post-autistic economics review
Issue no. 26, 2 August 2004
article 3



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Capabilities and Indeterminacy


Gautam Mukerjee   (University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, USA)

© Copyright 2004 Gautam Mukerjee



Emmanuelle Benicourt recently initiated an interesting debate by questioning the view that Amartya Sen has made significant contributions to post-autistic economics.  This counters the popular position that Sen goes far beyond the conventional confines of welfare economics and liberal philosophy, thereby overcoming the limitations of the neoclassical economic mainstream. 


Ingrid Robeyns (2002), for instance, considers Sen’s idea of capabilities to be a consistent normative framework that ‘effectively links commodities, observable outcomes and unobservable opportunities’, offering thereby a far broader analytical scope than found in neoclassical economics. Benicourt challenges that view with the argument that the plurality of focus inherent in capabilities, not only precludes consistency on the normative front but renders the approach ‘nonoperational for policy-makers’ (Benicourt 2004).  


In contrast, Jorge Buzaglo (2003), while not denying that Sen’s capabilities approach has neoclassical roots, finds it to be a ‘radical-progressive’ variant, especially as he sees in capabilities an exploration of ‘the preferences of the mind’ in the Spinozian fashion.   Benicourt takes exception to that position as well, by pointing out that Sen does not venture too far from the theoretical perimeter of the Arrow-Debreu model nor does he abandon the idea of society contained therein; in fact, his failure  to completely escape the ‘enchanting power of markets’ is evident from the seemingly contradictory positions he assumes regarding the role of the state vis-à-vis markets in addressing the human plight  (Benicourt 2004).


Interestingly, both sides of the debate appear to be revolving around  the curious problem of indeterminacy that has long plagued the capabilities approach.  Indeterminacy, it is contended here, occurs at three critical levels, namely, that of conceptualization, foundational specification and policy orientation concerning capabilities; consequently, a straightforward ideological labeling may prove to be rather elusive for a long time to come.  In effect, the question of whether or not Sen makes a valuable contribution to the post-autistic tradition cannot yet be settled in any meaningful or satisfactory way. 



Between Commodities and Utility


Sen uses the idea of a vector of functionings to define a person’s state of being; in contrast, the opportunities to achieve well-being in terms of the range of feasible vectors available to an individual constitute that person’s capability (Sen 1985). Evidently, the key element in the framework of capabilities is the idea of ‘functioning’ which Sen sees as ‘consisting of beings and doings’ enjoyed by an individual (Sen 1992, p.38).  At a more fundamental level, however, the idea of capability and its constituent element of functionings are not so easy to separate.   For instance, health is both a functioning and a capability (Gasper, p. 446); the same could be said about education which is a capability as well as an attainable functioning.  Perhaps it is the needed ‘ample spread’ of functionings that obliterates the distinction between functioning and capabilities and renders the boundary between the two concepts considerably blurry (Gasper, p. 448).  Interestingly, on occasion Sen himself has had to rely on functionings to clarify capabilities thereby attesting to the ambiguity of both concepts (Sugden, p. 821). 


Be that as it may, capabilities are clearly predicated upon the availability of commodities in as much as the latter are necessary though not sufficient for securing the former.  Sen is very wary about letting the capabilities idea fall victim to a commodity fixation.   In his estimation, the commodities approach carries the danger of slipping into ‘commodity fetishism’ (Sen 1984, p. 510), the Rawlsian ideas of justice notwithstanding.  Furthermore, the ‘commodities’ approach  risks reducing the question of human well-being into a matter of entitlements, that is, an undesirable state of dependency.


This of course does not mean that the ‘utilitarian’ alternative offers a way out either; this is because the idea of utility maximization is prone to rationalizing even the severest conditions of deprivation and therefore proves to be hopelessly inadequate in offering substance to the idea of capabilities.  Sen is consequently careful about staying clear of the idea that the outcomes of revealed preference could serve as an operational metric for capabilities.


Not surprisingly, capabilities are best seen  in relation to ‘a moral or ethical space’ so as to avoid the extremes of  commodities or pleasure states (Croker, p. 584).  The curious middle ground, between commodities and utilities, however, means that the building of valuable functionings replaces conventional utility maximization with an active campaign to remove the constraints and impediments on the path of self-actualization for the individual.  


It is worthy of note that the celebrated rejection of the conventional metric of well-being in terms of commodities or utilities, does not in any way mean discarding the underlying processes of commodification as well nor does it avoid the neoclassical predilection for individuating all problems concerning human survival.  Sen in fact has no interest in taking up the question of nonindividualistic social orderings; on the contrary, ‘he shares the premise of individualism with virtually all of contemporary welfare economics’ (Beitz, p.283).  For all intent and purposes, therefore, the processes underlying the making of commodities as well as the mechanics of individuation must be taken to be essentially costless in the forging of valuable functionings towards building capabilities.


On the conceptual plane, the idea of capabilities undoubtedly constitutes a movement from the concrete to the abstract as Sen deftly takes his audience backwards from commodities to the act of choosing and to the mental space underlying choice. Sen’s apparent contentment in letting choices be guided by whatever ‘people have reason to value’, however, readmits preferences into the capability framework without first providing a theory of choice (Gasper, p. 440). 


