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Sugden's Critique of the Capability Approach

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 February 2011

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In comparing Sen's work with Mill's, Sugden criticizes Sen's capability approach because it may be applied in such a way that society or theorists judge what is best for people and potentially restrict liberty on that basis. Sugden cites Nussbaum's work as evidence in making his case. Sugden's critique of Sen's approach succeeds on a narrow reading of it. On that reading Sen is also critical of it because it does not leave enough room for liberty. On a broad reading, the critique has less force. Nussbaum's approach follows Mill in allowing people freedom to act on whatever desires they have if this does not harm others. This neutralizes the central element of Sugden's critique as it applies to her approach to some degree. Both Sen and Nussbaum nonetheless recognize the danger of illiberal restrictions in application which motivates Sugden's critique.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

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1 Sugden, Robert, ‘What We Desire, What We Have Reason to Desire, Whatever We Might Desire: Mill and Sen on the Value of Opportunity’, Utilitas 18 (2006), pp. 3351CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and ‘Capability, Happiness and Opportunity’, Capabilities and Happiness, ed. Luigino Bruni, Flavio Comim and Maurizio Pugno (Oxford, 2008), pp. 299–322.

2 Sen, Amartya K., ‘Reason, Freedom and Well-Being’, Utilitas 18 (2006), pp. 8096CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 The claim that Sen's position is paternalistic is commonly made by some economists (amongst others), and is intended as a criticism. See Binmore, Ken, Natural Justice (Oxford, 2005), p. 122CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Layard, Richard, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (London, 2005), p. 121Google Scholar. Sen's discussion of Layard is in his The Idea of Justice (London, 2009), pp. 274–5. See also Deneulin, Séverine, ‘Perfectionism, Paternalism and Liberalism in Sen and Nussbaum's Capability Approach’, Review of Political Economy 14 (2002), pp. 497518CrossRefGoogle Scholar, esp. 516.

4 Sen, Amartya K., ‘Equality of What?’, Tanner Lectures in Human Values, ed. McMurrin, S. (Cambridge, 1980)Google Scholar and reprinted in Sen, Amartya K., Choice, Welfare and Measurement (Oxford, 1982)Google Scholar.

5 See Sen, Amartya K., Resources, Values and Development (Oxford, 1984)Google Scholar; Commodities and Capabilities (Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1985); and ‘Well-Being, Agency and Freedom: the Dewey Lectures 1984’, Journal of Philosophy 82 (1985), pp. 169–221; Inequality Re-examined (Oxford, 1992); Development as Freedom (Oxford, 1999); and The Idea of Justice.

6 Sen, Amartya K., ‘Capability and Well-Being’, The Quality of Life, ed. Nussbaum, Martha C. and Sen, Amartya K. (Oxford, 1993), p. 31Google Scholar.

7 This usage is implicit when Sen says, for example, that ‘some capabilities are harder to measure than others’. See Development as Freedom, p. 81. Sen concedes his multiple use of the word ‘capability’ in The Idea of Justice, p. 233.

8 See Sen, ‘Capability and Well-Being’, pp. 31–6.

9 In the Tanner Lecture the relevant claim was about equality of basic capability, while in Inequality Re-examined and later work the object to be equalized is seen more broadly as capability, and so the claim is a close relative to related work on equality of opportunity for welfare or access to advantage. See Arneson, Richard J., ‘Equality and Equal Opportunity for Welfare’, Philosophical Studies 56 (1989), pp. 7793CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Cohen, G. A., ‘On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice’, Ethics 99 (1989), pp. 906–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Sen, Amartya K., ‘Human Rights and Capabilities’, Journal of Human Development 6 (2005), pp. 151–66CrossRefGoogle Scholar, esp. 153.

