Byskov, Morten Fibieger (2017). 'Beyond ’Having Reason to Value’: why we should adopt a procedure-independent and value-neutral definition of capabilities' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


Sen (1999; 2002) has famously defined the notion of capabilities as the doings and beings that we ‘have reason to value’. What we have reason to value, according to Sen (2002), are those preferences that survive the reasoned scrutiny of a process of public deliberation. The ‘having reason to value’-formulation is still widely regarded within the capability literature as the correct or only definition of the concept of capabilities (Khader and Kosko forthcoming). In this paper, I argue that capability theorists should abandon Sen’s definition in favor of a more minimal and neutral definition.

The reason to abandon Sen’s definition, I argue, is that it suffers from two issues that make it unsuitable to encompass the many different applications of the capability approach and the capability terminology. First, the procedure by which we identify normatively relevant capabilities is built into the definition of capabilities on Sen’s account (Claassen 2011). Yet, depending on the particular application, it is not always possible or desirable to conduct a process of public deliberation and reasoning (Byskov 2017). Secondly, Sen’s definition provides a value-laden account of capabilities (Carter 2014; Claassen 2014). Which doings and beings that count as normatively valuable capabilities are built into the concept of capabilities itself, namely those subjective preferences that have survived a process of public reasoning. However, the capability approach arguably also concerns capabilities that we do not find valuable in this sense, such as being killed, and the evaluation of capability-sets crucially depends on the extent to which such non-valuable capabilities are included (Carter 2014; Dowding and Van Hees 2009).

As a consequence of these issues, I argue that capability theorists ought to adopt a procedure-independent and value-neutral definition of capabilities. The concept of capabilities, I argue, should be defined minimally as ‘certain normatively relevant doings and beings’. This definition avoids the two issues identified with Sen’s definition. First, it has the benefit that the procedure by which we select relevant capabilities can be tailored relative to the particular application. As such, it does not entail that normatively relevant capabilities must be identified through a process of public reasoning or democratic deliberation. Secondly, this alternative definition is value-neutral and can thus accommodate applications of the capability approach, which do not only focus on positively valued capabilities but also what we could refer to as negative capabilities, such as the capability to be raped.

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