Sheintul, Stephanie Ann (2017). 'FICA Thematic Panel: Tragic Choices and Trade-offs in the Capability Approach' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


According to Martha Nussbaum, a tragic choice situation is one in which every available alternative involves wrongdoing.[1] A choice is wrong insofar as it results in some individuals falling below the appropriate threshold level of a capability/set of capabilities. Nussbaum’s discussion of tragedy is an important contribution to the standard cost-benefit literature within economics because it illuminates that the results of this method are frequently problematic. Trading off between capabilities is always wrong and that acknowledgment should lead governments to eliminate the choice situation all together.

Though it is true that governments ought to acknowledge the kind of choice that they face, the question asking what governments should do when they face such a choice has been under explored in the capabilities literature. Apart from Nussbaum, the concept of tragic choice has received little attention within the capability literature. This is unfortunate, given that governments frequentlyface this kind of choice, especially when allocating common but exclusive resources. Environmental conservation, infrastructure development, and healthcare allocation, to name just a few, often involve dictating “winners and losers” in ways that cannot be unequivocally justified for all involved. This panel aims to fill the lacunae in the literature by exploring the concept of tragic choice from a political philosophical point-of-view, and especially how governments should act when faced with tragic choices. In particular, we will address the following questions: When we cannot guarantee that all individuals have an appropriate threshold level of all ten central capabilities, should certain capabilities be prioritized over others? Do all individuals have an equal claim to capability enhancement, or in tragic circumstances, are some individuals' claims to capability enhancement stronger? How do we determine trade offs after we acknowledge that all the available alternatives are wrong?

In her presentation, Stephanie Sheintul offers a way to think about fairness in tragic circumstances. She starts by presenting what she takes to be a generally plausible account of fairness, adopting John Broome’s general framework. She then argues against Broome’s particular view, develops her own, and applies this account to the capabilities approach. She argues that under tragic circumstances, unfairness will be present in any decision that a government makes. But, in these circumstances, she argues that it is most fair that lexicographical priority be given to satisfying those individuals’ claims that are strongest: that is, individuals with the strongest claims to capability enhancement should receive the good up for distribution over those with weaker claims. She argues that the strength of an individual’s claim depends upon the extent to which his/her dignity is undermined. Finally, she applies what she calls a “capabilitarian account of fairness” to one hypothetical case and one real-world case, to illustrate how the account of fairness works in practice.

The second panelist, Matthew Regan, argues that we need to re-characterize the concept of a tragic choice and offers a potential way out of the moral tangle that is characteristic of such a choice. Examining the case of deforestation in Indonesia, he argues that, while traditionally tragic choices are viewed as binary choices, where the chooser has a clear choice between one of two capabilities, they are often more complex: in many circumstances a tragic choice involves choosing between tangled nests of capabilities. Choosing between these capabilities frequently results in immediate losses, as well as long-term losses to the “winners” of such short-term decisions. A way to handle these decisions, he suggests, is to face their muddled outcomes directly. He ultimately argues that the real tragedy that must be addressed in these circumstances is not that of choosing between incorrect choices, but rather, that of having a limited and isolating conception of who gets to choose.

Finally, Alison Coombs argues that trade-offs that occur within and between the capabilities of disabled individuals are tragic choices, which ought to be guided by attention to social justice. Human services departments provide invaluable programs to those with disabilities, helping them attain an adequate threshold level of all central capabilities. Yet, in the current political climate, human services budgets are being cut, resulting in tragic choice circumstances. She argues that in the case of those with disabilities, special efforts should be placed to remedy capability failures that are a result of societal discrimination and marginalization. One necessary condition for remedying such injustices is that governments provide disabled individuals with home- and community-based services, which also help prevent capability failures that result from neglect and abuse. Ultimately, progress toward providing the disabled with these services requires increasing funding for necessary services, which, in turn, requires gaining public support and putting pressure on public officials.

Keywords: tragic choice, trade-offs, capabilities

[1] Martha Nussbaum, “The Costs of Tragedy: Some Moral Limits of Cost-Benefit Analysis,” The Journal of Legal Studies, Vol. 29, No. 2 (Jun., 2000), pp. 1005-1036.

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