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4. Critiques and Debates

© 2017 Ingrid Robeyns, CC BY 4.0

4.1 Introduction

In chapter 2 I gave an account of the capability approach that gave us a better sense of its necessary core and its scope, as well as describing the structure of a capability theory or capability analysis. While that account has aimed to be precise and comprehensive, it nevertheless raises some further issues.

Hence, this chapter is focussed on investigating those further questions and debates. We will look into the following issues. Section 4.2 asks whether everything that has been called a capability in the literature is genuinely so. Section 4.3 addresses a dispute that has kept capability theorists busy for quite a while over the last two decades, namely whether a capability theorist should endorse a specific list of capabilities. For many years, this was debated under the banner ‘the question of the list’ and was seen as the major criticism that Martha Nussbaum had of Amartya Sen’s work on the capability approach. Section 4.4 investigates the relationship between the basic needs approach and philosophical theories of needs, and argues that the capability scholars may be able to engage more fruitfully with theories of needs. Section 4.5 asks whether, as Nussbaum suggests, we should understand the capability approach as a theory that addresses the government; I will argue that we should reject that suggestion and also take other ‘agents of change’ into account. Section 4.6 analyses a debate that has generated much controversy, namely whether the capability approach can be said to be too individualistic. The next section, 4.7, focuses on a closely related issue: the scope for the inclusion of ‘power’ into the capability approach. Should the capability approach pay much more attention to political economy? Section 4.8 asks whether the capability approach is a liberal theory, and whether it can be anything other than a liberal theory. Section 4.9 argues that, despite the many references to ‘the human development and capability approaches’, these are not the same thing. Finally, section 4.10 discusses the potential and problems of a capabilitarian welfare economics.

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

Since this chapter is the place to collect critiques and debates, let me start with a very basic point of criticism: not everything that is called ‘a capability’ in the capability literature is, upon closer examination, genuinely a capability. The main criticism that I want to offer in this brief section is that we should be very careful in our choices of terms and concepts: not everything that is important is a capability, and it is conceptually confusing (and hence wrong) to call everything that is important a capability. As an interdisciplinary language used in many different disciplines, the capability approach already suffers from sloppy use of terms because of interdisciplinary differences in their usage, and we should avoid contributing to this conceptual confusion. Let me give one example to illustrate the critique.

In her book Allocating the Earth as well as in earlier work, Breena Holland (2008, 2014) argues that the role of the environment in making capabilities possible is so important and central that we should conceptualize environmental ecological functioning (that is, the ecosystem services that the environment offers to human beings) as a meta-capability that underlies all other capabilities. As Holland puts it, “the environment’s ecological functioning is a meta-capability in the sense that it is a precondition of all the capabilities that Nussbaum defines as necessary for living a good human life” (2014, 112). By using this terminology, Holland wants to stress that protecting the ecosystem is not just one way among many equally good ways to contribute to human wellbeing — rather, it is a crucial and non-substitutable precondition for living. Yet one could question whether conceptualizing it as a “meta-capability” is correct. As I have argued elsewhere (Robeyns 2016a), the environment is not a capability, since capabilities are real opportunities for beings and doings. The environment and the services that its ecosystems give to human beings are absolutely necessary for human life to be possible in the first place, but that doesn’t warrant giving it the conceptual status of a ‘capability’. It would have been better, in my view, to introduce a term showing that there are substitutable and non-substitutable preconditions for each capability, and that there are absolutely necessary (or crucial) versus less central preconditions. An environment that is able to deliver a minimal level of ecosystem services to life on our planet is both a non-substitutable as well as an absolutely necessary precondition for human wellbeing understood in terms of capabilities. There are many other preconditions for human wellbeing, but a minimum level of sustainable ecosystem services is one of the very few — perhaps even the only one — that is both non-substitutable and absolutely necessary. That makes it hugely important — perhaps even more important than some capabilities (which could be accommodated by including it in proposition A6), but the absolute priority it should receive does not warrant us to call it a capability.

4.3 Should we commit to a specific list of capabilities?

At an earlier stage of the development of the capability approach, a rather heated debate took place on whether or not it was necessary for Sen to list the capabilities he felt were relevant for the issue under consideration. This ‘question of the list’ debate wasn’t always very helpful, since participants were not making the distinction between capability theories and the capability approach, which, as I will show in this section, is crucial to answer this question. Several scholars have criticized Sen for not having specified which capabilities matter or for not giving us some guidelines on how the selection of capabilities could be conducted (e.g. Sugden 1993; Roemer 1996; Nussbaum 2003a). As is well known, Sen has explicitly refrained from committing himself to one particular list of capabilities. But should Sen (or anyone else) do so?

In order to answer that question, it is important to keep the distinction in mind between the general capability approach, and particular capability theories. As Mozaffar Qizilbash (2012) rightly points out, Sen has written on the capability approach in general and he has developed particular capability applications, critiques, and theories. When asking whether Sen (or anyone else) should commit to a particular list of capabilities, we have to keep that distinction firmly in mind — since it is relevant to our answer.

It is obvious that there cannot be one list that applies to all the different purposes for which the capability approach can be used — that is, one list that applies to more specific capability theories and applications. Hence insofar as it is argued that Sen (or any other capability scholar) should endorse a particular list of capabilities when discussing the capability approach, rather than more specific capability theories, this critique misfires. This is part of the answer that Sen has given to his critics. Each application or theory based on the capability approach will always require a selection of valuable functionings that fits the purpose of the theory or application. Hence the capability approach as such is deliberately too underspecified to endorse just one single list that could be used for all capability analyses (Sen 1993, 2004). It is quite likely that those who have criticised Sen, or the capability approach in general, for not entailing a specific list of capabilities, have not sufficiently appreciated the distinction between the capability approach in general and more specific capability theories.

But what then about specific capability theories, applications and analyses? Should these always commit to a particular list of capabilities? It is possible to distinguish between two types of critique addressing capability theories, which I labelled the weak and strong critiques (Robeyns 2005a). The strong critique entails that there must be a clear list of capabilities that we can use for all capability theories and their application.

The strong critique is most clearly voiced by Nussbaum, who has proposed a list of ten “central human capabilities” that specify the political principles that every person should be entitled to as a matter of justice.1 Nussbaum’s capabilities theory differs in a number of ways from Sen’s version. Nussbaum (1988, 2003) not only argues that these ten capabilities are the relevant ones, but in addition claims that if Sen wants his version of the capability approach to have any bite for addressing issues of social justice, he has to endorse one specific and well-defined list of capabilities.

Sen does not accept the stronger critique as it applies to particular capability theories. The reason is the importance he attaches to agency, the process of choice, and the freedom to reason with respect to the selection of relevant capabilities. He argues that theory on its own is not capable of making such a final list of capabilities (Sen 2004). Instead, Sen argues that we must leave it to democratic processes and social choice procedures to define the distributive policies. In other words, when the capability approach is used for policy work, it is the people who will be affected by the policies who should decide on what will count as valuable capabilities for the policy in question. This immediately makes clear that in order to be operational for (small-scale) policy implementation, the capability approach needs to engage with theories of deliberative democracy and public deliberation and participation.

Sen’s response to the strong critique can be better understood by highlighting his meta-theoretical views on the construction of theories, and theories of justice in particular. One should not forget that Sen is predominantly a prominent scholar in social choice theory, which is the discipline that studies how individual preferences and interests can be combined to reach collective decisions, and how these processes affect the distribution and levels of welfare and freedom. Sen published ground-breaking work in social choice theory before he started working on the capability approach, and he has never ceased to be interested in and to contribute to social choice theory.2 Sen’s passion for social choice theory is also a very likely explanation for his critique of the dominant forms of contemporary theories of justice, which, he argues, focus on describing a utopian situation of perfect justice, rather than giving us tools to detect injustices and decide how to move forward to a less unjust society (Sen 2006, 2009c).

According to my reading of Sen’s work on capability theories and applications, he is not against the selection of dimensions in general, but rather (a) against one list that would apply to all capability theories and applications, and (b) as far as those capability theories and applications are concerned, in favour of seriously considering procedural methods to decide which capabilities matter.

However, even if we all accept that view, it doesn’t settle all disputes. Even if we agree that a selection of capabilities for, say, a poverty evaluation should differ from the selection of capabilities for a theory of justice, this still allows for different views on how that selection should be made. Some scholars have argued that it should be based on normative grounds, in other words based on philosophical reasoning and argumentation (Nussbaum 2000; 2006b; Claassen 2016). Others have argued for a selection based on a procedural method (Byskov 2017). For empirical applications, it has been argued that the selection of dimensions should be made in a way that minimises biases in the selection (Robeyns 2003). For policy-relevant applications, it has been argued that the freedoms listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights could provide a good starting point, and should plausibly be playing a larger role in the selection of capabilities (Vizard 2007; Burchardt and Vizard 2011). There are by now various overviews published on how to select functionings and capabilities but, interestingly, they almost always are limited to a certain type of capability theory, such as wellbeing for policy making (Hick and Burchardt 2016; Alkire 2016), multidimensional poverty measurement (Alkire 2016; Alkire et al. 2015), human development projects and policies (Alkire 2002; Byskov forthcoming) and theories of justice (Robeyns 2016d). Thus, there are a range of arguments pointing out that the selection of capabilities for particular capability theories needs to be sensitive to the purpose of the theory in question, hence selection is a matter to be decided at the level of the individual capability theories, rather than at the more general and abstract level of the capability approach (see also Sen 2004a).

