The capability approach (also referred to as the capabilities approach) is an economic theory conceived in the 1980s as an approach to welfare economics. In this approach, Amartya Sen brings together a range of ideas that were hitherto excluded from (or inadequately formulated in) traditional approaches to the economics of welfare. The core focus of the capability approach is on what individuals are able to do (i.e., capable of).
- 1 Assessing capability
- 2 Key terms
- 3 Nussbaum's ten central capabilities
- 4 The measurement of human capabilities
- 4.1 General overview
- 4.2 Women and cultural universals
- 4.3 Monetary vs. nonmonetary measures of well-being
- 4.4 Shift towards alternative measures
- 4.5 Capabilities-based indices
- 4.6 Alternative measures of well-being
- 5 Contrast with other approaches
- 6 See also
- 7 Notes
- 8 References
- 9 External links
Initially Sen argued for five components in assessing capability:
- The importance of real freedoms in the assessment of a person's advantage
- Individual differences in the ability to transform resources into valuable activities
- The multi-variate nature of activities giving rise to happiness
- A balance of materialistic and nonmaterialistic factors in evaluating human welfare
- Concern for the distribution of opportunities within society
Subsequently, and in collaboration particularly with political philosopher Martha Nussbaum, development economist Sudhir Anand and economic theorist James Foster, Sen has helped to make the capabilities approach predominant as a paradigm for policy debate in human development where it inspired the creation of the UN's Human Development Index (a popular measure of human development, capturing capabilities in health, education, and income). In addition, the approach has been operationalised with a high income country focus by Paul Anand and colleagues. Furthermore, since the creation of the Human Development and Capability Association in the early 2000s, the approach has been much discussed by political theorists, philosophers and a range of social sciences, including those with a particular interest in human health.
The approach emphasizes functional capabilities ("substantive freedoms", such as the ability to live to old age, engage in economic transactions, or participate in political activities); these are construed in terms of the substantive freedoms people have reason to value, instead of utility (happiness, desire-fulfillment or choice) or access to resources (income, commodities, assets). Poverty is understood as capability-deprivation. It is noteworthy that the emphasis is not only on how human beings actually function but also on their having the capability, which is a practical choice, "to achieve outcomes that they value and have reason to value". Someone could be deprived of such capabilities in many ways, e.g. by ignorance, government oppression, lack of financial resources, or false consciousness.
This approach to human well-being emphasizes the importance of freedom of choice, individual heterogeneity and the multi-dimensional nature of welfare. In significant respects, the approach is consistent with the handling of choice within conventional microeconomics consumer theory although its conceptual foundations enable it to acknowledge the existence of claims, like rights, which normatively dominate utility-based claims (see Sen (1979)).
In the most basic sense, functionings consist of “beings and doings”. As a result, living may be seen as a set of interrelated functionings. Essentially, functionings are the states and activities constitutive of a person’s being. Examples of functionings can vary from elementary things, such as being healthy, having a good job, and being safe, to more complex states, such as being happy, having self-respect, and being calm. Moreover, Amartya Sen contends that functionings are crucial to an adequate understanding of the capability approach; capability is conceptualized as a reflection of the freedom to achieve valuable functionings.
In other words, functionings are the subjects of the capabilities referred to in the approach: what we are capable, want to be capable, or should be capable to be and/or do. Therefore, a person’s chosen combination of functionings, what they are and do, is part of their overall capability set – the functionings they were able to do. Yet, functionings can also be conceptualized in a way that signifies an individual’s capabilities. Eating, starving, and fasting would all be considered functionings, but the functioning of fasting differs significantly from that of starving because fasting, unlike starving, involves a choice and is understood as choosing to starve despite the presence of other options. Consequently, an understanding of what constitutes functionings is inherently tied together with an understanding of capabilities, as defined by this approach.
Capabilities are the alternative combinations of functionings a person is feasibly able to achieve. Formulations of capability have two parts: functionings and opportunity freedom – the substantive freedom to pursue different functioning combinations. Ultimately, capabilities denote a person’s opportunity and ability to generate valuable outcomes, taking into account relevant personal characteristics and external factors. The important part of this definition is the “freedom to achieve”; the reason being, if freedom had only instrumental value – valuable as a means to achieve an end – and no intrinsic value – valuable in and of itself – to a person’s well being, then the value of the capability set as a whole would simply be defined by the value of a person’s actual combination of functionings.
