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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’S EVALUATIVE SPACE

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’S UNIVERSAL APPROACH TO THE EVALUATIVE SPACE

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.

REFERENCES:

  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

Global protest has been prominent since the late 1990s. It is a reaction to dominant forces of multinational corporations undermining democratically elected governments, and the people’s own identity through citizenship, across the globe. For a few years these protests were quelled because of the threat of terrorism. However, since the new global financial crisis that began in 2008 which evidenced the complete and utter disregard that these corporations, citing their status as natural persons, have had for the real occupants of the world, new protest movements are burgeoning everywhere. It is imperative that we contemplate the vastness and autonomy of these corporations and perceive how global governance must be consolidated to be able to harness such forces for the peace and security of all. Therefore, a global social contract must be established.

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Monoprints by Janet Elizabeth Thomas (2010)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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J.E.Thomas. “Lament”, (2006), 160cm x 120cm, oil on canvas

A Place to Breathe by the Sea.

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HOURS 1-6

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Nils Holtug argues for the Value of Existence View which makes ‘the comparative claim that existence can be better (or worse) for a person than non-existence’ (p.370). Derek Parfit and John Broome argue against this view by stating that it is incoherent. Parfit argues that causing someone to exist cannot be better for a person because the alternative would not have been worse. Broome argues that it can never be true that it is better for a person to exist than to not exist because if she had not existed there would not have been a ‘her’ to have been worse off.

The argument set out by Parfit and Broome is called the Metaphysical Argument and it relies upon two premises. The first premise makes the judgement that it is better (or worse) to exist than never to exist and entails that it is worse (or better) to not exist than to exist. The second premise is that it cannot be worse (or better) to not exist. The first claim, Holtug states, is based upon the logic of ‘betterness’ relation, and the second premise is based upon the metaphysical principle called The No Properties of the Non-Existent Principle. This means that an individual cannot have any properties if it does not exist.

This principle can be disputed. Broome’s argument relies upon the point that if a person does not exist then it is impossible for any properties to be attached to her. Holtug contends that the logic of betterness relation that the argument relies upon assumes that in order for existence to be worse than non-existence, non-existence must be better than existence. To explore the logical properties of the betterness relation, Holtug considers the following definition:

1)      y is worse for S than x, if and only of x is better for S than y.

If (1) states that existence if better (or worse) for a person than non-existence, non existence is better (or worse) for her. The latter part seems to violate the No Properties of the Non-Existent Principle. It seems to ascribe to her the property of being worse (or better) off in a possible world in which she does not exist. According to this principle we cannot claim that existence is better for her than non-existence because this implies that non-existence is worse for her than existence. So Holtug reassesses the argument with the proposition:

P: Non-existence is worse for Jeremy than existence.

Can the truth of P be established without ascribing to Jeremy positive properties in a possible world in which he does not exist? Holtug claims that P can be established by appeal to a preference that Jeremy has in an actual world in which he exists. Existence may be preferable for Jeremy because he prefers existence to non-existence. Jeremy’s life includes a surplus of positive value, whereas his non-existence had no value. Holtug insists that this is compatible with The No Properties of the Non-Existent Principle; it is better to have a surplus of values than no value. The Metaphysical Argument is not preserved because the Value of Existence View does not rely upon someone existing for the possibility of them benefiting from existence.

  • Holtug, Nils. “On the value of coming into existence” Journal of Ethics , 5:4 , 2001 , 361-384

The global environment is connected to the security, economic prosperity and social well-being of both states and individuals. Until recently, the concept of security has only been associated with national security which emphasised armed conflict as the means to attain security through state power. The concept of environmental security broadens this definition by focussing on the transnational nature of the global environment which disregards human-constructed borders . Because of this the environment should replace the traditional realist idea of security as the key issue in global contemporary politics.

All people are in reality transnational actors who can make choices which contribute to the directions of global politics. The American anthropologist Margaret Mead states: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has”. Realist theorists believe that all decision makers are alike in their approach, that they are unitary actors with no essential differences and make their choices through rational calculations. To make a rational choice one must recognise a problem and define it objectively through access to a complete set of facts. The next step is to select the desired goal and then identify all of the alternatives. Finally, a choice must be made which includes a cost-benefit analysis based upon an accurate prediction of success.

The challenges to the global environment in the century ahead include global warming, ozone depletion, and the loss of tropical rainforests and marine habitats. These challenges are as much a threat to humanity as the threat of nuclear warfare. However, because the threat of nuclear warfare focuses on mutually assured destruction more focus is given to this threat because of its perceived and tangible reality. On the other hand the threats to the global environment are more difficult to perceive because one cannot see ozone depletion or see the immediate effects of global warming. Rainforest destruction happens far away from the major cities in which much of the global population, and so does the loss of marine habitats.

To counter this disassociation from these real challenges, imagery is effective in trying to enlighten global citizens of the inherent ordeals that they and their descendents face in the near future. Through the mass media, the world is defined by images. Many of the perceptions derived from this imagery can distort or intensify our experience of the world’s political realities. Our assumptions or interpretations of these realities can affect the way we act upon them. Environmental NGOs and IGOs such as Greenpeace and the UN Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) use imagery effectively to try and make humans act in a global effort to protect the environment on which they rely from degradation and loss.

The challenges that have arisen out of environmental problems will in effect bring about the ‘politics of scarcity’. This concept emphasizes that resource scarcity brought about by restricted access to food, water and oil will be a more likely cause future international conflict than any military challenge. Human life depends upon what ecologists term ‘the global commons’ which emphasizes the interdependence of humanity with the planet’s ability to sustain it. Lester R. Brown argues: “In ecology, as in economics, we can consume principle along with interest in the short run, but, for the long term, that practice leads to bankruptcy”. The goal that these challenges present to us is one of sustainable development.

