Theoretical Approaches to the Human Rights of Marginalized and Excluded Individuals or Groups – Part II: A Short Critique of the Capabilities Approach

Author: Veronika Flegar

This blog post is the second in a series of four in which I aim to disentangle some of the underlying assumptions of contemporary concepts and approaches that can be employed for justifying or engaging with the international human rights law framework. The previous post dealt with human dignity and found that at least one criticism of human dignity is not easily resolved, namely its inherent focus on the autonomy and freedom of rational human beings. It was argued that this insufficiently accounts for the situation of persons who are marginalized and do not easily fit within this mainstream liberal view of humans as rational actors. The present blog post will deal with the capabilities approach which tries to mitigate some of these aspects.[1] Yet, as this blog post shows, authors remain in dispute as to whether the capabilities approach sufficiently succeeds in doing so. The two subsequent blog posts of this series will then deal with intersectionality and, lastly, the notion of vulnerability.

As with all blog posts of this series, my analysis remains marginal and limited by cherry-picking some aspects that, to me, seem worthwhile of further discussion. It is therefore impossible to carefully define all terminology and concepts touched upon in this series. In addition, this post is unable to provide a comprehensive overview or discussion of the capabilities approach. The approach already received widespread and very substantial academic attention to which a single blog post like this can never do justice. Interested readers can refer to one of the monographs by the main proponents or architects of this approach, Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum as well as to discussions by other authors whose main focus is the capabilities approach such as Ingrid Robeyns or the authors of many articles published in the Journal of Human Development and Capabilities. This post merely provides a basic definition of the capabilities approach, then pinpoints its relationship to human rights and human dignity and subsequently ends with two points of critique that, hitherto, seem to remain disputed or unresolved.

What is the capabilities approach? Nussbaum seems to have been driven by her ambition to develop “an approach [to human development] that defines achievement in terms of the opportunities open to each person” and considers the approach to be essentially based on the question of what each person is “actually able to do and to be”.[2] As such, Robeyns defines the capabilities approach as “a broad normative framework for the evaluation and assessment of individual well-being and social arrangements, the design of policies, and proposals about social change in society”.[3] According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the normative understandings that are central to the capabilities approach are therefore, firstly, the primary relevance of “the freedom to achieve well-being” and, secondly, the idea that this freedom has to be understood in terms of a person’s “real opportunities to do and be what they have reason to value”.

Why and how is the capabilities approach relevant to human rights (or vice versa)? Both Sen and Nussbaum paid attention to this question in their work.[4] Without going into too much detail, two aspects seem central to the relationship between human rights and the capabilities approach: first, the common reliance on human dignity and a similar underlying ethical framework and second, the possibility of the capabilities approach to function as a concretizing tool for the international human rights law framework.

As regards the ethical foundation, Nussbaum repeatedly refers to the concept of human dignity in her work and, in so doing, does not seem to diverge from the mainstream human rights understanding of human dignity.[5] Vizard et al even suggest that both human rights and the capabilities approach “share a common motivation – their direct focus on the dignity and freedom of the individual”.[6] In so doing, the approach is thought to provide additional arguments for justifying a broad range of human rights.[7]

Regarding the practical relationship between human rights and the capabilities approach, the capabilities approach is often suggested to potentially function as a practical framework for evaluating the realization of human rights for particular individuals or groups.[8] In concrete legal terms, the approach is thought to contribute to the development of “stronger foundations for the notion of positive obligations”.[9] In addition, the capabilities approach seems particularly suited for developing the idea of a minimum core of human rights that remains popular particularly in the context of economic and social rights.[10] These are only some of the possible relationships and mutual fertilizations between human rights and the capabilities approach.

Yet, as with most theoretical concepts and approaches, the capabilities approach does not remain without its criticism. Much critique has been rebutted or addressed by authors who have tried to develop the approach further. However, some fundamental issues related to the underlying assumptions of the approach seem to remain unresolved and difficult to address from within the framework. These issues seem primarily related to the implicitly argued universal validity and neutrality of the approach and the focus on the individual and the ultimate goal of freedom and autonomy.

