Sen and Nussbaum on capabilities

Notes for October 8

Main points

We discussed Nussbaum and Sen’s respective statements of the capabilities approach to human welfare.


The capabilities theory is an attempt to come up with a way of measuring well-being that avoids what Sen and Nussbaum see as the pitfalls of the alternatives.

Nussbaum wrote her article in opposition to what she saw as the reactionary implications of left-wing academic relativism. Her list of human capabilities is meant to provide an objective account of what human beings need and what makes their lives go well.

I mentioned a point made in last year’s class: the world’s cultures may agree about the list but disagree about how to weight the items in it. The weighting, Robert and I suggested, is where all the interesting ethical questions lie. Rebecca had a pretty good answer: Nussbaum is saying that it is important to meet a minimum standard. Some cultures might deny that, so the view isn’t empty.

Sen was attempting to find a way of measuring well-being that would avoid the disadvantages of welfarism and fetishizing stuff. Utilitarians reduce the value of everything to welfare, understood as feelings of pleasure or the satisfaction of preferences. But, Sen thinks, some things are valuable apart from these factors. Rawls and Dworkin think that society should be concerned with the distribution of stuff: primary social goods or resources. Sen thinks these are not fundamentally important. Resources are valuable for achieving things. It’s the achievements that matter, not the stuff we use to accomplish them.

Professor Brown described Sen’s project as showing that the economist’s indifference curves cannot capture an important point: values are incommensurable. Thus someone on a hunger strike is suffering on the scale of well-being but doing very well on the freedom scale. There is no common scale for measuring both at the same time.

More generally, they were both trying to convince development agencies to take a broader view. Instead of insisting on expansion of GDP at all costs, they urged them to take account of a variety of other social factors. And, according to Professor Brown, they largely succeeded.

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, & Well-being, PPE 160, Fall 2013. It was posted October 8, 2013.
Freedom, Markets, & Well-being