The concept of capability: redundant or fundamental?

Li, Jian (2018). 'The Concept of Capability: Redundant or Fundamental?' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


Since Amartya Sen proposed the concept of capability as the main evaluative metric for equality in his 1979 Tanner Lecture “Equality of What?”, the idea of capability has become a new concept in political philosophy and the core idea in the so-called “capability approach”. But what is capability? This paper argues that there has been significant confusions about the concept of capability since the emergence of the capability approach, and that the confusions can make the concept of capability redundant and undermine the influences and expansions of the capability approach. Efforts need to be made to bring clarification to the concept of capability and raise it to the level of fundamental political concepts. 

Sen defines capability as positive freedom or real opportunity. A capability is a capability to function and this means “the positive freedoms in a general sense”, the substantial freedom to do this or to be that (Sen, 1984). Two problems can be identified with Sen’s definition of capability. Firstly, if capability is nothing but freedom, isn’t this making it a redundant concept? And this way of defining capability presumes that the concept of positive freedom is self-evident and needn’t explanation or clarification, while the concept of positive freedom is in fact quite unclear and would need to be defined in terms of capability. We may need to say positive freedom is the capability to do this or be that. Secondly, Sen specifies that capability is a person’s opportunity to choose certain functioning that she has reasons to value. Therefore, capability is in essence an idea of opportunity. But the definition of capability as freedom is incompatible with the definition of capability as opportunity. One may have the opportunity to achieve a certain valuable functioning but not the freedom to do so. Consider a professional athlete in an autocratic or totalitarian country, she may dearly value the opportunity given to her performing the sports activity she loves but still does not have the freedom to do so. Because she has been ordered to become an athlete and has no freedom to do otherwise, sport is government monopolized and ordinary people are denied access to it. In this scenario, she has the capability to achieve the functioning to do some certain sport activity in the sense of capability as an opportunity. But she hasn’t the freedom to achieve such functioning because she has no personal choices in achieving the functioning.

Nussbaum defines capabilities as basic entitlements or rights. She thinks “capabilities are important human entitlements, …and [the capability approach] can be viewed as one species of a human rights approach.” (Nussbaum, 2011a) Capability complements human rights and can better promote and realize human rights. Her list of ten central capabilities is nothing but a list of basic or important human rights. If this is correct, then it makes the concept of capability redundant or just instrumental in the framework of a theory of social justice. And most importantly, her view ignores some of the essential content of the concept of capability that Sen’s approach captures. This paper will argue that there is a link between capability and rights, but not in the way as Nussbaum understands it. Human rights or entitlements provide necessary protection for capabilities. Take the example of an autocratic or totalitarian country again, the result of the deprivation of human rights is most definitely the deprivation or absence of capabilities. In a place where the Internet is strictly regulated and blocked, that is to say, when the right to free information is severely violated, the consequence would be that the people are deprived of basic capabilities of “senses, imagination and thoughts”. (Nussbaum, 2011b) Human rights provide an important protection for people to obtain capabilities, but the presence of human rights doesn’t necessarily create human capabilities. An example would be the capabilities to appreciate the beauty of mathematical truths or Bach’s fugues. With basic human rights present, the capabilities of artistic appreciation still need social environment, education and some personal studying or efforts. Another expample would be a state-of-art device specifically designed for a severly disabled person for her to perform certain bodily functionings. Without the invention of the device, her basic human rights are not violated. With the device, she gains new capabilities but not new rights or entitlements. Therefore, Nussbaum’s equation between the two concepts is incorrect and confusing.

This paper proposes that the essential part of the content of the concept of capability is the achievement of functionings. For a certain functioning, a capability implies the achievement of that functioning. Achievement doesn’t mean the actual performance of the functioning, it means the ability to perform the functioning whenever one chooses to do so. Basic human rights protection provides a necessary not sufficient condition for such achievements. Human rights protection also makes capabilities authentic and real choices, and avoids the risk of becoming paternalistic. A better way to define capability is to combine the idea of opportunity with the concept of human rights. A real opportunity of performing some functionings under the protection of human rights is the “achievement” of certain functionings. The set of the achievements is the well-being of a person’s life. The capabilities as achievements are the aims not only of social justice system, but also of scientific, economic and societal developments. 

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