Capabilities Approach

By Martha Nussbaum, on the best ways to help with poverty:

Most nations, operating domestically, have understood that respect for people requires a richer and more complicated account of national priorities than that provided by GDP alone. On the whole, they have offered a more adequate account in their constitutions and other founding documents. But the theories that dominate policy-making in the new global order have yet to attain the respectful complexity embodied in good constitutions; and these theories, defective as they are, have enormous power. Unfortunately, they greatly influence not just international bodies but also the domestic priorities of nations—and many nations today are pursuing economic growth in ways that shortchange other commitments they have made to their people. The use of incomplete theories is only part of the story behind this narrowness of focus, but it is a part that can be and is being resourcefully addressed.

A new theoretical paradigm known as the Capabilities Approach is evolving. Unlike the dominant approaches, it begins with a commitment to the equal dignity of all people, whatever their class, religion, caste, race or gender, and it is committed to the attainment, for all, of lives that are worthy of that equal dignity. Both a comparative account of the quality of life and a theory of basic social justice, it remedies the major deficiencies of the dominant approaches. It is sensitive to distribution, focusing particularly on the struggles of traditionally excluded or marginalized groups. It is sensitive to the complexity and the qualitative diversity of the goals that people pursue. Rather than trying to squeeze all these diverse goals into a single box, it carefully examines the relationships among them, thinking about how they support and complement one another. It also takes into account that people may need different quantities of resources if they are to come up to the same level of ability to choose and act, particularly if they begin from different social positions.

For all these reasons, the Capabilities Approach is attracting attention, all over the world, as an alternative to dominant approaches in development economics and public policy. It is also attracting attention as an approach to basic social justice, within and between nations—in some ways agreeing with other philosophical theories of social justice, in some ways departing from them—for example, by giving greater support to the struggles of people with disabilities than a social contract model seems to permit.

Our world needs more critical thinking and more respectful argument. The distressingly common practice of arguing by sound bite urgently needs to be replaced by a mode of public discourse that is more respectful of our equal human dignity. The Capabilities Approach is offered as a contribution to national and international debate, not as a dogma that must be swallowed whole. It is laid out to be pondered, digested, compared with other approaches—and then, if it stands the test of argument, to be adopted and put into practice.

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  • Matt

    This sounds great, however it seems that corruption among the leaders that make decisions is a major obstacle to this. Until that’s taken care of, I don’t know how these systems will matter.

  • Susan N.

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. I think this sounds like a wonderful alternative — worth discussing and considering, at the very least. The way of American society and politics and economics now certainly seems not to be working, and that doesn’t even begin to address whether our current way is just or not. I say largely *not*.

  • Jason Lee

    Matt (#1),

    What you said is a common response I hear: “Until that’s taken care of, I don’t know how these systems will matter.” But I don’t find it convincing. There will always be some degree of waste and corruption (whether leaders are in public service or in private business). But there may be huge benefits to a system even if there’s a little waste, no? Yes, the level of corruption in some situations almost ruins everything. But it depends on the degree of corruption.

  • Meh.

    First, she assumes economic growth and the best interests of the poor, etc are at odds. They aren’t.

    Second, she assumes the only hope for these people is that some benevolent government will come along and take care of them. It’s not.

    Then there’s this: “it begins with a commitment to the equal dignity of all people, whatever their class, religion, caste, race or gender, and it is committed to the attainment, for all, of lives that are worthy of that equal dignity.”

    People who live off the fruit of other people’s labor, specifically, fruit that has to be pryed by the government from the hands of the earner will never have “equal dignity” with those earners. Unless you redefine dignity to suit the liberal agenda.

    This “capabilities” bit is simply the latest language to try to force liberalism and statism down people’s throats and to transfer wealth instead of creating opportunity.

  • Susan N.

    This article is excellent. My husband is from Kerala state. The educational standard there is very high, even among the poorer/lower castes. My husband’s family (Brahmin caste) are wonderfully open and progressive in their thinking and being. I adore them! Yet and still, over the years some of these inequalities between males and females have led to conflict in the family. They always work it out — they argue, yell, cry, you name it — the conversation can get heated and emotional. But the point is, they discuss and listen to each other. My husband’s father was an English professor, very well-loved in their village. He cared about the less fortunate and was a fair person. At his funeral, hundreds of people from Brahmin to untouchable came to pay respect.