Such a definition would fail to acknowledge the entirety of what a person is capable of being and doing and their resulting current state due to the nature of the options available to them. Consequently, the capability set outlined by this approach is not merely concerned with achievements; rather, freedom of choice, in and of itself, is of direct importance to a person’s quality of life. Take the example of fasting as a functioning; there is an important difference between fasting and starving because, in examining a starving person’s achieved well being, it is critical to consider whether the individual is personally choosing not to eat or whether the person cannot eat because they lack the means to acquire an adequate amount of food.
In this example, therefore, the functioning is starving but the capability to obtain an adequate amount of food is the key element to be considered in evaluating well being between individuals in the two states. In sum, choosing a lifestyle is not exactly the same as having that lifestyle no matter how chosen, and a person’s well being does depend on how that lifestyle came to be. For this reason, while the combination of a person’s functionings represents their actual achievements, their capability set represents their opportunity freedom – their freedom to choose between alternative functioning combinations.
An extension of the capabilities approach has recently been published (2013) in Freedom, Responsibility and Economics of the Person. In this book the authors attempt to explore the interconnected concepts of the person, of responsibility and of freedom in economics and also in moral philosophy and politics. They attempt to reconcile the rationality of the individual and the morality of the person. This book presents a methodological reflexion (phenomenology versus Kantian thought) with the aim of rehumanising the person (through actions, but also through the values and norms that lead to a set of corresponding rights and obligations that have to ordered). Freedom, Responsibility and Economics of the Person is an extension – albeit in a rather critical form - of the capabilities approach; in particular the book discusses the concept of freedom (this does not refer back to a rationality of choice as claimed by Sen’s defenders). Sen’s capability approach accepts freedom but as a prisoner of a purely functional freedom. Such a concept does not take into consideration the capacity of people to apply moral constraints to themselves (i.e. responsibility).
Agency is best understood via Amartya Sen’s description of an agent, defining an agent as someone who acts and brings about change, whose achievement can be evaluated in terms of his or her own values and objectives. This differs from the more common use of the expression “agent” sometimes used in the literature of economics and game theory to signify a person who is acting on someone else’s behalf. Furthermore, agency focuses on the ability to personally choose the functionings one values, a choice that may not always correlate with personal well being. For example, when a person chooses to engage in fasting, they are exercising their ability to pursue a goal they value, though such a choice may not positively affect physical well-being. Amartya Sen explains that a person as an agent need not be guided by a pursuit of well being; agency achievement considers a person’s success in terms of their pursuit of the totality of their considered goals and objectives.
Therefore, a key difference exists between “the agency aspect” and “the well being aspect” of a person. Moreover, for the purposes of the capability approach, agency primarily refers to an individual’s role as a member of society and the public, with the ability to participate in economic, social, and political actions. Agency is therefore crucial to an assessment of one’s capabilities, allowing for an examination of whether or not economic, social, and/or political barriers impede a person’s ability to pursue substantive freedoms. Furthermore, concern for agency stresses that participation, public debate in the public sphere, democratic practice, and empowerment, should be fostered alongside well being.
Another point, raised by Alkire and Deneulin, is that agency and the expansion of valuable freedoms go hand in hand. The reasoning is that people need the freedom to be educated, speak in public without fear, have the freedom of expression and association, etc., in order to be agents of their own lives; simultaneously, it is by being agents that people can establish such an environment. The agency aspect, in summary, is important in assessing what a person can do in line with his or her conception of the good.
Nussbaum's ten central capabilities
Nussbaum (2000) frames these basic principles in terms of ten capabilities, i.e. real opportunities based on personal and social circumstance. The capabilities approach has been highly influential in development policy where it has shaped the evolution of the human development index HDI, has been much discussed in philosophy, and is increasingly influential in a range of social sciences.
The ten capabilities Nussbaum argues should be supported by all democracies are:
- Life. Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length; not dying prematurely, or before one's life is so reduced as to be not worth living.
- Bodily Health. Being able to have good health, including reproductive health; to be adequately nourished; to have adequate shelter.
- Bodily Integrity. Being able to move freely from place to place; to be secure against violent assault, including sexual assault and domestic violence; having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction.
