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The theory of capabilities of Amartya Sen and Marta Nussbaum

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What Sen attacks is what he calls the excessively ideal character of rawlsian theory, namely transcendental institutionalism. Sen is at the heart of a theory of justice that is much more empirical. For him, at a certain point, it is necessary to lower the concepts to something that can be operationalized.

For him, the question inherent in the theory of justice is not which institutions would be perfectly just? But rather, how can we advance justice? Thus, Sen aims to determine "the reasoned consensus we can reach on how to reduce injustice despite our differing views of' idealistic regimes (of the justice).

The main disagreement with Rawls[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

As a good economist, Sen also wants to work on concepts that make sense. He emphasizes the emphasis on capability which is not capacity to say that he shares with Rawls practically all of his theory, but that Rawls falls into a fault, i.e. he becomes completely transcendental, that his theory is increasingly disconnected from the concrete conditions for producing justice. On the other hand, Rawls becomes a fetishist of social goods, and thus a resource fetishist. In other words, Sen challenges Rawls's fetishism for the primary social goods, i.e. the goods necessary to carry on the rational life project of individuals, leading him more to determine the "good things" rather than what happens to human beings.

Sen's question is very simple: our resources are useless if they are not considered in a relationship with ourselves. If we don't have an arm, if we hate driving and the state offers us a Ferrari, it won't do us much good. Sen's problem is very simple. He says it is necessary to think of the relationship between the primary goods of which Sen does not dispute the relevance. Where there is disagreement is on the fact that we have to get out of fiction to imagine that everyone will need an equitable distribution of the raw materials because people will use the raw materials in very different ways depending on what they call their ability.

For Sen, "Rawls' eminent place in the metrics of primary goods reveals the general underestimation of a reality: different people, for reasons of personal characteristics or the influence of their physical and social environments, or even relative deprivation (when their absolute advantages depend on their relative position in relation to others), may have very different possibilities of converting general resources (such as income from wealth) into capability - which, in practice, they may or may not be able to do. Differences in conversion possibilities are not simply a question of "special needs": they reflect ubiquitous variations - large, small and medium - in the human condition and relevant social contexts.

In particular,"a person may have a higher income and a more abundant diet than another individual, but may nevertheless have less freedom to lead a well-nourished life, because of a higher basal metabolism, greater vulnerability to parasitic diseases, greater size, or pregnancy. Similarly, when addressing the problem of poverty in rich countries, it must be borne in mind that many "poor" people, in terms of income and other basic goods, also have characteristics - age, disability, poor health, etc. - that make it more difficult for them to convert basic goods into basic capabilities, such as the ability to move around, lead healthy lives and participate in community life. Neither the primary goods nor the resources defined more broadly can account for the capacity that a person actually enjoys. So we know for ourselves whether what we receive allows us to have a capacity in the sense of ability to function, to be free, if we can compare the needs of each individual.

For Sen, Rawls is so obsessed with the criteria for the distribution of these prime social goods, and he does not see that these prime social goods can be perfectly useless for certain categories of the population who do not have the possibility of using them and transforming these prime social goods into liberty. The idea is that the equal distribution of primary social goods is not enough to guarantee the exercise of the same effective freedom and then we are free to the extent that we have the capacity to act. So Sen is in a conception of freedom, but he says that in order for people to be free, it is necessary that they have a basic distribution of ability to function and act freely. For Sen, what needs to be equalized are not the primary assets, but the actual possibilities of functioning. If someone who is illiterate cannot work and we see that the lack of this work leads to poverty, there is an operation that does not work and in this case, the liberal state must intervene in order to increase its capacity or its ability to transform something into a functioning that allows it to be free. Therefore, it is not the good that must be equalized, but the capability. Ideally, in a just society, we will have a hypothetical situation where everyone would have the same a priori possibilities of transforming their abilities into functioning that would allow them to be free or give meaning to their lives. This implies a fine conception of the analysis of what empirically allows this capability or not to work. That is why Sen has a very empirical comparative political theory.