As is pointed out in a critical blog post on this matter, the presumption of the capabilities approach that freedom and autonomy are desirable and that every rational human being would opt for this precludes certain groups or individuals who opt for different ways of life. These individuals or groups would then have to be viewed either as not being rational human beings or as the capabilities approach not being applicable to them. The blog post refers to the Amish as a very telling example of how the capabilities approach’s universalism and presumed neutrality essentially denies “the effective option of anyone being Amish” or of having a different, more traditional, lifestyle that is not in accordance with the liberal ideas of freedom and autonomy.

Most human rights scholars would likely agree with me that the adherence to at least some universal values is useful and to the benefit of all humanity. Yet, an overly universal approach which is not (merely) a legal framework but presents itself as the recipe for human development and well-being seems problematic. This is first and foremost the case for those individuals and groups who are commonly excluded or marginalized from the mainstream exactly because their way of life is not deemed acceptable. In precluding alternative forms of being, the capabilities approach can hardly account for the full realization of the human rights of these individuals or groups. In addition, and maybe even more importantly, the capabilities approach’s liberal universalism seems problematic for humanity as a whole since diversity (for instance, through the continuous existence of traditional societies or minority languages) makes humanity more resilient and allows for a diversification of pathways that can lead to more creative solutions for the (unpredictable) challenges we are and continue to be facing.

The second, closely related, critique I would like to highlight derives from a feminist ethics of care. As Dean points out, the capabilities approach seems to insufficiently focus on solidarity.[11] The approach seems to emphasize “the freedom to choose, not the need to belong”.[12] As such, the approach seems to take insufficient account of the mutual dependency between human beings. Although Nussbaum (much more than Sen) does consider a person’s “need for care in times of extreme dependency”, she is criticized for insufficiently viewing the individual as by definition and from the outset grounded in a network of relationships.[13] Such neglect is argued to insufficiently take into account the reality of the lived experiences of human beings since individuals “can only exist through and with others within networks of care”.[14]

It seems important to remain aware of the assumptions that underlie the capabilities approach and that correspond to a particular (mainstream/liberal) point of view that is not necessarily supported by other theoretical approaches towards human development or social justice. Just to provide you with one starting point for an alternative view, authors like Axel Honneth, for instance, adopt a position that seems quite different from the capabilities approach in focusing on an ‘ethical life’ rather than, as the capabilities approach suggests, a ‘good life’.[15]

Overall, there is obviously much more to be said about these and other possible issues of the capabilities approach. Previous authors have tried to rebut some of this critique but none of their work has, hitherto, convinced me that the two issues above are not inherent in the capabilities narrative. For this reason, the next blog post will deal with yet another approach to human rights that derives from feminist theories and seems to try to approach the issues that remain with regard to human dignity and the capabilities approach from a different angle: intersectionality.

[1] Although Nussbaum claims that there is no difference in the terms capability and capabilities (Martha Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach (Harvard University Press, 2011), 17), it seems like Sen’s approach is most commonly referred to as capability approach (singular) while Nussbaum’s approach is usually referred to as capabilities approach (plural). As the title of this blog post already suggests, this post is thus more concerned with Nussbaum’s rather than Sen’s approach.

[2] Nussbaum (2011), 14.

[3] Ingrid Robeyns, ‘The Capability Approach: a theoretical survey‘, Journal of Human Development 6:1 (2005), 94.

[4] Compare Polly Vizar, Sakiko Fukuda-Parr and Diane Elson, ‘Introduction: The Capability Approach and Human Rights’, Journal of Human Development and Capabilities, 12:1 (2011), 2- 3.

[5] See e.g. Nussbaum (2011), 19 and Martha Nussbaum, Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach (CUP 2000), 5, 51, 72-73.

[6] Vizar et al. (2011), 1.

[7] Ibid., 2.

[8] Ibid., 4.

[9] Ibid., 2.

[10] Compare, e.g., Nussbaum (2000), 5.

[11] Hartley Dean, ‘Critiquing capabilities: The distractions of a beguiling concept’, Critical Social Policy, 29:2 (2009), 267.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Martha Nussbaum, ‘The Future of Feminist Liberalism’, Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 74:2 (2000), 48, cited in Dean (2009), 268.

[14] Dean (2009), 269-70.

[15] Alex Honneth, The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts, (Polity Press 1995), cited in Dean (2009), 269.

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