11 See, for example, Sen, Amartya K., Rationality and Freedom (Cambridge, Mass., 2002), pp. 585–6Google Scholar.

12 Rationality and Freedom, pp. 585–6.

13 See, for example, Sen, Resources, Values and Development, pp. 310–16.

14 See Rationality and Freedom, pp. 586–7 where he cites T. H. Green's notion. Berlin's conception is outlined in Berlin, Isaiah, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford, 1969), pp. 118–72Google Scholar.

15 Qizilbash, Mozaffar, ‘Social Choice and Individual Capabilities’, Politics, Philosophy and Economics 6 (2007), pp. 169–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar, esp. 170.

16 The metrics of primary goods and resources are associated in this context with John Rawls's account of justice in his A Theory of Justice (Oxford, 1972) and Dworkin, Ronald's defence of ‘equality of resources’ in ‘Equality of Resources’ What is Equality? Part 2: Equality of Resources’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 10 (1981), pp. 283345Google Scholar; and The Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality (Cambridge, MA, 2000).

17 See, for example, Inequality Re-examined, p. 20.

18 For an overview of this growing literature see Alkire, Sabina, Qizilbash, Mozaffar and Comim, Flavio, ‘Introduction’, The Capability Approach: Concepts, Measures and Applications, ed. Comim, Flavio, Qizilbash, Mozaffar and Alkire, Sabina (Cambridge, 2008), pp. 125Google Scholar.

19 Note, however, that in some contexts – such as egalitarian justice – a thin approach does make substantive assumptions. For example, in making the claim about the weaknesses of a resource-based approach to egalitarian justice it is usually assumed that one can make interpersonal comparisons of well-being or advantage.

20 See ‘Capability and Well-Being’, pp. 46–9.

21 See ‘Social Choice and Individual Capabilities’ for a discussion.

22 See Sen, Amartya K., ‘Dialogue Capabilities, Lists and Public Reason: Continuing the Conversation’, Feminist Economics 10 (2004), pp. 7780CrossRefGoogle Scholar, esp. 78.

23 ‘Human Rights and Capabilities’, pp. 159–60.

24 See Sen, Amartya K., ‘Human Rights and Capabilities’, Journal of Human Development 6 (2005), pp. 159–60CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 ‘Human Rights and Capabilities’, p. 159.

26 See Alkire, Qizilbash and Comim, ‘Introduction’, p. 5.

27 For a different rendering of this distinction see Sabina Alkire, ‘Using the Capability Approach: Prospective and Evaluative Analyses’, The Capability Approach: Concepts, Measures and Applications, p. 29.

28 Development as Freedom, p. 77.

29 See ‘Human Rights and Capabilities’, pp. 155–6.

30 ‘Human Rights and Capabilities’, p. 156.

31 The Idea of Justice, p. 107.

32 For an example see Osmani, S. R., ‘The Sen System of Social Evaluation’, Arguments for a Better World: Essays in Honor of Amartya Sen. Volume 1. Ethics, Welfare and Measurement, ed. Basu, K. and Kanbur, R. (Oxford, 2009), pp. 1534Google Scholar.

33 See Nussbaum, Martha C., ‘Nature, Function and Capability: Aristotle on Political Distribution’, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, Supplementary Vol. 6 (1988), pp. 145–84Google Scholar; ‘Aristotelian Social Democracy’, Liberalism and the Good, ed. B. Douglass, G. Mara and H. Richardson (London, 1990), pp. 203–52; ‘Human Functioning and Social Justice: In Defence of Aristotelian Essentialism’, Political Theory 20 (1992), pp. 202–46; ‘Aristotle on Human Nature and the Foundation of Ethics’, World, Mind and Ethics: Essays on the Ethical Philosophy of Bernard Williams, ed. J. E. J. Altham and R. Harrison (Cambridge, 1995), pp. 86–131; ‘Human Capabilities, Female Human Beings’, Women, Culture and Development: A Study of Human Capabilities, ed. Martha C. Nussbaum and Jonathan Glover (Oxford, 1995), pp. 61–104; ‘The Good as Discipline, the Good as Freedom’, Ethics of Consumption: The Good Life, Justice and Global Stewardship, ed. David A. Crocker and Toby Linden (Lanham, MD, 1998), pp. 312–41; Sex and Social Justice (Oxford, 1999); Women and Human Development (Cambridge, 2000); and Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Cambridge, MA, 2006). See also, amongst others, Alkire, Sabina, Valuing Freedoms: Sen's Capability Approach and Poverty Reduction (Oxford, 2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34 I say ‘apparently’ because Sen does not himself hold one of these views, but this is not relevant for the argument of this article. See ‘Reason, Freedom and Well-Being’, pp. 90–1.

