Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach

Image of Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach
Release Date: 
April 30, 2013
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
Reviewed by: 

“Ms. Nussbaum is undoubtedly a contemporary philosopher worth grappling with for anyone who is interested in what it means to enjoy freedom and a life of human dignity in our modern world . . .”

First published in 2011 and now being reissued as a paperback, Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach is the product of this prolific American philosopher’s attempt to propose a qualitative rather than quantitative metrics for defining key parameters of “quality of life.”

A longtime associate of Amartya Sen, the 1998 Nobel Laureate in Economics and one of the early pioneers of the Capability Approach, Martha Nussbaum, in this elegant and complexly argued monograph, presents her quarrel with “the fallacy of measurement” that pervades development studies today and shows why it is inadequate to the task of imagining the lives of oppressed, disadvantaged, and minority peoples across the globe in a way that illuminates what it means to live a life of human dignity.

Ms. Nussbaum’s overall goal is to enable policy—represented by institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, among others—“to construct meaningful interventions that show respect for and empower real people.”

In focusing on measures of GDP rather than on evaluations of human capabilities as key indicators of a nation’s “flourishing,” argues Ms. Nussbaum, the dominant theories of human development are flawed and misguided. One example she cites is the finding of the Sarkozy Commission that “profits from foreign investment frequently do not even raise average household income.” Nations around the world are in fact currently failing to ensure an acceptable quality of life for their citizens.

A counter-theory of human development that more fully accounts for the desire “of nonhuman animals as well as human beings” for justice, equality, and dignity, among other things, is thus urgently needed.

What is meant by the “Capabilities Approach”? In a nutshell, writes Ms. Nussbaum, this approach to development studies asks, of a given society or culture, “’What is each person able to do and to be?’”

Capabilities, in other words, “are not just abilities residing inside a person but also the freedoms or opportunities created by a combination of personal abilities and the political, social, and economic environment.”

Ms. Nussbaum proposes a list of ten Central Capabilities “that a decent political order must secure to all citizens:” Life; Bodily Health; Bodily Integrity; Senses, imagination, and Thought; Emotions; Practical Reason; Affiliation; Other Species; Play; and Control over One’s Environment.

Throughout the book, Ms. Nussbaum brings this idea of multiple capabilities into conversation with key philosophical concepts such as freedom, choice, justice, human rights, and dignity and also draws upon prevailing theories of moral philosophy and ethics, the author’s primary areas of expertise. In so doing, she builds on the foundations laid by two of her earlier publications: Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach (2000) and Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (2006).

The book’s many abstract concepts are made clearer by the use of the real-life example of Vasanti, a victim of domestic violence from the state of Gujarat, India. Through the example of Vasanti and through her analysis of the many contingencies that shape women’s lives in India, Ms. Nussbaum illustrates many of the salient features of the Capabilities Approach while also placing her definition of capabilities within a cross-cultural perspective, a result of many years of working with human rights institutions and activists in India and engaging with questions of social justice across cultures.

Largely a dialogue with the ideas of Amartya Sen (on capabilities, economics, and freedom) and John Rawls (on justice), the book also includes a short appendix on the contribution of University of Chicago economist and Nobel Laureate James J. Heckman to the capability approach. It contains a helpful, selective bibliography of works by Ms. Nussbaum and Sen for further reading and reference.

As the author states in her preface, Creating Capabilities is intended not only as an introduction to the Capabilities Approach but also as an invitation to interested readers to contribute to scholarship on this approach through the Human Development and Capability Association (HDCA), of which both the author and Sen have been past presidents.

The scope of Ms. Nussbaum’s philosophical project is ambitious, as always, insofar as her findings claim to be applicable to problems of freedom, equality, dignity, and basic justice in both developing and developed nations.

Chapter 3, in particular, reveals the vast scope of her thinking, ranging widely over the shortcomings of other approaches to measuring levels of human flourishing: the GDP approach, the utilitarian approach, resource-based approaches, and the human rights approach.

One drawback of the book, however, is that it struggles under the weight of the many philosophical concepts the author invokes in her desire to show the universal applicability of her ideas; sometimes, the urgent needs of the very “real people” Ms. Nussbaum is concerned about get lost in the complexity of the theorizing.

It is difficult, for example, to keep one eye on the life of Vasanti from India, mired as it is in matrices of discrimination, illiteracy, domestic violence, and caste, and also stay focused on the highly sophisticated critiques of Western philosophical concepts that the author offers.

Another caveat for a novice reader of Ms. Nussbaum’s work is that the book presupposes a close familiarity with the ideas and writings of Sen and Rawls—and of other thinkers, such as Mills and Bentham, as well as the author herself. It must be said that this book is sometimes difficult to follow if the reader isn’t already familiar with her general approach to social justice issues, law, and ethics.

Creating Capabilities is a complex endeavor. Ms. Nussbaum is undoubtedly a contemporary philosopher worth grappling with for anyone who is interested in what it means to enjoy freedom and a life of human dignity in our modern world and why in current theories that attempt to address these questions often fail to deliver a satisfactory answer.