- Senses, Imagination, and Thought. Being able to use the senses, to imagine, think, and reason—and to do these things in a "truly human" way, a way informed and cultivated by an adequate education, including, but by no means limited to, literacy and basic mathematical and scientific training. Being able to use imagination and thought in connection with experiencing and producing works and events of one's own choice, religious, literary, musical, and so forth. Being able to use one's mind in ways protected by guarantees of freedom of expression with respect to both political and artistic speech, and freedom of religious exercise. Being able to have pleasurable experiences and to avoid non-beneficial pain.
- Emotions. Being able to have attachments to things and people outside ourselves; to love those who love and care for us, to grieve at their absence; in general, to love, to grieve, to experience longing, gratitude, and justified anger. Not having one's emotional development blighted by fear and anxiety. (Supporting this capability means supporting forms of human association that can be shown to be crucial in their development.)
- Practical Reason. Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one's life. (This entails protection for the liberty of conscience and religious observance.)
- Being able to live with and toward others, to recognize and show concern for other humans, to engage in various forms of social interaction; to be able to imagine the situation of another. (Protecting this capability means protecting institutions that constitute and nourish such forms of affiliation, and also protecting the freedom of assembly and political speech.)
- Having the social bases of self-respect and non-humiliation; being able to be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others. This entails provisions of non-discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, caste, religion, national origin and species.
- Other Species. Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature.
- Play. Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.
- Control over one's Environment.
- Political. Being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one's life; having the right of political participation, protections of free speech and association.
- Material. Being able to hold property (both land and movable goods), and having property rights on an equal basis with others; having the right to seek employment on an equal basis with others; having the freedom from unwarranted search and seizure. In work, being able to work as a human, exercising practical reason and entering into meaningful relationships of mutual recognition with other workers.
Although Nussbaum by no means claims her list as definite and unchanging, she does strongly advocate for the advantages of outlining a list of central human capabilities. However, on the topic of a canonical list of essential capabilities, Sen is reluctant to join the search. His view is that an exact list and weights would be too difficult primarily due to two reasons: the necessary appropriate specification of the context of their use, which could vary, and a disinclination to in any way disvalue the domain of reasoning in the public sphere. Sen argues that the task of weighing various capabilities should be left to both the ethical and political considerations and scrutiny of a given society based on public reasoning.
Sen argues that part of the “richness” of the capability perspective is its insistence on the need for open valuational scrutiny for making social judgments, and as such, he chooses not to seek a defined, pre-determined list of what capabilities matter. Furthermore, along with a number of concerns raised regarding Nussbaum’s list, Alkire and Black also argue that Nussbaum’s methodology “runs counter to an essential thrust of the capabilities approach which has been the attempt to redirect development theory away from a reductive focus on a minimally decent life towards a more holistic account of human well being for all people.”
The approach was first fully articulated in Sen (1985) and discussed in Sen and Nussbaum (1993). Applications to development are discussed in Sen (1999), Nussbaum (2000), and Clark (2002, 2005) and are now numerous to the point where the capabilities approach is widely accepted as a paradigm in development.
The measurement of human capabilities
While the conceptual debate on whether or not a core set of capabilities should be specified and used as universal policy goals continues (for example, with differing positions taken by Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen), the measurement effort has moved forward to identify measures of capabilities. These measures are put forth as better indicators of development, well-being and quality of life, specifically in comparison with output-based measures (also referred to as resource-based), such as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and Gross National Product (GNP).
Although Sen does not promote using a set list of capabilities he has mentioned “that one of the uses of the capability perspective is to bring out the need for transparent valuational scrutiny of individual advantages and adversities” (p. 157). Furthermore, Sen, Nussbaum and others offer a capability-based critique of using GDP and GNP as measures of wellbeing. Essentially, these economic measures were created as a source to indicate a country’s economic prosperity and often it is the case that a growing economy makes it possible to improve living standards. However, the critique captures that GDP and GNP are inadequate as measures of well-being because economic well-being does not guarantee a well-rounded perspective of well-being and quality of life.
