The social and material preconditions for enjoying capabilities

Wouter Peeters

Onderzoeksoutput: Meeting abstract (Book)


Both Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum have made a distinction between material and social capabilities. Sen has briefly argued that the importance of the distinction between material functionings and capabilities (for example, to be well-nourished) and others (including being wise and contented) primarily lies in the fact that the former are more directly influenced by economic policy. However, he later abandoned this line of thought because its justification is contingent: since other capabilities also figure prominently in achieving quality of life, a focus on material capabilities may not be adequate to measure well-being. Nussbaum, on the other hand, has maintained a distinction between capabilities connected with property or instrumental goods (such as mobility, shelter, and nourishment) and those more closely related to the idea of human dignity (for example political, religious, and civil liberties). The differentiation between material and dignity-securing capabilities is essential for understanding her idea of a threshold level of each capability: in order to live a life compatible with human dignity, the central capabilities must be available at a sufficiently high level, which means that the material capabilities should be secured adequately, whereas equality is the essential social goal as regards the dignity-securing capabilities. For example, an adequate house is sufficient to secure human dignity; it does not require houses of equal size. In contrast, human dignity does presuppose equal voting rights.

In our view, this matter has not yet been pursued exhaustively. In this paper we will analyse this distinction, but - in contrast to Sen and Nussbaum - we would propose to make the differentiation within rather than between capabilities. In our view, all capabilities - material and non-material - depend on the satisfaction of social as well as material preconditions. Hence, the social conditions that are also inherent to material capabilities and the material conditions necessary to actually enjoy dignity-securing capabilities should be taken into account as well. Consider for example the mobility capability, which falls under Nussbaum's category of material capabilities. Being able to drive a bicycle indeed assumes access to a bicycle. Yet it also presupposes the satisfaction of some social and political conditions (such as robust traffic regulations and a bicycle-friendly culture). Second, the capability of political liberty at first appears to be a non-material or dignity-securing capability, since it obviously depends on some social conditions (such as generalized and equal voting rights and freedom of speech). Nonetheless, it also requires the satisfaction of certain material conditions, including the presence of a wheelchair ramp at the polling station, the availability of a place to gather, and perhaps pencil and paper or a computer to take minutes.

In this paper, we will first elaborate these and some other examples to illustrate the distinction between material and social preconditions for having capabilities, and comment on the importance of this distinction when analysing people's capability sets. Second, the relation of these two categories of preconditions with the interpersonal variations that govern the conversion of commodities into freedoms will be looked into. In this way, we will argue that the distinction between material and social conditions clarifies how the capabilities approach accommodates issues of redistribution as well as those related to recognition, and can be applied to practical issues of diversity and social exclusion. Finally, we will argue that the differentiation within capabilities enables us to address the issue of sustainable development from a capabilities perspective, since it acknowledges and substantiates the preconditional character of the environment for all capabilities.
Originele taal-2English
Titel2013 HDCA Conference: Human Development: Vulnerability, inclusion and wellbeing
StatusPublished - 2013
EvenementUnknown -
Duur: 1 jan 2013 → …


Periode1/01/13 → …


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