By Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen
Capability and Well Being
By Amartya Sen
In this paper, Amartya Sen discusses the capability approach. This approach to evaluating a person’s life emphasizes both freedom and achievement. It looks at all of the possible states (or functionings) available to a person, in addition to what capabilities they can achieve. Sen argues that the freedom of choices is particularly important to people’s lives and to policy making. For example, we make a distinction between someone fasting and someone who is starving (both are not eating), because the person fasting is choosing not to eat. Public policy should be more concerned with the starving poor than with someone choosing to fast. He argues against defining a specific list of essential functionings for a good human life, because he believes the capability theory is more useful when it is general and multiple substantive theories can make use of the idea.
The capability approach to a person’s advantage is concerned with evaluating it in terms of his or her actual ability to achieve various valuable functionings as a part of living. It isn’t based on personal utitily (focusing on pleasure, happiness, or desire fulfillment), absolute or relative opulence (focusing on commodity bundles, real income, or real wealth), assessments of negative freedoms (focusing on procedural fulfillment of libertarian rights and rules of non-interference), comparisons of means of freedom (focusing on holdings of ‘primary goods’), and comparisons of resource holdings as a basis of just equality.
2. Functionings, Capabilty, and Values
Functionings represent parts of the state of a person- the way he or she manages to do or be in a leading a life. The capability of the person reflects the alternative combination of functionings a person can achieve from which she can choose one collection. Functionings can be anything from being adequately nourished to achieving self-respect. The relevance of particular functionings must be related to underlying concerns and values.
3. Value-objects and Evaluative Spaces
There are two questions: (1) What are the objects of value? (2) How valuable are the respective objects? The identity of these value-objects is central to the capability approach. The selection of this evaluative space is important because of what it includes and excludes. It includes human acts and states as important in themselves as well as various freedoms. It does not attach direct value to means of living, such as real income, wealth, or resources.
4. Capability and Freedom
The freedom to lead different types of life is reflected in a person’s capability set. The capability set depends on a variety of factors, including personal characteristics and social arrangements. The assessment of the elements in a range of choice has to be linked to the evaluation of freedom to choose among that range.
5. Value-purposes and Distinct Exercises
Assessing well-being is different than assessing a person’s overall goals. To understand human advantage, we create four categories. One categories includes well-being and agency goals – agency goals can include goals other than his or her well-being. The second category includes achievement and the freedom to achieve. This gives (1) well-being achievement, (2) agency achievement, (3) well-being freedom, and (4) agency freedom.
In determining whether a person is deprived and needs assistance from the state, we may be interested in well-being rather than agency success. (e.g. The state should help overcome hunger or illness, not build a statue to someone’s hero, even if the statue is more important to him or her.) For adult citizens, well-being freedom may be more important to state policy than well-being achievement. (e.g. The state should offer adequate opportunities to avoid hunger, but not insist that the person take up the offer and cease to be hungry.)
6. Well-being, Agency, and Living Standards
Understanding a person’s well-being needs to be based on the functionings relevant to that individual’s definition of well-being. This can include things that directly affect a person’s life as well as ‘other-regarding’ issues. Evaluating standard of living may be more narrow than well-being. Living standard would include only things that affect the person’s own life. (e.g. The happiness generated by freeing political prisoners in other countries may enhance a person’s well-being, but not their living standard.)
7. Why Capability, not just Achievement?
Capabilities are defined as a set of functionings – capabilities are defined in the space of functionings. The freedom of a person depends on their ability to enjoy various combinations of functionings in the capability set. Having the freedom to chose may be more conducive to well being – i.e. there is benefit beyond just getting the best element available – the number of items in the set is also important. For example, fasting is not the same as starving (not eating), but choosing not to eat.
8. Basic Capability and Poverty
It may be important to identify a subset of crucially important capabilities known as ‘basic needs.’ Ensuring that basic capabilities, involves ensuring that certain functionings are satisfied to a certain minimally adequate level can be a possible approach to diagnosing and measuring poverty. This reflects the fact that income is not a good criterion n identifying the poor. Income is not desired for its own sake, but as a means to basic ends. The income and capabilities vary among communities and among people, meaning that the minimum adequate income level for reaching minimally acceptable capability levels will be seen as variable. The capability method allows a more accurate characterization of poverty.
9. Midfare, Functionings, and Capability
One criticism of Sen’s work suggests that there is an issue ‘midfare’ which is midway between goods and utility – the states of a person produced by goods, states in virtue of which utility levels take the values they do. (e.g. The focus of midfare is not on food supply or on the utility gotten from eating the food, but on her nutritional level.) Sen agrees with the distinction, but argues that it is the same as what he calls ‘functionings.’
A person’s ability to achieve various functionings may be greatly enhanced by public action and policy. Freedom from malaria can be based on public policy that transforms epidemiological and social environments. It is important to make the distinctions of freedom, not just state – we are not as worried about a rich person fasting as about the starving poor – this is because the rich person has the capability to be well-nourished.
10. The Aristotelian Connections and Contrasts
Aristotle believes that there is just one list of functionings that constitute human good living. This is consistent with Sen’s capability approach, but it not required by it. Sen would prefer not to identify an objective normative list of human functioning, or a procedure for objective evaluation of which functionings contribute to the good human life. Instead, he argues that the use of the capability approach, in its more incomplete form, allows it to work with a number of other moral theories.
11. Incompleteness and Substance
Different theories can be consistenet with the capability approach. Different methods of determining weights and making evaluations can be used. Though this seems incomplete, its compatibility with different substantive theories is actually a benefit. Agreeing that functionings and capabilities are important aspects of life is an important agreement, even if there is not agreement on what the functionings and capabilities are nor on their relative values. Getting a more specific version of the theory may make it less useful to others.
12. A Concluding Remark
The capability approach helps to define, “equality of what?” It is significant to a number of different issues, problems, and theories.