    Now here’s what struck me about this article, and it is something that my husband and I have discussed many, many times: how similar are the injustices of the Hindu caste system to the American class system? As my husband likes to say, “It all tastes like chicken.” We just like to think that our American democratic-republic is so far ahead of other (developing) countries.

    I pray to God that in this global economic system the Indian people don’t try to imitate us Westerners too much, and in glorifying what’s good fail to see the pitfalls (using GDP as the only measure of growth and prosperity). Good grief, let the international community work together to address social injustices. We have to own up to our failures first, I guess.

  • This vocalizes much of the frustration I experience. Guiding principles that maintain human dignity should be the foundation of any economic endeavor. These aren’t, as ChrisB suggested, at odds with helping those in poverty. Rather, it is these principles that make economic activity just. Hand outs are not just, but either is trickle down economics. When we created dichotomies rather than holistic approaches we end up taking the safety net away because we confuse it with people “who live off the fruit of other people’s labor.” Sure there are abuses to the system, but they aren’t made by the disabled or under resourced.

  • Richard

    Imagine that, assuming the inherent dignity of people in creating public policy…

  • Jason Lee


    You seem to assume that wealthy people actually earn their riches. I don’t see any reason to make such an assumption. We often don’t know which of the fat cats out there are committing more of our country’s white-collar crime. But what we do know is that people are often wealthy because they were born at the right place at the right time and their parents set them up with a nice cushy job or just simply gave them a bunch of money they did nothing for. Wealthy people may have also worked hard to “earn” their money through long hours of trying to get special deals with government officials and tricking and manipulating people and trying their hardest to pay people as little as they can get away with. In short, they may have gotten their money unethically by force and by manipulating people with money and their legal appendages. The wealthy are often the very ones who “live off the fruit of other people’s labor.” The feeling of entitlement that the wealthy have for the killing they’ve made at the expense of others is the kind of entitlement we should be worried about: It’s also possible that some wealthy people contributed significantly to their own good fortune through fair, honest, and hard work and that they did so while trying not to rob others in the process. It still leaves open the question as why any of us should be entitled to wealth while others die at the hands of the greedy.

  • Fish

    It seems like a dream to me. In the U.S., the value of your life is equivalent to the amount of profit you represent to a corporation.

    As noted above, someone who inherited a billion dollars is valued far more highly (in any way you want to measure value) in our society than someone born to an unemployed single mom in the hood, even if the latter person works far harder, is a better parent, is more moral, whatever.

    It is why we deliberately and consciously distribute health care, justice, education, and political influence on the basis of wealth.

  • JohnM

    Jason Lee #8

    Maybe. But first, what do you consider wealthy?

    William Jennings Bryan may have been on to something when he said no one can earn a million dollars honestly, but then again nowadays you might have to update that to a billion dollars. Or maybe wealth is having anything more than you need to live.

    I resent those who lie, cheat, and steal their way to more money than most of us at the expense of the rest of us and I believe you’re right, that happens. However, I don’t assume everyone who has more than I do is dishonest. I don’t resent anyone for being born into a richer family than mine, I don’t begrudge them their inheritance, and I don’t feel guilty for not being destitute. Be content with enough, but be honest about what that is and what you actually have. If we’re going to question the legitimacy of wealth we ought to first define it

  • DLS

    For an alternative view of do-gooder social engineering see this video explaining the “constrained vision” vs. the “unconstrained vision”:

  • Jason Lee

    JohnM (#10): “I don’t assume everyone who has more than I do is dishonest. I don’t resent anyone for being born into a richer family than mine, I don’t begrudge them their inheritance, and I don’t feel guilty for not being destitute.” Nor do I … I question those assuming its earned.

    “Be content with enough…” Tell that to homeless three year olds who eat once a day.

  • @Jason Lee,

    Oh my gosh. I’m almost speechless. Assuming everyone with more than you is a criminal is hardly a Christian ethic.