4.4 Why not use the notion of needs?

By introducing the concepts of ‘functionings’ and ‘capabilities’, the capability approach offers some specific notions of ‘advantage’ and provides an ethical framework to guide our actions and institutional design. It is also a theoretical framework with clear commitments to practice and policy making in the world as it is, not just in some hypothetical world or in a stylized model. However, the same can be said of the (basic) needs approach, which was introduced and developed much earlier in the landscape of ethical approaches related to wellbeing and poverty. Hence, the obvious question to ask is: why not use the notion of needs for our theoretical work, and the basic needs approach for work on development?

To answer that question, it makes sense to make a distinction between the basic needs approach as it has been used by development scholars and policy makers, and the philosophical theories of basic needs. Let us look at the basic needs approach first. This is a practice and policy oriented approach “that gives priority to meeting people’s basic needs — to ensuring that there are sufficiently, appropriately distributed basic need goods and services to sustain all human lives at a minimally decent level” (Stewart 2006, 14). The basic needs approach was a reaction to the development policies that many countries in the Global South pursued after independence from colonial rule, and that led to a dualistic pattern of development, with a small modern sector that allowed some people to flourish while at the same time leaving many other people in poverty and unemployment. The fundamental claim of the basic needs approach was that the poor not only need a monetary income but also some very basic goods and services such as clean water, enough food, health services, and education. Given the urgency of these needs, the hope was that the requirement to supply them would be more readily accepted by governments in both the Global South and North than theoretical arguments about inequality (Stewart 2006, 15).

In the 1980s, the basic needs approach lost support because development donors shifted their attention to the goals of stability and adjustment, but when they again started to pay attention to the poor, adopting the capability approach, and especially the more policy oriented human development paradigm, seemed more attractive. However, according to Frances Stewart (2006, 18), when applied to the concern of reducing poverty in the Global South, the capability approach and the basic needs approach are very similar in terms of the actions they recommend.

Why, then, would anyone consider the capability approach over the basic needs approach? The first reason is that the capability approach seems to have a more elegant philosophical foundation (Stewart 2006, 18). However, while its seeming elegance might have been perceived by the basic needs practitioners as a reason for its adoption, the question is whether this is true, given that there have always been the philosophical theories of needs, to which we turn below. Perhaps the answer is pragmatic and points to an advantage of the interdisciplinary nature of the capability approach: Sen did not only lay out its theoretical foundations, but also, via his empirical work and his contributions to the Human Development Reports, translated those philosophical ideas into practice. Perhaps it is the case that a philosophical theory needs some charismatic thinker who translates it into practice, since otherwise it is not picked up by policy makers. In the case of the capability approach, Sen did both the philosophical work and the policy translation.

Another reason mentioned by Stewart is that the capability approach focuses more on the situation of individuals than the basic needs approach (Stewart 2006, 18). The capability approach doesn’t recommend the delivery of the same basic goods to everyone, but rather that we take human diversity as much as possible into account. The basic needs approach was more broad-brush than the capability approach, which stresses the additional resources needed by some people, such as the disabled. A third reason is that the capability approach applies to all human beings, hence also to the rich, whereas the basic needs approach has generally been perceived as focused on poor people in poor countries (Streeten 1995, ix). The more inclusive scope of the capability approach, which applies to all human beings, resonates with an increasing acknowledgement that countries in the Global North also include people with low levels of wellbeing, and that ideas of development, social progress and prosperity apply to all countries. This is very well captured in the case of the Sustainable Development Goals, which are goals applicable to all countries.

Many of the earlier key advocates of the basic need approach are pursuing their goals now under the umbrella of the human development paradigm. Hence the pragmatic and policy oriented basic needs approach has joined the human development paradigm, which has become much stronger politically. For policy making, the influence of frameworks at a particular point in time is one of the relevant considerations whether one should adopt one framework rather than another, and hence there is a good reason why, given their pragmatic goals, the basic needs advocates have contributed to a joint endeavour with capability scholars to set up the human development paradigm.

But what about the philosophical theories of basic needs? Are there reasons why we should favour them rather than the capability approach? The arguments that were given for the pragmatic basic needs approach apply also to some extent to the questions of the complementarities and differences between the theories. There are, theoretically, close similarities between theories of needs and capabilities, and Soran Reader (2006) has argued that many of the objections that capability scholars have to theories of needs are unwarranted and based on implausibly reductionist readings of theories of needs. According to Reader, theories of needs and capability theories have much more in common than capability scholars have been willing to see.

Still, Sen has been notorious in arguing that the capability approach is superior to the basic needs approach, a critique he has reaffirmed in his latest book (Sen 2017, 25). In his paper ‘Goods and people’, Sen (1984a, 513–15) criticised the basic needs approach for being too focussed on commodities, and seeing human beings as passive and needy. Those criticisms were rebutted by Alkire (2002, 166–74), who believed they were based on misinterpretations. However, Alkire did argue that the other two claims by Sen were correct. First, that the basic needs approach confines our attention to the most desperate situations, and is therefore only useful to developing countries. Alkire, however, sees this as potentially a strength of the basic needs approach; one could argue that it helps us to focus our attention on the worst off. Sen’s final criticism was, according to Alkire, the one with most theoretical bite: that the basic needs approach does not have solid philosophical foundations.

However, the question is whether that is true. A set of recent papers by basic needs scholars (Brock and Reader 2002; Reader and Brock 2004; Reader 2006) make clear that the philosophical theory of basic needs is sophisticated; moreover, several philosophically highly sophisticated theories of needs have been proposed in the past, both in the Aristotelian tradition but also more recently by contemporary philosophers (e.g. Doyal and Gough 1991; Wiggins 1998). Instead, a more plausible explanation for the basic needs approach losing ground in comparison to the capability approach seems to me that in the case of the basic needs approach, there was less interaction between empirical scholars and policy makers on the one hand, and philosophers on the other. It is hard to find evidence of a clear synergy between basic needs philosophers and basic needs development scholars and policy advisors — an interaction that is very present in the capability literature. This may explain why the basic needs approach has been seen as lacking solid conceptual foundations.

Yet despite these hypotheses, which may help us understand why the capability approach to a large extent replaced the focus on needs in the practical field and in empirical research, some genuine differences remain. The first difference requires the capability approach to adopt some basic distinctions that are fundamental to philosophical needs theory, and for which the capability approach in itself does not have the resources: the distinction between non-contingent needs on the one hand, and contingent needs, desires, wants, etc. on the other hand. Non-contingent needs are cases in which “the needing being simply cannot go on unless its need is met” (Reader and Brock 2004, 252). This relates to a more common-sense distinction between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’, that has an important relevance to our everyday ethical life and to policy making, but that has no equivalent in the capability approach. For some applications of the capability approach, such as those related to prioritising in conditions of extreme scarcity of resources (whether these resources are money, food, water, the right to emit greenhouse gasses, etc.) theories of needs can provide tools to guide our moral priorities that are lacking in the capability approach. Right now, preferences dominate in public decision making, but the concept of preferences cannot make a distinction between a preference for minimal amounts of water, food, safety, and social interaction, versus a preference for wine and a jacuzzi. The preferences-based approach, which has become very dominant in ethical theory as well as policy analysis by economists, doesn’t have the theoretical resources to make such a distinction, whereas it is central to some of our intuitions of how to prioritise our actions in cases of scarcity (e.g. J. O’Neill 2011; Robeyns 2017a).

The second difference follows from the first. The distinction in theories of needs between the morally required (meeting non-contingent or basic needs) and the morally laudable but not required (the other needs, wants, desires, etc.) implies that the needs approach may have a smaller scope than the capability approach. The modular view of the capability approach presented in chapter 2 makes clear that the capability approach can be used for a wide variety of capabilitarian theories and applications. The basic needs approach is more focussed on situations in which we need to prioritise — but the domain of ethical questions is broader than that.

In conclusion, the basic needs approach in practice is, for pragmatic and political reasons, now part of the human development paradigm. At the theoretical level, though, capability scholars neglect to take the philosophy of needs seriously or to draw on the theoretical resources of those theories to strengthen particular capabilitarian theories and applications.

4.5 Does the capability approach only address the government?

Some capability scholars believe that the capability approach is a theory about public policy or state action. For example, Nussbaum (2011, 19) writes that it is an essential element of the (general) capability approach that it ascribes an urgent task to government and public policy. In her own capabilities theory of justice, Nussbaum makes very clear that she sees the government as the actor of change. But is it right to see the government as the only agent of change or of justice in the capability approach? I think the literature offers ample evidence that this is not the case.