The proposal of Sen: justice through capabilities[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Amartya Sen.

What Sen is looking for is to compare situations. He says that if he has to think about solving the famine problem in India, it is more useful to donate food resources rather than giving resources in terms of self-respect; while for Rawls, these primary goods are all at the same level, they are distributed to be just. For Sen, there may be situations where some resources and endowments are seen as more important than others because if people cannot function, they will not be free. But to do this, it is necessary to compare needs, to compare the relationships between needs and resources, and this is only empirical. Philosophers cannot do this work, they are sociologists or economists.

Thus, capability is the actual ability of an individual to choose various combinations of functions, i. e. an assessment of the freedom he or she actually enjoys to perform certain acts. It is the fact of having the resources to make a choice that will give the possibility of choice and thus freedom. For Sen in India, the state has set up universalist education programmes, but the problem is that girls tend not to go to school because they can't leave home because there is an economic system built up around their presence at home that means that if girls go to school, this small family economic micro-system falls. Sen wonders whether it is necessary to build schools that will remain empty when the capacity for choice that needs to be improved is somewhere to give Indian girls the ability to choose to go to school or stay at home. This degree of finesse cannot be seen by Rawls according to Sen because he is too obsessed with these very general categories of primary social goods.

For Sen, being fair does not mean intervening in the same way in India, China, New Zealand or Switzerland because the needs and the way in which individuals will give content to needs will change depending on the resources available, the power relations or the contexts that allow or not certain functions. So having an ideal, general, abstract theory that presupposes principles that would apply everywhere does not work and it can create even more injustice.

We come back to this more contextualist and even comparative theory, which poses a problem because the first accusation that comes to mind is that Sen is relativist. The standards of fair treatment for an Indian girl should be lowered compared to the standard of justice for a New York girl: this is unfair, immoral and unsatisfactory from a justice point of view. Universalists would say that the Indian girl is treated fairly if she has the choice between being a housekeeper at thirteen or going to an almost empty school, whereas in the functioning of a New York girl in a global society, we start from the idea that now it is necessary for everyone to have resources so that they can buy cell phones or bags. If we accept this proposal, it would mean that Western luxury tastes should have the same benefits in terms of justice as the income equalisation needs of an Indian family. We see a cleavage between an accusation of relativists in the Sen and a very contextualist one that goes looking for comparisons and obviously the universalists who say that the principles of justice are the same whatever the context.

Sen criticizes Rawls on the fact that for him, thinking about ways to achieve justice which is the equivalent of the primary social goods without thinking about the use that individuals can make of it misses some by the target of what should be a minimum equalization of resources allowing individuals to function fairly in a liberal society. It is for this reason that for him, what is necessary to equalize are not goods as such, even if he does not dispute the usefulness of these goods in order to be able to think about justice, but rather the capabilities which are the basic capacities which enable individuals to function in a certain way in the democratic space and thus to give an effective content to their freedom. Sen's idea is somewhere to say that if we start from the idea that individuals must be free, it is necessary to think about the conditions that allow them to do so and one way of thinking about these conditions is to look at whether the capabilities, in other words the capacities to transform their resources into free and real actions exist or not.

So what is important to Sen is really the idea of an active realization of something that allows individuals to be free. What actually allows this active exercise of freedom is an endowment of capabilities which, in essence, are a kind of thing that allows us to use resources in a way that the latter bring us to function in a certain way. The individual, by means of capabilities, functions. We may naturally be endowed with the greatest capacities in terms of IQ for example, but if we are in a society that does not value IQ at all, this operation will simply not be possible. Conversely, if we start from the idea that an individual to be free, for example, must be in good health, must have the possibility of having a professional or other activity, giving resources without worrying about how these resources will be translated into effective action is of no use. That's where Rawls comes in.

