Wellbeing, Freedom and Social Justice - Ingrid Robeyns - ebook

How do we evaluate ambiguous concepts such as wellbeing, freedom, and social justice? How do we develop policies that offer everyone the best chance to achieve what they want from life? The capability approach, a theoretical framework pioneered by the philosopher and economist Amartya Sen in the 1980s, has become an increasingly influential way to think about these issues.Wellbeing, Freedom and Social Justice: The Capability Approach Re-Examined is both an introduction to the capability approach and a thorough evaluation of the challenges and disputes that have engrossed the scholars who have developed it. Ingrid Robeyns offers her own illuminating and rigorously interdisciplinary interpretation, arguing that by appreciating the distinction between the general capability approach and more specific capability theories or applications we can create a powerful and flexible tool for use in a variety of academic disciplines and fields of policymaking.This book provides an original and comprehensive account that will appeal to scholars of the capability approach, new readers looking for an interdisciplinary introduction, and those interested in theories of justice, human rights, basic needs, and the human development approach.

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Wellbeing, Freedom and Social Justice

The Capability Approach Re-Examined

Ingrid Robeyns


© 2017 Ingrid Robeyns

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Ingrid Robeyns, Wellbeing, Freedom and Social Justice: The Capability Approach Re-Examined. Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers, 2017. http://dx.doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0130

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Cover image: Weaving by Aaron Robeyns (2015). Photo by Roland Pierik (2017), CC-BY 4.0. Cover design by Heidi Coburn.

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Why the capability approach?



The worries of the sceptics



A yardstick for the evaluation of prosperity and progress



Scope and development of the capability approach



A guide for the reader



Core Ideas and the Framework






A preliminary definition of the capability approach



The capability approach versus capability theories



The many modes of capability analysis



The modular view of the capability approach



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



A1: Functionings and capabilities



A2: Functionings and capabilities are value-neutral categories



A3: Conversion factors



A4: The means-ends distinction



A5: Functionings and capabilities as the evaluative space



A6: Other dimensions of ultimate value



A7: Value pluralism



A8: The principle of each person as an end



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



B1: The purpose of the capability theory



B2: The selection of dimensions



B3: Human diversity



B4: Agency



B5: Structural constraints



B6: The choice between functionings, capabilities, or both



B7: Meta-theoretical commitments



The C-modules: contingent modules



C1: Additional ontological and explanatory theories



C2: Weighing dimensions



C3: Methods for empirical analysis



C4: Additional normative principles and concerns



The modular view of the capability account: a summary



Hybrid theories



The relevance and implications of the modular view



A visualisation of the core conceptual elements



The narrow and broad uses of the capability approach












Refining the notions of ‘capability’ and ‘functioning’



Capability as an opportunity versus capability as an opportunity set



Nussbaum’s terminology



What are ‘basic capabilities’?



Conceptual and terminological refinements



Are capabilities freedoms, and if so, which ones?



Capabilities as positive freedoms?



Capabilities as opportunity or option freedoms?



Are capabilities best understood as freedoms?



Functionings or capabilities?



Human diversity in the capability approach



Collective capabilities



Which notion of wellbeing is used in the capability approach?



The aim and context of accounts of wellbeing



The standard taxonomy of philosophical wellbeing accounts



The accounts of wellbeing in the capability approach



Happiness and the capability approach



What is the happiness approach?



The ontological objection



Mental adaptation and social comparisons



Comparing groups



Macro analysis



The place of happiness in the capability approach



The capability approach and adaptive preferences



Can the capability approach be an explanatory theory?



A suitable theory for all normative questions?



The role of resources in the capability approach



The capability approach and theories of justice



A brief description of the literature on theories of justice



What do we need for a capability theory of justice?



From theories of justice to just practices and policies



Capabilities and human rights



What are human rights?



The interdisciplinary scholarship on human rights



Why a capability-based account of human rights?



Are capabilities sufficientto construct a theory of human rights?



The disadvantages






Critiques and Debates






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



Should we commit to a specific list of capabilities?



Why not use the notion of needs?



Does the capability approach only address the government?



Is the capability approach too individualistic?



Different forms of individualism



Does the capability approach pay sufficient attention to groups?



Social structures, norms and institutions in the capability approach



What about power and political economy?



Which account of power and choice?



Should we prioritise analysing the political economy?



Is the capability approach a liberal theory?



Why ‘human development’ is not the same idea



Can the capability approach change welfare economics?



