Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 March 2015
The capability approach is a broad normative approach which has been developed from the 1980s onwards, most prominently by economist Amartya Sen and philosopher Martha Nussbaum. In the philosophical context, the main use of the approach is to assess the justice of social arrangements: societies are just to the extent that they guarantee each citizen an entitlement to his or her basic capabilities. In more recent years, Nussbaum has emphasized the fact that the capability approach is a human rights approach, and has begun to ground her version of the approach in a specific concept of human dignity. In this chapter, I will first briefly summarize the main concepts used in the capability approach, and then present Nussbaum's concept of dignity as a grounding of that approach. Finally, I will criticize this way of using the concept of dignity and raise some questions.
The capability approach
The capability approach is used by social scientists, lawyers and philosophers, in a variety of contexts, for descriptive, evaluative and prescriptive purposes. What all these uses share is only a rather minimal conceptual apparatus: namely, a stress on ‘capabilities to functionings’ as the favoured focus for research.