The first thing to note is that, while the dominant view is that the capability approach is related to public policy and assumes the government as the main or only agent of change, and while Nussbaum highlights the government as the actor of change in her account of the capability approach in Creating Capabilities, not all capability scholars endorse this focus on the government. For example, as Frances Stewart (2005, 189) writes:

Given that improvements in the position of the poor rarely happen solely through the benevolence of governments, and are more likely to occur because of political and economic pressures, organisation of groups among the poor is important — even essential — to achieve significant improvements.

The view that the capability approach is government-focussed may thus be reinforced by the fact that Nussbaum makes this claim, but other capability scholars are developing theories or applications that address other agents of change. A prominent example is the work of Solava Ibrahim (2006, 2009) who has shown how self-help initiatives can play a crucial role in promoting the capabilities of the poor, by enhancing their ownership of development projects, and “overcoming their helplessness by changing their perceptions of their own capabilities” (Ibrahim 2009, 236). Similar research has been conducted in more informal settings in Khayelitsha, a South African township, by Ina Conradie (2013). These are just two studies that have been published in widely read scholarly journals — but there is a broad range of capability theories and capability applications that do not, or do not primarily, address the government. In conclusion, the first observation is that some of the capability literature does not address the government. But can we in addition also find reasons for not restricting the agents of change in the capability approach to the government?

The first reason relates to the distinction between the capability approach and capability theories and applications, which was introduced in section 2.3. As far as we are looking at the capability approach, rather than particular capability theories or applications, an exclusive focus on the government is clearly unwarranted. There is nothing in module A that forces us to see the government as the addressee of our capability theory, and module B1 (the purpose of the capability theory) gives us the choice between any addressee we would like to pick. One could also use the capability approach to analyse what neighbours, in a particular street or neighbourhood in a well-functioning democratic state, could do for each other and in their common interests, in order to improve the quality of life in their neighbourhood. The neighbours may prefer to keep the initiative for themselves, and not ask the government to solve their local problems.

Another example of a capability application in which the government is not involved at all is the case of parents deciding to which school to send their child (assuming they have options to choose from, which globally is not the case for many parents). Suppose that parents have the choice between two schools. The first school focusses more on making pupils ready to excel in their future professional life, endorsing a human capital understanding of education. In the other school, there is more attention paid to creative expression, learning the virtues of cooperating, taking responsibility for oneself, for others and for the environment, and a concern with the flourishing of the child as he or she is now, not just as a future adult. Clearly there is a different ideal of education in these two school. The parents may sit down and write two lists of the pros and cons of the different schools — and many items on that list will be functionings or capabilities. Parents choosing between these two schools will choose different future capability sets for their children. Although the terminology may not be used, capabilities are at work in this decision; yet very few people would argue that it is a task for the government to decide whether children should be sent to schools focussing on human capital training, or rather on human flourishing. The scholarship focussing on curriculum design using the capability approach, or on making us understand the difference between human capital and human capabilities is doing precisely all of this (Brighouse 2006; Robeyns 2006c; Wigley and Akkoyunlu-Wigley 2006; Walker 2008, 2010, 2012b).

Of course, one could respond to these examples by saying that there may be capability applications or theories that belong to the private sphere and that therefore the government is not the (only) agent of change — yet that capabilitarian political theories, such as theories of justice, should address the government.

But this response will not do either. As several political theorists have argued, the question of who should be the agents of justice is one that needs to be properly discussed and analysed, and it is not at all obvious that the primary or only agents of justice should be the government (O. O’Neill 2001; Weinberg 2009; Deveaux 2015). There are at least three reasons one could give for not giving the government the main role as agent of change, or indeed any role at all. The first reason is one’s general ideological commitment as regards political systems. Anarchism and (right-)libertarian political theories would either give the government no agency at all, or else only insofar as property rights need to be protected (Nozick 1974). There is nothing in the structure of anarchist or libertarian political theories that rules out their adoption of functionings and capabilities as (part of) the metric of quality of life that should guide the social and economic institutions that we choose for our societies. People have very different views on the question of what can realistically be expected from a government. Just as we need to take people as they are, we should not work with an unrealistic utopian account of government. It may be that the capabilitarian ideal society is better reached by a coordinated commitment to individual action or by relying on market mechanisms. Adherents of public choice theory would stress that giving the government the power to deliver those goods will have many unintended but foreseeable negative consequences, which are much more important than the positive contributions the government could make.3

A second reason why capabilitarian political theories may not see the government as the only, or primary, agent of justice, relates to the distinction between ideal theories of justice (which describe those normative principles that would be met in a just world, and the institutions that would meet those principles) versus non-ideal theory (which describes what is needed to reduce injustices in the world in which we live).4 In several areas of the world, governmental agents are involved in the creation of (severe) economic and social injustice, either internationally or against some of its own minorities, or — in highly repressive states — against the vast majority of the population (e.g. Hochschild 1999; Roy 2014). The government is then more part of the problem than part of the solution, and some would argue that it is very naive to construct capabilitarian political theories that simply assume that the government will be a force for the good (Menon 2002). Similarly, some political philosophers have argued that in cases of injustice in which the government doesn’t take sufficient action, as in the case of harms done by climate change, duties fall on others who are in a position to ‘take up the slack’ or make a difference (Karnein 2014; Caney 2016).

The third reason why capabilitarian political theories may not see the government as the only, or primary, agent of justice, relates to the question of how we decide to allocate the responsibility for being the agent of change.5 As Monique Devaux points out, we can attribute moral and political agency derived from our responsibility in creating the injustice (a position advocated by Thomas Pogge (2008) in his work on global poverty) or because of the greater capacities and powers that agents have, as Onora O’Neill (2001) has advocated. Devaux (2015, 127–28) argues that in the case of justice related to global poverty, the moral agency of the poor stems from their experience of living in poverty. This may not only make them more effective as political agents in some contexts, but it might also lead to the poor endorsing a different political agenda, often focussing on empowerment, rather than merely reducing poverty understood in material terms. This is in tune with the earlier-mentioned research by Ibrahim (2006, 2009) and Conradie (2013) on self-organisation by the poor.

It has not been my aim in this section to defend a particular way to answer the question of who should be the agent(s) of justice. Rather, my goal has been much more limited — namely, to show that it is not at all self-evident that a capabilitarian political theory, let alone another type of capabilitarian theory or application, would always posit the government as the only agent of change, or the primary agent of change. Pace what Nussbaum (2011) claims on this issue, there is no reason why this should be the case, and there are many good reasons why we should regard our answer to this question as one that requires careful reasoning and consideration — and ultimately a choice that is made in module B and module C, rather than a fixed given in module A.

4.6 Is the capability approach too individualistic?

At the beginning of this century, an often-heard critique at academic meetings on the capability approach was that “the capability approach is too individualistic”. This critique has been especially widespread among those who endorse communitarian philosophies, or social scientists who argue that neoclassical economics is too individualistic, and believe that the same applies to the capability approach (e.g. Gore 1997; Evans 2002; Deneulin and Stewart 2002; Stewart 2005). The main claim would be that any theory should regard individuals as part of their social environment, and hence agents should be recognised as socially embedded and connected to others, and not as atomised individuals. Very few scholars have directly argued that the capability approach is too individualistic, but a few have stated it explicitly. Séverine Deneulin and Frances Stewart (2002, 66) write that “the [capability] approach is an example of methodological individualism” and also add “the individualism of the [capability] approach leads us […] to a belief that there are autonomous individuals whose choices are somehow independent of the society in which they live”. But is this critique correct? What are we to make of the argument that the capability approach is “too individualistic”?6

4.6.1 Different forms of individualism

To scrutinise the allegedly individualistic character of the capability approach, we should distinguish between ethical or normative individualism on the one hand and methodological and ontological individualism on the other. As we already saw in section 2.6.8, ethical individualism, or normative individualism, makes a claim about who or what should count in our evaluative exercises and decisions. It postulates that individuals, and only individuals, are the units of ultimate moral concern. In other words, when evaluating different states of affairs, we are only interested in the (direct and indirect) effects of those states on individuals. Methodological and ontological individualism are somewhat more difficult to describe, as the debate on methodological individualism has suffered from confusion and much obscurity. Nevertheless, at its core is the claim that “all social phenomena are to be explained wholly and exclusively in terms of individuals and their properties” (Bhargava 1992, 19). It is a doctrine that includes semantic, ontological and explanatory individualism. The last is probably the most important of these doctrines, and this can also explain why many people reduce methodological individualism to explanatory individualism. Ontological individualism states that only individuals and their properties exist, and that all social entities and properties can be identified by reducing them to individuals and their properties. Ontological individualism hence makes a claim about the nature of human beings, about the way they live their lives and about their relation to society. In this view, society is built up from individuals only, and hence is nothing more than the sum of individuals and their properties. Similarly, explanatory individualism is the doctrine that all social phenomena can in principle be explained in terms of individuals and their properties.

The crucial issue here is that a commitment to normative individualism is not incompatible with an ontology that recognises the connections between people, their social relations, and their social embedment. Similarly, a social policy focussing on and targeting certain groups or communities can be perfectly compatible with normative individualism.

As I argued in section 2.6.8, the capability approach embraces normative individualism — and this is, for reasons given there, a desirable property. However, it also follows from the discussion on the importance of structural constraints (section 2.7.5) that the capability approach does not rely on ontological individualism.

