Measuring Justice: Primary Goods and Capabilities, Ed. Harry Brighouse and Ingrid Robeyns, Cambridge: Cambridge Univesity Press, 2010, 268 pp.
The Metric Justice
Over the last decades, political theorists and philosophers have at length debated the question what the proper metric of justice is. In other words, they have sought to answer the question “what should we look at, when evaluating whether one state of affairs is more or less just than another?” Should we evaluate the distribution of happiness? Or wealth? Or life chances? Or some combination of these and other factors? The Rawlsian social primary goods approach and the capability approach are two prominent answers to this question. The aim of this volume is to present a systematic study of these two approaches to measuring justice.
Building on the work of John Rawls, some theorists use the social primary goods approach. Social primary goods are, according to Rawls, those goods that anyone would want regardless of whatever else they wanted. They are means, or resources (broadly conceived), and this approach says that we should compare holdings of such resources, without looking closely at what individuals, possessed of heterogeneous abilities and preferences, can do with them. Rawls specifies the social
primary goods in a list as follows:
i) The basic liberties (freedom of thought and liberty of conscience, etc.) are the background institutions necessary for the development and exercise of the capacity to decide upon and revise, and rationally to pursue, a conception of the good. Similarly, these liberties allow for the development and exercise of the sense of right and justice under political and social conditions that are free.
ii) Freedom of movement and free choice of occupation against a background of diverse opportunities are required for the pursuit of final ends as well as to give effect to a decision to revise and change them, if one so desires.
iii) Powers and prerogatives of offices of responsibility are needed to give scope to various self-governing and social capacities of the self.
iv) Income and wealth, understood broadly as they must be, are all-purpose means (having an exchange value) for achieving directly or indirectly a wide range of ends, whatever they happen to be.
v) The social basis of self-respect are those aspects of basic institutions that are normally essential if citizens are to have a lively sense of their own worth as moral persons and to be able to realise their highest order interests and advance their ends with self confidence.
The other approach, developed most prominently by Amartya Sen, and more recently also by Martha Nussbaum, is known as the capability approach. Instead of looking at people’s holdings of, or prospects for holding, external goods, we look at what kinds of functionings they are able to achieve. As Sen puts it, in a good theory of well-being, “account would have to be taken not only of the primary goods the persons respectively hold, but also of the relevant personal characteristics that govern the conversion of primary goods into the person’s ability to promote her ends. What matters to people is that they are able to achieve actual functionings, that is the actual living that people manage to achieve”. Walking is a functioning, so are eating, reading, mountain climbing, and chatting. The concept of functionings “reflects the various things a person may value doing or being, varying from the basic (being adequately nourished) to the very complex (being able to take part in the life of the community)”. Yet when we make interpersonal comparisons of well-being we should find a measure which incorporates references to functionings, but also reflects the intuition that what matters is not merely achieving the functioning but being free to achieve it. So we should look at “the freedom to achieve actual livings that one can have a reason to value” or, to put it another way, substantive freedoms – the capabilities to choose a life one has reason to value.
The capabilities approach has been operationalized both by the UN and a number of local and national governments, and seems to have been the more prominent of the theories among policymakers and economists. The social primary goods approach has, perhaps, been more widely accepted among philosophers. Both are regarded as among the most important contemporary theories, and are part of the standard curriculum of students in philosophy, politics, economics, and other social sciences. But a systematic comparison of social primary goods and capabilities as the metric of justice has hitherto been missing from the literature. The aim of this volume is to fill that gap by providing a comprehensive study of both approaches, by confronting the views of a range of theorists – some more sympathetic to the primary goods metric, some more sympathetic to the capability approach.
Harry Brighouse and Ingrid Robeyns, Editors