Encyclopedia of the Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy

Living Edition
| Editors: Mortimer Sellers, Stephan Kirste


  • Yuko KamishimaEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-6730-0_29-2


Capability means what a person can do and be, i.e., that person’s substantial freedom. To live a flourishing life, we need not only formal freedoms declared and stipulated on paper but also substantial ones that we can enjoy only through decent social arrangements. Although people’s ways of life vary across boundaries, everyone lives a life in need of this freedom to act as an agent. According to Amartya Sen, the pioneer of the concept capability, an agent is “someone who acts and brings about change, and whose achievements can be judged in terms of her own values and objectives, whether or not we assess them in terms of some external criteria as well” (Sen 1999: 19). In this sense, capability is a universally applicable concept.

Equality of What?

The term capability first drew the attention of legal and social philosophers in 1979 when Sen gave the Tanner Lecture on Human Values, titled “Equality of What?” at Stanford University; this was subsequently published as an article in 1980. Sen focused on the question of “equality of what?” instead of “why equality?” and examined the utilitarian ideas of equality (“utilitarian equality” and “total utility equality”) and John Rawls’s idea of equality (“Rawlsian equality”), concluding that both the utilitarian ideas of equality and Rawls’s idea of equality were inappropriate. Instead, Sen suggested the idea of capability equality (“basic capability equality”), indicating that “The focus on basic capabilities can be seen as a natural extension of Rawls’s concern with primary goods, shifting attention from goods to what goods do to human beings” (Sen 1980: 218–219). Since then, capability has become one of the metrics of egalitarian considerations.

Measuring Quality of Life

Since mid 1980s, Sen and Martha Nussbaum have forged what they call “a philosophical and conceptual framework within which to discuss some urgent problems that arise in the course of ‘development,’ especially economic development” (Nussbaum and Sen 1989: 299). Sen had been engaged in the study of economic development, and had noticed that his idea of capability had an Aristotelian strand, while Nussbaum, who was then a well-known Aristotelian philosopher, had focused on beings’ dunamis (capability) instead of energeia (functioning) in her study of Aristotle and also devised her own idea of capability (Nussbaum 1988). Sen and Nussbaum joined in collaborative development projects in the World Institute for Development Economics Research (WIDER), a part of the United Nations University in Helsinki, Finland. Their projects continued till 1993, generating what is known today as the “capability approach” (Nussbaum and Sen 1993).

The capability approach (also known as the “capabilities approach” or the “capability theory”) thus started as a new approach to investigating people’s “quality of life” (QOL) (also known as “well-being”), particularly in the field of development studies. In general, this capability approach aims to see what individuals can do and can be. It attaches more importance to a person’s substantial freedoms (capabilities) than to her possessions (resources) or her actual achievements (functionings). For example, although human beings require food to live (resources), merely having food does not guarantee a person’s well-being (for example, she may be starved to death due to some psychological issue). In this case, it is necessary to look at what she can actually do with that food (capabilities) in order to understand her state of affairs better. On the other hand, while she could be dead from starvation (functioning), we do not know whether she has really died from starvation until we look at what she could actually do (capabilities), as she could have died from hunger strike (individual choice).

Sensitivity to Differences

The capability approach also aims to respect differences among individuals, based upon considerations of equality. It is crucial for the capability approach to note that people having the same amount of the same resource does not guarantee that they have the same measure of capabilities. For example, even if in a given society everyone is given the same bottle of soya milk daily (supposing that soya milk makes humans healthy), some may need two bottles a day for the soya milk to have the same effect as on others, due to their body size, metabolism, or pregnancy and breastfeeding. Or some may simply not be able to drink soya milk due to an allergy or dislike, and so require alternative measures in order to be healthy as others. As Sen (1992) stated, people are different, not only in external characteristics such as inherited assets, natural and social environments but also in individual characteristics such as age, sex, tolerance to diseases, and physical and psychological capacities. This diversity affects the way in which resources are converted to capabilities (individual differences).

Human-Centered Approach

Hence, out of the three dimensions of a person’s life, namely, capabilities, resources, and functionings, the capability approach focuses on a person’s capability space, i.e., the expanse of her substantial freedom. In this sense, it is opposed to a stance that adheres to the metric of resources (“resourcism”) (Dworkin 1981; Pogge 2002), to perfectionism, which emphasizes the importance of certain functionings for human flourishing, and to what Sen calls “welfarism,” which uses people’s satisfaction as the metric of well-being (Sen and Williams 1982). As is explained below, although Nussbaum’s version of the capability approach has some element of perfectionism, it tries to fend off criticism by appealing to the fact that it is indeed liberal in respecting individual choices about whether or not to use capabilities to achieve functionings.