Clearly, scholars have divergent (implicit) social theories, and hence some attach more importance to social structures than others do. Nevertheless, I fail to see how the capability approach can be understood to be methodologically or ontologically individualistic, especially since Sen himself has analysed some processes that are profoundly collective, such as his analysis of households as sites of cooperative conflict (1990a). In later work too, he acknowledged persons as socially embedded, as the following quote from his joint work illustrates:

The [capability] approach used in this study is much concerned with the opportunities that people have to improve the quality of their lives. It is essentially a ‘people-centered’ approach, which puts human agency (rather than organizations such as markets or governments) at the centre of the stage. The crucial role of social opportunities is to expand the realm of human agency and freedom, both as an end in itself and as a means of further expansion of freedom. The word ‘social’ in the expression ‘social opportunity’ […] is a useful reminder not to view individuals and their opportunities in isolated terms. The options that a person has depend greatly on relations with others and on what the state and other institutions do. We shall be particularly concerned with those opportunities that are strongly influenced by social circumstances and public policy […]. (Drèze and Sen 2002: 6)

Of course, the critique is not only (and also not primarily) about Sen’s work, but about the capability approach in general, or about capability theories. But the work done by other scholars similarly doesn’t meet the criteria for being plausibly considered to be methodologically or ontologically individualistic. In general, we can say that the capability approach acknowledges some non-individual structures, and for the various more specific capability theories, the degree to which they move away from methodological or ontological individualism depends on the choices made in modules B and C. But whatever those choices are, there are already some features in module A that prevent capability theories from being methodologically or ontologically individualistic.

4.6.2 Does the capability approach pay sufficient attention to groups?

The critique that the capability approach should focus more on groups is often related to the critique that the focus of the capability approach is too individualistic, but it is nevertheless a distinct critique. A clear example can be found in the work of Frances Stewart (2005), who argues that in order to understand processes that affect the lives of people, such as violent conflict, one has to look at group capabilities — which she defines as the average of the individual capabilities of all the individuals in the selected group. The reason we need to focus on these ‘group capabilities’ is because they are a central source of group conflict. They are thus crucial to understand processes such as violent conflict.

We will return to Stewart’s specific complaint below, but first unpack the general critique that the capability approach doesn’t pay enough attention to groups. To properly judge the critique that the capability approach does not pay sufficient attention to groups, we need to distinguish between a weaker and a stronger version of that claim.

A stronger version of that claim would be that the capability approach cannot pay sufficient attention to groups — that there is something in the conceptual apparatus of the capability approach that makes it impossible for the capability approach to pay attention to groups. But that claim is obviously false, because there exists a large literature of research analysing the average capabilities of one group compared to another, e.g. women and men (Kynch and Sen 1983; Nussbaum 2000; Robeyns 2003, 2006a) or the disabled versus those without disabilities (Kuklys 2005; Zaidi and Burchardt 2005). Capability theorists have also written on the importance of groups for people’s wellbeing, like Nussbaum’s discussion of women’s collectives in India. Several lists of capabilities that have been proposed in the literature include capabilities related to community membership: Nussbaum stresses affiliation as an architectonic capability, Alkire (2002) discusses relationships and participation, and in earlier work I have included social relationships (Robeyns 2003). The UNDP (1995, 2004) has produced Human Development Reports on both gender and culture, thus policy reports based on the capability approach focus on groups.

The weaker claim states that the present state of the literature on the capability approach does not pay sufficient attention to groups. I agree that contemporary mainstream economics is very badly equipped to account for group membership on people’s wellbeing. But is this also the case for the capability approach? While some capability theorists have a great faith in people’s abilities to be rational and to resist social and moral pressure stemming from groups (e.g. Sen 1999b, 2009b), other writers on the capability approach pay much more attention to the influence of social norms and other group-based processes on our choices and, ultimately, on our wellbeing (e.g. Alkire 2002; Nussbaum 2000; Iversen 2003; Robeyns 2003a). There is thus no reason why the capability approach would not be able to take the normative and constitutive importance of groups fully into account. Admittedly, however, this is a theoretical choice that needs to be made when making scholarly decisions in modules B3, B5 and C1, hence we may not agree with the assumptions about groups in each and every capability theory.

If we return to the reasons Stewart gave for a focus on group capabilities, we notice that the main reason stated is that analysis of group capabilities is needed to understand outcomes. Yet that is precisely what the just mentioned capability applications do (since they do not only measure group inequalities in capabilities but also try to understand them). Those applications also investigate how group identities constrain groups to different degrees, or which privileges they ensure for certain groups. In my reading of the literature, many capability scholars do precisely this kind of work, and to the extent that they do not do so, one important reason is that they are engaging in documenting and measuring inequalities, rather than in explaining them. The complaint should then be that capability analysis should be less concerned with documenting and measuring inequalities, and should spend more time on understanding how inequalities emerge, are sustained, and can be decreased — but that is another complaint.

Still, I do think that a consideration of the role of groups in the capability approach gives us a warning. To fully understand the importance of groups, capability theories should engage more intensively in a dialogue with disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, history, and gender and cultural studies. This will make the choices of the account of human diversity (module B3), the account of structural constraints (module B5), and of ontological and explanatory theories (module C1) more accurate. Disciplinary boundaries and structures make these kinds of dialogues difficult, but there is no inherent reason why this could not be done.

4.6.3 Social structures, norms and institutions in the capability approach

The critique that the capability approach is too individualistic is sometimes also put in another way, namely that the capability approach should pay more attention to collective features, such as social structures, social norms, and institutions. How can the capability approach account for such collective aspects of human living?

At the theoretical level, the capability approach does account for social relations and the constraints and opportunities of societal structures and institutions on individuals in two ways. First, by recognising the social and environmental factors which influence the conversions of commodities into functionings. For example, suppose that Jaap and Joseph both have the same individual conversion factors and possess the same commodities. But Jaap is living in a town with cycle lanes and low criminality rates, whereas Joseph is living in a city with poor infrastructure for cyclists, and with high levels of criminality and theft. Whereas Jaap can use his bike to cycle anywhere he wants, at any moment of the day, Joseph will be faced with a much higher chance that his bike will be stolen. Hence, the same commodity (a bike) leads to different levels of the functioning ‘to transport oneself safely’, due to characteristics of the society in which one lives (its public infrastructure, crime levels etc).

The second way in which the capability approach accounts for societal structures and constraints is by theoretically distinguishing functionings from capabilities. More precisely, moving from capabilities to achieved functionings requires an act of choice. Now, it is perfectly possible to take into account the influence of societal structures and constraints on those choices, by choosing a nuanced and rich account of agency (module B4  — account of agency) and of societal structures (module B5  — account of structural constraints). For example, suppose Sarah and Sigal both have the same intellectual capacities and human capital at the age of six, and live in a country where education is free and children from poorer families receive scholarships. Sarah was born in a class in which little attention was paid to intellectual achievement and studying, whereas Sigal’s parents are both graduates pursuing intellectual careers. The social environment in which Sarah and Sigal live will greatly influence and shape their preferences for studying. In other words, while initially Sarah and Sigal have the same capability set, the social structures and constraints that influence and shape their preferences will influence the choice they will make to pick one bundle of functionings. The capability approach allows us to take those structures and constraints on choices into account, but whether a particular capability theory will take that into account depends on the choices made in the various modules, especially modules B4 and B5. Yet it is clear that the choices made in modules B and C will have ultimately far reaching consequences for our capabilitarian evaluations.

Summing up, one could, plausibly, complain that a certain capability theory doesn’t pay sufficient attention to social structures or collective features of human life. This may well be a very valid critique of a particular capability theory in which the additional theories of human diversity, social structures, and other social theories more generally, are very minimal (that is, the explanatory and ontological theories added in C1 do not properly account for many collective features of life). But I have argued that it is not a valid critique against the capability approach in general.

4.7 What about power and political economy?

In section 4.6, I analysed the critique that the capability approach is too individualistic, and argued that this charge is based on a misunderstanding of different distinct types of individualism, as well as a flawed (and unduly limited) understanding of the potential for capability theories to include social structures as factors that explain varying levels of advantage between different people. However, there are two closely related critiques that must be addressed briefly: first, that the capability approach downplays power and social structures, and second, that capability theories divert our attention from the political economy of poverty and inequality, which is much more important than the measurement and evaluation of poverty and inequality. Let us analyse these two critiques in turn.

4.7.1 Which account of power and choice?

The first worry is that the capability approach is insufficiently critical of social constraints on people’s actions, and does not pay due attention to “global forces of power and local systems of oppression” (Koggel 2003). Put differently, the worry is that the capability approach does not pay sufficient attention to inequalities in power (Hill 2003). Similarly, there is also a worry that the capability approach could be used in combination with a stripped-down version of human choice. For example, despite Sen’s repeated criticism of choice as revealed preference, one could in principle make interpersonal comparisons of functionings that assume revealed preference theory: a person will choose from their option set what is best for them. But this ignores the fact that our choices are heavily influenced by patterns of expectations and social norms,7 as well as commitments we have to certain interests that do not necessarily affect our own advantage.8 Depending on the choice theory one adopts, the capability approach could lead to widely divergent normative conclusions (Robeyns 2000; 2001). Standard economics pays very little attention to the social and cultural constraints that impinge on people’s choices, in contrast to sociology, gender studies and cultural studies, among other disciplines. In political philosophy, one sees a similar split between the core of Anglo-American political philosophy, in which the concept of the self that is endorsed is that of a rational, autonomous agent whose own plans take precedence over things he finds as ‘given’ in his life, versus other traditions in philosophy that pay more attention to relations and the social embedding of individuals, including unjust structures in which one finds oneself, as well as mechanisms that reproduce power differences. The consequence is that it is possible to use functionings and capabilities as the evaluative space in combination with many different normative accounts of choice, with a widely divergent critical content.

