On the possibility of the capability approach as a political philosophy

Lisowska, Urszula (2018). 'On the Possibility of the Capability Approach As a Political Philosophy' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


The purpose of the paper is to consider the viability of the capability approach as a (or part of) political philosophy. This is not to deny that the CA is extensively and fruitfully used in many other areas. Moreover, even its philosophical applications can focus on different aspects, such as social justice, ethics or moral education. However, the paper enquires whether – quite independently from such interpretations – the CA can address genuinely political concerns.


This research question is justified by Martha Nussbaum’s adoption of the language of political liberalism (in John Rawls’s and Charles Larmore’s sense of the term) in her variety of the CA. On Nussbaum’s account, capabilities structure the understanding of the political sphere in the context of liberal democracy. The question that the paper addresses is as follows: is the politico-liberal version of the CA political enough?


Analysing the political credentials of the CA as a variety of political liberalism means that the problem is framed in the broader context of the criticism of liberalism as political philosophy. It can be – and has been – argued from many different angles that liberalism (including political liberalism) does not recognise the specificity of the political as a distinct aspect of human affairs. Chantal Mouffe has accused liberalism and political liberalism of eliminating the essentially political dimension of agonism by forcing a fake consensus and thereby concealing its hegemonic origins. Similarly, Linda M.G. Zerilli has argued that the politico-liberal idea of public reason in fact serves to petrify entrenched standards of reasonableness, effectively annihilating the political sphere as the realm of the potentially transformative exchange of opinions. Looking further back into the past, Hannah Arendt’s proto-biopolitical analyses could also be cited. On this account, the liberal focus on welfare reduces the political practice to the administration of needs, whereby individuals are deprived of genuine political agency.


Given these challenges, the objective of the paper involves two steps. First, it is argued that the CA as a variety of political liberalism should respond to the criticism specified above in order to meet its normative commitments. In other words, although they have been formulated outside liberalism, these arguments are presented as real challenges to Nussbaum’s project. Therefore and secondly, the paper evaluates Nussbaum’s CA philosophy against the background of these difficulties. It is argued that several of Nussbaum’s assumptions do seem to support the worries of the critics of liberalism. These involve, for example, Nussbaum’s insistence on the fixity of the capabilities catalogue, her tendency to intertwine the social and the political and the ongoing and intimate link between her account of civic entitlements and a broader understanding of the human nature.


Hence, the character of the paper is mostly critical. It does, however, suggest a possible direction of the constructive revision of the CA as a political philosophy. It is argued that, in this respect, the most valuable element of Nussbaum’s work is her early model of practical reasoning based on perception. Although Nussbaum used it primarily in the context of ethics (or: as the ethical basis of public reasoning), the possibility of its development into an account of political judgment is considered. More generally, it is concluded that a proper model of judgment may be the key to the robustness of – not only the CA, but also – political liberalism as a political philosophy. 

Keywords: political liberalism, political philosophy, judgment

scroll to top