps us to respond and address the feasibility worry of socio-economic rights.

196Fourthly, we are unsure whether some things we want to protect meet the threshold condition of importance that human rights should meet. If one is unsure about whether a certain freedom should be a right, let alone a human right, one could already start to protect or enhance it if one sees it as a capability. One does not need to wait until the discussion about the threshold is settled before one starts to protect something that everyone agrees is in any case important.

197A final reason is more practical or political. In some countries, the terminology of ‘human rights’ is regarded with suspicion, as it is seen as stemming from a colonial era, and, as a consequence, is regarded as an instrument of western domination. This makes it hard for both local and global advocates of human rights to advance their cause. By using the terminology of capabilities, which is not linked to a particular colonial era or western power, instead of the language of human rights, these same valuable rights can be argued for.

3.14.4 Are capabilities sufficient to construct a theory of human rights?

198There is quite a lot of interest among capability scholars and those working in the human development paradigm to try to bring the best of the capability approach and the human rights approach together (e.g. Vizard 2006, 2007; Vizard, Fukuda‐Parr and Elson 2011; Fukuda-Parr 2011; Gilabert 2009, 2013). One important question, though, is how much the capability approach can offer if one is interested in constructing a powerful human rights theory. Is the notion of capabilities sufficient for such a theory?

199The answer clearly must be negative. A theory of human rights needs other elements, such as a discussion of the scope of, and, importantly, the justification for, human rights. Yet, by making use of the distinction between the capability approach and capability theories that was introduced in section 2.3, we can see that it is not at all an embarrassment for the capability approach that, by itself, it cannot deliver a theory of human rights. Instead, that should be the task of a specific capability theory, for which, in the various modules, additional elements that are needed for a human rights theory can be added.

  • 29 The example that Barclay gives is the right not to be discriminated against. Barclay believes that (...)

200This raises the next question: what would have to be added, then? One important thing that may need to be added (in A6 — other dimensions of ultimate value) are process freedoms. Sen (2004b) argues that we should make a distinction between freedoms as substantive opportunities and the process aspect of freedom (procedural aspects). Both are, in his view, relevant when thinking about human rights, but only the opportunity aspect of freedom is captured by the notion of ‘capabilities’. Linda Barclay (2016) makes a similar point, by saying that rights that concern equitable processes are very important for human rights, and cannot be captured by the notion of capabilities. Clearly, procedural characteristics, for example those that guarantee a free trial, may not necessarily best be understood as capabilities, but perhaps rather more as elements of institutional design. Yet as proposition A6 emphasizes, not everything that is of crucial importance is a capability. Recall that proposition A6 allows us to include other elements of ultimate value, and this could incorporate what Sen calls process freedoms.29 In short, by seeing a capability-based human rights theory as a capability theory, for which various theoretical additions and choices are possible, it becomes clear that more is needed than the mere reference to ‘capabilities’.

201Note also that we can, of course, ask the question the other way around — what is needed to make a capability theory? — and use the human rights framework as the theory of value that is used to make the selection of capabilities. This route has been developed by Polly Vizard, and has led to the “human rights based capability set” (Vizard 2006, 2007).

3.14.5 The disadvantages

202Finally, we need to ask whether there are any disadvantages in using the capability approach to further our thinking, policy making and activism on human rights, and — ultimately — in letting a capabilities-based human rights theory compete with the existing human rights accounts.

203The first thing to note is that there is a long-standing human rights discourse that is used by activists all over the world, and often very effectively so. Clearly there are costs involved for these activists to become familiarized with the capability language. If the human rights discourse delivers to them what they need, why would we change it?

  • 30 Unfortunately, Nussbaum’s (2011c) account of the capability approach only adds to that reductive a (...)

204Second, there is a worry about legitimacy. The current human rights declarations and treaties have been the result of actual political processes, and the treaties were drafted by a large number of people, drawn from all over the world. For the capability approach, this is different. Given the prominence of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, and also the many publications that (wrongly) reduce the capability approach to the work by, primarily, Sen and Nussbaum,30 the capability approach is much more associated with specific individuals. A capability-based human rights theory that is the work of one thinker can never have the political leverage that the existing human rights framework has. For the various practices in which human rights are used (creating laws, making policy and activism) a capability-based human rights framework can therefore never replace the existing human rights framework.

205However, there is, of course, a more fruitful relationship possible, and that is to see the two frameworks as complementary rather than competitive (Nussbaum 2011a). Note, however, that any merging of the two frameworks has to be between a particular capability theory and human rights thinking, rather than between the general capability approach and human rights thinking.31 A good example of such practical work is the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Framework. Tania Burchardt and Polly Vizard (2011) used insights from both the capability approach and the existing work on human rights to create a framework that is used for the monitoring undertaken by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in order to meet its legal mandate.32

3.15 Conclusion

206The aim of this chapter has been to deepen our understanding of the capability approach, by analysing some questions of clarification that are often posed, and by reconstructing and synthesizing some developments that have taken place in the capability literature over time.

207The next chapter will focus on a range of critiques that have been put to the capability approach. Of course, it is not always entirely clear whether a certain question or debate is purely a matter of clarification, or rather a matter of debate and dispute; put differently, there is no neat demarcation between the main focus of this chapter and that of the next. Still, in this chapter I have tried to be as neutral and even-handed as possible in describing the literature, whereas in the next chapter I will take a more active role in arguing for or against certain views or claims.


1 For a seminal analysis of the differences between Nussbaum’s and Sen’s conceptual and terminological apparatus, see the twin papers by David A. Crocker (1992, 1995).