Take as an example the choices made by men versus women between paid (labour market) or unpaid (care and household) work. In all societies women do much more household and care work, whereas men do much more paid work. Both kinds of work can generate a number of different functionings so that the largest capability set might perhaps be reached only by giving everyone the opportunity to combine both types of work. However, I would argue that in the world today, in which hardly any society allows people to combine market work and non-market work without having to make significant compromises when it comes to the quality of at least one of them, the labour market enables more (and more important) functionings than care work. These include psychological functionings like increased self-esteem; social functionings like having a social network; material functionings like being financially independent and securing one’s financial needs for one’s old age or in the event of divorce.9 Many schools in political philosophy and normative welfare economics have typically seen the gender division of labour as ethically unproblematic, in the sense that this division is seen as the result of men’s and women’s voluntary choices, which reflect their preferences. However, this is an inadequate way of explaining and evaluating this division, because gender-related structures and constraints convert this choice from an individual choice under perfect information into a collective decision under socially constructed constraints with imperfect information and asymmetrical risks. Moreover, evaluating the gender division of labour can only be done if we scrutinise the constraints on choice, and these may turn out to be very different for men and women.10 What is crucial for the discussion here is that both positive theories of the gender division of labour (which are choices made in modules B3, B4, and B5) bear different normative implications. If a housewife is held fully responsible for the fact that she works at home then the logical consequence would be that she had the capability to work in the labour market. However, if we embrace a theory of choice that focuses on gender specific constraints, then we will not hold the housewife fully responsible for her choice but acknowledge that her capability set was smaller and did not contain the possibility for a genuine choice to work in the labour market. It seems, thus, that it is perfectly possible to apply the capability approach in combination with different accounts of gender-specific constraints on choices.

By giving choice such a central position and making its place in wellbeing and social justice evaluations more explicit, the capability approach opens up a space for discussions of how certain choices are constrained by gender-related societal mechanisms and expectations. But again, the capability approach provides no guarantee for this: it depends on the choices made in modules B and C. For example, conservatives will want to integrate a conservative theory of gender relations within the capability approach, whereas for critical scholars it will be crucial to integrate a feminist account of gender relations, which includes an account of power. No doubt the two exercises will reach very different normative conclusions. In short, for scholars who defend a theory of human agency and social reality that challenges the status quo, one of the important tasks will be to negotiate which additional theories will be integrated in further specifications of the capability approach, especially the choices made in module C1.

The conclusion is that the core characteristics of the capability approach (as listed in module A) do not necessarily have significant implications for the role of power in capability theories and applications, which can include widely divergent views on social realities and interpersonal relations. Indeed, the fact that the capability approach interests both scholars who work in the libertarian tradition, as well as scholars who work in more critical traditions, illustrate this conclusion. My own personal conviction is that there is ample reason why we should not adopt a stripped-down view of the roles of social categories and social structures, and hence include a rich account of power that is supported by research in anthropology, sociology and other social sciences. But for everyone advancing a capability theory or application, it holds that they should defend their implicit social theories, and be willing to scrutinize them critically.

4.7.2 Should we prioritise analysing the political economy?

Capability scholars have been criticised for having the wrong priorities: by focusing so much on the metric of justice and on human diversity in the conversion of resources into capabilities, their approach draws attention away from huge inequalities in terms of resources (income, wealth) and therefore helps to preserve the (unjust) status quo. Thomas Pogge (2002) has specifically argued that the capability approach — Sen’s work in particular — overemphasises the role of national and local governments, thereby neglecting the huge injustices created by the global economic system and its institutional structures, such as global trade rules. Similarly, Alison Jaggar (2002, 2006) has argued that western philosophers, and Martha Nussbaum’s work on the capability approach in particular, should not prioritise the analysis of cultural factors constraining poor women’s lives, or listing what an ideal account of flourishing and justice would look like, but rather focus on the global economic order and other processes by which the rich countries are responsible for global poverty.

Pogge and Jaggar may have a point in their charge that capability theorists have paid insufficient attention to these issues, which have been discussed at length in the philosophical literature on global justice. But one might also argue that this is orthogonal to the issues about which the capability approach to social justice is most concerned, namely, how to make interpersonal comparisons of advantage for the purposes of social justice. One could, quite plausibly, hold the view that, since most capability theorists are concerned with human wellbeing, they should invest their energies in addressing the most urgent cases of injustice, investigate their underlying causal processes and mechanisms, and concentrate on the development of solutions. Using the modular view of the capability approach, this critique boils down to the view that we should concentrate on modules outside the core, namely those that explain certain unjust structures.

This is not, however, a valid critique of the capability approach as a general framework, nor does it recognise the role that capability theories can play in substantive debates about global justice and inequality. Rather, the critique should be reformulated to say that the most urgent issues of justice do not require theories of justice, but rather a political and economic analysis of unjust structures. But then we are no longer facing a critique of the capability approach, but rather a critique of our research priorities, which goes beyond the scope of this book.11 It is clear that the capability approach will not solve all the world’s problems, and that we should regard it as a tool to help us in analysing cases that need our attention, rather than an intellectual project that has become an end in itself for academics. However, it doesn’t follow therefore that all scholars developing the capability approach should become political economists — or malaria researchers, for that matter.

4.8 Is the capability approach a liberal theory?

Students of the capability approach often ask whether it is a liberal theory — something those who ask that question seem to think is a bad thing. Given the various audiences and disciplines that engage with the capability approach, there is a very high risk of misunderstandings of discipline-specific terms, such as ‘liberal’. Hence, let us answer the question: is the capability approach a liberal theory, and if so, in what sense?

In many capability theories and applications, including the work by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, there is a great stress on capabilities rather than functionings, as well as on agency and the power of people to shape their own destinies.12 What is ultimately important is that people have the freedoms (capabilities) to lead the kind of lives they want to lead, to do what they want to do and be the person they want to be. Once they have these freedoms, they can choose to act on them in line with their own ideas of the kind of life they want to live. For example, every person should have the opportunity to be part of a community and to practice a religion, but if someone prefers to be a hermit or an atheist, they should also have this option. Now, it is certainly true that individual freedoms and agency are a hallmark of liberalism. But is this enough to conclude that the capability approach, in contrast to specific capability theories, is a liberal framework?13

First, given the interdisciplinary context in which the capability approach is operating, it is very important that the word ‘liberal’ is not confused with the word ‘liberal’ in daily life. In ordinary language, ‘liberal’ has different political meanings in different countries, and can cover both the political right or left. In addition it is often used to refer to (neo)liberal economic policies that prioritise free markets and the privatization of public companies such as water suppliers or the railways. In contrast, philosophical liberalism is neither necessarily left or right, nor does it a priori advocate any social or economic policies.

The first misunderstanding to get out the way is that capabilities as freedoms refer exclusively to the ‘free market’ and thus that the capability approach would always lead to an endorsement of (unfettered) markets as the institutions that are capabilities-enhancing. Sen does argue that people have reason to value the freedom or liberty to produce, buy, and sell in markets. This point, however, is part of his more general work on development, and it is very different to the highly disputed question in economics and politics regarding the benefits and limits of the market as a system of economic production and distribution. Functionings and capabilities are conceptualizations of wellbeing achievements and wellbeing freedoms, and the question of which economic institutions are the best institutional means to foster functionings and capabilities is both analytically and politically a question that can only be settled after we first agree what economic outcomes we should be aiming for: a question to which the capability approach gives a (partial) answer.

The question of what are the appropriate institutions to lead to capability expansions is a separate one, which cannot be answered by the capability approach in itself; it must be coupled with a political economy analysis. However, there is nothing in the (limited) literature that has undertaken this task so far to suggest that a capability analysis would recommend unfettered markets — quite the contrary, as the work by Rutger Claassen (2009, 2015) shows: capabilities theories give reasons for regulating markets, and for constraining property rights. In sum, if the word ‘liberal’ is used to refer to ‘neoliberalism’ or to ‘economic liberalization policies’, then neither the capability approach in general, nor Sen and Nussbaum’s more specific theories, are liberal in that sense.

Yet I believe it is correct to say that Sen and Nussbaum’s writings on the capability approach are liberal in the philosophical sense, which refers to a philosophical tradition that values individual autonomy and freedom.14 However, even philosophical liberalism is a very broad church, and Sen and Nussbaum’s theories arguably participate in a critical strand within it, since the explanatory theories that they use in their capability theories (that is, the choices they make in module C1), are in various ways aware of social structures.