It is the equality of basic capabilities, Sen is a little reluctant to make a definitive list of these capabilities because he starts from the idea that somewhere, the ability or not to transform these capabilities into operation will depend on specific contexts. There is another novelty in relation to Rawls or Nozick which is the idea that, somewhere, a reflection on justice can only be done in a contextual, empirical and therefore rather relative way to particular situations and not by using general and abstract principles which may seem attractive in theory, but which we will not be able to transpose directly into concrete action.

Why each individual must benefit from the capabilities in order to be free which means that each individual has an end in itself and it is necessary to make sure that he or she is treated in this way, which means that he or she would also completely exclude from justice's point of view reducing the capabilities of some to increase the capabilities of others for example. This is the classic criticism of many versions of liberalism with regard to utilitarianism.

This "relativistic" character is to be seen in a particular metaethical approach, which means in particular the nature of the values that for some people exist somewhere and can be thought of rationally, while for others these values are the emanation of social contexts and situations. It's kind of the old diatribe between Hegel and Kant. For Sen, the idea that there is a contextual basis refers to the idea of a degree of finesse that for Sen, Rawls and his approach fail to grasp.

On the other hand, one of Sen's limitations is that from the moment he has a comparative approach, and from the moment when contexts play a determining role in determining what is not right and what needs to be equalized, then it is clear that it is possible to imagine major and tragic conflicts from a moral point of view because there is not necessarily an answer that results from this with regard to the type of heading. If we imagine that there is such a basic capability problem with very limited state resources, then we can imagine that the state has to make choices about what type of capability it will try to increase. It is easy to imagine that if X percent of GDP will be spent on education, for example, then X percent will be taken away from health system development. Therefore, the tragic conflict would be tantamount to saying that whatever the choice in a given and finite context, it is plausible to imagine that there will be losers, i. e. individuals whose capabilities, for contingent reasons, cannot be satisfied. Where Sen is criticized, not from an economic and political point of view, but from a moral point of view, it is obvious that the vague nature of his approach, blurred in the sense of not putting forward a moral argument of principles concerning what ability, when and at what level, does not make it possible to settle these conflicts somewhere. It reflects the need to resolve conflicts that will arise at the distribution level in specific contexts.

C. Martha Nussbaum (Sex and social justice, 1999; Creating Capabilities. The Human Development Approach, 2011)[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Martha Nussbaum en 2008.

One of Sen's colleagues is Martha Nussbaum who is one of the dominant philosophers of today's liberal paradigm, but who comes from an Aristotelian tradition. Nussbaum collaborated with Sen to create the Human Development and Capability Association, which aims at interfacing moral ethical studies of philosophers with more applied work on public policies to help the development of developing countries and countries in demographic transition. Nussbaum essentially shares and repeats Sen's logic with regard to capabilities, but it leads to a list which is an identification of what it considers to be capabilities which, just as the primary social goods must be more or less equalized, must be the subject of a consideration in terms of justice and therefore of which forms of use engage the responsibility of the State.

Nussbaum also starts from the idea that capability is a means of freedom. It shares Sen's view and introduces distinctions that Sen does not introduce or introduce differently, making distinctions between internal capabilities that are attitudes or talents learned and developed in a particular context, combined capabilities that are what the context allows us to do with what the individual is capable of doing in a particular situation, and basic capabilities that are basically the natural endowments we have.

Her main interest is the combined capabilities that are what individuals can do in given contexts, but she is confident that what individuals can do also depends in part on the endowment of the basic capability they have. If, for example, we start from the idea that, in order to receive social benefits, we must be able to run the hundred metres in fourteen seconds, it is, of course, for Nussbaum that, in order to function in this case in the sense of receiving benefits, there will be individuals who will benefit from their basic capabilities, namely their physical strength, which will make it much easier for them to run the hundred metres in fourteen seconds, while at the same time they will be able to do so. The question is how to find the right match between what we know how to do, what we can do and the context in which we can or must do it.

