The place of individual responsibility in capability approach

García Valverde, Facundo (2018). 'The place of individual responsibility in Capability Approach' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


One typical rejoinder to any protest or demand made by migrants is that they could return to their home place. This harsh (and even false) rejoinder assumes that if a person chooses to stay in a place, she must fully assume the costs of that decision, no matter how his well-being is affected. The pervasiveness of these kind of rejoinders illustrate a common intuition that has been developed theoretically by Luck Egalitarianism, according to which inequalities derived from choices are not illegitimate and do not raise concerns related with justice. Individual responsibility should, according to this view, limit the extent and demandigness of egalitarian obligations.

Capability Approach does not have a determinate position regarding individual responsibility. The most acute problems of responsibility and duties that are omnipresent in liberal egalitarian discussions - i.e. how an egalitarian society should deal with individuals who decrease their own wellbeing through their free individual choices and the resulting consequences of those choices - have been rarely tackled directly by capability theorists. Using capabilities as input for an evaluative exercise – offering just an informational basis to assess individual wellbeing - seems to exempt capability practitioners from taking a position on the adequate balance between efficiency, fairness and real freedoms, on how to compare deficits in real freedoms for different individuals, and on who has, and under which circumstances, a perfect or imperfect obligation to remediate low levels of substantive freedoms.

This under-determination can be explained using Ingrid Robeyns’s modular view of the capability approach. It is a consequence of the fact that, on one side, the definition of the evaluative space and its multidimensional character constitute, among others, compulsory modules for each capability practitioner and that, on the other side, the normative principles that will guide redistributive policies are fully contingent on other elements than capabilities’ core commitments. Then, the discussion about the metric and the discussion about individual responsibility should be conducted independently.

Although this communication is sympathetic with this modular view, it will argue that the discussion about the metric is relevant for solving the discussion of the role that individual responsibility should play when distributing the benefits of social cooperation. In other terms, it will explore if the defense of capabilities as the metric of egalitarian justice imply any restriction on the role that individual responsibility should play at reducing or expanding the distributive obligations of the political community. If the answer is negative, capabilitarian theorists would have reasons to embrace Luck Capabilitarianism, according to which inequalities in substantive freedoms raise egalitarian concern only when they derive from circumstances that are beyond the individual’s control.

I will argue that a consistent defender of capabilities should not place Luck Capabilitarianism at the head of a normative exercise, that is, that our egalitarian obligations do not disappear when a free choice results in a capability deficit. Although Luck Capabilitarianism is a conceptually possible position, it would not be valuable because there will be a considerable number of cases in which the core commitments of a capability theory conflicts with luck egalitarian principles.

Two main arguments will be developed to sustain this claim. First, it will be showed that the multidimensional character of well being implies that, when there is a high chance that imprudent choices in one capability diminish the level of other valuable capabilities in the same individual, there is a real justice concern, regardless of the attributive responsibility of the agent. Second, it will be argued that Luck Capabilitarianism would undermine the fact that capabilities are not just valuable because they represent a space of freedom, but because, first, they are real freedoms to do or be something valuable and, second, because they represent a normative space where individuals can develop and experiment with their own conception of good.

This communication would be structured as follows. In Section 1, it will offer a plausible a priori account of Luck Capabilitarianism, that has some textual support and that can attract to capabilitarian theorists. In Section 2, it will claim that Luck Capabilitarianism justifies excessively harsh redistributive policies that undermine the multidimensional character of wellbeing. In Section 3, it will show that Luck Capabilitarianism significantly reduces the value of capabilities as a result of its indifference toward situations in which individuals, due to their own choices, can no longer achieve a certain threshold of valuable functionings.




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