Amartya Sen’s capability theory approach

Capacidad Mental

The Sen capability approach is a moral framework. It proposes that social arrangements should be evaluated primarily according to the extent of freedom people have to promote as well as achieving functions they value. Amartya Sen’s capability theory approach is a theoretical framework that involves two core normative claims.

First, the assumption that freedom to achieve well-being is of primary moral importance. And second, that freedom to achieve well-being must be understood in terms of people with capabilities. In other words, their real opportunities to do and be what they value. The approach has been developed into a variety of more specific normative theories. Such as those of social justice or the narratives of development ethics.

It has also given rise to a new highly interdisciplinary literature in the social sciences resulting in new social statistics and indicators. And to a new policy paradigm used mainly in developing studies, the so-called “human development approach” or human well-being.

The capability approach claims that freedom to achieve well-being is a matter of what people can do and be. And therefore, the kind of life they can effectively lead. As Sen argues, people’s commodities or wealth or their mental reactions (utility) are an inappropriate angle because they provide limited or indirect information about how life is going. Sen illustrates his point with the example of a standard bicycle.

This has the characteristics of “transportation”, but whether it will actually provide transportation will depend on the characteristics of those trying to use it. It could be considered a generally useful tool for most people to extend their mobility. Even if that person by some quirk, finds the bicycle charming, we should be able to notice within our assessment system that it still lacks transportation. This mental reaction also does not show that the same person would not appreciate transportation if it were actually available to them.

Theory of capabilities

The capabilities approach goes directly to the quality of life that people can actually achieve. This quality of life is analyzed in terms of the central concepts of “functioning” and “capability”. Sen argues that the correct approach to assessing how well people are doing is their ability to live a life that we have reason to value, not their wealth of resources or subjective well-being. But to begin to assess how people perform in terms of capacity, we first need to determine which functions are important to the good life and how much, or at least we need to specify an assessment procedure to determine this.

Assessing capability is more information-demanding than other accounts of advantage because it not only has a much broader view of what constitutes the achievement of well-being, but also attempts to assess the freedom people actually have to make high-quality choices. Because the value of a set of capabilities represents an individual’s effective freedom to live a life that is valuable in terms of the value of the functionings available to that individual, when available functionings are enhanced, so is the individual’s effective freedom.

Interpersonal Variations

The diagnosis of capacity failures or significant interpersonal variations in capacity leads the attention to the relevant responsible causative pathways. These are: individual physiology, local environmental diversities, variations in social conditions, differences in relational perspectives and distribution within the family. Many of these interpersonal variations also influence people’s abilities to access resources in the first place. For example, people with physical disabilities often have more expensive requirements for achieving the same capabilities, such as mobility. While at the same time they also have greater difficulty obtaining income.

In conclusion, the capabilities approach is defined by its choice of focus on the moral significance of individuals’ ability to achieve the kind of life they have reason to value. This distinguishes it from more established approaches to ethical evaluation. They focus exclusively on subjective well-being or the availability of means for good living, respectively. A person’s ability to live a good life is defined in terms of the set of valuable “beings and actions”. Like having good health or having loving relationships with other people to whom they have real accessibility.


Rebeca del Valle Felibert Centeno – CMI Student

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