For Nussbaum, what is important is that, somewhere, the questions of capabilities reason with the questions of equal respect and obviously also of dignity. To sum up, Nussbaum starts from the idea that the purpose of a theory of justice or a theory of the free functioning of individuals is not just to live or survive, but that it would still be necessary to live in a truly humane way, that is to say, in a way that is consistent with a number of basic ethical principles. The Aristotelian influence comes from a rather perfectionist view of human life that makes Aristotle believe that being a kind of lazy person who is not interested in the public thing, which is completely anomic, is a life, but it is not really a human life. For a truly human life to be present for Aristotle, it would be necessary, for example, to develop a sense of virtues, to integrate through education and to develop dispositions to the virtues that would enable individuals to grasp a sense of righteousness, but also a sense of goodness.

Nussbaum goes a little bit in this direction, but still remains in a liberal vision. For her, these capabilities are not only important for survival, but they are also important for giving a kind of ethical content to the life of individuals, a life according to Dworkin that would not be wasted. A truly human life in this spirit is a life worth living because individuals are empowered to give content to their conception of good and enjoy it. We are moving away from pure proceduralism where what we need to do is to put in place procedures that allow individuals to interact. Here, it is rather a question of thinking of forms of capability that allow individuals to have a life that is good enough to allow human dignity, that is of sufficient value to give meaning to human dignity.

What are these capabilities? Nussbaum distinguishes ten of them. It proposes a list of core capabilities needed to be fulfilled, namely the one, inspired by Aristotle, which it considers to be a truly human life - a life that is truly human. A decent society must guarantee everyone at least a minimum threshold of these ten core capabilities:

  • life' : to live his life to the end. This is something that is not being fairly distributed today around the world not only for life expectancy reasons, but also simply by the criteria of insuring life somewhere;
  • body health : If we want to function and be free, we have a strong interest in being healthy. ;
  • physical integrity ;
  • sense, imagination and thought : be able to use the senses, imagination, thought and reasoning in an informed and educated "humane manner";
  • emotions : attachment to things and people, i.e. love for those who love us and surround us and care for us, etc...;
  • raison pratique : the possibility of determining a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection on one's own life. This is the basis of any conception of justice;
  • affiliation : the ability to recognize and show empathy for other beings as well as the right to have a social basis of self-respect and protection from humiliation. In other words, it is the right to be treated as worthy;
  • other species : the right to live with respect for and in relation to animals and plants and the whole world of nature;
  • game : the possibility of laughing, playing, having fun;
  • control over his/her own environment : It goes from political control, through participation in political choices, to material control, i. e. private property, to having an emplifemale respectful of the human being, etc. It goes on.

When you look at this list, you realize that you see so many capabilities that it's almost difficult to see which ones have been forgotten. Beyond the opinion that we can have and the coherence in terms of each of these capabilities, there are two aspects that flow. On the one hand, the interest as for Sen, this list makes it possible to have a standard of comparison, allows to have a standard allowing to say that in the context X, Y or Z or in relation to the individuals W, T, R, and well, it is possible to note that certain basic capabilities which are those which would allow the individuals to live in a truly human way, can be the object of a comparison. So, we could say that if we discover that 10% of people would be excluded from the possibility of having healthy bodily integrity, so if people were excluded from health for various reasons, Nussbaum and Sen allow us to say that there is a concern because discrimination against this ability would affect something that is fundamental to us.

Some Issues[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

The question that arises is whether these abilities have the same weight, somewhere between the question of the possibility that we can freely determine our conception of the good and, for example, the possibility of having fun in the playful sense of the word, do they have the same weight? That is, a system that does not guarantee these two capabilities fairly is at the same time guilty of the same moral harm and implies the same duties in terms of justice. This question is a little problematic because it is not very clear how Nussbaum and Sen, what is the problem inherent in these contextualist approaches that make it possible to decide somewhere. It is possible to intuitively imagine that it is good to have a public policy that values entertainment or gambling, but today, in Syria, their worries are different. So, somewhere, therefore, we are not shocked if, whatever the legitimate state involved, if the state intervenes on other fronts, it is also possible to imagine that tomorrow, there will be a report focusing on the situation of Syrian children in refugee camps and we will have to deal with body parts that have no possibility of playing and being a child, so it is possible to say that it is possible to say that there is no such thing.

