Promoting Capabilities through Moral Education

Jeffrey, Anne Marshall (2014). 'Promoting Capabilities through Moral Education' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

Proponents of the Capabilities Approach reasonably hope to shape public policy using the approach, but there are challenges to developing and implementing it implementing the approach in practice, two of which I shall discuss in this paper. It shall argue that the Capabilities Approach has the potential to meet both challenges at once by bringing into focus the importance of a particular kind of education not yet emphasized by defenders of the approach—moral education.
     The first challenge for applying the Capabilities Approach to public policy results from the theory's commitment to a plurality of central capabilities that foster the attainment of incommensurable life goods on an objective list. As Nussbaum acknowledges in her 2011 book Creating Capabilities, since the theory does not endorse simple tradeoffs between various of the life goods and central capabilities and instead eschews the modern economist's approach to ordering by preferences, it must have some other mechanism for prioritizing some of the various central capabilities and correlative goods over others in concrete circumstances. For in many circumstances, which Nussbaum terms tragic conflicts, not all of the life goods and central capacities can be secured to the same degree, at the same time. This ordering problem shall occupy the first third of the paper.
     The second challenge arises from the circumstances in many capitalist nations where preference satisfaction and wealth are worshiped at the expense of equality and the life goods promoted by central capabilities. That is, in many cultures where capitalism reigns, persons in those cultures have seemed to lose a grip on the importance of the basic life goods that populate Nussbaum's objective list and no longer value the central capabilities. If the approach maintains its commitment to political liberalism, then in these conditions, it will be fettered by the actual preferences of the persons in a problematic way. The problem resulting from the conjunction of distorted preferences and political liberalism shall occupy the second third of the paper.
    In the final part of the paper, I shall suggest that a system of moral education, not simply technical or literary education on which Nussbaum has placed focus, may provide a solution to these problems. I will argue that an educational program which primes the learners to appreciate the basic goods on Nussbaum's objective list as goods will have widespread effects on a culture, molding preferences so as to avoid the second problem outlined above. A system of moral education also can be used to bring about the kind of practical reasoning skills needed to solve the ordering problem in concrete cases—skills which are flexible and adaptable to situations. So the students in whom these skills are cultivated may actually be able to surpass the teachers in their ability to see potential solutions to ordering problems. Thus, I argue, a shift of focus onto moral education—education in virtue—is worthwhile for the Capabilities Approach as it moves into the practical sphere.  

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