Amatya Sen claims that ‘capabilities’ provide the relevant evaluative space for understanding equality. However Sen’s theory has been criticised on the grounds that it does not provide sufficient specification of which functionings and capabilities are valuable. This essay investigates the capabilities theory with reference to this kind of criticism and finds that, on the basis of its reliance upon universal values of liberty and autonomy,  Martha Nussbaum’s development of capabilities theory could provide a possible framework for specifying valuable functionings and capabilities.
The capabilities approach is dependent upon the evaluation of those particular functionings that are concerned with the value of life. In the study prepared for the United Nations, Amartya Sen put forward the argument that the capability approach is an improvement on other theories of justice, such as utilitarianism, Rawlsian egalitarianism and libertarianism because it uses other informational focuses to consider social advantage (p.30). The main criticism of Sen’s approach is that it is considered vague in that it does not provide sufficient specifications as to what he thinks are valuable. Martha Nussbaum has taken Sen’s capability approach and put what she argues are universal and concrete values upon it, allowing it to become a theory of justice rather than simply an evaluative space for reckoning what values we should hold.


Sen posits that his approach relies upon the functional states through which one can achieve quality of life. These include such functionings as being adequately nourished, having good health, and are functionings which would be obviously considered values by all. However, other functionings may be more complex but just as widely valued, such as belonging to a social group.  Sen stresses that, although individuals may differ in what they assess as valuable, it is important that these differences are acknowledged when assessing the capabilities that can be derived from these varied functions (Sen, 1993, p.31).

Therefore, Sen (1993, p.32) states that two necessary questions must be asked to evaluate these differing values:

1)      What is the object of the value?

2)      How valuable are the respective objects?

To identify the object of the value entails specifying what Sen terms as ‘the evaluative space’. For utilitarians this is usually defined as happiness or pleasure, whereas the capabilities approach entails identifying the evaluative space in terms of an individual’s capability to function. In this way the capability approach uses evaluative space to allow for a variety of human actions that are ends in themselves rather than means of living or freedoms, such as amounts of income, wealth, or resources etc. (1993, p.33). For Sen, when it comes to questions of freedom of choice then the criteria to be assessed must be linked to the evaluation of the range of capabilities that are open (1993, p.35).

An interesting point that Sen makes about the association of an evaluation of capabilities with freedom is that a person may have the advantage of more freedom than another but it may still result in her achieving less. For example, a person may have access to a capability such as a good education system but for reasons of personal characteristics, such as laziness or distraction, still not bother to achieve their best within it (1993, p.34). Therefore, Sen breaks down these associative values of human advantage as being:

1)      well-being achievement through the promotion of a person’s well-being;

2)      individual achievement through the pursuit of one’s goals; which result in:

3)      well-being freedom

4)      individual freedom (1993, p.34)

For Sen, the well-being of a person becomes an evaluation of the ‘wellness’ of that person rather than an evaluation of their contribution to the state or their success in reaching their goals. In this case, the functionings of the person will be comprised of the four elements above. With regard to this, the functionings of a person appear fundamental to the nature of their well-being, even if they are sourced externally from the person themselves, such as through the fulfilment of helping someone else (1993, p.36).

The functionings that assist well-being vary from the elementary, such as life-expectancy, to the complex, such as being a valued member of the community. The success of the agency of a person requires a broader assessment that can be narrowed to the evaluation of a standard of living to the broader sense of political freedom. It can even be said that the broader sense includes injuries to others, especially loved ones. These things all contribute to the success of someone developing an ability to be happy or the development of their well-being (1993, p.37).

An important thing to note is that, in Sen’s concept of evaluative space, capabilities are derived from functionings. The concepts of well-being and living standards belong to the assessment of functioning rather than capabilities. Therefore a capability is set in the space of functionings (1993, p.38). This calculus model can be used to assess basic needs and is crucial to the identification of capabilities. Sen states that an income-derived concept of poverty can be quite misleading when evaluation allows discrepancies in functionality. This is because the ‘poverty line’ in a developing nation may be quite distinct from that of developed nations (1993, p.40). Sen sees the most advantageous role of the capability approach being the ability to assess varied objects of value, rather than the utility-based approach of happiness or desire fulfilment as being the only value. It also does not place primary goods or resources as value objects, as do the Rawlsian and Dworkinian models (1993, p.44).

Sen (1993, p.49) thinks that it is in its plurality of purpose that that the capability approach works best, especially with regard to well-being and agency. This is especially relevant when judging standards of living and its particular usability lies in its egalitarian calculus that is dependent upon the truth of seeing individual advantages in capabilities and therefore its relevance to other sorts of social evaluation. In having the ability to assess the particular space for the evaluation of opportunities and successes of individuals, Sen asserts that the capabilities approach is an important addition to other theories of justice (1993, p.50).


Nussbaum takes Sen’s abstract mathematical calculus of functionings and put them into concrete terms through which constitutional guarantees can be drawn in civil society. This is Nussbaum’s universal approach (Nussbaum, 2000, p.70). Through applying concrete concepts Nussbaum breaks down standard theories of justice into questions that show how the capabilities approach can change someone’s life. The central question for Nussbaum is: “What is Vasanti actually able to do and to be?” The answer to this question is sought rather than the utilitarian approach: “How satisfied is Vasanti?”; or the  Rawlsian/ Dworkinian: “How much in the way of resources is Vasanti able to command? (2000, p.71)” For Nussbaum, the priority is to measure quality of life so that capabilities can match functionings. The next thing to do is to argue that if people fall below a functioning threshold that is necessary for justice then it should be considered urgent in terms of the injustice it creates (2000, p.71).