Welfare economics and the economics discipline






Empirical possibilities and challenges



Towards a heterodox capabilitarian welfare economics?



Taking stock



Which Future for the Capability Approach?






To Roland, Aaron and Ischa


In 1998, when I started to work on my PhD dissertation at Cambridge University on the capability approach and gender inequality, there were very few scholars working on the capability approach. I recall searching on the internet for publications on the topic, not receiving more than a few hundred hits (rather than the, roughly, 440,000 hits one gets today). I had studied economics and additional courses in social and political sciences and gender studies, and I had a strong intuition that, for the study of gender inequalities, the capability approach was a much more suitable framework than the prevailing ways in which economists as well as political theorists analysed unjustified gender inequalities. I was extremely lucky that Amartya Sen had agreed to supervise my doctoral studies. He not only opened a world that was new for me (being the first in my family to study for a PhD and the first to study abroad), but also taught me not to be afraid of developing myself as an interdisciplinary scholar. And, importantly, he very patiently helped me to grasp the capability approach in all its details. The privilege of having Amartya Sen as my PhD supervisor meant that I had the best possible access to the scholar who had developed the capability approach as it emerged at the end of the twentieth century. When I graduated from Cambridge University, I asked Amartya whether he was planning to write another book on the capability approach, such as his classic Commodities and Capabilities. He smiled, shook his head and responded: “No, it has grown over my head”. His judgement was probably very accurate — in essence the problem of a literature becoming unwieldy — and that challenge only became much worse over the next two decades. One way to read this book is to see it as an attempt to tame the proliferation of scholarship about the capability approach since the turn of the last century.

Over the last fifteen years, I have published quite a number of articles, book chapters and online pieces on the capability approach, including many that had as their main aim to clarify or explain certain aspects of it. But I kept receiving many emails from students who had questions about the capability approach. Their emails, as well as conversations with scholars sceptical of the importance of this approach, made it clear that a general introduction was necessary to answer as many of these questions as possible. I decided to write an introductory overview of the capability approach, in which the aim was not to develop my own, novel version of a capability theory, but rather to try to present a general helicopter view of the approach. In addition, I felt that too many claims about or critiques of the capability approach that were circulating were based either on some scholar’s own interest in seeing the approach develop exclusively in a certain direction, or else were based on misunderstandings, often due to miscommunication between different disciplines.

The result lies in front of you. Unfortunately, it took me much longer to write this than I had originally planned; almost twelve years lie between the initial idea and its completion. Yet in hindsight, despite that at many points the ambition of writing this book felt like a heavy psychological burden, I have no regrets that I’m only now completing it. Only in the last year, after the publication of an article in the Journal of Human Development and Capabilities in which I offered a general definition of the capability approach (Robeyns 2016b), did it became clear to me exactly what the general anatomy of the approach looked like. Thanks to discussions with students and other scholars, the generalisation of the capability approach that emerged from that journal article was further crystallised and polished. That generalisation is the heart of this book, and it is presented in chapter 2. In addition, I also provide what one could see as an F.A.Q. guide to the capability literature — the most frequently voiced questions and criticisms will be clarified and discussed in chapters 3 and 4.

Over the many years of developing my own understanding of the capability approach, I have learnt a lot from other scholars as well as from those whom I taught. Intellectually, my biggest debt is no doubt to Amartya Sen, who had the single most important influence on my intellectual development. I also learnt a lot from conversations on the capability approach with people working in different disciplines and in different corners of the world. I cannot possibly list everyone who contributed to my understanding and thinking, yet I would like to express my gratitude to Bina Agarwal, Sabina Alkire, Constanze Binder, Harry Brighouse, Morten Fibieger Byskov, Enrica Chiappero-Martinetti, Rutger Claassen, Ina Conradie, Andrew Crabtree, David Crocker, Séverine Deneulin, Avner De-Shalit, Jay Drydryk, Des Gasper, Pablo Gilabert, Reiko Gotoh, Govert den Hartogh, Martin van Hees, Jane Humphries, Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, Matthias Kramm, Sem de Maagt, Martha Nussbaum, Ilse Oosterlaken, Antonella Picchio, Roland Pierik, Mozaffar Qizilbash, Erik Schokkaert, Elaine Unterhalter, Robert van der Veen, Sridhar Venkatapuram, Polly Vizzard, Melanie Walker, Krushil Watene, Tom Wells, Jonathan Wolff, as well as my late friend and co-author Wiebke Kuklys. I also benefited a lot from teaching the capability approach to hundreds of students, but in particular during a week-long course at the University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, in 2011; during a workshop at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo in March 2016; during a Masterclass at the London School of Economics in which I worked on a draft of this book manuscript in February 2017; and during a Research Master’s tutorial in practical philosophy at Utrecht University during the academic year 2016–2017.

