Ethics of liberation and the capabilities approach: a theoretical dialogue on the centrality of the excluded for human development

Mantilla, Juan Carlos (2018). 'Ethics of Liberation and the Capabilities Approach: A Theoretical Dialogue on the Centrality of the Excluded for Human Development' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


This paper examines the capabilities approach’s ethical foundations in the light of Enrique Dussel’s ethics of liberation (Dussel,1998). It develops a reflection upon the capabilities approach’s claim of universality from the perspective of a Latin American ethical approach that shapes a way of conceptualizing development based on the centrality of the excluded. Fundamental ethical convergences between the capabilities approach and the ethics of liberation around the means and ends of development can be highlighted as a point of departure for political action toward human development in Latin America. As a normative approach to justice, the capability approach is in a reasonable theoretical position to contribute to an ethics of development that takes the excluded as the point of departure. 

Latin American post-colonial political philosophy has echoed Boaventura De Sousa’s claim for epistemic symmetry, which implies that liberal political philosophy should establish theoretical dialogues with the political theory originated in the epistemic south (De Sousa, 2009) in order to generate normative political theory that is ethically valid. This research is a contribution to this constructive theoretical dialogue between liberal political philosophy and Latin American political philosophy, with the broader purpose of strengthening the capabilities approach’s theoretical reach in Latin America.    

Martha Nussbaum (2002) has argued that the capabilities approach is a reasonable candidate for an overlapping consensus in democratic societies. Built upon liberal philosophical foundations, the universality claim may be strengthened by engaging the capabilities approach in theoretical dialogues with ethical postures built upon southern epistemologies that are critical to liberal political philosophy. Being people-centered, the capabilities approach emphasizes the need to guarantee, as its principal end, that every person lives a dignified life. It is essential for human dignity to make it possible for everyone to attain a minimum threshold level of the ten central capabilities. Human development is a concrete experience of freedom, materialized in people’s lives, being and doing what they have reason to value. A decided commitment to justice and social transformation is at the heart of the capabilities approach’s ethical foundations.

For the ethics of liberation, the centrality is for the excluded: the people who have not benefited from globalization and have been marginalized by the dominant culture. The ethical point of departure is the recognition of the excluded from development. Exclusion is seen as injustice and development is conceived as a means to overcome the concrete situations of exclusion by addressing their causes. Exclusion and its harmful effects, such as violence, hate and resentment, threaten Latin-American democracies. The ethics of liberation views development essentially as a process of liberation, meaning that development should allow people to free themselves from the oppression exercised by poverty, hunger, gender inequality, unemployment, lack of education, racial discrimination, and armed violence, among other contemporary forms of exclusion.  The centrality of the excluded and the focus on overcoming concrete situations of exclusion by generating the conditions for people to free themselves is an ethical objective that can be shared by the capabilities approach.

The capabilities approach’s emphasis on recognition, respect and non-humiliation shows a clear orientation towards social inclusion expressed as economic independence, moral autonomy, gender-equality, and self-realization. In that way, human dignity as the principal end of human development is incompatible with real world situations of exclusion, and may justify an especial focus of public policy on leveling exclusion and promoting capabilities among the excluded. Human development in Latin America must address exclusion as a priority, and the capabilities approach provides a solid theoretical framework for local governments, international agencies, and social movements, to do so.    

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