While capabilities are not grounded in either commodities or revealed preference, however, the failure to account for  the behind-the-scenes processes of commodification and the formation of preferences as well as the logic of economic organization underlying choice, contribute to a general state of indeterminacy.  Although Sen’s prolific talents as an economist among philosophers are truly undeniable, the philosophical overtones of the capability approach do not lend itself easily to ‘concrete’ issues as pointed out by Benicourt (2002).


Not surprisingly, the capabilities approach passes on occasion for a ‘patching operation’ of sorts, in as much as Sen attempts to broaden the individual operational space without necessarily exploring the logic of preferences or admitting to the ever-present risk of consumerism (Gasper, p. 449). 



Foundational questions     


At the foundational level, the normative roots of capabilities are not so easy to establish, as Benicourt points out.  Sen’s rejection of ‘externalist’ normative standards has been seen by some as an effort to rise above both ‘absolute’ and relative standards to develop what some have referred to as a ‘metaethic’ and an internalist foundation (Crocker, p. 588).  This raises the further question, as Gasper points out, of whether there is any guarantee that the functionings chosen will indeed be valuable in terms of larger social well-being or even in terms of the long-term welfare of the individual; Gasper uses the example of the Internet which may be used as much for speedy informational exchange as for the promotion of gambling and pornography, much to the detriment of the larger social whole (Gasper, p. 455).  More fundamentally, there is the unavoidable issue of whether the winning of negative freedoms, a prerequisite for capabilities can automatically assure positive freedoms that are generally claimed to be the essence of capabilities (Sugden, p. 821). 


Sen has recently joined forces with philosopher Martha Nussbaum to establish the ethical underlining of capabilities, being careful to reject both extremes of paternalism and perfectionism (Pressman and Summerfield, p.432).  Arguably, Sen has been after the cultivation of a ‘moral space’ that is presumably free of all social or cultural conditionings of individuals and therefore amenable to interpersonal comparisons.  Sugden (1986, p.821) notes that there is a clear presumption of  ‘values’ behind capabilities; for instance, the capability for right choice needs to be presumed before a broad range of choices could be deemed sufficient in terms of capabilities.  However, this invariably suggests ‘layered valuation’ in as much as the exercise of choice itself happens to be a capability which in turn relies on subsidiary capabilities, such as, the capability to choose (Gasper, p. 456). 


Despite appearances, however, capabilities do not constitute a morally neutral space since Sen is emphatic about rejecting both the utilitarian and libertarian standards (Crocker, p. 598).  This in combination with the sheer pluralism of relying on the judgement of individual agents in determining valuable functionings precludes a clear normative foundation without which one encounters indeterminacy once again, albeit at another level. 


In as much as the capabilities approach lacks a theory of human preference it appears to rely on the belief that the removal of external impediments is miraculously to bring out the best in individuals.  Here then is an article of faith that takes the place of reasoned argument, an odd note in the general orchestration of capabilities.  In the same vein, Sen’s belief that culturally invariant values could be found through the capabilities approach seems more a hopeful claim than a logical proposition (Crocker, p. 605). 


Ultimately, it appears that virtually all human conditions could easily be described in terms of capabilities or a lack thereof but this does not mean that we can explain in terms of capabilities.  For instance, an equal distribution of material possessions among individuals does not necessarily imply equal capabilities any more than identical capabilities can assure equality in terms of material possessions.  Where then is an objective standard that might help distinguish between the two scenarios ?  Evidently, the simple equating of poverty to capability deprivation might be no more than a definitional variation which says little about the concrete ways in which capabilities could be restored since material affluence in itself is no assurance of restoring capabilties. 



Search for a metric


Sen approaches the human problem from the point of view of an enlightened policymaker who supposedly is able to rise above the fray and can judge what constitutes an impediment on the path of building the capabilities of individuals.  However, one may very well ask where the policymaker’s values come from or how she is able to gauge which impediments are to be dismantled in order to restore individuals fully to their capabilities.


Basu has described capabilities as ‘an effort to develop a philosophical base and systematic method for the use of non-market data in evaluating societies’; however, he also warns that the use of such ideas as ‘a vector of functionings’ makes measurability rather elusive (Basu, pp. 70-72).  From its inception, it seems, the idea of capabilities has been a search for a viable operational metric of human well-being and yet it is not difficult to see that such a measure is yet to be discovered.  One might have reason to wonder if the very effort of enumeration does not somehow push the concept even farther away from the reach of objective standards.  In as much as any approach to capability must logically constitute a capability in and of itself, the concept begins to lose distinctiveness.  It is therefore hardly surprising that while upholding the importance of substantive freedoms, Sen appears to be a bit circumspect about identifying the ‘means’ of securing such freedom (Qizilbash, p.161).