I benefited from the comments I received at two book manuscript workshops that were held over the last year, one at the Erasmus University Rotterdam organised by Constanze Binder and Sem de Maagt, and the other as a session at the 2017 Human Devolpment & Capability Association (HDCA) conference in Cape Town, organised by Morten Fibieger Byskov and Rebecca Gutwald. I benefited from the comments I received at those occasions from Morten Fibieger Byskov, Willem van der Deijl, Monique Deveaux, Akshath Jitendranath, Caroline Suransky and Miriam Teschl in Rotterdam, and from Solava Ibrahim, Serene Khader and Henry Richardson in Cape Town. In addition, I also received comments on parts of the draft manuscript from Conrad Heilmann, Chris Lyon, Bart Mijland, Raphael Ng, Petra van der Kooij, Roland Pierik and Polly Vizard. I owe special thanks to Constanze Binder, Séverine Deneulin, Morten Fibieger Byskov, Matthias Kramm, Sem de Maagt and Henry Richardson, whose comments led to multiple substantive changes. Thanks also to the two anonymous reviewers who reviewed the book proposal in 2011 and especially to Tania Burchardt, who reviewed the final manuscript and provided very valuable suggestions for final revisions.

My thanks are also due to Robert van der Veen, for his permission to draw on our joint work in section 3.8. I would furthermore like to acknowledge generous research funding from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), who awarded me three grants over the last 15 years that allowed me to further develop my research on the capability approach: a four-year postdoctoral scholarship (2002–2006) to work on the capability approach and theories of justice; a VIDI grant (2006–2011) to work on demographic changes and social justice using the capability approach as one of the normative tools; and finally the Horizon grant (2011–2016) awarded to a consortium of scholars from three universities and led by Marcus Düwell, for an interdisciplinary analysis of practical self-understanding. Thanks also to the team at Open Book Publishers — in particular Lucy Barnes, Bianca Gualandi, Alice Meyer, and Alessandra Tosi — who have been a real pleasure to work with.

This book is dedicated to my family — to my husband Roland Pierik and our children Aaron and Ischa. This book contains not only almost half a million characters typed and retyped by me, but also visible and less visible contributions from my three (little) men. Obviously, as a fellow political philosopher with interdisciplinary leanings, there are insights from Roland in various places in this book, including some direct citations. Moreover, Roland helped me not to let the best be the enemy of the good, and kept encouraging me to finish this book. If I waited until I was happy with each sentence and paragraph, this book probably would never see the light of day. Ischa’s contribution may be the least visible, yet it is there. It is his unconventional view of human affairs that keeps prompting me not to accept norms or practices that are unjust or make no sense. Aaron provided the artwork for the cover. The woven piece very well represents the multi-dimensional nature of the capability approach, as well as the fact that life is made up by one’s own choice of functionings, which follows a dynamic and always unfinished pattern. If one has enough bright and colourful functionings, they can be woven together to become something bigger than the mere functionings taken separately — a flourishing life worth living.

1. Introduction

© 2017 Ingrid Robeyns, CC BY 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0130.01

1.1 Why the capability approach?

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

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

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

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

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

1.2 The worries of the sceptics

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

There are two types of answer to the sceptics. The first is conceptual or theoretical and that answer will be given in the remainder of this book. In a nutshell, the reason the capability approach is worth our time and attention is that it gives us a new way of evaluating the lives of individuals and the societies in which these people live their lives. The attention is shifted to public values currently not always considered most important — such as wellbeing, freedom and justice. It is an alternative discourse or paradigm, perhaps even a ‘counter-theory’ to a range of more mainstream discourses on society, poverty and prosperity. Moreover, it brings insights from several disciplines together, and gives scholars a common interdisciplinary language. Nevertheless, it doesn’t follow that the capability approach will always offer a framework that is to be preferred over other frameworks: as this book will show, the capability approach can contribute something, but we should be careful not to overplay our hand and believe that it can do a better job for all ethical questions.