The capability approach indeed refers to resources. Nevertheless, it is not as narrow as previous development approaches, such as the GNP (GDP, GNI) approach. Since the 1990s, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has applied the capability approach to its development policy, and generated a new development index, the Human Development Index (HDI), by adding life expectancy and education level to GDP per capita so that the concept of development has become more human-centered. The capability approach as an approach to human development has gained some popularity among theorists and practitioners in the area of development. The activities of the Human Development & Capability Association (HDCA), an international study group for the capability approach launched in 2004, show that the initial object of the capability approach was the mitigation of poverty, understood as a lack of capabilities, and that the current extent of the capability approach is well beyond this initial object (Nussbaum 2011).

Philosophical Debates

As the capability approach has reached a broader audience, and begun to be applied to wider issues so that it would cover all human activities (Crocker 2008; Brooks 2012), its philosophical sides have received more attention and become subjected to philosophical debates. One such debate involves Nussbaum’s listing of “the central human capabilities” (Nussbaum 2000, 2006).

Based on her neo-Aristotelianism, together with her affiliation with Kant, J. S. Mill, and Marx, Nussbaum lists ten capabilities and asks all governments on earth to guarantee those capabilities to their citizens as “a bare minimum of what respect for human dignity requires” (Nussbaum 2000: 5). Her list includes: life (to be able to live normal length of longevity with dignity); bodily health (to be able to be healthy); bodily integrity (to be able to have one’s body as sovereign and mobile); senses, imagination, and thought (to be able to feel and think humanly); emotions (to be able to choose loving and caring relationships); practical reasoning (to be able to form a conception of the good through critical reflection); affiliation (to be able to share a life with others in a respectful manner); other species (to be able to coexist with nature); play (to be able to have leisure); and control over one’s environment (to be able to participate in political as well as economic activities as an agent) (Nussbaum 2000: 78–80).

Nussbaum claims that this list is open-ended and not exclusive, for it is supposed to be a product of a “thick vague theory of the good” (Nussbaum 1990). This theory is not only thick (Aristotelian) in the sense that it asks what it means to be a human being and derives a certain set of human characteristics from the answers but also ethical in the sense that it picks up particular human characteristics as deserving protection and cultivation. However, it is at the same time vague (liberal), in the sense that it leaves individuals the choice as to how they actually live, and which capabilities to functionalize. In this way, Nussbaum claims that it is based on “internalist essentialism” (Nussbaum 1992), a viewpoint that is internal to human experiences.

There have been various reactions to Nussbaum’s list. Roughly speaking, among theorists of social justice, in particular of global justice, it is the content of the list, not the idea of listing itself, that is at stake (Doyal and Gough 1991; Gasper 2004; Miller 2007; Brock 2009). In fact, the idea of listing certain social values is not new in political philosophy; we can find it in John Rawls’s theory of justice (social primary goods) as well as in certain theories of human rights, such as Rawls’s theory of international justice (Rawls 1971, 1999). Moreover, Sen himself, who used to be negative about listing basic capabilities (Sen 1993), proposed at one point the idea of “human rights as entitlements to capabilities” and suggested that some of the basic capabilities he mentioned in his Tanner Lecture are cross-culturally basic (Sen 2005). This implies the inevitable universality not only in human rights talk but also in human capabilities talk that should come before. The real issue here is not whether we can make a list; it is whether we want to treat others as morally equal human agents who are in need of substantial freedoms.


This debate will be further deepened as more capability theorists engage in the construction of the theory of (global) justice, as we can see in Nussbaum’s partial theory of global justice, where she suggests to converge the capability approach with the contract theory and to represent the list of central human capabilities as a product of “reflective equilibrium” (Nussbaum 2006), and as more criticisms against such endeavors are developed.

Meanwhile, as the capability approach is increasingly applied to new fields of study such as animal welfare (Nussbaum 2006) and robotics designs (Oosterlaken and Hoven 2012), we will be seeing and examining the capacity and potential of the capability approach itself.



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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Ritsumeikan UniversityOsakaJapan

Section editors and affiliations

  • Tetsu Sakurai
    • 1
  1. 1.Graduate School of Intercultural StudiesKobe UniversityKobeJapan