The Capabilities Approach

Sen and Nussbaum have two different projects. Sen is interested in development while 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, a society’s level of development should be measured in terms 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 the people who live in a society and GDP only tells you one thing about them: how much buying and selling they are doing in aggregate.

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 abstract nature of Sen’s point makes his article extraordinarily hard to read. He is saying that a society’s development should be measured in terms of the capabilities of its members. He is not saying which capabilities should be included in measurements of development.

I am not sure why he did that. Maybe he made his proposal in another paper or book that we have not read. Perhaps he thinks it should be left open to accommodate different cultures and their values. (Though if that is so I do not know what would become of the idea of development.) Or maybe he meant to leave it open for others to fill in the details.

Nussbaum, by contrast, puts a much more concrete proposal on the table. We got about halfway through her list and, speaking for myself, I did not find a lot to disagree with. At the same time, as Jesse and others pointed out, the wording is so open that it could mean a wide variety of things. Perhaps that is why it is so easy to agree with! So while Nussbaum is more concrete than Sen, she is still pretty abstract.

While I am not sure that I understand what Sen was doing, I have a pretty good feel for what Nussbaum thinks. She regards her list as a proposal that is open for debate. Her attitude is, roughly, “here’s a starting point, let’s talk about how to revise it.” I know this because she visited Pomona several years ago and wanted to discuss this chapter with a student group. I sat in and that is the way she described what she was doing.

Speaking for myself, I think that this looks like it could be a major improvement over either GDP or utility as measurements of development or well-being. But the jury is still out. It will be an actual improvement only when the details are filled out in a way that yields a plausible and measurable list. So it is very much in the hands of people like our next author.


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, also known as “adaptive” preferences.

We met malformed preferences in Williams’s paper, “The Idea of Equality.” His examples had to do with class: people in the lower classes are taught to believe that the upper classes are simply better than they are. When this distortion on their understanding of the world is removed, they are less likely to accept hierarchies. That was the idea.

Feminists took this point about class and applied it to their studies of the relations between men and women. Their idea is that women are taught to believe they aren’t worth as much as men and so don’t demand as much as men do; removing the false beliefs, in turn, should lead to different behavior both in private and public. Here is an example of what they have in mind.

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; originally from Sen 1984, 309)

Jennifer reminded us that examples like this can’t be taken at face value. Maybe the women had other priorities and so were not really mistaken about their nutritional needs. I think we need to know more before we can draw conclusions about particular cases like this one. If none of the examples pan out, then malformed preferences will not have been shown to be a problem.

The thrust of the capabilities approach is paternalistic in the following sense. It says that there are some things that are good for you whether you want them or not and it recommends policies based on its view of what is good. So it can handle malformed preferences. You might think that you don’t need as much food as men do, but you’re wrong. (You might even be wrong if you simply think of yourself as less important than men.)

Of course, 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.

So the capabilities approach is not paternalistic in the sense that it restricts people’s liberty for their own good. People remain free to choose whether to exercise their capabilities or not.

However, there is a price to pay for avoiding paternalistic interference with liberty. If you leave people at liberty to decide whether to exercise their capabilities but their preferences are malformed, they will decide based on their malformed preferences. Needless to say, that will not solve any problems that arise from the existence of malformed preferences. The only way to do that is to correct the malformations.

Perhaps the idea is that malformed preferences are usually corrected through education. Since that happens to children and children are legitimate targets of paternalistic treatment, that is OK.

There will, needless to say, be sticky questions about who should be in charge of children’s education and what happens when children are educated in ways that do not reflect the traditional values of their communities. If you have an objective view that is heavily influenced by feminism, you can only do so much to accommodate traditional societies.

Further Reading

Our next author, Ingrid Robeyns, wrote the entry on the capabilities approach in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


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, MA: Harvard University Press.