The capabilities approach

Notes for Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Main points

Sen and Nussbaum have two different projects. Sen wants to measure development, Nussbaum wants a standard of social justice. They each use what they call the “capabilities approach” to address the questions that interest them.

For Sen, development should be measured in terms of a society’s development of its members’ capabilities. The advantage of this when compared with measuring development in terms of GDP are pretty obvious. What we care about is how the people in a country are doing, not how much economic activity there is.

For Nussbaum, a society is just only if all of its members meet a threshold of ten critical capabilities. That is her interpretation of what is involved in a society’s treating all of its members with equal respect (Nussbaum 2011, 24).


The big advantage of this way of thinking about well-being is that it is objective: there are some things that are good for you regardless of whether you want them or not. That means the capabilities approach is not bedeviled with problems due to malformed preferences.

What’s a malformed preference? Usually the examples cited involve social influences: women are taught to believe they aren’t worth as much as men and so don’t demand as much as men. Here is an example; the original source is (Sen 1984, 309).

For example, in 1944, the year after the Great Bengal Famine, the All-India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health did a survey in an area near Calcutta, including in the survey many widows and widowers. Among the widowers, 45.6 percent ranked their health as either ‘ill’ or ‘indifferent.’ Only 2.5% of widows made that judgement, and none at all ranked their health as ‘indifferent’ …. This was in striking contrast to their real situation, since widows tend to be a particularly deprived group in basic health and nutrition. (Nussbaum 2001, 79–80)

But as Marissa pointed out, there is no need for a social cause. Eating disorders could have entirely organic causes and still be bad for the people who have them.

Anyway, while paternalism is an advantage, it is also a disadvantage. We are reluctant to treat adults as children. To accommodate this, Sen and Nussbaum emphasize the connection between capabilities and choices. Someone with a capability to do something does not have to exercise that capability. They just maintain it is good to have the capability in the first place.

In connection with this, we spent a fair amount of time discussing this table from Sen (1993), 35.

Well-being Agency goals
Achievement well-being achievement agency achievement
Freedom to achieve well-being freedom agency freedom

Both Sen and Nussbaum think it’s important to distinguish between a rich person who is fasting and a poor one who cannot buy food. They think that the capabilities approach gets at this in a way that a cruder measurement of health or hunger could not: the rich person has the option of eating while the poor person does not (See Sen 1993, 40 and 45; Nussbaum 2011, 25).

That’s true, but overblown, in my opinion. The fasting rich person is not going to starve himself to the point of organ failure or other significant health problems. The poor person will. So a crude measure of “well-being achievement” will distinguish between the two, even without bringing capabilities into it.


Nussbaum, Martha C. 2001. “Adaptive Preferences and Women’s Options.” Economics and Philosophy 17 (1): 67–88. doi:10.1017/S0266267101000153.

———. 2011. Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Sen, Amartya. 1984. “Rights and Capabilities.” In Resources, Values, and Development, 307–24. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

———. 1993. “Capability and Well-Being.” In The Quality of Life, edited by Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen, 31–66. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, and Well-being, PPE 160, Fall 2014. It was posted November 25, 2014.
Freedom, Markets, and Well-being