Exploring the potential of aristotle’s friendship, reciprocity, and citizenship to contribute to the capability approach

Wilson, Scot (2019). 'Exploring the potential of Aristotle’s friendship, reciprocity, and citizenship to contribute to the capability approach' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA 2019, London, UK.


In this paper, the author explores the debate surrounding the creation of central capabilities and offers an alternative approach grounded in Aristotelian concepts of friendship, reciprocity, and citizenship. Questions about whether to list capabilities, and who should list them, are central to the future of the capability approach's place in philosophy. The divide between Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum over this question has the potential to limit the value of the approach in the field of political philosophy because, at its core, it indicates confusion about whether a focus on human capability requires a theory of justice or, as Sen argues, only an idea of justice. Nussbaum has proposed a list of central capabilities to which all humans should have access, and argues that a respect for human dignity requires a respect for at least these capabilities. She offers that her list is open to debate and revision, but that a universal list is ultimately required. Sen asserts that the creation of such a list has at least two negative effects. First, it has the potential to impose a particular worldview in contexts where such imposition is inappropriate, harmful, or even oppressive. Second, creating a once-and-for-all list would, for Sen, put an end to public reasoning about capabilities. On Sen's account, such public reasoning is a vital aspect of social life, and it would be irresponsible and disempowering to limit the scope and vibrancy of public deliberation.

The author argues that this divide can be understood and partially bridged with reference to the political and ethical writings of Aristotle. While many authors, including Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, acknowledge connections to Aristotle’s ideas about functioning, well-being, and human flourishing, they often overlook the potential of other Aristotelian concepts to contribute meaningfully to the capability approach. Aristotle's concepts of political friendship, reciprocity, the wisdom of the multitude, and democratic citizenship all have much to contribute to the understanding of human capabilities. This paper explores the connections between these concepts and Aristotle's eudaimonia, or human flourishing, to show what these concepts have to offer relative to human capabilities. Through engagement with Aristotle's ethical and political works, this paper contends that human capabilties are best understood within a social context and are best promoted by robust democracies.

Ultimately, the author argues that there does need to be a universal list of capabilities, but that such a list needs only be concerned with civic or political capabilities. The author offers a limited list of citizenship capabilities that addresses only the functionings necessary for effective participation in what Sen labeled the discursive features of the polity. The citizenship capabilities include Nussbaum's central capabilities of thought and affiliation, and a revised version of her capability of control over one's environment. Two new capabilites, information (being able to obtain and engage with meaningful politically and civically relevant information from a wide array of sources) and political office (Being able to substantively run for political offices at all levels of government once basic requirements (such as age) are met) are also added.

These capabilities, largely borrowed from Nussbaum, but stripped down to focus exclusively on the establishment of equitable political arrangements, should be sufficient to ensure that the kinds of political oppression referenced by both Sen and Nussbaum would be overcome. Additionally, these capabilities, or a similar list, is likely necessary to meet Sen’s oft-repeated vision that public reasoning within a given society should be the main mode of determining the list of functionings and capabilities that that society values and has reason to value. Without such a list, Sen offers no mechanism to critique the political background against which public reasoning is carried out. This set of citizenship capabilities, given its limited scope, should raise fewer objections on the grounds of pluralism than are raised by Nussbaum’s more robust list of central capabilities. For a society to promote both individual and collective well-being, all members of that society need to be equally able to contribute to that society’s understanding of human flourishing and ought to be equally able to shape the legislation that creates the structures within which they strive for both their individual and collective well-being.

Keywords: Democracy; Central Capabilities; Justice; Aristotle

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