Social choice and individual capabilities

Politics, Philosophy and Economics 6 (2):169-192 (2007)
Abstract
Amartya Sen has recently suggested that certain issues which arise in the application of the capability approach can be seen in terms of social choice. This article explores certain connections and tensions between Kenneth Arrow's celebrated discussion of social choice and the capability approach while focusing on one central link: pluralism. Given the variety of values people hold, substantive issues which arise in the application of the capability approach can be seen as social choice problems. Seeing them in this way helps to explain some of Sen's suggestions about applying the approach in the light of an analogue of Arrow's theorem. However, it also poses a potential problem because of the focus on preferences in social choice theory, given that the capability approach is motivated in part by problems which `adaptive preferences' raise for `utility'-based views. In this article, it is argued that Sen's writings about public reasoning allow him to address this problem to some degree. The reading underlying this argument clarifies issues about the relationship between the individual and society in his approach. It also illuminates the extent of Sen's debt to John Rawls's writings on `public reason', while clarifying some points on which Sen and Rawls diverge. Key Words: social choice • capability • welfare • democracy.
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