Educating for Autonomy: Liberalism and Autonomy in the Capabilities Approach


Martha Nussbaum grounds her version of the capabilities approach in political liberalism. In this paper, we argue that the capabilities approach, insofar as it genuinely values the things that persons can actually do and be, must be grounded in a hybrid account of liberalism: in order to show respect for adults, its justification must be political; in order to show respect for children, however, its implementation must include a commitment to comprehensive autonomy, one that ensures that children develop the skills necessary to make meaningful choices about whether or not to exercise their basic capabilities. Importantly, in order to show respect for parents who do not necessarily recognize autonomy as a value, we argue that the liberal state, via its system of public education, should take on the role of ensuring that all children within the state develop a sufficient degree of comprehensive autonomy.

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  1. 1.

    The metaphysical question of what people have reason to value is a notoriously controversial one. See, for instance, Ross 1930; Frankena 1973; Hurka 1993; Wolf 1997. Accordingly, in this paper we focus on the narrower question of what it means to have a real opportunity to do or be something, and leave aside the broader and extremely important question of what things we have reason to value.

  2. 2.

    Most recently, see Nussbaum 2000, 2006, 2011a. Note that we do not engage in this essay with the work of Amartya Sen, the other major architect of the capability approach, because he does not address the connection between liberalism and the capability approach. There are significant differences between Nussbaum and Sen’s versions of the approach. For Sen’s, see Sen 1980, 1993.

  3. 3.

    For this famous formulation of the capabilities approach’s purpose, see Nussbaum 2011a, p. x: the capabilities approach “begins with a very simple question: What are people able to do and be? What real opportunities are available to them?”

  4. 4.

    Although, of course, this need not be the case in a state that adopts moral pluralism merely as a strategic principle or modus vivendi. We thank an anonymous reviewer from raising this important point.

  5. 5.

    Rawls reminds us that a political conception of justice does not leave aside disputed philosophical, moral and religious concepts because they are unimportant or to be regarded with indifference. Rather, it does so “because we think them too important and recognize that there is no way to resolve them politically” (Rawls 1985, pp. 223–251).

  6. 6.

    Note that we do not necessarily claim that this reading is correct. We think only that it is one possible and plausible interpretation of Rawls’s project.

  7. 7.

    It is important to emphasize here that Nussbaum takes political autonomy to apply to children as well as adults (see Nussbaum 2003, 2011b, p. 36). The importance of this point will become clear as we proceed, but for now, we would like to suggest that in the same way that children have proved to be an excellent “test-case” for theories of rights (see MacCormick 1982) children should also be seen as a “test-case” for competing theories about social justice. Indeed, we should be highly suspicious of theories that treat childhood as a time of life that can be bracketed out from rigorous philosophical consideration (as if we already came to the world well equipped to pursue our conception of the good), or that do not seriously engage with the question of what children are owed as a matter of justice.

  8. 8.

    For extended discussion of autonomy as an instrumentally valuable good, see Arneson and Shapiro 1996; Brighouse 1998. For a discussion of autonomy as a sufficietarian good, see Archard 2002. For more passing references see Gutmann 1980; Feinberg 1992.

  9. 9.

    Note that this definition of oppression is a political liberal one that avoids making claims about those things which it is objectively good for human beings to enjoy and of which they might be deprived. Many will prefer more substantive or far-researching definitions of oppression (see, for instance Young 1990; Hay 2011), and some will even make the stronger claim that liberalism, with its emphasis on individual rights, is itself necessarily oppressive (for such an argument directed specifically at the capabilities approach, see Noonan 2011). We recognize that these are large and important questions, but they, like the related questions of what persons have reason to value, are unfortunately far beyond the scope of this paper. Accordingly, we have adopted a parsimonious definition of oppression. We are grateful to an anonymous reviewer for pushing us on this point and for providing us with fruitful suggestions.

  10. 10.

    For extended discussion of the difficulty of balancing the autonomy needs of children with the autonomy rights of parents, see MacLeod 1997; Noggle 2002.

  11. 11.

    Clearly, the items on this list of alternative lifestyles will have to be limited in some ways. For instance, lifestyles which necessarily cause harm to others, or that denigrate others, should not be represented as deserving the same level of respect (although political protections should perhaps nevertheless remain at least for those in the latter category).

  12. 12.

    For various versions of the list, see Nussbaum 2000, pp. 86–88; Nussbaum 2006, pp. 76–78; and Nussbaum 2011a, pp. 33–34. For an earlier version of the list, that precedes her commitment to political liberalism, see Nussbaum 1992, p. 222.

  13. 13.

    Or indeed choices to forgo the exercise of other capabilities or rights, or to refuse the status assigned to all citizens in non-political life.


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An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2010 Conference of the Human Development and Capabilities Association, held in Amman, Jordan. We are grateful to participants for their comments. For helpful comments on various versions of this paper, we would also like to thank Christian Barry, Ryan Cox, Jonathan Herington, Thomas Pogge, and Scott Wisor.

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Correspondence to Luara Ferracioli.

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Ferracioli, L., Terlazzo, R. Educating for Autonomy: Liberalism and Autonomy in the Capabilities Approach. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 17, 443–455 (2014).

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  • Political liberalism
  • Comprehensive liberalism
  • Autonomy
  • Children
  • Public education