Although the capabilities approach is difficult to apply empirically because of the subjectivity of the variables such as those in Nussbaum’s list of Central Human Capabilities, it has been highly influential thus far in development economics. The approach has led to the development of the Human Development Index (HDI) in 1990, the Gender-related Development Index (GDI), and Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) in 1995, and in 2010 the Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI) (more information can be found under List of countries by inequality-adjusted HDI), and the Gender Inequality Index (GII) by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
Women and cultural universals
Nussbaum attempts to apply the capability approach to feminism. While she acknowledges feminism is multi-faceted and that utilizing universal claims about fundamental human principles can be interpreted as imperialistic, she nonetheless argues that a universal approach is necessary to battle injustices against women. This task Nussbaum has undertaken illustrates the fine line between the respect and preservation of a culture and the conflicting agenda it has in emancipating women from patriarchal structures.
The ten capabilities Nussbaum proposes are to universalize fundamental human rights and principles that allow for the greatest good in all human beings. By identifying the crucial elements of a "good" human life, this argument attempts to neutralize the debate between respecting culture and the imperialistic nature of applying universal principles. It prioritizes physical well being, which is crucial to leading a good human life. However, further analysis would suggest this emphasis can serve as a point of contention.
Asserting a set of human capabilities is a formative goal for all cultures and a rather bold statement by Nussbaum. In the ten capabilities Nussbaum proposes, it is important to draw attention to the overwhelming importance on life - life understood as physical health and well-being. Asserting the importance of physical well-being is not the point to be disputed with. Rather, the criticism here is that the overwhelming emphasis placed on the physical aspect of life undervalues spiritual life and well-being. It implies that physical and spiritual life are two separate entities - reminiscent of the secular treatment of religion in contemporary Western society.
This is further affirmed when Nussbaum speaks of practical reason as the sixth capability. She states that "This entails protection of the liberty of conscience", which suggests the practice of spiritual life is separate from that of physical life. This type of reasoning simplifies the complicated nature of religion. Religion for some can be understood as two isolated entities - church and state. However, for others, religion cannot be understood in isolation with their physical lives as they are deeply intertwined.
Furthermore, Nussbaum argues that in order to emancipate women it is required that culture be dismantled, and not protected simply for the sake of preserving culture. She states, "Cultures are not museum pieces, to be preserved intact at all costs". However, this assumption of culture is a highly problematic approach to tackling gendered injustice. This type of thinking neglects the socialization aspect of culture.
Culture should not be understood as a monolithic entity to be dismantled, but rather what needs to be examined is the socialization which occurs that allow certain cultures to persistently act against the physical, psychological and social well-being of women. By chipping away at aspects of a culture that endanger women does not eliminate the problem. Without the understanding of the socialization of cultural values, attempts to tackle the "monolith of tradition and culture" can only serve to treat the issue symptomatically. Symptoms of a patriarchal culture can be alleviated, but there are no guarantees that such symptoms cannot return as the illness itself has not been properly treated.
Monetary vs. nonmonetary measures of well-being
Monetary and nonmonetary measures of well-being are ideal when used to complement each other. Understanding the various aspects of economic development process not only helps address issues of inequality and lags in human development, but also helps pinpoint where countries are falling behind, which once addressed can further promote well-being and advancement. As the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (2006) notes:
Well-being has several dimensions of which monetary factors are only one. They are nevertheless an important one, since richer economies are better placed to create and maintain other well-being-enhancing conditions, such as a clean environment, the likelihood that the average person will have a right to 10 years or more of education, and lead a comparatively long and healthy life. Well-being will also be increased by institutions that enable citizens to feel that they control their own lives, and that investment of their time and resources will be rewarded. In turn, this will lead to higher incomes in a virtuous circle.
Simon Kuznets, the developer of GNP, cautioned against using the measure as an indicator of overall welfare, which speaks to the unintended use of output-based measures as indicators of human welfare.
Critique of output-based measures
The use of GDP and GNP as an approximation of well-being and development have been critiqued widely, because they are often misused as indicators of well-being and human development when in fact they are only telling about the economic capacity of a country or an average income level when expressed on a per person basis. The fields of feminist economics and environmental economics, in particular, offer a number of critiques. Critics in these fields typically discuss gender inequalities, insufficient representation of environmental costs of productions and general issues of misusing an output-based measure for unintended purposes. In sum, the conclusion of Capabilities Approach is that people do not just value monetary income, and that development is linked to various indicators of life satisfaction and hence are important in measuring well-being. Development policies strive to create an environment for people to live long, healthy creative lives.
