Capabilities or functionings? anatomy of a debate

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


The “equality of what” debate has burgeoned in many directions, but a central issue ever since Rawls (1971, 1982) and Dworkin (1981) argued that individuals should assume some responsibility has been whether individual situations should be evaluated and compared in terms of opportunities or in terms of achievements. The advocates of the former option have been the most vocal, and beyond many subtle differences one can find a basic convergence in the views expressed in Arneson (1989, 1990), Cohen (1989), Nussbaum (1990), Roemer (1993), and Sen (1985, 1992). Martha C. Nussbaum's approach, interestingly, has developed at the intersection of two lines of thought. One is, along the “equality of what” debate, the emergence of Amartya Sen's concepts of functionings and capabilities (Sen 1985, 1992), which are very comprehensive and therefore appear able to capture all relevant aspects of human well-being. Recall that a functioning is any kind of “doing or being” that an individual life can contain, while a capability set is the set of combinations of functionings that a given individual has access to and can choose if she wishes to. The other line of thought is the exploration of the possibility of a universalist notion of human good, inspired by the Aristotelian tradition (Nussbaum 1988, 1990, 1993). The interplay between these two lines of thought is important for the following reason. One of the difficulties with Sen's capability approach is to finalize the methodology for evaluating individual and social situations. This requires weighting the various dimensions of human good. Although Sen mentioned that this should ideally be performed in a way that takes account of the population's values, he never proposed a precise way to do it. This problem can be at least partly alleviated if it is possible to define a list of basic capabilities that has universal validity, because the problem of the diversity of values and preferences is then less pressing regarding these basic capabilities. Moreover, Nussbaum restricts the prescriptions of justice to the requirement that society should at least provide such a basic list of capabilities to each and every member. In this fashion it is not a priority to worry about the complexities that remain attached to the evaluation of more ambitious social policies that go beyond ascertaining that the minimum is attained by every member of society.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationCapabilities, Gender, Equality
Subtitle of host publicationTowards Fundamental Entitlements
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages20
ISBN (Electronic)9781139059138
ISBN (Print)9781107015692
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Economics, Econometrics and Finance


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