Capability approaches and non-welfarism, an historical perspective

Baujard, Antoinette (2016). 'Capability approaches and non-welfarism, an historical perspective' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

This historical session focuses on the link between capability and the non-welfarist context of welfare economics. It should be part of the workshop on the history of Welfare economics run by Tamotsu Nishizawa on “values, non-welfarism, and the history of Welfare economics”. It belongs to the series of regular workshops on the history of Welfare economics and the Welfare state, that have been held in Hitotsubashi University for more than a decade.
The idea of this panel session arose from the following observation: there exist many philosophical studies of capability, but very few historical studies. This void may be easily explained by the fact that capability constitutes a very recent trend of research, born less than 40 years ago, hence likely to soon suffer from obsolescence or irrelevance. But we can also regret this fact, insofar as thorough history of sciences often greatly informs philosophy of science. The application of the usual tools of history of science to capability is expected to provide important insights, and true information on the emergence of capabilities. Feeding further methodological inquiries is an indirect output. One direct goal is to provide a historical narrative of the emergence of the concept and its applications. We want to highlight the intellectual heritage before the idea of capability, describe the scientific and analytical context in which capabilities emerged, explain when, contextually why and how the distinction between different capability approaches emerged. This panel session intends to lay a first stone in the project of building an historical overview of capability approach.
Not only is the capability approach recent, another striking observation lies in the opposition of (at least) two different approaches, Nussbaum’s vs. Sen’s. While many philosophical analyses have already elaborated on this, providing background information to understand whether this distinction was born after or before the emergence of the concept is likely to single out the reasons of the distinction. Up to our knowledge, we believe the concept of capabilities appeared first time in Sen’s famous Tanner Lectures, “Equality of what” (presented 1979, published 1980), and has been developed in the mid eighties by Sen himself – before the concept gained autonomy from its creator. Capabilities had a prominent role for Sen’s criticism of welfarism in Welfare economics and of Rawlsian resourcism, e.g. the exclusive focus on individual utility or resources to assess social welfare. The capability approach was the first officially non-welfarist approach of welfare studies. Hence if we want to focus on the context of the concept emergence, a first step is to picture the debate on welfarism and non-welfarism. Conversely, to secure the overall historical picture and assess the relative importance of diverse causes, we need to consider what other contextual influences but welfare economics might have been important for the emergence of the capability approach and its inner distinctions. This session is focused on the historical reasons of the emergence of the capability approaches and its distinctions: it aims at singling out the importance of the welfarist criticism and other contextual causes. Four papers are building this session.
Together, the papers enable to locate the emergence of the capability approach in a wide intellectual context with a specific focus on the debate on welfarism, which provides a novel view of the distinction between Nussbaum and Sen’s capability approaches.

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