where are citizens in the Capabilities Approach?

The “capabilities approach” is a theoretical position in political philosophy and development economics that has been advanced by Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, and now numerous others. Summarized very crudely, it presumes that human beings have a set of potential “functionings.” These functionings, which Sen has called “beings and doings,” range from eating and being calm to raising children and holding office. A “capability” is the actual capacity to perform one of the functionings. So, if I can afford food, if I am allowed to eat, if I have time for a meal, and if I am in normal health, then I have the capability to eat. Whether I choose to eat is substantially my business–I may fast for religious reasons or skip a meal to do something important–but a better society is one that provides more capabilities.

This approach steers a course among several dangerous shoals: It doesn’t ignore freedom, because you have the choice about whether to exercise a capability. But it defines freedom in a partly positive way, not merely as the absence of official constraints. (I am not free to eat if I am destitute.) It is a theory of well-being that does not assume that the goal is to maximize subjective happiness. It is concerned with individuals yet allows for the measurement of aggregate social welfare. It makes objective and universal claims about human beings yet encourages diversity.

All that is by way of background. I have a complaint about the specific formulation of the approach in Martha Nussbaum’s 2011 book Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach. A few quotes will quickly reveal my concern:

In my view, there is a conceptual connection between Central Capabilities [the really important ones] and government … Of course governments may delegate … to private entities, but in the end it is government, meaning the society’s basic political structure, that bears the ultimate responsibilities for securing capabilities …. . The Capabilities Approach … insists that all entitlements involve an affirmative task for government: it must actively support people’s capabilities, not just fail to set up obstacles. … Fundamental rights are only words unless and until they are made real by government action. [pp. 64-5]

Citizens can deliberate about the fundamental political principles for which they want their nation to stand–if they are framing a new constitution, for example [p. 74].

The task for the constitution-maker (or, more often, for courts interpreting an abstract constitution and for legislators proposing statutes) is to select a level that is aspirational but not utopian. … [p. 42]

Note the emphasis on government as the agent. Citizens originally frame constitutions that will be interpreted and implemented by courts and legislatures, “and citizens deliberate about legislation–subject to the intervention of courts, if a statute violates constitutional guarantee” (p. 75). Citizens emerge only at the end of this long paragraph about professional politicians and lawyers, and the phrase after the dash urgently reminds us that their role is constrained.

I would start in a different place. We the people have the obligation to secure capabilities for our fellow citizens–or even for all human beings. Whether a government is the best tool for securing any particular capability is a worthy question for us to consider. In general, governments have the ability to make rights and entitlements official and universal, to fund them through taxes, and to enforce them at the point of a gun. But they have known frailties, too: limited information, a tendency to corruption, limited territorial control in a global market, and limited ability to constrain the bad behavior of individuals. Sen opens his book The Idea of Justice (2009) with a passage from Great Expectations. Pip is decrying his unjust treatment at the hands (literally) of his sister. Sen observes that injustice “may well be connected with behavioural transgressions rather than with institutional shortcomings.” (Pip has an objection to his sister, but not to the family or family law.)

Apart from the limits of government, there is also a deeper problem. Treating the state as an agent puts us in the position of hoping that the state acts well. Why should it act well if we put no pressure on it? So I think this theory is problematically incomplete:

good government –> capabilities

We might as well just write “capabilities” on the paper and assume that they will somehow be provided. The theory must be:

good citizens –> good government –> capabilities

But that raises the urgent question of how we are to get good citizens. To be sure, good governments help make good citizens–just regimes are self-sustaining. But that is no use to people who live in imperfect societies among imperfect people, with bad laws and leaders and short-sighted or even hateful citizens. (Auden: “I and the public know / What all schoolchildren learn, / Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.”) Thus I think the most important question is how to fill in this X:

x –> good citizens –> good government –> capabilities –> good citizens

I don’t blame Nussbaum for failing to address the citizens’ role (no book explains everything), but she implies that it isn’t even relevant.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.