Revisiting the fetishism objection

Östlund, Sebastian (2018). 'Revisiting the Fetishism Objection' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


In order to understand what makes a life good for the individual who is living it, it is important to identify what the intrinsic good-for-making properties are and what they do. In regard to the currency of justice Sen (1980; 1985; 1999, 12-16; 1987, 46 f) criticises both hedonistic and desire-theoretical accounts of well-being for having a too narrow and distorted focus on what makes lives good to live. Instead, Sen suggests that what makes lives good are certain states of doing and being (functionings), accompanied with the freedoms and opportunities to achieve these states (capabilities). In this effort to move beyond utility based accounts of well-being Sen (1980; 1999; 1992, 80) has also argued against commodity based approaches to justice for being fetishist. That is, for treating merely instrumentally good things as though they were embodiments of advantage, or intrinsically good. Interestingly, the fetishism objection turns out to have a structurally related charge which can be directed at the capability approach itself. This is because Sen has not adequately disentangled the intrinsic good (where the value lies) from the final good (the value’s desirability). In this paper I argue that the capability approach makes great strides in the right direction, but ultimately does not just capture the value objects that make up well-being. I show that this “finalism charge” holds for the capability approach as a framework. However, I also argue that capability theories (qua substantial developments of the capability approach framework) can avoid it.

The first claim is established by following up on Richardson (2015) highlighting Korsgaard’s (1983) distinction between intrinsic and final values. Functionings and capabilities are indeed intrinsically valuable in the location sense of the term, but not invariably what ultimately constitutes our well-being. We can analyse the fetishism objection as stating that we should focus not on the instrumental value but on the intrinsic value established by the dyadic relationship, R, between a circumstance, C, and some person, P such that R(C, P) holds. Taking ‘intrinsic’ to mean “inherent in the object” we can ask our first question. Are functionings and capabilities intrinsically valuable? On this interpretation, the intrinsic value lies not in the circumstance, C, nor in P’s enjoyment, but in the relationship R. Here, the commodity and person are enabling conditions for R to obtain. We may imagine R to be itself an achievement relation (signifying a functioning), or a freedom-to-achieve relation (signifying a capability). Given that the concept of functionings is conceptually prior to the concept of capability, we may, however, more accurately argue that capabilities should be construed as a freedom function, F, which takes an achievement relationship and person as arguments, giving us the formula ‘F(R(C, P), P)’. This analysis allows for the intrinsic value to reside in the freedom, F, and in the achievement relationship, R, giving us the two separate dimensions by which we can evaluate a person’s life at some point in her functioning set or capability set.

Thus, the question can be answered affirmatively. Functionings and capabilities qua relationships are embodiments. They are even embodiments of intrinsic value. This would typically be the end of the story. The fetishism objection states that treating instrumentally good things as being intrinsically good is a fetishist thing to do. But we have not equated intrinsic value with a person’s advantage (i.e. desirable final value). Substituting C in R(C, P) for a debilitating disease, D, would give us the achieved state of a sick person, P. This state is hardly valuable prudentially simply because it would be either realised or something she is free to realise. We see then that the prudential value status of R(C, P) is dependent on not just R, but also the input argument, C. We can speak of functionings and capabilities being intrinsically valuable in the proper location sense of the term ‘intrinsic’. We may also note, however, that achievements and freedoms are not inherently prudentially valuable. Their prudential value depends precisely on the objects they take as arguments. The point is not so much that a relationship obtains, but what kind of relationship obtains between circumstances and persons. To value an instrumental good as finally good is bad, but to seek to promote a final, negative, disvalue on account of it being an intrinsic value seems as bad, or even worse. This constitutes the structurally related finalism charge.

The problem arises because, as Robeyns (2017, 41) points out, “[f]unctionings and capabilities are value-neutral categories” and “constitutive elements of human life, which consists of both wellbeing and ill-being”. This value-neutrality is built into the framework itself, according to her modular take on the capability approach. This, if unchecked, results in our evaluational spaces becoming inflated with undesirable items. The value-neutrality claim is in tension with the claim that capabilities and functionings constitute dimensions of personal advantage or final value, as e.g. Nussbaum (2011, 156) suggests in stating that “[i]n general, income is a means to an end, and capabilities are the end”. Therefore, it is an indispensable feature of capability theories that they include a theory of value, insofar as we are interested in capabilities and functionings as final ends and not entities that fall short of such ends.


Korsgaard, Christine M. 1983. “Two Distinctions in Goodness.” The Philosophical Review Vol. 92, No. 2, pp. 169-95.

Nussbaum, Martha. 2011. Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Richardson, Henry S. 2015. “Using Final Ends for the Sake of Better Policy-Making.” Journal of Human Development and Capabilities 16 (2), pp. 161-72.

Robeyns, Ingrid. 2017. Wellbeing, Freedom and Social Justice: The Capability Approach Re-Examined. Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers.

Sen, Amartya. 1980. “Equality of What?” The Tanner Lectures on Human Values 1, pp. 195-220.

---. 1985. “Well-Being, Agency and Freedom: The Dewey Lectures 1984.” The Journal of Philosophy 82, pp. 169-221.

---. 1987. On Ethics & Economics. New York: Blackwell.

---. 1992. Inequality Reexamined. New York: OUP.

---. 1999. Commodities and Capabilities. Delhi, New York: OUP.

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