Sen, ‘The Idea of Justice’, Chapter 12, ‘Capabilities and Resources’

Chapter 12, Capabilities and Resources, begins with the well-known contrasts between capabilities (as what opportunities people actually have) and resourcist views. Sen then outlines four kinds of contingencies that figure importantly into the conversion of resources into the lives people can actually lead. These are: personal “heterogeneities,” differences in the physical environment, differences in the social climate, and differences in relational perspectives. Variations in the social climate refer to social structural differences—for example, the availability of publicly funded health care. Differences in “relational perspectives” refer to difference in social norms that may affect the need for resource expenditure to achieve desired goals; for example, in one society, the clothes required to command social respect may be far more expensive than in another. These types of contingencies may be interconnected; an example would be how a physical environment in which there is a great deal of snow interacts with mobility impairments in affecting how people can get around in society.Sen places particular emphasis on the interrelationship between disability and the opportunities provided by resources. He cites familiar data about the interrelationship between disability and poverty, and notes that much disability is preventable (e.g. disabilities that result from preventable infectious diseases such as polio or measles) and that this is a particularly important matter for social justice. Overall, Sen emphasizes both the conceptual and the normative importance of disability for theorizing about justice.

The remainder of the chapter is devoted to criticizing Rawlsian primary goods and Dworkinian hypothetical insurance markets. Sen commends Rawls for paying attention to “special needs,” but contends that the Rawlsian structure mistakenly downplays human difference. Pace Rawls, human variations in conversion capacities should not be seen as derivative matters for attention at the legislative stage. Rather, in Sen’s view they are ubiquitous to how social structures should be organized and analyzed. Sen recognizes that the capabilities approach will not be able to give a complete or even a linear ordering of social states, but contends that it directs us to make the important comparisons about justice.

Dworkin’s response to the point that resources translate differently in the face of human difference was a thought experiment: a hypothetical insurance market against particular handicaps, setting compensation amounts that people could then claim in the face of actual disadvantage. Dworkin then claimed that the capability view amounted either to this view, or to equality of welfare. Sen begins his response by noting that equality of capability is neither equality of the capability for welfare nor equality of welfare. He then states that even if resource equality were the same as capability equality, the latter puts the emphasis in the right place, on ends rather than on means. He then argues that because capability differences stem not only from personal heterogeneity but from other factors (see above), the asserted congruence between resource equality and capability equality is problematic as an empirical matter. Sen also raises several criticisms of the thought experiment of an idealized market, most importantly the role of individual atomistic judgments in setting market prices.

In the chapter, the linkage between capability theory and non-ideal, comparative justice is clear: capability theory analyzes actual opportunities in given circumstances. As a non-ideal theorist, however, I found myself wanting more than the familiar criticisms of Rawls and Dworkin presented in this chapter. The very brief discussion of kinds of contingencies—from human heterogeneity to relational perspectives—is frustrating and tantalizing. There is no discussion (in this chapter at least) of whether these types of contingencies might matter differently in comparative justice. Nor is there (in my judgment) sufficient consideration of questions in disability theory (and elsewhere in political theory) about the appropriate roles for prevention and remediation. Such questions about prevention and remediation might also be raised about the other types of contingencies that affect capabilities.

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About Leslie Francis

My original fields were philosophy of law and ethical theory; I now work primarily in applied fields (including disability, bioethics, and environmental ethics) with a primary interest in social justice. A number of my recent papers (dating back at least 10 years, actually) raise questions of non-ideal theory. Anita Silvers and I are currently finishing an as-yet untitled book on justice.
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