Nussbaum’s criteria is based upon the intuitive concept that particular functions are universal in human life and that it is these functions that separate us from other animals. Using the philosophy of Marx, she argues that humans need to be cultivated through education, leisure and self-expression, and also through socialisation with others. Nussbaum adds to this liberty of thought and association, as well as freedom of religion or worship, being fundamental to human autonomy (2000, p.72). A person has activities, goals and projects that are above the needs of nature and need support to fulfil these ideas. The essential element of this is that capabilities are sought for the individual, not groups or states or corporations. These entities can be valuable as means to ends but the well-being of the individual is the end itself (2000, p.74).

Nussbaum states that a list of concrete functionings cannot be a theory of justice however it does advise on what will be a minimum of social justice. She also adds that they could be adjusted to suit the various cultures that they encompass (2000, p.75). Nussbaum’s list of capabilities is a list in which all of the elements are distinct and equal in importance. She gives the example of the absence political rights not being able to be compensated by great economic growth (2000, p.81). Nussbaum states that the capabilities that go with these functionings are of three different types:

1)      Basic capabilities- innate equipment necessary for developing more advanced capabilities and morality, such as the capability of love, gratitude, reason and work;

2)      Internal capabilities- maturity, language, political reasoning, socialization, freedom of speech or religion; and

3)      Combined capabilities- where the environment is prepared so that individuals are able to exercise their major functionings (2000, p.85).

There is also a distinction between internal and combined capabilities in that when there is a sudden alteration in the environment in which the individual is placed, perhaps they have had to flee or migrate to another country, then they may not be able to enact their functionings. Nussbaum gives the example of a child who has never experienced freedom of speech or thought and is not able to develop the same capabilities as someone who was raised in a nation that protects these liberties. Nussbaum focuses on a social minimum of these capabilities as suitable for a system of justice (2000, p.86).

With regard to individual liberty and autonomy being safeguarded in such a system, Nussbaum states that it is important to note that ‘capability not functioning is the appropriate political goal (2000, p.87)’. This appears to coalesce with Sen’s evaluative space, where capabilities are derived from functionings. Nussbaum points out that the capabilities approach is much like Rawls’ notion of primary goods, but the difference between the capabilities approach and Rawls theory of justice is that it does not consider wealth and income as goals or ends, more a reliance upon Rawls’ natural goods such as ‘health, vigour, intelligence and imagination’ (2000, p.89). Capabilities are the things needed for functioning such that any rational being would want them. Even if one does not make use of all of them then no harm has been done if they had the choice (2000, p.88).

However, Nussbaum also states that it is important that capabilities such as bodily integrity may be regulated so as not to undermine the functionings of an individual. Although this may be seen as paternalistic it is perhaps synonymous with illegal contracts in that health and bodily integrity are so important to capabilities and functioning that there can be legitimate interference with choice up to a point (2000, p.95). This does seem to call into question whether Nussbaum would allow such choices as being a sex worker in her system of justice, but she does state that such decisions can be left to the democratic process in each nation (2000, p.95). Nussbaum also states that her list is not meant to be an exhaustive account of what is worthwhile in life and is a facilitation list rather than a tyrannical one (2000, p.95). Nussbaum contends that the political purpose of these capabilities is human well-being. She quotes Sen: ‘Political rights are important not only for the fulfilment of needs, they are crucial also for the formulation of needs. And this idea relates, in the end, to the respect that we owe each other as fellow human beings.’ (Sen, 1994, p.38)

Therefore Nussbaum sees her list of functioning capabilities as being closely aligned with universal human rights. They are quite similar to those initiated and enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) that was ratified in 1948, and have been used by many different peoples to assert justice. One of members of the drafting subcommittee of this document stated: “I perceived clearly that I was participating in a truly significant historic event in which a consensus had been reached as to the supreme value of the human person, a value that did not originate in the decision of a worldly power, but rather in the fact of existing—which gave rise to the inalienable right to live free from want and oppression and to fully develop one’s personality”.(U.N. n.d.) Nussbaum’s list is intended to give fundamental access to capabilities in order to provide a stable society, which was also the intent of the UDHR. Nussbaum argues that these are not only Western notions of rights: “Ideas of activity and ability are everywhere, and there is no culture in which people do not ask themselves what they are able to do, what opportunities they have for functioning (2000, p.100)”. Considering that what differentiates humans from other animals is their need to realise their ideas, whether they be social, creative, technological, or scientific, it seems that Nussbaum’s argument about the universality of her functional capabilities is valid.

Rather than being a strict theory of justice, Sen’s capability approach has the ability to allow a framework that is both accommodating and adaptable. It has the ability to assess individual well-being and evaluate social arrangements so that policies may be designed that can enact just social change. Through being a practical guide it can inform citizens and governments of the directions that may provide desirable outcomes. While criticisms of Sen’s approach state that it is unclear about how it can be extended into a theory of justice, his non-commitment to single distributive rule allows his notions of functionings and capabilities to be a formula for an evaluative space through which justice may be approached. Nussbaum’s transfer of Sen’s evaluative space into a concrete list of functioning capabilities is comprehensive and is not limited to single-types of social systems but holds true for all human beings. Therefore both Sen’s formulaic approach and Nussbaum’s sufficient account of social justice could be used together to provide a constitutional guarantee of human rights.


  1. Nussbaum, M 2000, Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach, University of Chicago pp. 70-101
  2. United Nations (n.d.), Universal Declaration of Human Rights, viewed 5 April 2013, http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml
  3. United Nations (n.d.), Universal Declaration of Human Rights: History of the Document, viewed 5 April 2013, http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/history.shtml
  4. Sen, A 1993, ‘Capability and Well-Being’, in M. Nussbaum & A. Sen (eds),The Quality of Life, Clarendon Press, Oxford pp. 30-52
  5. Sen, A, 1994, ‘Freedom and Needs’, The New Republic, January 10/17, pp. 31-38