Freedom, Markets, and Well-being Fall 2018

Criticism of the Capabilities Approach


The abstract is pretty clear about the paper’s main points.

This paper investigates how Amartya Sen’s capability approach can be applied to conceptualize and assess gender inequality in Western societies. I first argue against the endorsement of a definitive list of capabilities and instead defend a procedural approach to the selection of capabilities by proposing five criteria. This procedural account is then used to generate a list of capabilities for conceptualizing gender inequality in Western societies. A survey of empirical studies shows that women are worse off than men on some dimensions, better off on a few others, and similarly placed on yet others, while for some dimensions the evaluation is unclear. I then outline why, for group inequalities, inequalities in achieved functionings can be taken to reflect inequalities in capabilities, and how an overall evaluation could be arrived at by weighting the different capabilities. (Robeyns 2003, 61)

Her first point means that Robeyns sides with Sen over Nussbaum. Sen only describes capabilities as a theoretical “space,” leaving it open for others to specify exactly what capabilities are relevant for their particular purposes. Nussbaum, on the other hand, seeks to identify a list of capabilities that make up a good human life. Robeyns avoids the ivory tower objection to Nussbaum’s list by constructing her list with a diverse array of collaborators; that is what she means when she says she has a “procedural” account.

She proposes a list of capabilities that, she maintains, can be used to measure inequality between men and women. Despite her methodological disagreements with Nussbaum, their lists are quite similar.

Capabilities and social science

Robeyns comes to the capabilities approach as a social scientist. You can see this in two ways. First, while her list of capabilities is quite close to Nussbaum’s, she develops her list by trying to consult a variety of sources. Nussbaum, by contrast, presents her list as a philosopher would: she proposes it and invites argument. Neither one is necessarily better than the other; they’re just different.

Robeyns is also interested in using the capabilities approach to measure gender inequality. So she accumulates evidence that men and women score higher or lower on the capabilities on her list and uses that to draw conclusions about gender inequality.

The problem for her is that her evidence is not directly about capabilities. It is about functionings. She can accumulate evidence about how much leisure time men and women have, but it doesn’t follow that they had different capabilities to enjoy leisure time. Maybe they made different choices among equivalent options.

The way Robeyns handles this is to say that the items on her list are presumptively valuable. Given that, if women have less of an item than men do, we should assume unless proven otherwise that they did not have the same opportunities to get it than the men did (Robeyns 2003, 84–85).

At this point, you might legitimately wonder whether capabilities are all that interesting. If we’re assuming that the functionings are super valuable, maybe we should just talk about functionings and leave capabilities out or treat them as a secondary matter.


Robeyns, Ingrid. 2003. “Sen’s Capability Approach and Gender Inequality: Selecting Relevant Capabilities.” Feminist Economics 9 (2–3): 61–92.