Nussbaum highlights some of the problematic assumptions and conclusions of output-based approaches to development. First, she points out that GNP and GDP do not take into account the special requirements to aid those that are the most vulnerable, such as women. Specifically, Nussbaum mentions that output-based approaches do not consider the distribution needs for the varying circumstances of people, for example a pregnant woman will need more resources than a non-pregnant woman or a single man.
Furthermore, feminist economists critique output-based measures because they do not account for women’s unpaid work, which includes child rearing and all the societal advantages that result from a mother's work. Marilyn Waring, a political economist and activist for women's human rights, elaborates on the example of a mother engaged in child care, domestic care and producing few goods for the informal market, all of which are likely done simultaneously.
These activities have economic benefits when provided but are not valued in national accounting systems and so her critique suggests that the definition of unemployment used in output-based measures is inappropriate. This idea can be applied to much of women’s work and it is part of the critique that Waring offers, and that is, that women’s work is invisible and that traditional output-based measures do not consider women’s unpaid work, or work in the informal sector, gender inequalities and women’s well-being (see the section titled “Well-being” under Feminist economics for more detail).
Another critique made by Waring is that the output-based measures do not factor in negative consequences of economic growth and so commodities that lower social welfare (like nuclear weapons) are considered a good input, the same can be said of the costs of cleaning up oil spills. The “anti-bads” or the defensive expenditures to fight "bads" are not counted as a deduction in accounting systems (p. 11). Furthermore, natural resources are treated as limitless and negative outputs such as pollution and associated health risks, are not deducted from the measures.
Technical and misinterpretation critiques
When GNP and GDP were developed, their intended use was not for measuring human well-being, the intended use was as an indicator of economic growth and that does not necessarily translate into human well-being. Kuznets has often made this point, in his words, “distinctions must be kept in mind between quantity and quality of growth, between costs and returns and between the short and long run. Goals for more growth should specify more growth of what and for what” (p. 9).
Nussbaum also points out that GNP and GDP omit income distribution and do not analyze the opportunity or ability to turn resources into actual activities (this critique stems directly from Capabilities Approach). Kuznets terms this as a problem of “obtaining an unduplicated total of all output,” (p. 15) this suggests that people are only seen as consumers and not as potential producers, hence any products purchased by an individual are not seen as “being consumed in the productive process of turning out other goods” (p. 15)
These accounting measures also fail to capture all forms of work and only focus on “engagement in work ‘for pay or profit,’” (p. 133) leaving out contributions to a society and economy, like volunteer work and subsistence farming. Kuznets provides the example of the process by which farmers devote time and energy to bringing virgin land into cultivation. Furthermore, GNP and GDP only account for monetary exchanges, and place no value on some important intangibles such as leisure time.
Shift towards alternative measures
Capabilities Approach has been highly influential thus far in human development theories and valuational methods of capturing capabilities, the theory has led to the creation of the HDI, IHDI and GII and their uses among international organizations such as the United Nations and others. In 1990 in the Human Development Report (HDR)commissioned by the UNDP set out to create a distribution-sensitive development measure.
This measure was created to rival the more traditional metrics of GDP and GNP, which had previously been used to measure level of development in a given country, but which did not contain provisions for terms of distribution. The resulting measure was entitled the Human Development Index, created by Mahbub ul Haq in collaboration with Sen and others. The purpose was to create an indicator of human development, especially one that would provide a general assessment and critique of global human development to shed light on persistent inequality, poverty and other capability deprivations despite high levels of GDP growth.
Currently the HDI continues to be used in the Human Development Report in addition to many other measures (based on theoretical perspectives of Capabilities) that have been developed and used by the United Nations. Among these indices are the Gender-related Development Index (GDI), the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM), introduced in 1995, and the more recent Gender Inequality Index (GII) and the Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI), both adopted in 2010.
The following are a few of the major indices that were created based on the theoretical grounds of Capabilities Approach.