2 The ‘equality of what?’ debate was prompted by Sen’s Tanner lecture with the same title (Sen 1980a), in which he argued that almost any theory of distributive justice is egalitarian, in the sense that they all advocate equality of something. The question to pose to a theory of distributive justice is therefore not whether it is egalitarian or not, but what is its answer to the ‘equality of what?’ question.

3 Other statements equating capabilities with positive freedoms can be found in Sen (1982, 6, 38–39; 1984c, 78, 86; 1985c, 201; 2008, 18 among other places). In his 1979 Tanner lecture in which Sen coined the term ‘capability’, he did not refer to freedoms, but did use other terms such as ‘ability’ and ‘power’.

4 According to Sen (2009c, 282) this is the understanding of positive and negative freedom in welfare economics.

5 In fact, even this is not entirely correct, since in his earlier work and especially in his work written for economists, Sen did not speak of ‘capabilities’, but rather of ‘capability sets’ and thus also of ‘opportunity sets’ (see section 3.2.1).

6 It doesn’t follow, of course, that capability theories would not be able to pay attention to agency freedom. They do — for example by including relational capabilities in the selection of relevant dimensions, or by having some ideal of agency freedom as an additional moral principle included in module C4.

7 General discussions surveying different reasons to choose for functionings, capabilities or both, can also be found in Robeyns and Van der Veen (2007, 45–99, 76–78), Hick and Burchardt (2016, 79–82) and Robeyns (2016b).

8 I therefore think that Nussbaum’s (2011c) claim that it is a core property of the capability approach that it focusses on capabilities rather than functionings is mistaken (Robeyns 2011, 2016b; see also Claassen 2014).

9 Self-help groups are “any informal income-generating or social activity initiated by a poor community to achieve permanent improvements in their individual and communal wellbeings” (Ibrahim 2006, 398–399).

10 See, for example, Veenhoven (1996); Kahneman et al. (2006); Schkade and Kahneman (1998); Diener and Seligman (2004); Van Praag and Ferrer-i-Carbonell (2004); Ferrer-i-Carbonell (2005); Ferrer-i-Carbonell and Gowdy (2007); Frey and Stutzer (2002).

11 This section draws on, yet also modifies and expands, the analysis presented in Robeyns and Van der Veen (2007, 33–42).

12 Obviously, Nozick didn’t use the terminology of the capability approach, but his account of what is valuable in life could nevertheless be seen as capabilitarian.

13 A more fine-grained analysis than that presented in this section would need to make the distinction between act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism, and ask whether both are vulnerable to these critiques to the same extent. I am assuming here that the critiques apply to both types of utilitarianism to such a degree that it leads to worrying consequences.

14 Yet the phenomenon of ‘adaptive preferences’ can also potentially create problems for some capability theories, as we will analyse in section 3.9.

15 A similar strong and significant gender effect has been found by Eriksson, Rice and Goodin (2007).

16 Perhaps criminals would disagree.

17 An influential exception are utilitarians and other consequentialists, who define the morally right as that which maximizes the (non-moral) good (Driver 2014; Sinnott-Armstrong 2015).

18 Philosophical arguments on the moral permissibility of abortion come to widely divergent conclusions (e.g. Thomson 1971; Tooley 1972; English 1975; Marquis 1989).

19 In particular, see the overview of different types of capability study in section 2.4.

20 It doesn’t follow that all concerns of theorists of recognition are best expressed by using the capability approach. I doubt that this is the case, but will not pursue this issue here further.

21 There is a large literature on the differences and complementarities between the capability approach to justice (that is, capabilitarian theories of justice) and Rawls’s theory of justice (see e.g. Sen 1980, 195–200; Rawls 1988; Sen 1992a, 82–83; Pogge 2002; Nussbaum 2006b; Robeyns 2008b, 2009; and the contributions to Brighouse and Robeyns 2010).

22 I have presented this overview of steps that need to be taken in earlier publications (e.g. Robeyns 2016d).

23 An accessible explanation of the method of reflective equilibrium can be found in Knight (2017).

24 An analysis of this comparison between social primary goods and capabilities was made by the various contributions to the volume edited by Brighouse and Robeyns (2010).

25 For comparisons of the capability view with Dworkin’s egalitarian theory, see Sen (1984b, 321–23, 2009c, 264–68); Dworkin (2000, 299–303); Williams (2002); Browne and Stears (2005); Kaufman (2006); Pierik and Robeyns (2007).

26 See

27 In the Netherlands, this volunteer organisation is called De Voorleesexpress ( but similar initiatives must exist around the world.

28 This relates to a complex discussion in legal and political philosophy on whether human rights can be protected by so-called ‘imperfect duties’ or ‘imperfect obligations’ which is beyond the scope of this book. See, amongst others, Polly Vizard (2006, 84–91) and Frances Kamm (2011) for further discussion.

29 The example that Barclay gives is the right not to be discriminated against. Barclay believes that “to be protected from discrimination” is a very important human right, but cannot plausibly be conceptualized as a capability, since one does not have a choice to be discriminated against or not. However, not being discriminated against is a functioning, and it is a mistake to think that the capability approach holds that we should only focus on capabilities and never on functionings, as was argued in section 3.4.

30 Unfortunately, Nussbaum’s (2011c) account of the capability approach only adds to that reductive and misleading portrayal of the capability literature (Robeyns 2011, 2016b; Unterhalter 2013).

31 Hence, when Nussbaum (2011a, 24) writes “the CA is a type of human rights approach”, we should read this as “Martha Nussbaum’s capability theory is a type of human rights approach”. Many other capability theories are, evidently, not human rights approaches, and hence the capability approach, as the overarching framework, cannot be either.

32 See


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