Richard Marshall interviews Jonathan Wolff in 3:AM Magazine:
3:AM: Poverty is a pressing concern and you’ve looked at the philosophical issues. Sen and Nussbaum want to change the conversation around poverty so we talk about ‘capability deprivation’ rather than low income. Do you agree with them? Won’t it make measuring poverty too vague to be useful in targeting its eradication – if that’s what we want?
JW: I am generally comfortable with the idea of talking about ‘capability deprivation’ although I do think there are complications with the notion of a ‘capability’ that many defenders of the capability approach brush under the carpet. Generally I do agree there is some case for trying to replace talk of poverty, understood as low income, with the more general idea of capability deprivation, because there are many ways in which people can be deprived of capabilities to function even if they are not poor on standard definitions (for example if they have a moderate income but are disabled, or victims of racial discrimination). But I don’t think it is a good idea to try to redefine poverty. First, poverty understood as low income is generally highly correlated with many forms of capability deprivation in any case; second, it is much more easy to measure; third, it provides a very easy to understand political target; and finally such a radical redefinition would cut the topic off from 100 years or more of excellent empirical research undertaken on the standard definition. So I would prefer to keep the concepts of “capability deprivation” and “poverty” apart.
3:AM: So what is poverty and does any definition pick out a distinct moral category that says that it is wrong?
JW: It is common to make a distinction between absolute poverty and relative poverty. Absolute poverty can be defined in various ways, but in my view the core idea is that it means having such a low command of resources that one’s basic health is threatened. To illustrate, if you cannot afford nutritious food, adequate clothing, and dry, warm, smoke-free accommodation, you have a very high chance of developing an illness that will shorten your life. Of course, we are talking averages and probabilities as you can live in absolute poverty and never suffer illness, or become ill, of course, even if wealthy, but this, still is the core idea. It doesn’t take a lot of moral or political philosophy to think that if a significant number of people in a society are living in avoidable absolute poverty, then there is a moral case to be answered. On some, theories, of course, some poverty is ‘deserved’. For myself, I don’t agree with those theories, but in any case the burden of proof will always be to show why it is deserved, against a presumption that on grounds of basic humanity no one should live in absolute poverty if it is avoidable.
Relative poverty is a different idea. It is often illustrated with an example from Adam Smith: that in the England of his day an ordinary artisan would be ashamed to appear in public without leather shoes or a linen shirt. The point is not that wearing wooden clogs or a shirt of flax, or whatever the alternative was, would damage your health. Rather it would, or at least could, damage your self-respect. The basic idea of relative poverty is not having enough to ‘fit in’ with what is normally expected in your society.