Human development index
The Human Development Index takes into consideration a number of development and well-being factors that are not taken into account in the calculation of GDP and GNP. The Human Development Index is calculated using the indicators of life expectancy, adult literacy, school enrollment, and logarithmic transformations of per-capita income. Moreover, it is noted that the HDI “is a weighted average of income adjusted for distributions and purchasing power, life expectancy, literacy and health” (p. 16)
The HDI is calculated for individual countries with a value between 0 and 1 and is “interpreted…as the ultimate development that has been attained by that nation” (p. 17). Currently, the 2011 Human Development Report also includes the Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index which accounts for exactly the same things that the HDI considers however the IHDI has all three dimensions (long and healthy life, knowledge and a decent standard of living) adjusted for inequalities in the distribution of each dimension across the population.
The Gender-related Development Index is defined as a “distribution-sensitive measure that accounts for the human development impact of existing gender gaps in the three components of the HDI” (p. 243). In this way, the GDI accounts for shortcomings in the HDI in terms of gender, because it reevaluate’s a country’s score in the three areas of the HDI based on perceived gender gaps, and penalizes the score of the country if, indeed, large gender disparities in those areas exist. This index is used in unison with the HDI and therefore also captures the elements of capabilities that the HDI holds. In addition it considers women’s capabilities which has been a focus in much of Sen’s and Nussbaum’s work (to list a few: Nussbaum, 2004a; Nussbaum, 2004b; Sen, 2001; Sen, 1990.)
Gender empowerment measure
The Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) is considerably more specialized than the GDI. The GEM focuses particularly on the relative empowerment of women in a given country. The empowerment of women is measured by evaluating women’s employment in high-ranking economic positions, seats in parliament, and share of household income. Notably this measurement captures more of Nussbaum’s 10 Central Capabilities, such as, Senses, Imagination and Thought; Affiliation; and Control Over Ones Environment.
Gender inequality index
In the 2010 Human Development Report the Gender Inequality Index was introduced in order to correct shortcomings of the GDI and the GEM. This new experimental composite measurement uses three dimensions: reproductive health, empowerment, and labor force participation. When constructing the index the following criteria were key: conceptual relevance to definitions of human development and theory; Non-ambiguity so that the index is easily interpreted; Reliability of data that is standardized and collected/processed by a trustworthy organization; No redundancy found in other indicators; and lastly Power of discrimination, where distribution is well distinguished among countries and there is no “bunching” among top and bottom countries (p. 10). This index also captures some of Nussbaum’s 10 Central Capabilities (Senses, Imagination and Thought; Affiliation; and Control Over Ones Environment).
In 1997, the UNDP introduced the Human Poverty Index (HPI), which is aimed at measuring poverty in both industrialized and developing countries. The HPI is a “nonincome-based” measure of poverty (p. 100) which focuses on “human outcomes in terms of choices and opportunities that a person faces” (p. 99). In support of this index Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, a development economist and past Director of The Human Development Report Office, differentiates between income poverty and human poverty. Human poverty can be interpreted as deprivations to lead a long healthy and creative life with a decent standard of living.
Alternative measures of well-being
As noted above, to a great extent, Nussbaum’s Central Human Capabilities address issues of equality, political freedom, creativity and the right to the self, as do the various indices that are based on capabilities. It is evident that these measures are very subjective, but this fact is in the essence of defining quality of life according to Nussbaum and Sen. Nussbaum refers to Sen in saying that, although measures of well-being may be problematic in comparative, quantifiable models due to their subjective matter, the protection of and commitment to human development are too important of matters to be left on the sidelines of economic progress. Well-being and quality of life are too important to be left without intentional focus towards political change,
Measures such as the HDI, GDI, GEM, GII, IHDI and the like are crucial in targeting issues of well-being and indicators of quality of life. Anand, et al. (2009) can be summarized as demonstrating that it is possible to measure capabilities within the conventions applied to standard household survey design, contrary to earlier doubts about the ability to operationalise the capabilities approach.
Contrast with other approaches
Contrast with utility-based or subjective approaches
Much of conventional welfare economics today is grounded in a utilitarian approach according to the classical Benthamite form of utilitarianism, in which the most desirable action is the one that best increases peoples’ psychological happiness or satisfaction. The “utility” of a person stands for some measure of his or her pleasure or happiness. Some merits associated with this approach to measuring well being are that it recognizes the importance of taking account of the results of social arrangements in judging them and the need to pay attention to the well being of the people involved when judging social arrangements and their results. However, though all people want to be happy, the concerns this approach raises are that it may overlook the things we really value as well as fundamental inequalities. Amartya Sen outlines three main deficiencies: distributional indifference, neglect of rights, freedoms and other non-utility concerns, and adaptation and mental conditioning.
