Freedom in the space of equality: A response to certain liberal egalitarian objections to Amartya Sen's capabilities approach
Egalitarians agree that some effort should be made to equalize advantages, but disagree about the terms upon which one should compare people's level of advantage. Amartya Sen's capabilities approach is a relatively recent contribution to that important debate. The capabilities approach evaluates and compares advantage in terms of persons' capabilities to do valuable acts or reach valuable states of being, called functionings. The concept of functioning overlaps with 'well-being' or 'welfare,' in that it connotes the satisfactory achievement of valued outcomes. Yet the concept of capability goes beyond well-being in connoting not only states of well-being, but the extent to which a person's agency is deepened and broadened by being capable of choosing from an ever greater field of functionings, viz, the various things he or she manages to do or be in leading a life. The capabilities approach can broadly be described as a species of liberal egalitarianism. As such, it cannot avoid engaging with critical debates on both liberty and equality, and has indeed attracted criticism on both fronts. This dissertation assesses the defensibility of the capabilities approach against two recent and quite different criticisms, which have yet to be substantially and directly responded to as such in the literature surrounding the capabilities approach. The first objection, which I term the 'anti-perfectionist objection' and which I discuss in chapter 2, holds that the capabilities approach is untenable from the point of view of liberal neutrality because, in being pressed to identify particular capabilities as relevant (and others as irrelevant) to inequality, it is inescapably preferential towards a particular conception or set of conceptions of the good life. The second objection, which is addressed in chapter 3, asserts that the capabilities approach, by advocating a pansocietal ranking of persons in terms of their overall capability, endorses a vertical conception of human diversity, viz., one which regards some people as inherently (though arbitrarily) better endowed overall than others. The objection concludes that such vertical conceptions are offensive to the modern ethos of democratic equality. This dissertation aims to refine, evaluate and propose responses to these two objections, both by critically evaluating their assumptions, and identifying how the capabilities approach can best address them.
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