introducing the Capabilities Approach

(DeLand, Florida) In Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach, Martha Nussbaum proposes that human beings have ten “Central Capabilities.” The first one is: “Life. Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length …” The remaining nine all have a similar grammar: an abstract noun or noun phrase followed by a verb in the form “being able to …” The rest of the Capabilities are: bodily health; bodily integrity; senses, imagination, and thought; emotions; practical reason; affiliation; other species; play; and control over one’s environment.

I have criticized Nussbaum for making the state ultimately (and sometimes solely) responsible for the Capabilities. She is explicit about this on p. 64, and throughout the book, she writes sentences in which the government is the subject and people are the object. For instance, immediately before she offers the list of Capabilities on p. 33, she writes, “government has the job of making people able to pursue a dignified and minimally flourishing life.”

She does, of course, support human freedom: the government must enable people to pursue their own Capabilities as they wish. Yet I would assign the government a very different role than she does in her overall theory. I would say that we the people have the obligation to ensure one another’s Capabilities. We may decide to use the government as a tool for that; it has strengths and limitations. In any case, we make the government—not in some imaginary moment of signing a social contract, but every day, in how we vote, advocate, pay taxes, educate future leaders, and generate information. In similar ways, we also make churches, neighborhoods, and families. The government is us: a subgroup of us chosen or tolerated to influence the rest of the population by the means of laws and law-enforcement. I would put the state clearly in a subsidiary position and ask pointed questions about how we are supposed to get good governments in the first place. Those questions vanish in Nussbaum’s account.

That said, there is much to recommend in the Capabilities approach. For my colleagues concerned about youth development and civic education, it provides an impressive normative framework.

Why propose a list? Nussbaum does not imagine that she can dictate policies or that her moral assumptions are necessarily right. But her list starts a conversation that we must have if we are to assess policies and communities. If you disagree with her list, you should be able to respond with objections to the components, or add extra items, and give reasons for those changes. Not making a list just ducks the central moral questions.

Why many Capabilities instead of one ultimate good, such as happiness or freedom? Because there are many dimensions of human life and they cannot be measured on a single scale.

Why Capabilities instead of goods, rights, processes, or outcomes? The argument is complex and multifaceted, but in short, Capabilities recognize individual freedom and diversity while also acknowledging the human need for tangible support. If you have a Capability of imagination, you are not obliged to use it in any particular way–or at all. But you will not develop that Capability just by being left alone: you need education, access to public art and nature, leisure time, and other supports that cost money. And nothing (such as cash or pleasure) will substitute for your using your own imagination. Thus imagination is a Capability rather than a right, a good, or a choice. (A strong argument against the Capabilities Approach would take the form of a defense of one of these other keywords.)

Why one list for every nation and culture? I’d answer  just as I did the question “Why a list?” Like individuals, members of whole cultures may dispute the contents of Nussbaum’s list. If they do, they should speak on behalf of alternatives. The deliberation about what Capabilities humans should have is a global one, and there will be disagreements. But they are disagreements about the human good. It makes no sense to say, “Bodily integrity is a Capability for you, but not for us.” That means it is not a human Capability.

See also: Putting Philosophy Back in Developmental Psychology.

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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.