    The truth is most millionares started with nothing and became millionares by hard work and frugality. I hope they’re generous, too, but whether they are or not, “thou shalt not covet” is still in effect.

    In the West, people do not die at the hands of the greedy. They probably do in Africa or Asia, but the greedy are not their evil rich neighbors but their evil rulers.

    We can help the poor without forced redistribution of the fruit of other people’s labor. Try thinking outside of the liberal box for a little bit.

  • Dan

    Jason Lee, with respect, you sound bitter. Naturally there are people who are unethical and rich. The poor are too. As one who grew up quite poor (and still am!) I struggled with being prejudiced toward the wealthy.

    I am not intending this as a rebuke or wanting to incur the wrath that often bubbles out of this blog but just guard your heart.

  • Matt

    Jason (#3),
    With respect, have you considered that if it’s the common response you hear, maybe there more validity to it than you want to acknowledge. I’m not saying the principles of this article are wrong, what I’m saying is that in many cases poor communities are the victim of the human beings that make up a bad government/leadership culture that would mess any great system up profoundly through corruption and no regard for human rights.

  • Fish

    “In the West, people do not die at the hands of the greedy.”

    Yes, they do. Every day. When a child dies because her parents had no insurance and could not afford treatment (and statistics show that an uninsured child is 60% – 100% more likely to die of a given disease than one with insurance), that child has died at the hands of the greedy.

    When a child is aborted because we provide no pre-natal health care to single mothers in poverty and instead leave them to beg for charity, greed was at the root of that child’s death.

  • Susan N.

    If corruption (at the governmental level as well as the recipient level) is used as a rationale for eliminating social programs for the most vulnerable of our society, it is beyond me why this same rationale (corruption) is not equally applied to tax breaks and loopholes for the wealthy, whether it be individuals or corporations.

    Jason Lee, your comments here always give me HOPE. You sound like an intelligent, compassionate person who has worked closely with the poor. Thank you.

  • Jeff L

    What Susan N said.

  • Matt

    I agree with you Susan. Corruption should never be used as an excuse to do nothing. Theorizing just needs to include the realization of this and factor it in instead of placing hope in such programs only to be disappointed. I agree with programs and social justice and we work with the poor very extensively here as well.

  • DLS

    Class envy is so scary because it allows people to take otherwise immoral positions.

  • JohnM

    Jason Lee #12 – “Tell that to homeless three year olds who eat once a day.”

    I’m not telling it to them. I’m telling it to you, and everyone else who has only one pair of feet but several pairs of shoes yet thinks the rich of this world are those other guys.

    Again, what do you consider wealthy?

  • Diane


    I wish you would talk more about class envy as I don’t follow you.

    As for “class envy,” I will define envy as wanting what another has.

    My husband and I reluctantly put our children in private school three years ago. It is an economic struggle to keep them in. But it is the only way we can see to give them the education we got for free in the 1960s and 70s. I wish it was not such a financial struggle to educate our children. To that extent, I “envy” the rich the ease with which they can write tuition checks. But I also “envy” my parents, who grew up in the 1930s and 40s in poor homes and yet got incredibly good educations through the free public schools. So do I envy “the rich,” or do I wish and long for a state of being–good, free public education–that used to be widely available?

    I worry about retirement. Thus, I “envy” the rich for not having to worry about eating out of a trash can at 80. I also envy my working class grandparents who had secure social security, medicare and fixed-benefit retirements and lived their final years without fear.

    I worry that an illness could bankrupt us. Thus, I “envy” the rich who can get sick without worrying about the financial aspects of it. I also ‘envy’ middle class people in Canada who can sick without worrying about how to pay for it.

    So–is it a mischaracterization to call such things “class envy?” Or is what really at stake a concern to build a juster society?

  • Susan N.

    Matt (#19) — Just by coincidence, I happened upon a documentary airing last night. The title is ‘Inside Job’, and the film was released in 2010. Has anyone here seen it? The deregulation of the financial sector, beginning with Reagan, that led to the economic meltdown in 2008, and subsequent government bailout, was documented through interviews and narration, including charts and graphs. Shocking and very disturbing, the level of corruption and its pervasiveness in the finance industry as well as the government. Worth watching.

