Creating Capabilities

Creating-capabilities-the-human-development-approach Ingrid Robeyns reviews Martha Nussbaum's Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach, in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews:

The publication of this book should be much welcomed, since apart from An Introduction to the Human Development and Capabilities Approach, which has been edited by Séverine Deneulin, no book-length introduction to the capabilities approach was available up until now. Creating Capabilities succeeds well in providing an accessible introduction. Yet introductory books, especially those written by leading scholars in the field, tend to skew the understanding of a theory toward their own favorite interpretation. It is important to highlight that other understandings are also around. In my discussion of the chapters I have already pointed at some aspects where not everyone would agree with the interpretation that is given inCreating Capabilities. Yet in my view the most significant point of disagreement may well be the description of the capabilities approach itself. Nussbaum sees it as a theory with two legs — theorizing about social justice on the one hand, and comparative quality of life assessment on the other. In the former she is the most prolific author, in the latter Sen is the most canonical figure. Yet I think it is possible to describe the capability approach in more general terms, namely as a theoretical framework that entails two core normative claims: first, the claim that the freedom to achieve well-being is of primary moral importance, and second, that freedom to achieve well-being is to be understood in terms of people's capabilities, that is, their real opportunities to do and be what they have reason to value.

This general description can then be developed into a variety of more specific normative theories, including, most famously, Nussbaum's (partial) theory of social justice and Sen's account of comparative quality of life assessment and development, but also as the basis for (or part of) social criticism, ethnographic studies, policy design in the area of family policies in welfare states, or even — potentially — as part of the design of a revolutionary blueprint of a post-capitalist economic system. By describing the capability approach as being either focused on social justice or on comparative quality of life issues, Nussbaum is not sufficiently recognizing the large variety of ways in which the approach is currently already used and is underestimating its potential. To my mind, the capability approach should be defined in more general and abstract terms, as a theory with a scope potentially as wide reaching as utilitiarianism. Philosophers should consider thinking of the capability approach as 'capabilitarianism'.