Third, while the particular capability theories advocated by Sen and Nussbaum aspire to be liberal, it is possible to construct capability theories that are much less so. Take a capability theory that opts in module C1 for (1) a highly structuralist account of social conditions, and (2) theories of bounded rationality, that place great emphasis on people’s structural irrationalities in decision-making. In module C4, the theory accepts some degree of paternalism due to the acknowledgement of bounded rationality in decision-making. Similarly, one could have a capability theory of social justice that argues that the guiding principle in institutional design should be the protection of the vulnerable, rather than the maximal accommodation of the development of people’s agency. Such theories would already be much less liberal.

Is it possible for capability theories to be non-liberal? This would probably depend on where exactly one draws the line between a liberal and a non-liberal theory, or, formulated differently, which properties we take to be necessary properties of a theory in order for that theory to qualify as ‘liberal’. The capability approach draws a clear line at the principle of each person as an end, that is, in the endorsement of normative individualism. The principle of normative individualism is clearly a core principle of liberal theories. Yet it is also a core principle of some non-liberal theories that do not give higher priority to agency or autonomy (e.g. capability theories that merge insights from care ethics, and which give moral priority to protecting the vulnerable over enhancing and protecting agency). However, if a theory endorses functionings and/or capabilities as the relevant normative metric, yet violates the principle of each person as an end, it would not only not qualify as a liberal theory, but it would also not qualify as a capability theory. At best, it would qualify as e.g. a hybrid capabilitarian-communitarian theory.

4.9 Why ‘human development’ is not the same idea

Some believe that the terms ‘human development approach’ and ‘the capability approach’ are synonymous, or else scholars talk about the ‘capability and human development approach’. Although I will argue that this usage is misleading, the equation of ‘human development’ with ‘capability approach’ is often made. Why is this the case? And is that equation a good thing?

First, the Human Development Reports and their best-known index, the Human Development Index, have been vastly influential in making the case for the capability approach, and in spreading the idea of ‘functionings’ and ‘capabilities’ both inside and outside academia (UNDP 1990). In other words, one of the main series of publications within the human development approach, and the corresponding analyses and indexes, is arguably one of the most politically successful applications of the capability approach. However, it doesn’t follow from this that they are the same thing.

A second possible explanation for this misleading equation is that both the international association and the current name of the main journal in the field have merged both terms: the Human Development and Capability Association (HDCA) and the Journal of Human Development and Capabilities. This seems to suggest that ‘human development’ and ‘capabilities’ necessarily go together. But this need not be the case: the use of a particular title doesn’t make the two things the same (and in a moment, I will give a few examples in which this isn’t the case).

Thirdly and most importantly, the equation of ‘human development approach’ and ‘capability approach’ shouldn’t be surprising because human development aims to shift the focus of our evaluation of the quality of life and the desirability of social arrangements, from material resources or mental states to people’s functionings and capabilities. The capability approach is thus a central and indispensable element of the human development paradigm.

Finally, one may believe that the two terms are equivalent given that some influential authors in the capability literature equate the two terms, or merge them into one idea (Alkire and Deneulin 2009a, 2009b; Fukuda-Parr 2009; Nussbaum 2011). Let me highlight two examples. Sabina Alkire and Séverine Deneulin (2009a, 2009b) do not distinguish between the reach of the capability approach and the human development approach; instead, they merge them into one term, “the human development and capability approach”. More recently, Martha Nussbaum (2011) has written on the distinction in her Creating Capabilities. Nussbaum has suggested that ‘human development approach’ is mainly associated, historically, with the Human Development Reports, and that the term ‘capability approach’ is more commonly used in academia. Nussbaum prefers the term ‘capabilities approach’ since she also likes to include non-human animals in her account. However, for those of us, like me, who are using the capability approach to analyse and evaluate the quality of life as well as the living arrangements of human beings, this is not a valid reason to make the distinction between ‘the human development approach’, and ‘the capability approach’.

So, should we use ‘human development approach’ and ‘capability approach’ as synonyms, and merge them together into ‘the human development and capability approach’? I believe we shouldn’t. I think there are at least four valid reasons why we should make a distinction between the two ideas.

The first reason is historical: while the capability approach has been very important in the development of the human development paradigm, the human development paradigm has derived insights and concepts from several other theories and frameworks. Human development has been defined as “an expansion of human capabilities, a widening of choices, an enhancement of freedoms and a fulfilment of human rights” (Fukuda-Parr and Kumar 2003, xxi). There are important historical ideas in the human development paradigm that are to a significant extent based on Sen’s capability approach. And Sen was closely involved in the development of the Human Development Reports that have been key in the maturing of the human development paradigm. Yet as some key contributors to this paradigm have rightly pointed out, it had other intellectual roots too, such as the basic needs approach (Streeten 1995; Fukuda-Parr 2003; Sen 2003a).

The second reason is intellectual. The capability approach is used for a very wide range of purposes, as the account I presented in chapter 2 makes amply clear. These include purposes that are only tangentially, or very indirectly, related to human development concerns. For example, the philosopher Martin van Hees (2013) is interested in the structural properties of capabilities, especially how the formal analysis of rights fits into the capability concept. This research allows us to see how capabilities, as a concept, would fit in, and relate to, the existing literature on the structure of rights. But it would be a big stretch to say that this is also a contribution to the human development literature; in fact, I would find such a statement an implausible inflation of what we understand by ‘human development’. Rather, it is much more plausible to say that the study by Van Hees is a contribution to the capability literature, but not to the human development literature. If we were wrongly to equate the capability approach with the human development paradigm, this would create problems for understanding such a study as part of the capability approach.

The third reason is practical. Those who have written about the human development paradigm stress that ‘development’ is about all people and all countries, and not only about countries which are often called ‘developing countries’, that is, countries with a much higher incidence of absolute poverty, and often with a less developed economic infrastructure. For example, Paul Streeten (1995, viii) writes:

We defined human development as widening the range of people’s choices. Human development is a concern not only for poor countries and poor people, but everywhere. In the high-income countries, indicators of shortfalls in human development should be looked for in homelessness, drug addiction, crime, unemployment, urban squalor; environmental degradation, personal insecurity and social disintegration.

The inclusion of all human beings within the scope of ‘human development thinking’ is widely endorsed within human development scholarship and policy reports. However, it is also a matter of fact that most people, including policy makers, associate the term ‘development’ not with improvements to the lives of people living in high-income countries. This is unfortunate, but it is a fact one needs to reckon with. In high-income countries, some of the terms often used for what could also be called ‘human development interventions’ are ‘policies’, ‘institutional design’, or ‘social transformations’. While it is laudable to deconstruct the term ‘development’, at the same time we should be careful about using words that would lead to scholars and policy makers in high-income countries to neglect the capability approach if they (mistakenly) believe that it is a framework only suitable for ‘developing countries’ (as they would use the term).

The final reason is political. There are many capability scholars who would like to develop an alternative to neoliberalism, or, more specifically when it concerns development policies, to the ‘Washington consensus’. While more sophisticated analyses of both doctrines have been put forward, both doctrines focus on private property rights; the primacy of markets as an allocation mechanism; the focus in macro-economic policies on controlling inflation and reducing fiscal deficits; economic liberalisation with regard to free trade and capital flows; and, overall, restricted and reduced involvement of governments in the domestic economy, such as markets in labour, land and capital (the so-called ‘factor markets’) (Gore 2000; Fukuda-Parr 2003; McCleery and De Paolis 2008). The ‘Washington consensus’ refers to the development policy views propagated by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (two international institutions based in Washington, D.C., hence its name). The ideas of the Washington consensus spread in the 1980s and were endorsed as the consensus view by the IMF and the World Bank by 1990, and they dominated for at least two decades. Over the last decade, neoliberalism and the Washington consensus have been heavily criticised from many different corners, and there is a renewed recognition of the importance of considering the historical, cultural and institutional specificity of countries when deciding what good development policies look like; but it seems too early to conclude that any of those alternative views is now more influential then neoliberalism and the Washington consensus. Many citizens, scholars, policy makers and politicians are searching for alternatives, and some hope that the capability approach can offer such an alternative.

My suggestion would be that if one’s goal is to develop a powerful alternative to neoliberalism and the Washington consensus, one has to look at the human development paradigm, rather than the capability approach. The human development paradigm includes many specific explanatory theories that stress the importance of historical paths and local cultural and social norms in understanding development outcomes and options in a particular country. The human development paradigm is, therefore, much more powerful than the capability approach for this specific purpose.

Recall the modular view of the capability approach that I presented in chapter 2. The human development paradigm is a capabilitarian theory or capability application, because it endorses all the elements from module A. In addition, it has made particular choices in modules B, such as a strong notion of agency (B3) as well as an elaborate account of social structures (B4), and, importantly, it has chosen anti-neoliberal ontological accounts of human nature and explanatory theories about how the economy and societies work (C1), as well as the endorsement of additional normative principle and social ideals (C4) such as human rights and ecological sustainability. Hence the human development paradigm is much more powerful as a policy paradigm than the capability approach, since it is much more comprehensive (taking many more aspects into account then merely people’s functionings and capabilities) and it is much more powerful in policy or political terms (being informed about what works and what doesn’t).