    So Matt, I agree with you that corruption in business and politics is a given. Human nature being what it is…and, whenever a thing becomes an institution or a system (read: dehumanized/dehumanizing), the chance for corruption only increases. Given the state of our economy right now, I wonder whether arguing about allocation of public funds to the poor or the rich is practically a moot point. The finance wizards and their bedfellows in Washington have so decimated our economy that there simply is not much money to work with. I am so disappointed that when the bailout occurred in 2008, strict regulations were not enacted for the finance industry (no more multi-million dollar bonuses, for starters). These people did not “earn” those outrageous salaries. How? By ruining the global economy?

    What’s done is done, but, Matt: You seem like a sensible person. How can we make this right, going forward? You must know that the poor and vulnerable are going to pay the highest price for the mess we’re in?

    Diane, I hear you. We’re not wealthy by any means, but we are not poor either. When I hear of or meet people who are struggling through a financial catastrophe (loss of job, home, health crisis, etc.), it always reminds me that I and every one of us average Americans are only a heartbeat away from the same predicament. In the 2010 documentary ‘Inside Job’, I learned that there is a tent city somewhere in Florida??? This is not Haiti or Pakistan!!! Lord have mercy on us all…

  • Jason Lee

    JohnM (#21): Defining who fits in a conceptually meaningful category is always messy. But it seems reasonable to start with the top one percent of “earners.” As of 2008, about 21 percent of income was received by just 1 percent of earners. Or we could widen it to the top 10% of “earners.” These lucky duckies rake in 40% of all income in the US, leaving 90% of the country to divide up 60% of all income.

    But if we look at wealth, our stomachs turn even more. The top one percent of people (in terms of net worth) have one third of all wealth in this country. Just think about that … wow! That’s mind blowing! And the top 20% of people (in terms of net worth) own over 80% of all wealth in the United States. []

    Any way you look at it, its incredible. Obviously there are many ways to slice “earnings” or wealth, and the cost of living varies dramatically by city and how many children people have. But it becomes difficult to ignore the fact that an elite fraction of the population is grabbing a bigger and bigger portion of a scarce pool of resources, while most of us simply stand by and watch or tell ourselves that it’s that elite groups’ entitlement keep their (possibly) ill-gotten gain.

  • Susan N.

    Jason (#24) – no disagreement with you. I am appalled along with you at these statistics. But, I will ask you directly, as I addressed Matt in #23 what should we do from a political standpoint, at this stage of the game? How do we influence the path our government/economy are taking? And what to do for those in desperate need right now?

  • DLS

    Since you asked, Diane. Yes, I agree that what you’ve stated is an example of an unhealthy degree of envy. And yes, that causes us to do thing we’d otherwise think are immoral. In the end, you post comes down to wanting someone else to pay for those things for you.

  • Matt

    Susan (#23) – Good points and questions. I will look for that documentary. Short answer, I don’t know. But I’m all for corrupton being factored in when we discuss systemic problems and changes that are needed. But I sincerely appreciate your points & questions & I am grieved / angered about the idea that the poor end up paying the price. I / we are working hard to address this in my family and community.

  • Diane


    Thank you for helping me understood your pov–and I think I am getting at a root difference in perspective. I believe working, paying taxes, raising productive children, maintaining a home and being a loyal and law-abiding citizen earns one a decent retirement, a decent education for my children and decent healthcare. Look at the wealth distribution stats– the very wealthy have stolen my money through pumping up real estate bubbles they knew were unsustainable. Susan, thank you for being a voice of sanity.

  • JohnM

    Jason Lee #24 – Nothing you pointed out suprises me. I couldn’t have quoted the exact numbers, but yes I was aware it was something like that. But it doesn’t turn my stomach. Apparently there’s a whole lot of wealth in this country if 90% of the population can divide up 60% of the income and still live as comfortably as most of that 90% do. As for the minority who by any realistic measure cannot live comfortably, and yes they certainly exist, I’d imagine you look mighty prosperous to them, unless you happen to be one of them. The point is, you don’t have to be in the top 1% or top 10% for income to be well off. I just can’t see living in the size of house that the AVERAGE American does, having the cars (and maybe boat) parked in the multiple vehicle garage they have, taking the vacations they do, having all the toys they do, eating out at nice places as often as they do, etc. etc. -and then complaining about high unfair life is because the top tier controls so much more wealth.