First off, for some more than others, it may take much less to bring about happiness, but subjecting them to lesser opportunities for resources and benefits is by no means fair or just. Thus, distributional indifference refers to ignoring extents of inequalities in what’s needed to obtain happiness on an individual level. Secondly, the utilitarian approach attaches no intrinsic value (ethics) to claims of rights and freedoms, which people have reason to value and the importance of which is fundamental to the capabilities approach.
Lastly, Amartya Sen makes the argument that the utilitarian view of individual well being can be easily swayed by mental conditioning and peoples’ happiness adapting to oppressive situations. The utility calculus can essentially be unfair to those who have come to terms with their deprivation as a means for survival, adjusting their desires and expectations. The capability approach, on the other hand, doesn’t fall victim to these same criticisms because it acknowledges inequalities by focusing on equalizing people’s capabilities, not happiness, it stresses the intrinsic importance of rights and freedoms when evaluating well being, and it avoids overlooking deprivation by focusing on capabilities and opportunities, not state of mind.
Contrast with resource-based approaches
Another common approach in conventional economics, in economic policy and judging development, has traditionally been to focus on income and resources. These sorts of approaches to development focus on increasing resources, such as assets, property rights, or basic needs. However, measuring resources is fundamentally different than measuring functionings, such as the case in which people don’t have the capability to use their resources in the means they see fit. Arguably, the main difficulty in a resource- or income-based approach to well being lies in personal heterogeneities, namely the diversity of human beings.
Different amounts of income are needed for different individuals to enjoy similar capabilities, such as an individual with severe disabilities whose treatment to ensure the fulfillment of basic capabilities may require dramatically more income compared to an able-bodied person. All sorts of differences, such as differences in age, gender, talents, etc. can make two people have extremely divergent opportunities of quality of life, even when equipped with exactly the same commodities. Additionally, other contingent circumstances which affect what an individual can make of a given set of resources include environmental diversities (in geographic sense), variations in social climate, differences in relational perspectives, and distribution within the family.
The capability approach, however, seeks to consider all such circumstances when evaluating people’s actual capabilities. Furthermore, there are things people value other than increased resources. In some cases, maximizing resources may even be objectionable. As was recognized in the 1990 Human Development Report, the basic objective of development is to create an enabling environment for people to live long, healthy, and creative lives. This end is often lost in the immediate concern with the accumulation of commodities and financial wealth that are only a means to expansion of capabilities. Overall, though resources and income have a profound effect on what we can or cannot do, the capability approach recognizes that they are not the only things to be considered when judging well being, switching the focus from a means to a good life to the freedom to achieve actual improvements in lives, which one has reason to value.
- Sen, Amartya K. (1985). Commodities and Capabilities. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (OUP description)
- Anand P, Hunter G, Carter I, Dowding K, van Hees M, (2009). The Development of Capability Indicators, Journal of Human Development and Capabilities, 10, 125-52
- Anand P, Santos C and Smith R, (2009). The Measurement of Capabilities in Arguments for a Better World: Essays in Honor of Amartya Sen, Basu K and Kanbur R (eds) (Oxford, Oxford University Press).
- Sen, A (1999) Development as Freedom, New York: Knopf, p.291
- Sen, Amartya. 1992. Inequality Reexamined. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Alkire, S and Deneulin, S. (2009). "The Human Development and Capability Approach." An Introduction to the Human Development and Capability Approach (accessed Oct. 28, 2010). Sterling, VA: Earthscan.
- Sen, Amartya. (1999). Development As Freedom. New York: Knopf. (Google book preview).
- Alkire, S. 2005a. “Capability and Functionings: Definition & Justification.” Human Development and Capability Association. 1 Sept. 2005. http://www.capabilityapproach.com/pubs/HDCA_Briefing_Concepts.pdf (accessed Oct. 28, 2010).
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- Human Development and Capability Association
- Journal of Human Development
- The Measurement of Human Capabilities
- Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative (OPHI)