Capabilities

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Capability is a concept designed by Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen. It is defined as the “real freedom to lead the kind of life people have reason to value” (Sen, 1999). It relies on two pillars (Bonvin and Farvaque, 2006, 2008). On the one hand, people should be entitled to real freedom and not only to formal freedom, which entails taking into account the distribution of resources and rights, as well as the individual capacities to use them and the appropriateness of the environment. In this first respect, the empowerment of people relies on the availability of a whole configuration of resources and rights, and of individual and social ‘conversion factors’. Being empowered is not only a matter of owning material resources or of having individual skills or competencies, it is also a matter of living in an adequate socioeconomic environment that allows leading a life one has reason to value. On the other hand, freedom to choose is considered intrinsically valuable so that people should be allowed to live a life they have reason to value, and not be dictated by others how they should behave or live. This approach implies that their aspirations and wishes are to be taken seriously. However, this does not mean that people should be allowed to pursue whatever life they want, but one that they have reason to value. The emphasis on ‘reasonability’ is crucial: not all individual aspirations can be considered as ‘automatically’ reasonable; some are too high (the so-called expensive tastes), others are too low (the so-called adaptive preferences whereby people living in poor conditions adjust their expectations to what seems realistic to them). In the capability perspective, individual preferences are to be submitted to a public debate and only if they survive this test, they are considered as reasonable and entitled to public support. This also entails that public action should aim at developing people’s capacity to aspire or to imagine different futures rather than simply providing them with the means to adapt to their present circumstances.

Author: Jean-Michel Bonvin

References

Bonvin, J. M. (2006). Promoting capability for work: the role of local actors. In Transforming unjust structures the capability approach (pp. 121-142). Springer, Dordrecht.
Bonvin, J.-M., Farvaque, N. & Sen, A. (2008). Amartya Sen, Une politique de la liberté. Paris, Michalon.
Sen, A. (1999). Development as Freedom. New York: Knopf.

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