Freedom, Markets, and Well-being Fall 2020

The Capabilities Approach


The capabilities approach represents an alternative to the standard treatment of well-being in economics. The idea is that things like GDP are an inappropriate way to measure a country’s development. It is better, according to the advocates of the capabilities approach, to look at what people who live in a country are capable of doing. If their capabilities are expanding, then the country is doing better even if its GDP is not growing and if their capabilities are stagnating or declining then the country is doing worse even if its GDP is growing. That’s was the idea that kicked this thing off.

Nussbaum is less interested in development than she is in moral comparisons. Is country A morally better than it was ten years ago? Is B morally better than C? What should we do to make D better in the future? Is E a just society? If not, what would it take to make it one? Those are the kinds of questions she is interested in.

What is a capability? Capabilities “are answers to the question, ‘What is this person able to do and to be?’ In other words, they are … a set of (usually interrelated) opportunities to choose and to act. … Capability is thus a kind of freedom: the substantive freedom to achieve alternative functioning combinations” (Nussbaum 2011, 20); “capability means opportunity to select” so “freedom to choose is … built into the notion of capability” (Nussbaum 2011, 25).

Functionings represent parts of the state of a person — in particular the various things that he or she manages to do or be” (Sen 1993, 31). Nussbaum: “A functioning is an active realization of one or more capabilities” (Nussbaum 2011, 19–20).

Our discussion

Lola and Lilly both proposed comparisons with Darity and Hamilton’s paper. Lola noted that Nussbaum’s commitment to non-paternalism contrasts with Darity and Hamilton’s position. Lilly was struck by Darity and Hamilton’s attitude towards education and other kinds of personal improvement. That sort of thing is what the capabilities approach emphasizes. But Darity and Hamilton seem to show that it doesn’t work: education doesn’t close the wealth gap between racial groups in the US.

Emily noted the success of charities that give cash rather than in-kind donations. That struck her as the least paternalistic, least ethnocentric option on the table.

Daisy said she thought the capabilities approach was highly individualistic and so would be less acceptable in societies that emphasize group or social-cultural rights.

Dylan asked whether Nussbaum was talking about equality in capabilities or if she meant to propose a threshold that a just society would ensure everyone can meet. Lilly said that since capabilities have to be exercised by choice, it’s unlikely that they would be equal. Daisy and Jordan both said they thought it is a threshold view.


Nussbaum, Martha C. 2011. Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Sen, Amartya. 1993. “Capability and Well-Being.” In The Quality of Life, edited by Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen, 31–66. Oxford: Clarendon Press.