In 1987 the World Commission on Environment and Development authored a report called Our Common Future. It concluded that the world cannot sustain the growth that is required to meet the aspirations of the world’s growing population unless it can adopt a new approach to economic development, equity, resource management and energy efficiency. It defined a ‘sustainable society as one that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. The alternatives to action on achieving such goals as a sustainable society have diminished since 1987, as the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged in 2009 at the Copenhagen Climate Conference: “We must harness the political will to seal the deal on an ambitious new climate agreement…If we get it wrong we face catastrophic damage to people, to the planet”.

Data from the World Meteorological Organisation that monitors the global surface temperatures show that global warming is not a myth. NASA and the IPCC both predict that global temperatures will rise by up to 12 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. This will cause sea levels to rise, heat waves and droughts, increase storm damage, extinctions of ecosystems, increase prevalence of diseases and increase hunger and water shortages.  Deforestation causes threats to biodiversity, desertification and exacerbates the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the cause of global warming. The demand and consumption of fossil fuels has caused global warming but is also a threat in the fact that its depletion will cause instability in global economic and political systems, as advisor on peace and security Michael Klare asserts: “We are nearing the end of the Petroleum Age and have entered the Age of Insufficiency”.

Through neglect, environmental security will compromise human security. With effort and recognition of the impending threats solutions can be achieved, with conversion to renewable sources of energy, adherence to international treaties, sustainable development and independent state and local solutions. The potential of these threats is as pronounced as any threats of armed aggression and in fact, neglect may exacerbate armed conflict between people. Therefore, the imperative to rationally manage global environmental security must replace the traditional realist theory of military security as the key issue in contemporary global politics.

The modern state, which was born from the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, gave unrestricted control of the state to its rulers. This was the beginning of the concept of state sovereignty which is still dominant today. The most potent shaping forces in the contemporary world are the interactions of states when enforcing their interests, capabilities and goals. However, during the latter half of the twentieth century the supremacy of the state is under challenge. Global affairs are now dominated by intergovernmental organizations that transcend national boundaries. Global international organizations such as the United Nations and the European Union have become independent global actors which implement their own foreign policies. Also groups of people carrying on various enterprises, such as multinational corporations, are examples of nongovernmental organizations which also transcend national boundaries and exert their influence globally.

Post Cold War, the United States has dominated world politics with the political scientist Francis Fukuyama even suggesting that it signalled ‘the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of government’. However because of the ascendance of other great powers such as China, Japan, Russia and India others, such as the journalist and foreign policy advisor Fareed Zakaria, argue that a ‘post-American’ world has arisen through which many other state and nonstate actors direct and define global society’s responses to global challenges. While the United States remains the greatest military power, other dimensions are emerging industrially, financially, educationally, socially and culturally that are moving the globe away from American dominance.

Although some suggest that competition between states could be renewed as they jostle for power in commercial relations, they also manage their security relations collaboratively which can be seen through their cooperation in fighting terrorism. The danger of the polarization of these states into two antagonistic camps could be managed through newly developed international rules and institutions that can manage these mixed-motive relationships. Rather than a quest for hegemony, these great and emerging powers are active trading partners and the question arises will these commercial relationships reduce the potential for future military competition?

Multilateralism could be the approach that these great powers take to cooperate to achieve global solutions to problems that affect all of their citizens. In an ever shrinking global environment in which all actors are increasingly reliant upon each other, a new global system of power and responsibility is more widely distributed. How these great powers will make their choices about war and peace will affect all people and determine the fate of the world.

A new concept of responsible sovereignty is emerging which requires states not to protect only their own people but also to cooperate across borders to protect global resources and address transnational threats. This entails intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) and non-government organizations (NGOs) providing a greater role which ‘differs from the traditional interpretation of sovereignty being non-interference in the internal affairs of state’. Global problems require global solutions and an increasingly greater number of non-state actors have arisen on the world stage to engineer adaptive global changes.

The United Nations is the most prominent IGO to have emerged in the last sixty years. Its Charter sets its agenda as the maintenance of peaceful and amicable relations between states based upon humanitarian values and the attainment of common ends through the harmonization of state actors. Although it is challenged by persistent financial troubles it is an adaptable and reforming institution that remains the forum of choice for negotiation and promotion of humanitarian concerns. Through its claim to represent ‘the collective will of humanity’ it is in the position to act on issues of global relevance such as shaming human rights violators, combating global pandemics, and promoting conflict-prevention measures.

Increasingly, NGOs are becoming more influential in global politics through their ability to lobby and influence international decision making. This activism is able to transcend the traditional distinctions between what is local and what is global. Five of the most visible types of NGOs are non-state entities that comprise of ethnic or indigenous peoples, transnational religious groups, transnational terrorist groups and multinational corporations. However, while these groups have a strong participation in world affairs some of their influence can often be minimised by differing groups pushing policies in opposing directions.

With the world being far more interdependent than ever before and transactions across state borders increasing through the movement of people, information and trade, non- state actors are becoming more important to the shared concepts of people across the globe. The centrality of the state as an insular actor is declining. Although our constructed images of global politics are resistant to change, change is possible through the reshaping of our insular perceptions. By ridding ourselves of false assumptions about other people we can reshape the future of world politics so that it does not rely on the insular attitudes of singular states but on the basis of a global people. As the philosopher Martin J. Siegel observes: “War for survival is the destiny of all species. In our case, we are courting suicide [by waging war against each other]”. It is the realisation of this by state leaders that will finally lead to the end of the concept of the sovereign state.