The question is what makes it possible not to have an empirical argument, but a principled argument about how to determine whether there is one situation that is more unfair than another. In other texts, Nussbaum attempts to answer this question, but it is clear that it could be seen as one of the costs of contextualism. On the one hand, there are general theories which are rather disconnected from the empirical reality and which allow us to have much more definite answers in terms of justice or morality that are somehow based on logical arguments, but which are often a little vague or even not very effective when it comes to analysing concrete situations; and on the other hand, there are theories which are much more powerful in analysing concrete situations, but which have the price of being less capable than ideal theories of proposing clear and unequivocal answers on which is the principle of distribution that must be defended in the specific case. It is possible to imagine that, somewhere, the ideal model is in the middle of a model that is open to empirical considerations while not blind to evaluation judgment factors.

Another problem raised by the Nussbaum approach more than Sen's approach is to know that if we are truly contextualists, does it make sense to come up with a list of ten basic capabilities. At this point, shouldn't we be contextualist to the end and say that the list is either open or not because we could imagine that all these capabilities make sense in relation to a certain classical conception that comes from the Greeks and even our Judeo-Christian values? But is it possible to say from an empirical point of view that all the people, all the individuals living in contexts on this planet would recognize themselves in the importance of these characteristics? We have to deal with something that is part of this distinction between universalists and relativists, which would mean saying that on the one hand "yes", we can understand what human dignity is, what a life worthy of being lived and there is no reason why, in other contexts, individuals should not live up to these criteria, which would rather be the universalist position; the relativist position would be to say that it may be necessary to accept or assume that these values are not necessarily valued or shared by everyone and at that time, it would be necessary to leave room or for new values or not criticism coming from these contexts to this. There is the classic divide between a relativistic view, namely "values depend on" and a more universalist view, namely "it is possible to export justice and export morality" because we are all somewhere human beings and as human beings there is no discrimination, so there is no reason why in an X context people would not want this kind of thing. That the context does not allow them to do so is another thing. This tension remains, but it is clear that the question that remains is "do all these capabilities really have the same importance in determining what a truly human life is" and if one knows it,"can one imagine that this works in all contexts". For example, if we take capacity on the meaning and imagination and thought, it is possible to imagine that in order for this capacity to develop, it is necessary to have a functioning education system. It is possible to imagine that the ability of individuals to use their imagination, thought, critical thinking or otherwise will depend in part on adequate education, but the question is what constitutes "adequate education". One could imagine, in the context of a comparison at world level, which model of education for what values and purposes would be to create rational new citizens, as in France, or to learn to read and write, or to perform in the tertiary sector; It is easy to imagine that even if only to give content and to determine concretely whether this idea of developing an education system should have priority over other capabilities, it is possible to imagine very tense debates concerning not only how to implement it, but also how to think about the strength and importance of this capability in relation to other capabilities that might seem more important. From an economic point of view, there are still indicators. If a country spends 20% of its GDP on the military and 0.3% on education, we can have a vague idea of the political choice the country has made. In this case, at least, this approach allows us to say to go and see if this lack of resources for education corresponds to a lack of functioning and at that time it proposes a critical argument to thematize in terms of justice a certain number of lacks.

As an extension, Martha Nussbaum wrote on the theory of care. Care could be a form of solicitude. There is the caring and emotional dimension. There is an emotional solicitude in the sense of trying to do what is possible to facilitate and give quality. It is possible to have a definition of care that goes more in the direction of need, namely that there are people who need care, attention and help and that it is necessary to help. This idea is interesting because it is part of the same empirical logic that has been started by the supporters of capabilities. Care is by definition relational, we cannot have care for ourselves, care goes to someone and something. For example, helping people is taking charge of someone's emotional character while imagining that this human emotional character is a constituent part of a dignified life while imagining that our humanity will be demeaned if a system, whatever it may be, does not take this consideration and dimension into account. Intuitively, one starts from the idea that a dignified life implies dignified treatment, but dignified treatment is not just treating people impartially, not just treating people fairly, but also treating people in a humane way that also means recognizing the human needs of these people. Therefore, treating people with concern would mean treating people according to their emotional needs, treating people according to their needs would mean treating people according to the demands they have.

