Capabilities, Justice, and The Thick and Thin Problem

Amartya Sen has developed an approach towards theorizing about justice that takes capabilities and functions as its primary data points. Functions are the abilities people have to do things, such as travelling abroad, eating nutritious food, and spending time with people one cares for. Capabilities are the opportunities to achieve functions, such as the opportunity to spend time with one’s friends/family, and the opportunity to eat nutritious food (Robeyns 2016). Those opportunities manifest themselves in various forms, such as access to healthy and affordable food, and the lack of legal, economic, and social barriers to free movement across nation-state borders. These data points allow for interpersonal comparisons, such as determining the resources certain people need to function such that they have lives worth living (Robeyns 2016).

The approach also provides a way of determining the conversion factor of resources. For instance, if a disabled person and an able bodied person both receive a basic income of two thousand dollars a month, but the disabled person must spend over half of that on medical supplies, then the value of that basic income is diminished relative to the able bodied person’s. The able bodied person is benefiting from lucky circumstance. So, given the capabilities approach, we could determine that both parties get a basic income, but it is fashioned to each person’s circumstances. The disabled person would probably get a larger amount of money, since the extra amount has to cover necessities to get her to the functional level of the able bodied person, which would then be the threshold that makes both their two thousand dollar checks worth the same in terms of their ability to open up avenues for both parties to live good lives by exercising capabilities.

The capabilities approach is meant to provide the concrete means by which policies may be structured in a just fashion. A problematic aspect of the approach is that it falls into the thick and thin trap. The thinner the content of the capabilities, the more room for intractable disagreement, and thus more problems for using the approach as a way of reasoning about justice. The thicker the content of the capabilities, the more room for possible ethnocentric and other power-related biases to come into play at the level of developing a determinate list.

If the theory takes the thin approach, then the content of the capabilities will not be spelled out in a robust way. The thinner the content, the more room for disagreement, as the capabilities may be described in radically different ways among different people. For example, the freedom to access nutritious food may be described in terms of animal flesh or not, which would generate a disagreement between those of the view that it’s permissible to kill and consume animals, and those who think it’s impermissible. The problem isn’t that capabilities will be multiply realized by different cultures such that one culture’s idea of travel doesn’t exactly match ours. For example, being a cosmopolitan world traveler vs. having the freedom to travel to Mecca of to visit one’s nearby but difficult to access relatives due to civil war. The former could correspond to a more Western view of freedom of travel while the latter could pick out various other conceptions from around the non-Western world & the global south. These don’t contradict each other, but are just different conceptions of the same capacity. The problem is that there will be a clash between conceptions of those capabilities. Jainists will not see themselves as realizing a culturally-variant version of the capability of access to nutritious food, because they will see the practice of killing and consuming animals as impermissible rather than just as a different way of realizing that capability. In other words, they won’t see cultural-variance as normatively relevant to cashing out conceptions of capabilities.

The thick approach probably has more promise in answering the objections above. Martha Nussbaum has provided a list of capabilities which constitute the threshold needed for the possibility of living a good life (Nussbaum 1995). By providing a determinate, revisable list, Nussbaum has the resources to avoid the objection from disagreement that plagues the thin conception of capabilities. If some group disagrees with the content of the list, that’s evidence that they’re wrong; although they could provide reasons to revise the list. Allowing for revisability shows that Nussbaum considers her perspective to be limited, and fallible. The problem with the thick approach of Nussbaum’s is not with the contents of her list per se. Rather, the problem is with her approach to determining what ought to make it onto the list (cf. Jaggar 2006 and Okin 2003). Nussbaum relies on an intuitionist method which allows for a refined selection process of intuitions and desires based on reflective equilibrium (Jaggar 315-316). The worry is that there are biases that are invisible to the moral philosopher by virtue of her privileged position, and those biases, because of their invisibility, could infect the process of selecting intuitions. If that is the case, it is also possible that the method itself could be misused and abused, in ways both visible and invisible to those in power. The list of capabilities could be subtly shaped in ways amenable to a Western conception of flourishing, leaving out important perspectives.

Another worry related to the one above is that in leaving out important perspectives, the thick version of the capabilities approach lacks moral justification. The reason for thinking this is that Nussbaum relies on overlapping consensus as a means of justifying the approach and the capabilities necessary for the threshold needed for a good life (Jaggar 312). If there are morally relevant perspectives being left out, then it is questionable whether there is a consensus in any sense that bestows justification onto the approach. Leaving irrelevant points of view out of the discussion is fine, as we would not want fascists at the table discussing the good life, but there are potential points of view that are not obviously irrelevant. Would it be permissible to leave out a perspective that allows for tradeoffs among the basic capabilities that Nussbaum takes to be incommensurable (cf. Nussbaum 1995)? That perspective would allow for a broader range of just societies, corresponding to various possible tradeoffs among the capabilities Nussbaum finds necessary for flourishing. Other possible perspectives exist that many of us would admit are reasonable enough to consider alongside our own, and thus leaving them out would be morally shameful, even if they contradict some core features of our own positions, while remaining in the spirit of liberal democratic theorizing.


Works Cited

Jaggar, Alison M. “Reasoning About Well-Being: Nussbaum’s Methods of Justifying the

Capabilities*.” Journal of Political Philosophy 14.3 (2006): 301-22. Web.

Nussbaum, Martha Craven, and Jonathan Glover. Women, Culture, and Development: A Study of

Human Capabilities. Oxford: Clarendon, 1995. Print.

Okin, Susan Moller. “Poverty, Well-Being, and Gender: What Counts, Who’s Heard?”

Philosophy Public Affairs 31.3 (2003): 280-316. Web.

Robeyns, Ingrid, “The Capability Approach”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter

2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = <>.