35 ‘What We Desire’, p. 34.

36 ‘What We Desire’, p. 34.

37 See, amongst other contributions, Sugden, Robert, ‘Welfare, Resources and Capabilities: A Review of Inequality Re-examined by Amartya Sen’, Journal of Economic Literature 36 (1993), pp. 1947–62Google Scholar and ‘Liberty, Preference and Choice’, Economics and Philosophy 1 (1985), pp. 213–29.

38 There are too many connected papers to list here, but some related contributions are: Sugden, Robert, ‘Opportunity as a Space for Individuality: Its Value, and the Impossibility of Measuring It’, Ethics 113 (2001), pp. 783809CrossRefGoogle Scholar; ‘Opportunity as Mutual Advantage’, Paper Presented at the Conference on Identity, Community and Justice, University of York, May 2007, and published with revision in Economics and Philosophy 26 (2010), pp. 47–68 (the reference to this paper later in the text is to the conference version); and with Joshua Teng ‘Is Happiness a Matter for Governments? A Comparison of the Utilitarianisms of Richard Layard and John Stuart Mill’, Paper Presented at the Conference on ‘Policies for Happiness’, Siena, 14–16 June 2007.

39 See Rationality and Freedom, pp. 623–58.

40 See Sugden, ‘Welfare, Resources and Capabilities’.

41 See his ‘What We Desire’, p. 35.

42 See, for example, Development as Freedom, pp. 290–2.

43 ‘What We Desire’, p. 35.

44 ‘What We Desire’, p. 36.

45 ‘What We Desire’, p. 41.

46 ‘Reason, Freedom and Well-Being’, p. 89.

47 See Rationality and Freedom, pp. 632–9 and Development as Freedom, pp. 63–7 inter alia.

48 In ‘The Impossibility of a Paretian Liberal’ this is defined as follows: ‘There are at least two individuals such that for each of them there is at least one pair of alternatives over which he is decisive, that is, there is a pair x, y such that if he prefers x (respectively y) to y (respectively x), then society should prefer x (respectively y) to y (respectively x). See Sen, Amartya K., Choice, Welfare and Measurement (Oxford, 1982), p. 287Google Scholar.

49 See Rationality and Freedom, p. 415.

50 ‘Reason, Freedom and Well-Being’, p. 40, italics added.

51 ‘What We Desire’, pp. 46–8.

52 See ‘Capability and Human Rights’.

53 Nussbaum does talk about ‘capability theory’ at times. See, for example, Nussbaum, Women and Human Development, p. 104.

54 Sugden used this example at a conference on ‘Identity, Community and Justice’ at the University of York in May 2007.

55 See, for example, his ‘Rights and Agency’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 11.1 (1982), pp. 3–39 and ‘Rights and Capabilities’, in Sen, Amartya K., Resources, Values and Development (Oxford, 1984), pp. 307–24Google Scholar.

56 See Development as Freedom, p. 77.

57 ‘Capability, Happiness and Opportunity’, p. 305.

58 Dworkin, Gerald ‘Paternalism’, Morality and the Law, ed. Wasserstrom, Richard A. (Belmont, 1971), pp. 118–20Google Scholar.