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

1.3 A yardstick for the evaluation of prosperity and progress

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

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

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

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

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


Average for other poorest countries

India’s rank among 16 poorest countries

GDP per capita, 2011 (PPP Constant 2005 international $)




Life expectancy at birth, 2011 (years)




Infant mortality rate, 2011 (per 1,000 live births)




Under-5 mortality rate, 2011

(per 1,000 live births)




Total fertility rate, 2011

(children per woman)




Access to improved sanitation, 2010 (%)




Mean years of schooling, age 25+, 2011




Literacy rate, age 14–15 years, 2010 (%)









Proportion of children below 5 years who are undernourished, 2006–2010 (%)









Child immunization rates, 2011 (%)









Source: Drèze and Sen (2013, 47).

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

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

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

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

1.4 Scope and development of the capability approach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5 A guide for the reader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Core Ideas and the Framework

© 2017 Ingrid Robeyns, CC BY 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0130.02

2.1 Introduction

The previous chapter listed a range of fields in which the capability approach has been taken up, and in chapters 3 and 4 we focus in more detail on how the capability approach can (or cannot) make a difference for thinking about wellbeing, social and distributive justice, human rights, welfare economics and other topics. This broad uptake of the capability approach across disciplines and across different types of knowledge production (from theoretical and abstract to applied or policy oriented) is testimony to its success. But how is the capability approach understood in these different fields, and is it possible to give a coherent and clarifying account of how we can understand the capability approach across those fields?1 In other words, how should we understand the capability approach as an overarching framework, that unites its more specific uses in different fields and disciplines?

This chapter gives an account of that general framework. It provides explanations and insights into what the capability approach is, what its core claims are, and what additional claims we should pay attention to. This chapter will also answer the question: what do we mean exactly when we say that the capability approach is a framework or an approach?

In other words, in this chapter, I will give an account (or a description) of the capability approach at the most general level. I will bracket additional details and questions about which disagreement or confusion exists; chapter 3 will offer more detailed clarifications and chapter 4 will discuss issues of debate and dispute. Taken together, these three chapters provide my understanding of the capability approach.

Chapter 2 is structured as follows. In the next section, we look at a preliminary definition of the capability approach. Section 2.3 proposes to make a distinction between ‘the capability approach’ and ‘a capability theory’. This distinction is crucial — it will help us to clarify various issues that we will look at in this book, and it also provides some answers to the sceptics of the capability approach whom we encountered in the previous chapter. Section 2.4 describes, from a bottom-up perspective, the many ways in which the capability approach has been developed within particular theories, and argues why it is important to acknowledge the great diversity within capabilitarian scholarship. Sections 2.5 to 2.11 present an analytic account of the capability approach, and show what is needed to develop a particular capability theory, application or analysis. In 2.5, I propose the modular view of the capability approach, which allows us to distinguish between three different types of modules that make up a capability theory. The first, the A-module, consists of those properties that each capability theory must have (section 2.6). This is the non-optional core of each capability theory. The B-modules are a set of modules in which the module itself is non-optional, but there are different possible choices regarding the content of the module (section 2.7). For example, we cannot have a capability theory or application without having chosen a purpose for that theory or application — yet there are many different purposes among which we can choose. The third group of modules, the C-modules, are either non-optional but dependent on a choice made in the B-modules, or else are completely optional. For example, if the purpose you choose is to measure poverty, then you need to decide on some empirical methods in the C-modules; but if your aim is to make a theory of justice, you don’t need to choose empirical methods and hence the C-module for empirical methods (module C3) is not relevant for your capability application (section 2.8).2 In the next section, 2.9, I discuss the possibility of hybrid theories — theories that give a central role to functionings and capabilities yet violate some other core proposition(s). Section 2.11 rounds up the discussion of the modular view by discussing the relevance and advantages of seeing the capability approach from this perspective.

Section 2.12 summarises the conceptual aspects that have been explained by presenting a visualisation of the conceptual framework of the capability approach. Section 2.13 uses the modular view to illuminate the observation, which has been made by several capability scholars, that the capability approach has been used in a narrow and in a broad sense, and explains what difference lies behind this distinction. In the broader use of the capability approach, supporting or complementary theories or additional normative principles are added to the core of the approach — yet none of them is itself essential to the capability approach. These are choices made in B-modules or the C-modules. The modular view of the capability approach that will be central to this chapter can thus help to formulate in a sharper manner some observations that have already been made in the capability literature. The chapter closes by looking ahead to the next chapter.

