The capabilities approach to human development intends to switch the attention of scholars and policy makers from resources (income, Gross Domestic Product) to people's capabilities, i.e. to the combination of personal abilities and opportunities presented by the social, economical and political environment. Having been inspired by the works of the economist and Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen, in this book Martha C. Nussbaum aims at challenging the dominant models in economics with a counter-theory based on a simple question: What are people actually able to do and to be? Her proposal serves as a theory of social justice (for both nonhuman animals and human) and for comparative quality-of-life assessment, bringing moral philosophy into development economics.
The book contains eight chapters, a postscript and two appendices.
Nussbaum begins, as she often does in her works, with a narration. The life of Vasanti, a poor Indian woman who has struggled to escape from an abusive husband, is discussed in terms of the opportunity she has for choice and action in her specific political, social, and economic situation. In the second chapter she maintains that when comparing and assessing societies, each person should be taken as an end, considering not the total or average well-being but the opportunities available to each individual person. Societies should promote an asset of opportunities, or substantial freedoms, which people may or may not exercise. Nussbaum's approach is strongly based on choice and freedom. Capabilities are "not just abilities residing inside a person but also the freedoms or opportunities created by a combination of personal abilities and the political, social, and economic environment."
Nussbaum provides a list of ten areas of freedom so central that their removal would make one's life not worthy of human dignity. The central capabilities that a decent political order must secure at least at a threshold level are: life; bodily health; bodily integrity; sense, imagination, and thought; emotions; practical reason; affiliation; life with other species; play; control over one's environment (politically and materially). This list is a proposal open to discussion but she claims that respect for human dignity requires citizens be placed above an ample threshold of capability, in all ten of those areas.
In the third chapter, titled 'A Necessary Counter-Theory', Nussbaum criticizes the main models in development economics. Those models focus primarily on material well-being or on economic growth. The approach based on the measurement of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) fails to consider that the increased economic growth does not automatically improve the quality of life in important areas such as health and education and it is not correlated with political liberty. Moreover, it looks at the average number rather than at the distribution of wealth, concealing inequalities and injustice. Another common economic approach measures the quality of life by looking at either total or average utility, understood as the satisfaction of preferences. But, like the GDP approach, this one does not consider the sufferings at the bottom of the social ladder. It aggregates components of lives that cannot be compared, such as health, education, political rights, employment opportunities and leisure time. The utilitarian approach undervalues freedom. A possible alternative is a group of approaches that urges the equal allocation of basic resources. But income and wealth are not good proxies for what people are actually able to do and to be, as people have differing needs, and they are especially bad proxies for social respect, inclusion, and nonhumiliation.
Chapter four 'Fundamental entitlements' is an attempt to present the capabilities approach as a form of political liberalism inspired by John Rawls's theory of social justice. Nussbaum argues that government should avoid taking a stand on the religious and metaphysical issues; political principles are based on some definite values, such as impartiality and equal respect for human dignity, that are part of the many comprehensive doctrines that citizens reasonably hold. A consensus on basic political principles, such as those enlisted in the capabilities approach, is not required but it should be achievable. In the same chapter Nussbaum takes issues with Rawls in areas such as justice for future generations and across national borders, the fair treatment of people with disabilities and the treatment of nonhuman animals. Finally, she explains how the capabilities approach is related to consequentalism and deontologism.
Chapter five on 'Cultural diversity' presents Nussbaum's approach as one species of the international human rights movement. The claim that this movement is a form of western imperialism is rejected by appealing to the constituent elements of the idea of human rights that exist in both Indian and Chinese tradition. Her capabilities list is open to criticism and has been elaborated with the contribution of theorists of different cultural background. Moreover, the items on the list are abstract and general so that, within certain parameters, it is appropriate that nations translate this list into different policies, taking their histories and special circumstances into account.
The following chapter deals with national and global justice. Nussbaum maintains that rich nations have obligations to poor ones in terms of responsibility for assisting their efforts to develop. Global justice is not a matter of philanthropy and cannot be left to charities. She also reckons, once it is agreed that an institutional solution to global problems is needed, those who follow the capabilities approach could legitimately disagree on how this should be enforced.
Chapter seven illustrates the philosophical roots of the capabilities approach going back to ancient Greece and Rome. Aristotle and the Stoics in particular are the main sources that inspired the philosophers Kant, Smith, Mill and Marx, who are the intellectual antecedents of Nussbaum and Sen. The final eighth chapter is dedicated to contemporary issues such as gender, disabilities, aging, animal entitlements and environmental questions.
The book is intended for the general reader but students and policy makers will find it useful as an introduction to the capabilities approach.