  • Diane

    Dear JohnM,

    “A new survey found that 64% of the public doesn’t have enough funds on hand to cope with a $1000 emergency. Wages are falling for 90% of the population. And disabuse yourself of the idea that the rich might decide to bestow their largesse on the rest of us. Various studies have found that upper class individuals are less empathetic and altruistic than lower status individuals.

    This outcome is not accidental. Taxes on top earners are the lowest in three generations. Yet their complaints about the prospect of an increase to a level that is still awfully low by recent historical standards is remarkable.

    Given that this rise in wealth has been accompanied by an increase in the power of those at the top, is there any hope for achieving a more just society? Bizarrely, the self interest of the upper crust argues in favor of it. Profoundly unequal societies are bad for everyone, including the rich.”

  • Jason Lee

    JohnM (#29): Millions of Americans, especially in impoverished inner-city areas and rural areas cannot get a liveable (legal) wage due to how elites have organized economic activity (this disappearance of decent work is a big factor in teen childbearing, drug addiction, violent crime). The way public education is devalued in America is exacerbating things…reproducing generations of disadvantage.

    Then you have those that make enough to live on but can’t afford to take food out of their child’s mouth just to fill the pockets of pharmaceutical companies (and their expensive marketing budgets), lobbyists, and insurance companies. They also can’t afford to do this simply to help doc get her second Porsche. Affordable health care becomes a luxury item for the lucky duckies. You can’t work if you or your family is sick all the time due to your crummy housing, bad food, and inability to afford preventative care, let alone timely care when its needed.

    The dismissive tone of your comment saddens me. This is my last comment on this post.

  • JohnM

    Diane #30 – If your point is to criticize the wealthy for objecting to taxes, I agree. Given the deficit, and all the things we seem to want Government to do, we need tax increases. But everybody wants somebody else to do all the paying. Don’t be everybody, unless you’re really and truthfully (as opposed to merely by comparison to the super wealthy) poor.

    If your objection is to how the very wealthy obtained their wealth you have half a point there too. That is to say, yes SOMETIMES they scammed their way to it.

    Concentration of power is a separate, but related issue, and one that concerns more than wealth per se.

    If your objection is simply they have wealth at all, or have it and you don’t, or have more of it than you do, that’s just pointless envy.

    If your complaint is you don’t have enough, well of course I don’t know you, but I could bet the issue for anyone making a similar complaint is knowing how to be content and in America the odds would be with me.

    As for “..that 64% of the public doesn’t have enough funds on hand to cope with a $1000 emergency”, some of those people I imagine are poor by any definition and those who think I’m dismissing their plight are missing my point. However, 64% is a lot of people and I don’t believe ALL of them are unable to cope with a $1000 dollar emergency through no fault of their own. I see the way people live and that’s mostly pretty well in America. We possess a lot, we play a lot. If that $1000 was spent on (or just as likely borrowed for) things wanted but not really needed one has no right to complain when it’s not there for an emergency.

  • DLS

    You’re right, Diane. I don’t think any of that entitles anyone to anything, including something of someone else’s.

  • Grupetti

    JohnM and DLS are perfect examples of the success of the Republican politics of resentment, thanks largely to the vast majority of Evangelicals. Democracy dies a death of a thousand anecdotes.

    Comment by DLS — August 12, 2011 @ 4:17 pm:
    “You’re right, Diane. I don’t think any of that entitles anyone to anything, including something of someone else’s.”

    Have you ever actually read the Bible? Jesus didn’t say “This coin belongs to you! You earned it! You keep it!”

    That was Ronald of Reagan, not Jesus of Nazareth.

    Jesus of Nazareth said “Give unto Ceasar”. Pay your taxes, and stop complaining, OK?

  • JohnM

    Grupetti – “Jesus of Nazareth said “Give unto Ceasar”. Pay your taxes, and stop complaining, OK?”

    Well. Exactly! YOU pay your taxes. YOU stop complaining. Otherwise I can’t take you seriously even if you do have a point about the rich(er than you).