On why a normative capability theory needs to specify a conception of well-being and how evolutionary theory can provide valuable insight

Elgarte, Julieta Magdalena (1,2) (2018). 'On why a normative capability theory needs to specify a conception of well-being and how evolutionary theory can provide valuable insight' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


A normative theory is meant to orient human action and should be assessed by its ability to do so properly. In order to orient action, a normative theory needs to adequately specify the goods we should strive to honor and the evils we should strive to prevent.

A normative capability theory cannot orient individual or collective action unless it can specify which functionings and capabilities we have reason to value. The selection of relevant capabilities for normative purposes is a complex philosophical problem with serious practical implications on which capability theorists have no obligation to remain silent, rather on the contrary: they would do well to think the issue through and speak out. Leaving it to individual choice or to collective deliberation should not be seen as the only way of honoring other individuals’ freedom or the democratic right of the peoples to decide after public deliberation which opportunities to secure to their members (as Sen seems to think).  Articulating and defending a vision of human wellbeing -and of the social structures that could make it available to all- is not the same as imposing this vision upon others (as argued, e.g., by Nussbaum). But I will  further argue that, far from limiting other individuals’ or communities’ freedom to choose the conception of human wellbeing and the social structures they find most worthy of their allegiance, articulating and defending a vision of human wellbeing is the most effective way of aiding individuals and communities in thinking through this difficult, consequential and inescapable issue. Deliberation (whether individual or collective) is not an automatic machine we can feed with the problems for which we have no solution, just to sit quietly at the other end and wait for our answers to come out. Deliberation is a human-driven process, whose very substance is the presentation and discussion of proposed solutions to a given problem. Thus, far from being an authoritarian gesture, worthy of a would-be king philosopher, specifying and clearly arguing for a conception of human wellbeing is the best way for a philosopher to do his or her part in furthering individual or public deliberation and helping it come to a good end, a way of enriching the debate.   

In order to specify relevant capabilities, it is crucial, moreover –and here I differ from Nussbaum-, to start from a scientifically informed conception of human nature and of the human needs that stem from it. If we are to come up with a sensible view of human wellbeing, we need to start by working out an adequate picture of the sort of beings that we are. And to this end, while classic literature and philosophy can provide valuable insight, it seems unwise to ignore the invaluable keys that lie waiting for whoever is curious enough to search for them in the many shelves and buildings of the scientific library.

In the task of developing an adequate conception of human nature and human needs, we should keep our eyes open to the potential insight that can come from the different data sets and theories of the many sciences that look into our species from different angles, but evolutionary theory is particularly helpful. By showing us as part of the continuum of life-forms, it provides precious insight into our nature, our needs, and the sort of environments that can be expected to be hospitable for beings such as ourselves. I shall point out three of the ways in which evolutionary theory can contribute to elucidating philosophical debates about needs, well-being and the social structures we should strive to live in.

First, seeing ourselves as the product of natural selection should help us keep in mind that we are animals of some sort, that we have a nature that puts limits to the sort of lives that can be good for beings such as ourselves, and to the sort of environments that we need to be in a position to lead such lives. A naturalistic view of ourselves helps us see that such nature exists, even if we may always –as any naturalist knows to be true of any living species- find individuals who are unlike the majority in some particular respect. It helps us avoid both an excessive universalism and an equally harmful excess in relativism, which blinds us to the regularities in what people tend to need.

Second, seeing ourselves as the product of natural selection has heuristic value for developing hypothesis as to what we may need to live and thrive: traits such as behavioral systems that set us to pursue certain goals and which were selected because they were adaptive in our Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness are not all necessarily adaptive now, but many of them probably are, since adaptations are responses to relatively stable challenges the environment poses to individuals of a certain species. Hence, while we cannot automatically translate what was good for our ancestors in our EEA into the list of what would be good for us now, this knowledge has great heuristic value in helping us devise hypothesis as to what we may now need to live and thrive.

Third, seeing ourselves as living organisms who need to stay within a homeostatic range in order to stay alive and well (neither too cold nor too hot, neither undernourished nor overfed), also has consequences for the philosophical debate on criteria for the distribution of relevant capabilities. If what people need to stay alive and well is to be within an adequate range (of temperature, food intake, etc.), then we should go neither for a maximin criterion (more, even if allocated to the worst off, will not necessarily be better), nor for a sufficiency criterion (usually understood as putting individuals above a minimum threshold). If what we need is to stay within an adequate range, this means that we should strive not just to put people in the position to elevate themselves above a minimum threshold, but also to remain below the upper ceiling of the adequate range.

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