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In the light of justice

Print edition : Jan 02, 2009 T+T-

The author makes a critical evaluation of the contribution of the capabilities approach to social justice.

There is no doubt that where material deprivation is one of the most readily identifiable aspects of lack of development, the emphasis on food, clothing and shelter is quite legitimate. But there is danger in it, too. Development can easily deteriorate into a delivery system of giving people what they are considered to need, with bureaucrats and politicians taking the credit for it. The basic problem in such an approach is that it treats people as mere objects without a legitimate and, indeed, crucial role in defining development and deciding how it is to be achieved.

The need for a people-centric approach to development was occasionally put forward in the past (as for instance, a Papal Encyclical of the 1960s, which stated that development must be the progress of people). But hard-core economists tended to dismiss such approaches as being too soft a view of development.

One of Amartya Sens greatest achievements has been to shift the focus of development from things to people, demonstrating the philosophical underpinnings of that shift. Sen did this by situating the development problematic in the discourse on the hoary theme of justice, going back to Socrates and Aristotle in the distant past and the utilitarians in the 19th century (Hume, Smith, Bentham, Mill), but revived in the second half of the past century primarily by John Rawls in his 1971 publication, A Theory of Justice.

What John Alexander attempts in this volume is to make a critical inquiry about the link between Sens approach to development and a theory of social justice. Being a student of philosophy and ethics, he approaches the theme from the perspective of justice. A theory of justice, he says at the outset, cannot be tantamount to a theory of well-being. Judgments regarding claims of justice invariably acquire not only identifying and delineating certain aspects of well-being [i.e., development even in its broadest materialistic sense] but also finding the appropriate normative principles by which to treat people as equals in society. What he finds significant in Sen is a plural and public conception of justice intimately tied to democracy and public reasoning.

Perhaps a quick recall of Sens journey from development, as economists view it, to justice, as a worldly philosopher understands it, will be helpful. It is best traced in the context of Rawls book mentioned above. Rawls attempts to lay down the principles of a social order in which reasonable people not only will pursue what is advantageous for themselves but are also willing to take into account the consequences of their action on the welfare of others who are also reasonable people. He provided a list of primary goods basic rights and liberties; freedom of movement and choice of occupation; powers and prerogatives of office and positions of responsibility; income and wealth; social basis of self-respect. He also provided two principles of justice whereby the primary goods could be distributed fairly among members who constitute the social order.

The first, referred to as the equal liberties principle, maintains that each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all. The second, the difference principle, is that social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) to the greatest benefit to the least advantaged and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity. The significance of the two principles taken together is that unlike the utilitarian dictum of the greatest good of the greatest number, which tolerates arbitrary inequalities in the interest of the welfare of society, the Rawlsian principles take into account each person and permits only those inequalities that are to the benefit of the least advantaged.

This was, indeed, a progressive step in the discourse on justice and Sen acknowledges it as such. However, through his continuing engagement with the development problematic and its philosophical basis, Sen has overtaken Rawls. John Alexander points out that according to Sen a theory of justice should not assess peoples well-being and their standing in society on the basis of primary goods, but rather in terms of basic capabilities.

In a series of writings, particularly Poverty and Famines (1981), Choice, Welfare and Measurement (1982), Commodities and Capabilities (1987), On Economic Inequalities (1997) and Development as Freedom (1999), Sen put forward his concept of human capabilities. He was ably supported by Martha Nussbaum, who also authored many studies on capabilities with a pronounced feminine perspective. Since the theme of John Alexanders work is a critical evaluation of the contribution of the capabilities approach to social justice, a further scrutiny of the concept of capability as propounded by Sen and Nussbaum is necessary.

In relation to development, a distinctive departure emerged when the emphasis shifted from reaching essentially materialistic targets (the basic necessities of life, for instance) to what Sen has termed capabilities. John Alexander sums up Sens notion of capabilities as consisting of two interrelated elements: First of all, it refers to capacities or powers of people as human beings: these can range from the most basic ones required to fulfil nutritional and health needs to more complex ones such as the exercise of practical reason and living with self-respect in a community. Secondly, it refers to the opportunities that people have to nurture and exercise their capacities; indeed, peoples capacities can be enhanced or hampered depending on the opportunities they face in their familial, social and political circumstances.

The capabilities approach, thus, shifts the concept of development to a larger and even higher realm. It may appear that in that process the whole development concept has been made rather fussy, but the now widely used Human Development Index (HDI) shows that it need not be so. But that is going out of the main theme of John Alexanders book. However, one of his keen observations is relevant here. He says: Sen was indeed perceptive to point that poverty is relative in terms of resources and absolute in terms of capabilities.

Before we turn to a comparison of the capability approach and Rawls theory of justice, Nussbaums contribution to the former must be brought in. One of the implications of the capability approach is that it is possible and even necessary to move away from the understanding of poverty as low levels of income to poverty as a capability deprivation. This emphasis on deprivation and the need to get over, or at least compensate for, has been one of Nussbaums main contributions.

For instance, she points out that in the case of severely disabled and dependent children and adults it is necessary to provide material resources, education and social recognition so that they too would be socially accepted. In view of this, Nussbaum has also insisted that the concept of capabilities should not be left inadequately specified (as Sen has tended to do) but must be elaborated and spelt out. Her list of ten central capabilities (being able to live, to begin with, to being able to laugh, to play and enjoy recreational activities, at the end) has received critical acclaim. (See pages 64-65 in John Alexanders book for the full list.) She warns also that even the capabilities approach can turn out to be paternalistic in the sense that those in power can claim to know what is good for the people.

In order to avoid it or reduce that possibility, Nussbaum insists that the capability approach must be anchored in the tradition of political philosophy, going back to Aristotles emphasis on the political nature of human beings and the legitimacy and role of the state in the quest for the good life. Nussbaum also insists that the basic capabilities of human beings must be enhanced and augmented to the level of combined capabilities through social action. Again, as John Alexander succinctly puts it, [T]he gap between basic capabilities and combined capabilities, for Nussbaum, is the locus of political goals.

While, in a sense, Rawls theory of justice and the capability approach have much in common (when the two are set against utilitarianism, for instance) and may be thought of as first cousins as John Alexander says, the major criticism that Sen and Nussbaum have against Rawls is that he only lists (some) conditions necessary for a just society, but does not indicate how such a society is to be achieved and the crucial role of people in specifying it and working towards it.

One aspect that the capability approach stresses is the importance of the agency of persons in deciding on the nature of the social order they deem desirable. It, therefore, advocates a reciprocal view of responsibility and emphasises the interdependence between the individual and the social order. It is for this reason that Sen considers public discussion and a democratic polity as crucial aspects of a just society. They not only help to identify peoples elementary needs, but are also influential in the construction of social values such as justice, respect and solidarity.

There is much more in John Alexanders stimulating book. It is readily conceded that the theme he deals with is not everybodys cup of tea. But for those who wish to become acquainted with the pioneering work of some of the leading intellectuals of our time on themes of everyday life on the one hand, but of deeply philosophical nature on the other, I strongly recommend this book. John Alexander sets out to summarise difficult arguments, to make comparisons of different perspectives and to synthesise divergent approaches. And he has greatly succeeded in his effort.