In sum, I think it is not correct to equate the capability approach and the human development approach. The two are theoretically and historically related, but they are not exactly the same. For those who work within development studies and are endorsing a critical assessment of the development policies that have been pursued as part of the so-called ‘Washington consensus’, it is understandable that the two may seem to be the same, or at least so close that they can be merged. But that is only if one looks at the two notions from a specific perspective. Merging the two would do injustice to the work of other thinkers using the capability approach, and it would also ultimately hamper the development of the capability approach over its full scope.

4.10 Can the capability approach change welfare economics?

Of all the (sub)disciplines where the capability approach is relevant, welfare economics may well be the one where it is most difficult to describe its impact. The reason is that the capability approach could be seen in two very different lights, depending on one’s own position towards the current state of economics: either as an improved modification of mainstream welfare economics, or else as a path that could lead us to a very different type of welfare economics, which would radically break with some mainstream assumptions and practices. One could say that the welfare economists interested in the capability approach have two very different agendas: the first group only wants some changes in the normative focus, and possibly in some of the ontological and behavioural assumptions in the theory development, but no methodological or meta-theoretical changes, whereas the second group wants a paradigm change or a scientific revolution, in which there would be meta-theoretical and methodological pluralism (module B7) and much richer or thicker accounts of human agency (module B3) and structural constraints (module B5). In addition, it makes a difference whether we analyse the possibilities for a capabilitarian theoretical welfare economics or for a capabilitarian empirical welfare economics.

4.10.1 Welfare economics and the economics discipline

Before analysing the reach and limit of the capability approach in these various endeavours, a few general comments are in order about economics in general, and welfare economics in particular. Let us first ask: what is welfare economics? As Sen (1996, 50) writes, “Welfare economics deals with the basis of normative judgements, the foundations of evaluative measurement, and the conceptual underpinnings of policy-making in economics”. While, in practice, much of the economics discipline is concerned with policy advice, welfare economics is nevertheless a small subfield of economics, and is by some prominent welfare economists seen as unduly neglected or marginalised by mainstream economics (Atkinson 2001). One important reason is that welfare economics makes explicit the inevitable normative dimensions of economic policy analysis and evaluations, and most economists have been socialised to believe that ‘modern economics’ is value-free, and that anything to do with normativity can be outsourced to ethics or to a democratic vote. In reality, however, the imaginary science-value split that mainstream economists would wish for is, for many economic questions, impossible (Reiss 2013; Hausman, McPherson and Satz 2016). It would therefore be much better to face this inevitability upfront, and understand economics as a moral science (Boulding 1969; Atkinson 2009; Shiller and Shiller 2011) rather than as applied mathematics or a form of value-free modelling. But in economics, as in any other discipline, there are complicated sociological processes conveying views about authority and status, as well as unexamined beliefs about what ‘good science’ is and which type of objectivity is most desirable: one is not born an economist, but becomes one through one’s training, which is in part also a socialisation process (Colander and Klamer 1987; McCloskey 1998; Nelson 2002). Unfortunately, there is empirical evidence that many economists are unwilling to engage with these fundamental questions and hold on to the belief that economics is superior to other social sciences and has little to learn from other disciplines (Fourcade, Ollion and Algan 2015). Many economists who are interested in economic questions but are not endorsing the myth of value-free social science, or who crave more methodological and meta-theoretical freedom, have left for another discipline that offers them those liberties.15 After all, economists do not have a monopoly on economic topics, and there are many questions about such topics that are analysed by economic sociologists, economic historians, political economists, economic geographers, and economic philosophers. In my view, one cannot analyse the reach and limits of the capability approach in welfare economics if one does not acknowledge the high levels of discontent and methodological conservatism within economics, which cannot be found in any other discipline that engages with the capability approach.

With this background in mind, we can now proceed to ask whether the capability approach can make a difference to welfare economics. First, in section 4.10.2, we will look at the main theoretical contribution of the capability approach to welfare economics: its contribution to the development of non-welfarist welfare economics. In section 4.10.3 we will analyse what kind of empirical analyses a capabilitarian welfare economics could make, and what its challenges and possibilities are. Finally, in section 4.10.4, we analyse what challenges the development of a heterodox capabilitarian welfare economics would face.

4.10.2 Non-welfarism

The main theoretical contribution of the capability approach is that it contributes to the development of post-welfarism or non-welfarism in welfare economics. Welfarism is the position that social welfare depends exclusively on individual utilities, which are either understood in a hedonic or in a desire-satisfaction sense, and this has been the dominant position in economics for a long time. Post-welfarism broadens the informational basis of interpersonal comparison with non-utility information, such as deontic rights, or objective information such as people’s functionings and capabilities. In a series of publications, Sen has offered strong theoretical arguments to move from welfarism to non-welfarism (sometimes also called ‘post-welfarism’) and has inspired other welfare economists to work on a post-welfarist welfare economics (e.g. Gaertner and Xu 2006, 2008; Gotoh and Yoshihara 2003; Gotoh, Suzumura and Yoshihara 2005; Pattanaik 2006; Pattanaik and Xu 1990; Suzumura 2016; Xu 2002). Some reasons for this move are the same as the arguments against desire-satisfaction theories or the happiness approach that we reviewed earlier in sections 3.7 and 3.8. Another argument is that relevant information is left out of the informational basis. If two social states have exactly the same utility levels, but social state A has also a set of legal and social norms that discriminate against one group of people, whereas in social state B, the principles of moral equality and non-discrimination are protected, then surely, we should prefer social state B over social state A. But welfarism, because of its exclusive focus on utilities, is unable to take any type of non-utility information into account, whether it is the violation of deontic principles, information on rights, liberties and justice, or information on inefficient or unsustainable use of common resources. Many of the welfare economists who have embarked on the development of a post-welfarist welfare economics have focussed on the importance of freedom as an important part of the widening of the informational basis.

Non-welfarist welfare economics requires some changes to our approach to welfare economics. As Sen (1996, 58) noted in his discussion of the contribution of the capability approach to non-welfarist welfare economics, if we move to an informational basis with multiple dimensions of different types (as in the capability approach) then this requires explicit evaluations of the different weights to be given to the contributions of the different functionings and capabilities to overall (aggregate) social welfare. For Sen, the way to proceed is by public reasoning about those weights. This should probably not be seen as the only and exclusive way to determine them, since not all work in welfare economics is suited for public discussion — for example, it often entails desk-studies of inequalities or the analysis of the welfare effects of certain policy measures, and it is practically impossible to organise an exercise of public reasoning for every desk study that welfare economists make. Luckily, as the survey by Decancq and Lugo (2013) shows, there are various weighting systems possible that can give us the weights that are needed if one wants to aggregate the changes in different functionings and capabilities. For example, Erik Schokkaert (2007) has suggested that we derive the weights of the functionings from the contribution they make to the life-satisfaction of people, after those weights are cleaned of ethically suspicious information.

However, as we saw in section 4.10.1, many (possibly most) economists are unwilling to engage in explicit evaluations, since they believe in the science/value split and believe that economics can be value-free. This makes it harder for welfare economics to engage in such normative work, since they run the risk that their peers will no longer accept their approach as ‘economics research’. But it is inconsistent to reject all explicit evaluative exercises. Economists are happy working with GNP per capita and real income metrics as proxies of welfare, which uses market prices as the weights. But this is equally normative: it is assumed that the welfare-value of a certain good for a person is reflected by the price that the good commands on the market. This is problematic, for reasons that have been explained repeatedly in the literature. For one thing, market prices reflect demand and supply (and thus relative scarcity of a good) — diamonds are expensive and water (in non-drought-affected places) is cheap — but this doesn’t say anything about their importance for our wellbeing. Moreover, market prices do not take into account negative or positive welfare effects on third parties, the so-called externalities, despite their omnipresence (Hausman 1992).

Of course, it may be that, upon reflection of the various weights available, some capability theorists will conclude that the set of market prices, possibly combined with shadow prices for non-market goods, is the best way to proceed. That is quite possible, and would not be inconsistent with the general claim in the capability approach that weights need to be chosen. The point is rather that the choice of weights needs to be done in a reflective way, rather than simply using the weighing scheme that is dominant or customary. I take it that this is the point Sen is trying to make when he argues that “Welfare economics is a major branch of ‘practical reason’” (Sen 1996, 61).16

4.10.3 Empirical possibilities and challenges

When Amartya Sen introduced the capability approach in economics, there was some scepticism about its potential for empirical research. For example, Robert Sugden (1993, 1953) famously wrote:

Given the rich array of functionings that Sen takes to be relevant, given the extent of disagreement among reasonable people about the nature of the good life, and given the unresolved problem of how to value sets, it is natural to ask how far Sen’s framework is operational. Is it a realistic alternative to the methods on which economists typically rely — measurement of real income, and the kind of practical cost-benefit analysis which is grounded in Marshallian consumer theory?