59 See, amongst many other passages where Sen makes this sort of claim, Inequality Re-examined, p. 55.

60 See her ‘Nature, Function and Capability: Aristotle on Political Distribution’, pp. 175–6.

61 Notably in ‘Aristotelian Social Democracy’, ‘Human Functioning and Social Justice: In Defence of Aristotelian Essentialism’ and ‘Human Capabilities, Female Human Beings’.

62 Nussbaum, Martha C., ‘Capabilities as Fundamental Entitlements: Sen and Social Justice’, Feminist Economics 9 (2003), pp. 4050CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

63 See, amongst many others, Griffin, James P., Well-Being: Its Meaning, Measurement and Moral Importance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986)Google Scholar; Harsanyi, John, ‘Morality and the Theory of Rational Behavior’, Utilitarianism and Beyond, ed. Sen, Amartya K. and Williams, Bernard A. O. (Cambridge, 1981), pp. 3962Google Scholar.

64 See ‘Reason, Freedom and Well-Being’, pp. 88–9 where Sen cites Qizilbash, Mozaffar, ‘Capability, Happiness and Adaptation in Sen and J. S. Mill’, Utilitas 18 (2006), pp. 2032CrossRefGoogle Scholarinter alia.

65 See, for example, Development as Freedom, p. 18.

66 Indeed, these remarks are related to other comments Sen has made about ‘false consciousness’ over the years which are also sometimes invoked in relation to paternalism. See, for example, Layard, Richard, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (London, 2005), pp. 113Google Scholar and 121 and Sen's response in The Idea of Justice, pp. 273–6.

67 ‘Reason, Freedom and Well-Being’, p. 88.

68 ‘Opportunity as Mutual Advantage’, p. 25 n. 3.

69 ‘What We Desire’, p. 41.

70 See Frontiers of Justice, p. 79.

71 Women and Human Development, p. 51.

72 Women and Human Development, p. 51.

73 Women and Human Development, p. 103.

74 Women and Human Development, p. 104.

75 Nussbaum is here responding to Arneson, Richard, ‘Perfectionsism and Politics’, Ethics 111 (2000), pp. 3763CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Interestingly Arneson there also discusses Mill's strategy for – as he sees it – making perfectionism compatible with anti-paternalism and the general claim that perfectionism must lead to illiberal restrictions. See ‘Perfectionism and Politics’, pp. 45 and 63.

76 Frontiers of Justice, p. 171.

77 Sugden, ‘What We Desire’, p. 44, citing Nussbaum, Women and Human Development, p. 82.

78 Séverine Deneulin argues that application of Sen's approach will in practice be paternalistic because it will effectively involve use of a list, and also will typically focus on functionings. On this see ‘Perfectionism, Paternalism and Liberalism’, pp. 500–2 and 510–12 as well as Women and Human Development, p. 95.

79 See Frontiers of Justice, pp. 171–3.

80 Frontiers of Justice, p. 172.

81 Women and Human Development, p. 53.

82 Women and Human Development, p. 53.

83 Women and Human Development, p. 53.

84 Women and Human Development, p. 76.

85 See ‘What We Desire’, p. 50 as well as, amongst others, Okin's, SusanPoverty, Well-Being and Gender: What Counts, Whose Heard?’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 31 (2003), pp. 280316CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Nussbaum responds in her ‘On Hearing Women's Voices: A Reply to Susan Okin’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 32 (2004), pp. 193–205. See also Clark, David A.Visions of Development (Cheltenham, 2001)Google Scholar.

86 Women and Human Development, p. 165.

87 Women and Human Development, p. 160.

88 Women and Human Development, p. 104.

89 See: ‘The Good as Discipline, as Freedom’, pp. 324 and 326. The capability approach has actually been applied using the views of those Nussbaum associates with ‘illiberal neo-Aristotelianism’, notably John Finnis, Germaine Grisez and Robert P. George. In her Valuing Freedoms (p. 58) Sabina Alkire argues that Nussbaum's claims here do not actually apply to the work of Finnis and his co-authors.

90 ‘Capability and Human Rights’, p. 158.