2.2 A preliminary definition of the capability approach

The capability approach has in recent decades emerged as a new theoretical framework about wellbeing, freedom to achieve wellbeing, and all the public values in which either of these can play a role, such as development and social justice. Although there is some scholarly disagreement on the best description of the capability approach (which will be addressed in this chapter), it is generally understood as a conceptual framework for a range of evaluative exercises, including most prominently the following: (1) the assessment of individual levels of achieved wellbeing and wellbeing freedom; (2) the evaluation and assessment of social arrangements or institutions;3 and (3) the design of policies and other forms of social change in society.

We can trace some aspects of the capability approach back to, among others, Aristotle, Adam Smith, Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill,4 yet it is Sen who pioneered the approach and a growing number of other scholars across the humanities and the social sciences who have significantly developed it — most significantly Martha Nussbaum, who has developed the capability approach into a partial theory of social justice.5Nussbaum also understands her own capabilities account as a version of a theory of human rights.6 The capability approach purports that freedom to achieve wellbeing is a matter of what people are able to do and to be, and thus the kind of life they are effectively able to lead. The capability approach is generally conceived as a flexible and multipurpose framework, rather than a precise theory (Sen 1992a, 48; Alkire 2005; Robeyns 2005b, 2016b; Qizilbash 2012; Hick and Burchardt 2016, 78). The open-ended and underspecified nature of the capability approach is crucial, but it has not made it easier for its students to understand what kind of theoretical endeavour the capability approach exactly is. How should we understand it? Isn’t there a better account possible than the somewhat limited description of the capability approach as ‘an open, flexible and multi-purpose framework’? Answering these questions will be the task of this chapter.7

The open and underspecified nature of the capability approach also explains why the term ‘capability approach’ was adopted and is now widely used rather than ‘capability theory’. Yet as I will argue in section 2.3, we could use the terms ‘capability theory’ and ‘capability approach’ in a more illuminating way to signify a more substantive difference, which will help us to get a better grip on the capability literature.

It may be helpful to introduce the term ‘advantage’ here, which is a technical term used in academic debates about interpersonal comparisons and in debates about distributive justice.8 A person’s advantage is those aspects of that person’s interests that matter (generally, or in a specific context). Hence ‘advantage’ could refer to a person’s achieved wellbeing, or it could refer to her opportunity to achieve wellbeing, or it could refer to her negative freedoms, or to her positive freedoms, or to some other aspect of her interests. By using the very general term ‘advantage’, we allow ourselves to remain agnostic between the more particular specifications of that term;9 our analysis will apply to all the different ways in which ‘advantage’ could be used. This technical term ‘advantage’ thus allows us to move the arguments to a higher level of generality or abstraction, since we can focus, for example, on which conditions interpersonal comparisons of advantage need to meet, without having to decide on the exact content of ‘advantage’.

Within the capability approach, there are two different specifications of ‘advantage’: achieved wellbeing, and the freedom to achieve wellbeing. The notions of ‘functionings’ and ‘capabilities’ — which will be explained in detail in section 2.6.1 — are used to flesh out the account of achieved wellbeing and the freedom to achieve wellbeing.10 Whether the capability approach is used to analyse distributive injustice, or measure poverty, or develop curriculum design — in all these projects the capability approach prioritises certain people’s beings and doings and their opportunities to realize those beings and doings (such as their genuine opportunities to be educated, their ability to move around or to enjoy supportive social relationships). This stands in contrast to other accounts of advantage, which focus exclusively on mental categories (such as happiness) or on the material means to wellbeing (such as resources like income or wealth).11

Thus, the capability approach is a conceptual framework, which is in most cases used as a normative framework for the evaluation and assessment of individual wellbeing and that of institutions, in addition to its much more infrequent use for non-normative purposes.12 It can be used to evaluate a range of values that draw on an assessment of people’s wellbeing, such as inequality, poverty, changes in the wellbeing of persons or the average wellbeing of the members of a group. It can also be used as an evaluative tool providing an alternative for social cost-benefit analysis, or as a framework within which to design and evaluate policies and institutions, such as welfare state design in affluent societies, or poverty reduction strategies by governments and non-governmental organisations in developing countries.

What does it mean, exactly, if we say that something is a normative analysis? Unfortunately, social scientists and philosophers use these terms slightly differently. My estimate is that, given their numerical dominance, the terminology that social scientists use is dominant within the capability literature. Yet the terminology of philosophers is more refined and hence I will start by explaining the philosophers’ use of those terms, and then lay out how social scientists use them.

What might a rough typology of research in this area look like? By drawing on some discussions on methods in ethics and political philosophy