Origins of a Debate
In his 1979 Tanner lecture entitled “Equality of What?,” Sen presented the capability metric as an alternative for, and improvement on, the social primary goods metric. Sen argued that “the primary goods approach seems to take little note of the diversity of human beings. … If people were basically very similar, then an index of primary goods might be quite a good way of judging advantage. But, in fact, people seem to have very different needs varying with health, longevity, climatic conditions, location, work conditions, temperament, and even body size. … So what is involved is not merely ignoring a few hard cases, but overlooking very widespread and real differences” . A person with a disability, however severe, would not have a claim to additional resources grounded in his impairment under Rawls’s two principles of justice. Sen argues that Rawls’s difference principle would not justify any redistribution to the disabled on grounds of disability. Rawls’s strategy has been to postpone the question of our obligations towards the disabled, and exclude them from the scope of his theory. Rawls certainly does not want to deny our moral duties towards the people that fall outside the scope of his theory, but he thinks that we should first work out a robust and convincing theory of justice for the “normal” cases and only then try to extend it to the “more extreme cases”.
Sen’s critique in his Tanner lecture, however, was not only about the case of the severely disabled. Sen’s more general critique concerned what he saw as the inflexibility of primary goods as a metric of justice. Sen believes that the more general problem with the use of primary goods is that it cannot adequately deal with the pervasive inter-individual differences between people. Primary goods, he argues, cannot adequately account for differences among individuals in their abilities to convert these primary goods into what people are able to be and to do in their lives. For Sen, the more general problem with the primary goods metric is that “interpersonal variability in the conversion of primary goods into [capabilities] introduces elements of arbitrariness into the Rawlsian accounting of the respective advantages enjoyed by different persons; this can be a source of unjustified inequality and unfairness” . We should focus directly on people’s beings and doings, that is, on their capabilities to function. Primary goods are among the valuable means to pursue one’s life plan. But the real opportunities or possibilities that a person has to pursue her own life plan, are not only influenced by the primary goods that she has at her disposal, but also by a range of factors that determine to what extent she can use these primary goods to generate valuable states of being and doing. Hence, Sen claims that we should focus on the extent of substantive freedom that a person effectively has, i.e. her capabilities.
Rawls responded to Sen’s criticism in two ways. First, he defended
the restricted scope of his theory. Rawls stressed, especially in his later work, that in his theory “everyone has physical needs and psychological capacities within the normal range,” and therefore he excludes people with severe physical or mental disabilities from the scope of justice as fairness. In A Theory of Justice this restriction was justified by arguing that a theory of justice should in any case apply for “normal cases” – if the theory is inconsistent or implausible for such cases, then it will certainly not be an attractive theory for the more challenging cases, such as people with severe disabilities. We could postpone the question of how to treat people with disabilities to one of the later (legislative) stages of the design of the basic structure of society though, of course, even in his earliest discussions of this Rawls thinks that the final theory of justice must deal adequately with the claims of people whose abilities fall outside the normal range, and that any theory that cannot do so should be rejected on those grounds. In later work Rawls no longer argued that the case of justice towards the disabled had to be postponed to the legislative phase, but rather that we had to try to extend justice as fairness to include those cases. Rawls has not pursued this task systematically himself, though he has emphasized the role that his conception of the person possessed of the capacities for a sense of justice and a conception of the good plays in justice, and has argued that this conception enables him to deflect accusations of “fetishism” about the primary goods.
In addition to defending his theory against Sen’s criticism, Rawls criticized the capability approach. Two Rawlsian critiques of the capability approach are particularly important in the present context.
Firstly, Rawls criticized the capability approach for endorsing a particular comprehensive moral view. In his later work, Rawls greatly stresses the distinction between a political conception of justice and a comprehensive moral doctrine. “The idea [of a political conception of justice] is that in a constitutional democracy the public conception of justice should be, so far as possible, independent of controversial philosophical and religious doctrines”. According to Sen, Rawls has argued that the capability approach presupposes the acceptance of a comprehensive doctrine, and therefore goes against political liberalism. Sen has replied that Rawls’s claim that the capability approach would endorse one unique view of the good,
is mistaken. He maintains that the capability approach holds that the relevant focus is on “the actual freedom of choice a person has over alternative lives that he or she can lead”.
The second main Rawlsian objection to the capability approach concerns the publicity criterion. Since Rawls wants to analyze how people with very different comprehensive moral values of the good life can come to a reasonable agreement on the principles of political justice, he stresses that the conception of justice must be public and the necessary information to make a claim of injustice must be verifiable to all, and easily accesible. A theory of justice needs a public standard of interpersonal comparisons, as otherwise the obtained principles of justice between citizens with divers views on the good life will not prove stable. The suggestion is that as capabilities are very hard to measure or assess in such a public fashion, and as they would require very large amounts and difficult sorts of information, the capability approach is unworkable as a theory of justice. Rawls acknowledged that capabilities are important “to explain the propriety of the use of primary goods,” but maintained that the capability approach amounts to an unworkable idea.
Harry Brighouse and Ingrid Robeyns