The capabilities approach Notes for November 5

Main points

The capabilities approach is primarily about the third element in our course title: well-being.** Freedom gets smuggled in there too, but more as a constituent than something that is independently analyzed. The idea is to come up with a way of measuring well-being that is different from the various subjectivist understandings of how well off people are (preference satisfaction, utility, felt happiness, and so on) and Rawls’s use of resources (like liberty, opportunities, and wealth) to measure this.

We spent most of our time discussing two questions:

  1. What did Sen mean?
  2. Is Nussbaum’s list truly universal?

What did Sen mean?

Sen gave us four categories. What do they mean?

Well-being Agency
Achievement well-being achievement agency achievement
Freedom well-being freedom agency freedom

Sen’s categories

The northwest box (well-being achievement) is our friend utility. That’s what welfare economists use. The southwest box concerns the levels of utility available to people through their free choices. For example, I can choose between the utility that would come from taking a nap or the utility that would come from completing these notes about Sen. (The nap is calling powerfully.) Both of those go in the southwest box: I am free to choose either level of utility.

The right column involves “agency.” That means that it concerns things that individuals themselves bring about through their own, wait for it … agency (meaning voluntary choices)! Items in the right column depend on a causal history: it had to come about because of the individual’s decisions.

Amadé asked why the southeast box is different from the southwest box. I think the distinction is supposed to be between the options at your disposal (southwest) and the options at your disposal as a result of your earlier choices (southeast). Even so, I see why Amadé was asking: I don’t see why this distinction would make a difference.

Er, wait a minute. I do too know why the distinction matters. It’s supposed to capture the difference between two situations: (1) you have a limited range of options for reasons outside your control and (2) you have a limited range of options as a result of your choices. The southwest box (well-being freedom) describes the range of options that you face, regardless of why. The southeast box (agency freedom) describes the extent to which your range of options is the consequence of your choices. For instance, suppose you are forbidden from entering a profession: that limits your options in way that is relevant to your well-being. But you could have exactly the same set of options if you had chosen not to attend the schools needed to get a professional degree. Since they involve the same range of options, the two situations are exactly the same as far as well-being freedom is concerned. However, Sen maintains, our evaluation of the two situations should be different. That difference is captured in the southeast box.†† Added November 10. Obviously, I go back over the notes.

So what is all this for? Sen is saying that the information in the three other boxes is also relevant to assessing how well-off people are. That’s the story.

Nussbaum’s list

There are two lists: one concerns the necessary conditions of living a human life, the other concerns the necessary conditions of living a good human life. They are related because someone who doesn’t meet the conditions of living a human life obviously can’t meet the conditions of living a good human life.

We spent a lot of time talking about whether the items on the second list are universal or peculiar to a particular culture.

As seems to happen a lot, I found myself agreeing with Akshata. She said that she thought the list was universal. But, she added, it doesn’t settle anything. That’s because different cultures have different ways of understanding how to arrange these elements into a good life. The members of a warrior culture, for instance, value life just like we do, but they are more willing to risk their lives in ways that we aren’t. The fact that neither of us wants to die doesn’t mean that we agree about whether it’s worth risking one’s life over apparently minor insults.

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, & Well-being, PPE 160, Fall 2012. It was posted November 6, 2012 and updated November 10, 2012.
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