Freedom, Markets, and Well-being Fall 2020

The Capabilities Approach and Transgender People


Reed’s paper concerns how the capabilities approach might apply to transgender people. We discussed it in its own right and also as an example of how to develop a thesis project.

Our discussion

I said that one thing this paper contributes is a better case of humiliation as a government policy. Nussbaum didn’t really have an example but a lot of discrimination against transgendered people is specifically designed to humiliate them. So I thought that this made a genuine contribution to Nussbaum’s story.

Dylan B. thought the proposed expansions of Nussbaum’s list were pretty straightforward.

Hutch was more concerned about how we decide when the list expands. Or, to put it another way, who gets to decide. I don’t think he objected to the specific proposal. I think it was more of a methodological question about how we’re supposed to go about deciding what belongs on the list and what doesn’t.

Daisy brought in a problem from the human rights world: inflation. The worry here is that if you add too many things to the supposedly universal list of human rights, you dilute the power of each item on the list. Lilly added that she could see a case against being too specific. If you can accommodate everyone’s interests with abstract statements about rights and capabilities, it might be undesirable to include rights and capabilities that are specific to the lives of a particular group.

There was a discussion of James Madison and the Bill of Rights in there too. Apparently Madison worried that a bill of rights would have the undesirable consequence of limiting individual rights to the ones in the bill.

When we turned to thesis ideas, Agnes said that she would add a part on politics, raising the question of why protection would not be granted without this kind of expansion of the capabilities list.

Daisy imagined comparing the capabilities approach to a human rights approach.

We had a lot of similar ideas about how to add a politics, philosophy, or economics component to this paper.


Reed, Ryan. 2020. “Dignity in Transgender Lives: A Capabilities Approach.” Journal of Human Development and Capabilities 21 (1): 36–48. doi:10.1080/19452829.2019.1661982.