Given that the content of functionings and capabilities overlap considerably, all of this only adds to a general state of indeterminacy (Pressman and Summerfeld, p. 430).  Not surprisingly, what Benicourt sees as a clear preponderance of correlations in operationalizing capabilities, could be taken as further affirmation of the lack of a theoretical system, in particular, the lack of a theory of well-being and human development (Gasper, p. 436).  So far, there does not seem to be a sufficient set of concrete building blocks with which to define capabilities and that is the problem; it is this shortcoming that leaves one without a convincing metric.  In the final analysis, the idea of capability is at times forced to serve as its own metric thereby becoming somewhat ‘tautologous’ (Gasper, p. 447). 


There can be no doubt that Sen recognizes that ‘a development ethic must be constructed in dialectical relation with empirical investigation into what causes and impedes development as well as what produces and prevents poverty, famine, etc.’ (Crocker, p. 587).  However, this also means that the criteria for judging the efficacy of the processes that are to secure the valuable functionings and desired capabilities have also to be derived from the same processes and that seems to be the root cause of all ambiguities and indeterminacy.  In addition, it is the lack of specification of the capability dynamics that has led some to view the concept of capability as ‘vacuous’ (Gasper, p.454). 


In the final analysis, the idea of capability begs a fundamental question: capability with respect to what ?  That is, there needs to be a clear predicate or a standard against which capabilities are to be judged and until that issue can be resolved satisfactorily, it seems, the approach is destined to remain more an abstract descriptive tool rather than an explanatory one (Pressman and Summerfeld, p. 429). 



Merits of indeterminacy


Curiously, it is in indeterminacy that Sen appears to find the true strength of the capability approach because it presumably lends considerable flexibility to the framework, making it compatible with a whole range of perspectives under the sun (Pressman and Summerfeld, p. 429).  Arguably, the capability approach is an excellent tool of criticism but the question is whether it lends itself to constructive policymaking.  As a descriptive framework of well-being, capabilities perform rather well as is increasingly evident from such ventures as the Human Development Index that are intended to extend the conventional standard measures of well-being.   


While one may not question the fact that the capability approach broadens the focus of the neoclassical framework to a considerable extent, the creation of a hybrid apparatus by thrusting what seem like heterodox values onto neoclassical foundations might not yield a determinate conceptual frame.  The idea of capabilities may indeed represent an emergent paradigm as suggested by Robeyns but whether it may be identified as a particular indentifiable ideological perspective or not is not so clear. 


In view of the insurmountable fact of indeterminacy at all levels, as has been seen here, it is impossible to convincingly categorize the capabilities approach either as exclusively neoclassical or belonging squarely in the heterodox camp.  While the label ‘neoclassical’ may indeed be a bit narrow in terms of scope, the idea that capabilities represent a ‘radical-progressive’ agenda may also be too bold a claim to make.  As matters stand, any such labeling is rather premature and it might be best to await further development of the capabilities framework.   Meanwhile, Benicourt ought to be congratulated for bringing several critical issues surrounding capabilities into the open; it is not only a timely venture but speaks well for the analytical health of the heterodoxy.  Post-autistic economic thought owes her a huge debt of gratitude. 





Basu, Kaushik (1987), “Achievements, Capabilities and the Concept of Well-Being: A Review of Commodities and Capabilities”,  Social Choice and Welfare, Vol. 4, pp. 69-76.


Beitz, Charles, R. (1986), “Amartya Sen’s Resources, Values and Development”, Economics and Philosophy, Vol. 2, No. 2, pp.282-91


Benicourt, Emmanuelle (2002), “Is Amartya Sen a Post-Autistic Economist ?” post-autistic economics review, issue no. 15, September 4, article 4.


------------------------------ (2004), “Amartya Sen Again”, post-autistic economics review, issue no. 24, March 15, article 5.


Buzaglo, Jorge (2003), “Capabilities: From Spinoza to Sen and Beyond: Parts I and II”, post-autistic economics review, issues no. 20 and 21, June and September. 


Crocker, David A. (1992), “Functioning and Capability:  The Foundation of Sen’s and Nussbaum’s Development

Ethic”, Political Theory, Vol. 20, No. 4, pp. 584-612.


Gasper, Des (2002), “Is Sen’s Capability Approach an Adequate Basis for Considering Human Development ?”, Review of Political Economy, Vol. 14, No. 4, pp. 435-461.


Pressman, Steven and Gale Summerfeld (2002), “Sen and Capabilities”, Review of Political Economy, Vol. 14, No. 4, pp. 429-434.


Qizilbash, M. (1996), “Capabilities, Well-being and Human Development: A Survey”, Journal of Development Studies, Vol. 33, No. 2, pp. 143-162


Robeyens, Ingrid (2002), “In Defence of Amartya Sen”, post-autistic economics review, issue no. 17, December 4, article 5.


Sen, Amartya K. (1984) Resources, Values and Development, Oxford: Blackwell; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


-------------------- (1985) Commodities and Capabilities, Amsterdam & New York: North-Holland.


-------------------- (1992) Inequality Reexamined Oxford: Clarendon.


Sugden, Robert (1986) Review:  Commodities and Capabilities.  The Economic Journal, Vol. 96, No. 383, pp. 820-22.



Gautam Mukerjee, “Capabilities and Indeterminacy”, post-autistic economics review, issue no. 26, 2 August 2004, article 3,