Beyond doing and being: relational equality and the capability approach

Axelsen, David V. (1); Nielsen, Lasse (2) (2018). 'Beyond doing and being: relational equality and the capability approach' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


Consider the following case:

Andy and Bill pass each other on the street every morning. Andy always wears an immaculate suit, Bill wears less fashionable clothes with clear signs of use. The two people do not interact when they pass and do not know each other. But they make assumptions. Andy looks down on Bill and Bill feels looked down upon by Andy.

Most would agree that there is something bad about Andy and Bill regarding each other in this way. Many would even add that a society marked by such relations would, all things equal, be unjust. But according to dominant views of justice, injustices concern the distribution of benefits and burdens of society, raising questions about whether everyone has a fair share or that to which they are entitled. This includes most theories in the capability approach, which are concerned with individual well-being. The inequality between Andy and Bill, however, is not easily cashed out in terms of individual well-being or access to different valuable functionings. At the same time, relations such as these are both socially ubiquitous and politically familiar and it would be deeply unsatisfying if theories of justice were unable to capture them as instances of injustice.

The case above points us towards an interesting puzzle in capability theorizing. On the one hand, the capability approach focuses on individual well-being and is fundamentally concerned with “what people are actually able to do and be”. On the other hand, a number of political theorists of so-called relational equality argue that justice cannot be boiled down to a certain societal distribution of benefits or to ensuring a certain level and type of well-being for everyone. Rather, they claim, a just society is one in which people also relate to each other in the right way, in which certain attitudes prevail, and in which certain values are expressed by the state (Anderson 2010, Wolff 1998). Justice, thus, is not only about ensuring that people are able to do and be certain things, but also that they have the right kind of relations with each other – which, precisely, Andy and Bill do not. The puzzle lies in the fact that some of the most prominent voices of relational equality are capabilitiarians as well. Elizabeth Anderson and Jonathan Wolff, in particular, adhere to both (Anderson 1999, Wolff & de-Shalit 2007).

This article seeks to solve this puzzle by exploring ways in which the capability approach may incorporate relational concerns, which cannot be captured by solely focusing on individual well-being, in its framework. Building on the work of Stephen Darwall (1977), we argue that a just society is one in which everyone has a sufficient level of capabilities (Nielsen & Axelsen 2017) and relate to and treat each other with sufficient recognition respect. Darwall distinguishes between recognition and appraisal respect. Recognition respect is the appropriate response to dignity in another human being as having the power of rational choice and agency. Appraisal respect, on the other hand, expresses a judgment of a person’s moral character and behaviour, rational and emotional faculties, etc. Recognition respect, then, is a way in which we should relate to everyone else, whereas we are permitted in showing appraisal respect unequally. This becomes clearest when we think of the case of how to relate to strangers.

To illustrate this, imagine that a stranger, or even someone you think is undeserving of your appraisal respect tells you that their close relative has died or that their partner has broken up with them. Here, again, relational justice entails that you show them respect – perhaps, in the form of compassion and empathy. Not because they are made worse off (distributively) by this occurrence but because it is the right way of responding to a moral person. And a society in which some fail to do so to others because they consider them irresponsible, undeserving or irrational is, relationally speaking, unjust. Recognition respect, arguably, is exactly what is at stake in our introductory example of Andy and Bill. What worries us with that case is that Andy and Bill do not relate to each other as moral agents and bearers of dignity. In this article, we seek to show how capabilitarians can incorporate this consideration in their framework.

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