What Sugden and other early welfare economic critics of the capability approach, such as John Roemer (1996, 191–93) were looking for, is a theory that is fully formalised and provides a neat algorithm to address questions of evaluation and/or (re-)distribution, resulting in a complete ranking of options. That requires two things: first, to be able to put the capability approach in a fully formalized model which can be econometrically estimated. This requires us to move beyond the welfare economic models as we know them, and may also require the collection of new data (Kuklys 2005). In addition, it requires us to accept that the different dimensions (functionings and/or capabilities) are commensurable, that is, have a common currency that allows us to express the value of one unit of one dimension in relation to the value of one unit of another dimension. One-dimensional or aggregated evaluative spaces are, ultimately, a necessary condition for conducting empirical work in contemporary mainstream welfare economics. Yet there may well be a trade-off between the number of dimensions and the informational richness of the evaluative space on the one hand, and the degree to which the theory can be formalised and can provide complete orderings of interpersonal comparisons on the other hand. Some welfare economists are working on the question of how to aggregate the many dimensions such that one has, in the end, one composite dimension to work with, but it should be obvious that this is not the only way to develop capabilitarian welfare economics. The alternative is to stick to the view that wellbeing is inherently multidimensional, which requires other methods and techniques that allow for fuzziness, vagueness and complexity (Chiappero-Martinetti 2008, 2000, 1994, 2006; Clark and Qizilbash 2005; Qizilbash and Clark 2005). One could also advance work on dominance rankings or incomplete rankings, which Sen has been defending in his social choice work for several decades (e.g. Sen 2017). As a consequence, there are several ways to develop a capabilitarian welfare economics, and to make the capability approach “operational” (Atkinson 1999, 185).

Sugden’s objection can be best answered by looking at the applications that have already been developed, and which have been listed in several overviews of the empirical literature (e.g. Kuklys and Robeyns 2005; Robeyns 2006b; Chiappero-Martinetti and Roche 2009; Lessmann 2012).17 However, whether the applications discussed in those surveys satisfy the critics depends on what one expects from empirical work in capabilitarian welfare economics. As was already shown in chapter 1, empirical applications of the capability approach do make a substantive difference to research using other normative frameworks, such as income-based metrics. But from that it doesn’t follow that capabilitarian welfare economics will be able to deliver alternatives for each and every existing welfarist study in economics. It may well be that sometimes the informational riches of the capability approach clash with requirements regarding measurability that certain empirical applications put upon the scholar.

4.10.4 Towards a heterodox capabilitarian welfare economics?

In the last two sections, we discussed how the capability approach can make a difference to contemporary welfare economics both theoretically and empirically. Those debates by and large stay within the mainstream of contemporary welfare economics, even though as Amartya Sen (1996, 61) notes, they require us “to go more and more in these pluralist and heterodox directions, taking note of a variety of information in making the wide-ranging judgements that have to be made”. The reference to ‘heterodoxy’ that Sen makes here is limited to the informational basis of evaluations, yet in other work he has challenged some of the behavioural assumptions underlying mainstream welfare economics (e.g. Sen 1977a, 1985b). However, other economists believe that we need a much more radical heterodox and pluralist turn in economics, which would also affect meta-theoretical views, the range of methods that can be used (e.g. including qualitative methods), giving up on the belief that economics can be value-free, and engaging much more — and much more respectfully — with the other social sciences, and indeed also with the humanities. What can these heterodox economists expect from the capability approach?

The answer to that question flows from the description of the state of economics that was given in section 4.10.1. The unwillingness of mainstream welfare economics to genuinely engage with other disciplines (Fourcade, Ollion and Algan 2015; Nussbaum 2016) clashes with the deeply interdisciplinary nature of the capability approach. The modular view of the capability approach that was presented in chapter 2 makes it possible to see that a heterodox capabilitarian welfare economics is certainly possible. It could not only, as all non-welfarist welfare economics does, include functionings and/or capabilities as ends in the evaluations (A1) and possibly include other aspects of ultimate value too (A6), but it could also include a rich account of human diversity (B3), a richly informed account of agency and structural constraints (B4 and B5) and it could widen its meta-theoretical commitments (B7) to become a discipline that is broader and more open to genuine interdisciplinary learning. Yet the modular account also makes it very clear that mainstream welfare economists can make a range of choices in those modules that are more in line with the status quo in current welfare economics, which would result in a very different type of capabilitarian welfare economics.

In short, while both types of capabilitarian welfare economics will depart in some sense from welfarist welfare economics, we are seeing the emergence of both mainstream capabilitarian welfare economics and heterodox capabilitarian welfare economics. The problem for the first is that it will have few means of communication with other capability theories, since it does not adopt many of the interdisciplinary choices that most other capability theories make. The problem for the latter is that it will not be taken seriously by mainstream economics, since it does not meet the narrow requirements of what counts as economics according to the vast majority of mainstream economists. Taking everything together, a capabilitarian welfare economics is possible, but (a) it will be harder to develop the capability approach in welfare economics than in some other disciplines because of the methodological and meta-theoretical clashes and restrictions, and (b) the difficult position that welfare economics occupies within mainstream economics will become even more challenging, since moving in the direction of the capability approach conflicts with the criteria that the gatekeepers in mainstream economists impose on anyone who wants to do something considered ‘economics’. This may also explain why there is much less work done in welfare economics on the capability approach, compared to some other disciplines or fields in which the capability approach has made a much bigger impact.

4.11 Taking stock

In this chapter, we have engaged with a range of critiques that have been voiced about the capability approach, or debates that have developed in the capability literature. While I hope that I have been fair in representing all viewpoints, I have in many cases argued for a particular way of looking at the problem, and in a significant number of cases argued that critiques must be reformulated in order to be sound, or did not sufficiently appreciate the modular structure of the general capability approach or the distinction between the capability approach and capability theories. Several of the critiques presented in this chapter had bite as a critique of a particular type of capability theory, but not of the capability approach in general.

The next and final (and very short!) chapter will not provide a summary of the previous chapters, but rather offer some thoughts and speculations on what the future of the capability approach could look like, which issues will need to be addressed to unlock its full potential, and which limitations will always need to be reckoned with.

1 These ten capabilities are: Life; Bodily health; Bodily integrity; Senses, imagination and thought; Emotions; Practical reason; Affiliation; Other species; Play; and Control over one’s environment. For more details, see Nussbaum (2006b, 76–78).

2 Sen was also awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize for his contributions to social choice theory and welfare economics. For some of his work on social choice theory, see Sen (1970a, 1970b, 1976, 1977b, 1979, 1983, 1986, 1992c, 1999c, 2017).

3 For an introduction to the public choice literature, see Mueller (2003).

4 On the distinction between ideal and non-ideal theories of justice, see e.g. Swift (2008); Stemplowska (2008); Robeyns (2008a); Valentini (2012).

5 The second and third reasons may sometimes both be at work in an argument to attribute agency to a particular group or institutions.

6 Amartya Sen has responded to their critique by stating that “I fear I do not see at all the basis of their diagnosis” (Sen 2002b, 80). As my arguments in this section will show, I think Sen is right, because Deneulin’s and Stewart’s critique fails to distinguish properly between different types of individualism, including methodological individualism (which the capability approach is not) and normative individualism (which the capability approach meets, and, as I have argued in section 2.6.8, should meet).

7 On the importance of social norms in explaining a person’s choice and behaviour, see e.g. Elster (1989); Anderson (2000a).

8 On commitment, see e.g. Sen (1977a, 1985b); Cudd (2014).

9 As is also suggested by the empirical findings of Enrica Chiappero-Martinetti (2000) who measured achieved functioning levels for Italy.

10 The seminal work in this area is Susan Okin’s book Justice, Gender and the Family (Okin 1989). On the gendered nature of the constraints on choice, see also Nancy Folbre (1994).

11 Serene Khader (2011, 24–30) faces similar critiques in her study of adaptive preferences (rather than the global economic order), and provides a sensible response to those worries.

12 Sen’s work on identity testifies to the great faith he puts in people’s power to choose whether or not to adopt certain group memberships and identities. See e.g. Sen (2009b).

13 In earlier work, I argued that on those grounds we could conclude that the capability approach is a liberal theory. I now think this conclusion was premature.

14 Nussbaum (2011b, 2014) has written explicitly on the type of liberalism that her capabilities approach endorses: political liberalism. For arguments that Nussbaum’s capability approach is, upon closer scrutiny, not politically liberal but rather perfectionist liberal, see Barclay (2003), and Nussbaum (2003b) for a response.

15 There are plenty of academic economists who have moved to history, development studies or philosophy in order to enjoy the greater methodological and paradigmatic freedoms in those disciplines.

16 Note also that for welfare economists, an important concern in examining and developing a capabilitarian welfare economics will be the question of how it can be formalized. On formalizations of the capability approach, see Sen (1985a); Kuklys and Robeyns (2005); Basu and López-Calva (2011); Bleichrodt and Quiggin (2013).

17 In addition to the first, rather rough empirical application in the Appendix of Sen’s (1985a) Commodities and Capabilities, the literature on empirical applications in welfare economics that used individual-level data started off with the paper by Schokkaert and Van Ootegem (1990), in which they showed that unemployment benefits may restore an unemployed person’s income level, but do not restore all of her functionings to the level they were at before she become unemployed.