Capability approach’s non-epistemic values: an aristotelian approach

Crespo, Ricardo F. (2018). 'Capability approach’s non-epistemic values: An Aristotelian approach' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


The ‘value-free ideal’ in science has been called into question for several reasons. It does not include “epistemic values” – viewed as characteristic of ‘good science’ – and rejects the so-called ‘contextual’, ‘non-cognitive’ or ‘non-epistemic’ values – all of them personal, moral, or political values. The arguments against the value-free ideal are various, heterogeneous and come from different philosophical traditions. The start of the history of the fact-value dichotomy can be put in Hume’s dichotomy between is and ought judgments. As Hilary Putnam (2002, 14ff.) explains, this dichotomy stems from his dichotomy between ‘matters of facts’ and ‘relations of ideas’, and Putnam holds that ‘Hume’s metaphysics of “matters of facts” constitutes the whole ground of the underivability of “oughts” from “ises” (2002, 15)’. For Putnam facts and values are entangled because the so-called – by the metaethical literature – ‘thick’ ethical concepts – terms with descriptive and normative content – are used in science. He puts the example of the word ‘cruel’. As for the development of science Putnam puts the example of values and facts entanglement in Sen’s capability approach (2002, Chapters 3 and 4).

What are these values entangled with facts in the capability approach? The discussion between Sen and Martha Nussbaum about a ‘list’ of fundamental capabilities is well-known.  Nussbaum argues – grounding her argument on Aristotle’s thought – in favor of a particular list of capabilities that all individuals ought to have, while Sen prefers to leave the matter open. He thinks that Nussbaum’s view of human nature (with a unique list of functionings for a good human life) is tremendously over-specified. Consequently, he does not define a list of needed capabilities. His view is compatible with different views of the human person and their good. This is consistent with his emphasis on human heterogeneity.

However, there is not an insurmountable distance between Nussbaum’s list and the capabilities that Sen regards as necessary. The difference is in the source of these capabilities. While for Nussbaum this is, from her first writings on this issue, human nature, Sen is reluctant about Nussbaum’s characterization of  human nature. He prefers to maintain an open list, as the fruit of the work of practical reason, conceived as independent of human nature: that is, practical reasoning deciding instead of discovering.

In this paper I will maintain first, that Nussbaum’s list is not strictly Aristotelian and is, in effect, over-specified from an Aristotelian point of view. Then, I will do the work of looking for a list of capabilities extracted from Aristotle’s ethical writings. The result will be a short list of Aristotelian non-epistemic moral values associated with the capability approach. This short list facilitates the operationalization of practical reason and the capability approach. It overcomes the inexactness where it should be overcome and it respects it where it should be respected. It also respects the spirit of the Aristotelian conception of human fulfillment and Sen’s conception of human development.


Reference: Putnam, H. (2002). The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays. Cambridge (Mass.) and London: The MIT Press.

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