Opportunities, Freedoms, and other Primary Goods: A Reassessment of the Capability-based Critique of Rawls

Richardson, Henry S. (2016). 'Opportunities, Freedoms, and other Primary Goods: A Reassessment of the Capability-based Critique of Rawls' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

In this paper, I revisit Sen’s critique of Rawls’s focus on primary goods—and specifically on income and wealth—in articulating his “difference principle,” as well as Nussbaum’s extension of this critique.  As is well known, the difference principle holds that departures from full equality due to a society’s basic institutions must be restricted to those that maximize the advantages of the least well-off representative class of persons.  Among Rawls’s principles, it perhaps best answers to what people expect in a principle of distributive justice.  Accordingly, his use of an index of income and wealth to measure the level of expected advantage enjoyed by the “least advantaged” has often been taken as indicating that “income and wealth” is Rawls’s answer to Sen’s question, “equality of what?”  —Or it would be Rawls’s answer to that question, but for the fact that the difference principle allows for departures from equality so long as those maximize the expectations of the least-well off. 
Sen’s critique of Rawls centrally argues that this appeal to resources such as income and wealth makes Rawls’s view incapable of being adequately sensitive to the diversity of human beings’ conditions and circumstances.  Specifically, Sen complains that even Rawls’s brief reply to this critique makes “no attempt to come to terms with the ubiquitous variations in conversion opportunities between different people” (Idea of Justice, 261).  Nussbaum seconds this critique, especially as it applies to people with significant disabilities (Frontiers of Justice, 116), and adds a further point, about the diversity of goods.  Whereas Rawls constructs, for purposes of the difference principle, a one-dimensional index of income and wealth, Nussbaum insists “that the … goods to be distributed by society are plural and not single and that they are not commensurable…” (Frontiers, 166). 
 Despite Rawls having replied to Sen, this argument between Rawls and the leading defenders of the capability approach has never been fairly joined.  The criticisms just summarized pull Rawls’s difference principle out of context.  Specifically, they elide the fact that the difference principle is merely the third in priority of Rawls’s main principles, after the principles of equal basic liberty and fair equality of opportunity.  Each of these two higher-priority principles addresses primary goods that are not addressed by the difference principle:  the former addresses liberties; the latter addresses opportunities.  A further point is that while Rawls uses income and wealth to index the expectations of the least advantaged, he uses the idea of overlapping deprivations (in family and class origin, talents and other natural endowments, and those resulting from ill fortune) to define the least advantaged (A Theory of Justice, rev. ed., 83).
 In this paper, I argue that this complete Rawlsian package of three principles makes a more formidable opponent than the defenders of the capability approach have generally allowed.  Rawls’s primary goods are multiple and incommensurable.  Further, the “opportunities” of which he speaks are not sharply distinct from capabilities. 
 In closing, I suggest that in addition to remaining standing as a worthy competitor to capabilities-based accounts of justice, Rawls’s view, with its tripartite distinction among basic liberties, fair opportunities, and the fair distribution of advantages, offers an attractive model for capability theorists interested in going beyond a statement of what minimal justice requires—one that can be made all the stronger by incorporating insights from the capability approach.  Arguably, the diversity of human individuals is best addressed by a diverse suite of human institutions, each governed by different principles of justice. 

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