Capabilities as fundamental entitlements: Sen and Social Justice

This essay by Martha Nussbaum (2003) looks at Amartya Sen's theory of social justice and the importance of capability. Ms Nussbaun's argues that capabilities must be defined.

Amartya Sen is well known for his work on social justice and especially the achievement of gender justice. He argues that instead of measuring economic growth as an indicator of a nation's quality of life, capability is the key factor.

Read the essay: Capabilities as fundamental entitlements: Sen and Social Justice (177 KB)

Martha Nussbaum agrees that the capability approach is superior but only if there is a definite list of the most central capabilities - a set of basic entitlements without which no society can lay claim to justice.

The paper introduces a list of ten Central Human Capabilities to help measure quality of life and provide basic political principles. They start from the concept of human dignity and of a life that is worthy of that dignity. Nussbaum stresses that citizens should be given the option, in each area, of functioning in accordance with a given capability or not as they choose. The list is open-ended and subject to ongoing revision.

If these basic capabilities are accepted, it follows that institutions should be designed with reference to asking what it would take to get citizens up to an acceptable level on all these capabilities.

There is an interesting account of the close relationship between capabilities and rights. She says, 'the best way of thinking about what it is to secure fundamental rights is to think in terms of capabilities.' To secure a right, such as, the right to free speech is to put each person in a position of capability to function in that area.

Reference is made to the 'social contract' - the theory that sees society as a contract for mutual advantage with contracting parties behaving roughly as equals. Nussbaum points out that society however has varying levels of dependency - it is a care-giving and care-receiving society which should be acknowledged when considering capabilities.

Amartya Sen

Amartya Sen is a Harvard University professor and a Nobel prize-winning economist. His new book, The Idea of Justice, was published on 30th July 2009.