The theory of care comes from feminism at the base and one can imagine the function it has had. The role of care theory was to decompartmentalize and make the truly human dimension of acts of justice non-occult in the eyes of liberal ethics. Before this human dimension, acts of justice were done by women in the private sphere. It was women in the private sphere who took care of children, and even today it is women who take care of the elderly in the private sphere, a number of professions still remain statistically highly feminist professions, and feminist theories have shown that in some places, continuing to think of justice as being based on a strict separation between the private and public spheres, which is a matter of ordering in the sense of R So, care has put this dimension in the ethical spotlight. There was a critical dimension to the emergence of an ethical field of action that was not seen by Rawls and a whole bunch of authors by trying to give them titles of nobility and try to imagine justified forms of public policies aimed at giving institutional recognition, but also means to these social policies of care.

What there is in this intuition of care is something that presupposes a different ontology. In the theories of care and partly already with the theories of capabilities, we enter into another ontology of the self which is the basis of liberal theory. It is an essentially relational ontology: we are the product of relationships, we are what our interaction with others, in the broadest sense, allows us to be. So for these theories, if we don't theorize this relationship, the relational nature of our contribution to the world, we miss something fundamental. Care theorists might say that we can have all the primary social goods we want, but if there is no one to take care of us when we are in distress, our life will not be equal to a dignified life. It is possible to have all the social goods that we wish for, but if we do not have the possibility of having satisfactory ethical or social relations, and well, these primary goods will not serve us much.

One hears some links with capabilities because care is one type of functioning among others. We need them to take into account our social, emotional and other demands. What is more interesting is that thinking about care, thinking about capabilities, leads us to think about the individual in relational terms, in a context, we are taken care of or something is an object of concern to us, we cannot be solicitous on our own. This is something that we have not seen in the original position of Rawls, that we have not seen in the Dworkin auction model, for example, that we have not seen at all in Nozick; there we have an ontological change. It is something that has a direct link, but not with "everything we do to maintain, perpetuate and repair our' world' so that we can live there as well as possible. This world includes our bodies, ourselves and our environment, all of which we seek to connect into a complex network, in support of life "as Tronto's account in A Vulnerable World. For a care policy published in 2009. This injects an ethical dimension which does not necessarily have the more proceduralist positions of the righteous that do not arise from the conceptions of the good, but which essentially arise from the criteria of the fair distribution of resources, rights and societal resources.

What is important is to know if you think of justice in the same way. If we introduce this social complexity that has extensions on recognition in particular, do we miss something? There is an element at the level of autonomy, namely that the ethics of care introduces a relational conception of autonomy, thus a fairly important change with this liberal model which presupposes an individual with an individual autonomy that he is able to exercise, whatever his social context in which he is inscribed. According to Tronto, this partly changes the way we think about autonomy, it gives additional importance to the context, so any universalistic or universalist solution to settling justice from this point of view is not only that it does not work, but will create even more damage because it will violate essential elements of the individual specificities of people. Therefore, the question is that a moral theory that holds the road must have principles that allow us to guide moral judgment, but that at the same time must seriously consider the plurality of situations, contexts or individuals that are the subject of discussion. So there are specific contexts or situations, which obviously makes it difficult to come up with clear-cut answers.

There are authors who have come up with similar considerations, but at another level which is a more general level of the notion of community which are the communities and which continue in the same logic of contextualization, of taking into consideration the cultural context that frames the relations between individuals and therefore which for them must be a fundamental factor in order to think about justice.

Annexes[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

References[modifier | modifier le wikicode]