Amartya Sen and Capabilities

amartya sen

The writings of Amartya Sen, Indian economist and philosopher, Nobel laureate in economics in 1998, are now recognized for their major contribution to the analysis of inequality and philosophical theories of justice. He argues that we must not only take into account individuals possess, but also their ability, their freedom to use their property to choose their own lifestyle. He rejected as much an instrumental conception that only formal conception of rights and freedom, and made decisive criticism against utilitarianism. The main concepts of this theory are those of “modes” (functionings) and “capabilities”. The first is what an individual can achieve given the property he owns (enough to feed, move unhindered, to read and write) – it thus describes his condition – while the second is the different pension possible combinations of the first, for an individual. A capability is a vector of modes expressing the freedom of an individual to choose between different living conditions.

The concepts of capability and operating modes are very close but distinct. A capability can also be interpreted as a particular mode of operation (“freedom to choose their way of life”) which is considered fundamental and therefore enhanced by the others.

This definition shows the two levels at which effects the capability approach. At first description: In this context, poverty is understood as a deprivation of basic capabilities and not just as a low income. It then performs a normative level by providing a new basis for the principles of equality and justice (hence the title of the conference seminal Sen in 1979: “Equality of what?”). Egalitarianism Sen posits equal basic capabilities, not equality of utilities as in utilitarianism, or equality of “primary goods” (goods useful regardless of our rational life plan) as in John Rawls.

This concept is widely discussed in philosophy as in economics. It gave rise to many theoretical controversies (with John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, John Roemer, Robert Sugden, Gerald Cohen, Marc Fleurbaey) and empirical work on poverty (including through the construction of the index of human developement as part of the Human Developement and Capability Association) and has also inspired the Millennium Development Goals of the UN or the action of some NGOs such as Oxfam, which Sen is honorary president. The theory of capabilities, however, is often criticized for its vagueness and the difficulty of application2. Some accuse him too great a faith in freedom of choice of individuals, others its ambiguous relationship to neoclassical economic theory, and some lack of objectivity and, despite the universalist pretensions displayed by its author, a tendency relativism of values.

This criticism is based on two observations: Sen did little to theorize applied and refute cultural relativism and, above all, it did not provide a comprehensive list of basic capabilities (in contrast to what ‘ Rawls had done for primary goods), justifying its refusal by the fact that “there are good reasons to believe that there is a plurality of purposes and goals that people can pursue.” If, then, there are an unlimited number of capabilities and that they may be different depending on the values ​​of individuals, the charge of relativism is understandable and it may seem problematic to take them as the basis for a theory of justice.

This article aims to study the report of Sen’s theory of relativism going back to the foundations of ethics capabilities. We will show that to enhance his critique of utilitarianism and develop its normative theory, Sen uses the classical notion in moral philosophy, “relativity in relation to the agent ‘(agent relativity). He appropriates and then reformulates the concept – to avoid the pitfalls of ethical relativism and instead claim to objectivity – to lead to the notion of “positional objectivity” (positional objectivity). It is from this new concept that finally recuse Sen cultural relativism. His defense against relativism can nevertheless be regarded as entirely satisfactory and shows the difficulty of using the term “position” in moral philosophy.

Once the notion of “relativity in relation to the agent” is called, the path of philosophical Sen raises the issue of building a universal claim to normative theory from a descriptive relativism (based on relativity by report to the agent) or in other words, the possibility of a normative theory which bases its objective of a non invariance moral relativity but the consequences of the action to a context and a set of values :

  • Initially, we restore the critical Sen’s theory of welfare and utilitarianism in that it helps to understand the origin of ethics capabilities and the use of the term “relativity against the officer. “
  • Second, we analyze the concepts of relativity and neutrality in relation to the agent in question their relationship to the more general problem of relativism. We’ll see from there the reasons that push Sen to formulate a theory consequentialist expanded (broad consequentialism).
  • Third, we show how the theory of capabilities in its opposition to the theory of justice of John Rawls, attempts to assess the consequences of action with respect to the agent.
  • Fourth, to really ask the question of a theoretical separation between descriptive and normative relativism relativism, we will trace the transition done by Sen, the concept of “relativity in relation to the agent” to the “positional objectivity “.
  • Finally, we return to Sen’s argument to show that the notion of positional objectivity does not justify an incommensurable values, but calls for a detailed analysis and empirical inequalities to determine the criteria of justice.
Cite this article as: Tim, "Amartya Sen and Capabilities, April 13, 2012, " in Philosophy & Philosophers, April 13, 2012,

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