Rawls and the Capability Approach

Comim, Flavio (2016). 'Rawls and the Capability Approach' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

abstract There would be no Capability Approach (CA) without Rawls. Indeed, from the origins of the approach in Amartya Sen’s ‘Equality of What?’ (1980) to its more recent versions in ‘The Idea of Justice’ (2009), the CA is put forward in relation to John Rawls’s work. This also applies to the writings of Martha Nussbaum, as we can see in so many of her publications such as ‘Frontiers of Justice’ (2006) or her more recent work with Thom Brooks (2015) on ‘Rawls’s Political Liberalism’. The pervasiveness of Rawls’s work in providing a reference for situating the contribution of the CA to matters of justice and development should not be a matter of contention. However, it is remarkable to see how little debate Sen and Nussbaum’s strong criticisms of Rawls have produced. In fact, most of their criticisms of Rawls’s remain unchallenged. It is remarkable how little attention Rawls himself gave to Sen’s criticism of his approach (e.g. in his ‘Political Liberalism’ (1993) or ‘Justice as Fairness’ (2001)). Given this context, the objective of this paper is to provide a critical review of the main negative appraisals of Rawls’s work put forward by ‘capability theorists’. It is important to bring more voices to this discussion, such as those by T.M. Scanlon in ‘What We Owe to Each Other’ (2001) or by Ronald Dworkin in ‘Justice for Hedgehogs’ (2011) or more recently by Olivia Newman’s ‘Liberalism in Practice’ (2015). In particular, the paper examines how compelling are Sen and Nussbaum’s critiques of Rawls’s in relation to Rawls’s work. By doing so, it is able to scrutinize and discuss the added value of the CA to matters of justice and human development. Whereas one tends to focus in the capability literature on the main differences between Rawls and the CA (based on the mantra that ‘resources are imperfect indicators of well-being’ or that ‘Rawls’s psychological account is very abstract’) key areas of agreement remain neglected regarding Rawls’s concern with rights and efficiency or with the role of institutions in promoting and sustaining ‘moral sentiments’ (to use an expression related to Adam Smith’s famous work). As it is argued in the paper, by exploring Rawls’s own theoretical agenda and analysing how Sen and Nussbaum’s works contribute to it, one can see some of their criticisms in a new light. The practical relevance of this task should not be underestimated: Sen and Nussbaum have put forward two different research projects that can be justified as complementary (and not as alternative) to each other. By exploring Rawls’s work these complementarities become more evident and a synthesis of the CA can emerge with practical significance for the operationalization of the approach. The paper is divided into three parts in addition to the introduction where the main issues raised by the paper are put forward, part 1 reviews Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum’s critiques of Rawls’s ‘Theory of Justice’ (1971) and ‘Political Liberalism’ (1993). Then, part 2 explores their justifications by bringing Rawls’s own arguments and articulating a defence of his work. Finally, part 3 suggests a synthesis of the Capability Approach based on the ‘surviving criticisms’, bringing other voices to the debate. This paper hopes to contribute to the contemporary discussion about the foundations of the Capability Approach but its implications are very concrete and applied, as argued.        

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