Wellbeing, Freedom and Social Justice: The Capability Approach Re-Examined - cover image


Ingrid Robeyns

Published On





  • English

Print Length

266 pages (x + 256)


Paperback156 x 14 x 234 mm(6.14" x 0.56" x 9.21")
Hardback156 x 16 x 234 mm(6.14" x 0.63" x 9.21")


Paperback840g (29.63oz)
Hardback1221g (43.07oz)



OCLC Number





  • KCR
  • KCP
  • JHBC
  • JHBL
  • HPS


  • SOC045000
  • SOC053000
  • SOC050000
  • POL024000
  • POL029000


  • HD75
  • R635


  • Capability Approach
  • wellbeing
  • freedom
  • social justice
  • Social Science
  • economic disparity
  • public policy
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Wellbeing, Freedom and Social Justice

The Capability Approach Re-Examined

Notions such as wellbeing, freedom, and social justice are integral to evaluating social progress and developing policies. One increasingly influential way to think about these concepts is the capability approach, a theoretical framework which was pioneered by the philosopher and economist Amartya Sen in the 1980s.

In this book Ingrid Robeyns orientates readers new to the capability approach through offering an explanation of this framework. Wellbeing, Freedom and Social Justice also endeavors to resolve historical disputes in the literature and thus will be equally engaging to those familiar with the field. The author offers a novel and illuminating account of how the capability approach can be understood in a variety of academic disciplines and fields of application. Special attention is paid to clarifying misunderstandings that have been caused by different disciplinary assumptions and the interpretive consequences they have for our consideration of the capability approach.

Robeyns argues that respecting the distinction between the general capability approach, and more specific capability theories or applications, helps to clear up confusion and misinterpretation. In addition, the author presents detailed analyses of well-known objections to the capability approach, and also discusses how it relates to other schools of analysis such as theories of justice, human rights, basic needs, and the human development approach.

Wellbeing, Freedom and Social Justice offers an original and comprehensive account of the field. The book will appeal to scholars of the capability approach as well as new readers looking for an interdisciplinary introduction.


This book is a magnificent achievement: it reaches across philosophy and the social sciences, across research, policy and practice in the global North and South, and across many decades of debate and discussion within and outside the capability approach. It does so in a way which is readable and clear, and it manages to avoid on the one hand being too polemical, and on the other hand being too superficial. Ingrid Robeyns is uniquely well-placed to write such a book, being herself a well-established inter-disciplinary scholar whose work has contributed enormously to the development of the capability approach over the years. It has been a frustration for many of us that no comprehensive textbook on the capability approach yet exists, and this will fill that gap admirably.

Dr Tania Burchardt

Director of the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE) and Associate Professor in the Department of Social Policy, London School of Economics


The book is essential reading for social justice and wellbeing scholars and practitioners. Robeyns importantly points to the fact that many of the conceptual controversies of the past two decades have been largely resolved, and that the Capability Approach can now be used, inter alia, to study ways in which the welfare state, under pressure at present, can best be arranged.

New Agenda, 2019.

Table of Contents


1. Introduction

1.1 Why the capability approach?

1.2 The worries of the sceptics

1.3 A yardstick for the evaluation of prosperity and progress

1.4 Scope and development of the capability approach

1.5 A guide for the reader

2. Core Ideas and the Framework

2.1 Introduction

2.2 A preliminary definition of the capability approach

2.3 The capability approach versus capability theories

2.4 The many modes of capability analysis

2.5 The modular view of the capability approach

2.6 The A-module: the non-optional core of all capability theories

2.6.1 A1: Functionings and capabilities

2.6.2 A2: Functionings and capabilities are value-neutral categories

2.6.3 A3: Conversion factors

2.6.4 A4: The means-ends distinction

2.6.5 A5: Functionings and capabilities as the evaluative space

2.6.6 A6: Other dimensions of ultimate value

2.6.7 A7: Value pluralism

2.6.8 A8: The principle of each person as an end

2.7 The B-modules: non-optional modules with optional content

2.7.1 B1: The purpose of the capability theory

2.7.2 B2: The selection of dimensions

2.7.3 B3: Human diversity

2.7.4 B4: Agency

2.7.5 B5: Structural constraints

2.7.6 B6: The choice between functionings, capabilities, or both

2.7.7 B7: Meta-theoretical commitments

2.8 The C-modules: contingent modules

2.8.1 C1: Additional ontological and explanatory theories

2.8.2 C2: Weighing dimensions

2.8.3 C3: Methods for empirical analysis

2.8.4 C4: Additional normative principles and concerns

2.9 The modular view of the capability account: a summary

2.10 Hybrid theories

2.11 The relevance and implications of the modular view

2.12 A visualisation of the core conceptual elements

2.13 The narrow and broad uses of the capability approach

2.14 Conclusion

3. Clarifications

3.1 Introduction

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

3.2.1 Capability as an opportunity versus capability as an opportunity set

3.2.2 Nussbaum’s terminology

3.2.3 What are ‘basic capabilities’?

3.2.4 Conceptual and terminological refinements

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

3.3.1 Capabilities as positive freedoms?

3.3.2 Capabilities as opportunity or option freedoms?

3.3.3 Are capabilities best understood as freedoms?

3.4 Functionings or capabilities?

3.5 Human diversity in the capability approach

3.6 Collective capabilities

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

3.7.1 The aim and context of accounts of wellbeing

3.7.2 The standard taxonomy of philosophical wellbeing accounts

3.7.3 The accounts of wellbeing in the capability approach

3.8 Happiness and the capability approach

3.8.1 What is the happiness approach?

3.8.2 The ontological objection

3.8.3 Mental adaptation and social comparisons

3.8.4 Comparing groups

3.8.5 Macro analysis

3.8.6 The place of happiness in the capability approach

3.9 The capability approach and adaptive preferences

3.10 Can the capability approach be an explanatory theory?

3.11 A suitable theory for all normative questions?

3.12 The role of resources in the capability approach

3.13 The capability approach and theories of justice

3.13.1 A brief description of the literature on theories of justice

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

3.13.3 From theories of justice to just practices and policies

3.14 Capabilities and human rights

3.14.1 What are human rights?

3.14.2 The interdisciplinary scholarship on human rights

3.14.3 Why a capability-based account of human rights?

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

3.14.5 The disadvantages

3.15 Conclusion

4. Critiques and Debates

4.1 Introduction

4.2 Is everything that’s called a capability genuinely a capability?

4.3 Should we commit to a specific list of capabilities?

4.4 Why not use the notion of needs?

4.5 Does the capability approach only address the government?

4.6 Is the capability approach too individualistic?

4.6.1 Different forms of individualism

4.6.2 Does the capability approach pay sufficient attention to groups?

4.6.3 Social structures, norms and institutions in the capability approach

4.7 What about power and political economy?

4.7.1 Which account of power and choice?

4.7.2 Should we prioritise analysing the political economy?

4.8 Is the capability approach a liberal theory?

4.9 Why ‘human development’ is not the same idea

4.10 Can the capability approach change welfare economics?

4.10.1 Welfare economics and the economics discipline

4.10.2 Non-welfarism

4.10.3 Empirical possibilities and challenges

4.10.4 Towards a heterodox capabilitarian welfare economics?

4.11 Taking stock

5. Which Future for the Capability Approach?




Ingrid Robeyns

Chair in Ethics of Institutions at the Ethics Institute at Utrecht University