Östlund, Sebastian, Jan (2017). 'Delimiting Well-Being from Agency in the Capability Approach' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


Delimiting Well-Being from Agency in the Capability Approach

Keywords: well-being; agency; functioning; capability; axiology.

The capability approach inter alia proposes to describe the currency of justice as e.g. Martha Nussbaum (1987) does, but also well-being, and people’s agency. It treats states of being and doing and the freedoms to achieve these states as particularly relevant for assessments in each value domain. In this paper I argue that the capability approach needs to extend its conceptual framework into a more fine-grained one, if its desired delimitation between well-being and agency is to be possible.

We may wonder what distinguishes the set of states pertaining to well-being from those pertaining to agency. Is there any principle that demarcates the states of either kind, and so the two value domains? Amartya Sen (2009) and Serena Olsaretti (2014) argue for an inclusionary relationship between the two domains, but this, I argue, is untenable. It is untenable because it ascribes prudential value to states of being and doing which hold no such value. Instead I propose that we should seek an exclusionary account that details the overlap between well-being and agency as contingent, dependent on an external, partly objectivist, criterion.

Say that you come across a drowning person who needs your urgent help. Assume further that you can only help this person at great cost to your safety and health. Still, you decide that you would rather help this person than to go about your day, leaving her to her unfortunate fate. You proceed to help this person and your level of well-being subsequently drops. Even so, you ascertain that your life went well in some other regard. Namely, because you valued the act of saving this unfortunate person, and because you had reason to value saving her, and you succeeded in doing so. We may say that you succeeded in exercising your agency. Even though this reduced your well-being, some non-prudential value was promoted.

To the extent we are interested in how lives can go well, we should like to know in what sense(s) a life can go well. Suppose you want to lead a good life. This desire seems sensible at first glance, but perhaps it is too vague. A more fine-grained understanding regarding in what way(s) one’s life can go well could help us navigate the many choices we make, not only in extravagant thought experiments, but with choosing, as far as we can choose, how we are to lead our lives on a daily basis. In treating this broad question, the discussion will be framed in terms employed by the capability approach that saw its modern-time genesis in Sen (1980). Sen (1985) has since described agency as a non-prudential moral value that can generate orderings of states of being and doing that differ from the orderings produced by the same states of being and doing from the perspective of well-being. These values are analysed in structurally similar ways, however. Therefore the question I ask is “how can well-being be delimited from agency in the capability approach?” and my thesis is that whilst this delimitation cannot be accomplished by an inclusionary account proposed by Sen (2009) and Olsaretti (2014) it can be accomplished by an exclusionary account of well-being and agency. The account I propose utilises two predicates, Φ and Ψ, to establish a tripartite division of functionings of different prudential valences. Once the tripartite division is established, I show that the principles used for these delineations can coalesce into part of a criterion, C, to pick out what belongs to the domain of prudential value, and of non-prudential value.

The structure of this paper will be as follows. In section 2 I detail what I call “the standard story” of the capability approach. First I present the capability approach as an analysis of prudential value. This is followed up by a description of the capability approach’s take on agency as a value domain sui generis. In section 3 present what I call an “inclusionary interpretation” of agency, initiated by Sen (2009) and further elucidated by Olsaretti (2014). In sections 3.1-3.3 I argue that whether this inclusionary interpretation is understood in a wide or narrow sense, this account of the relationship between well-being and agency is unsatisfactory. Instead I argue that we should establish an exclusionary account of the two value domains by investigating some external principle or criterion. Section 4 then serves to outline two desiderata that this exclusionary account needs to meet. In section 4.1 I argue that we should look for a clearly differentiating criterion, and, in section 4.2, in striving to remain faithful to two Senian objections (i.e. the adaptive expectations objection and the narrowness objection) that this ought to be a partly objectivist criterion. Section 5 then serves to develop this criterion. In section 5.1 I follow up on an argument from Peter Vallentyne (2006) suggesting that functionings depend upon a theory of value. I there argue that functioning simpliciter is too broad a notion. In section 5.2 I propose such a theory through a tripartite division of functionings, defined by their success or failure to satisfy two predicates (Φ and Ψ) in the form of inclusive disjunctions. Section 6 finally summarises the paper and its thesis, i.e. that well-being and agency can be delimited by the use of a criterion, C, defined in part via Φ and Ψ, which outline will be, if substantially incomplete, an account of the appropriate kind.


Sen, Amartya. 1980. “Equality of What?” The Tanner Lectures on Human Values 1, 195-220.

---. 1985. “Well-Being, Agency and Freedom: The Dewey Lectures 1984.” The Journal of Philosophy 82, 169-221.

---. 2009. The Idea of Justice. London: Penguin.

Nussbaum, Martha C. 1987. “Nature, Function, and Capability: Aristotle on Political Distribution.” Wider Working Papers 31, 1-50.

Olsaretti, Serena. 2014. “Freedom’s Value: Some Persisting Questions for Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach.” Jurisprudence 5, 369-375.

Vallentyne, Peter. 2006. “Capability vs. Opportunity for Well-Being.” In Capabilities Equality: Basic Issues and Problems, edited by Alexander Kaufman, 79-92. New York: Routledge.

scroll to top