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October 21, 2003

the capabilities approach

I was just refreshing my memory about the "capabilities approach" pioneered by Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, and others. (I have been asked to comment on a paper about "positive youth development," and I thought that Sen's ideas would be relevant and helpful.) The rough idea is that we ought to implement social policies that maximize people's capabilities. The important human capabilities can be listed, although theorists differ somewhat about what belongs on the list. Enhancing capabilities is better than maximizing a set of behaviors or goods, because people should be able to choose what to own and how to behave, within broad limits; and different things are valued in different cultures. Thus trying to maximize goods or behaviors is too prescriptive. Enhancing capabilities is also better than simply giving people what they say they want or need. People can want completely bad things, e.g., crack cocaine. Or they can want too much, as in the case of Hollywood actors who want to have six Hummers. Or they can want too little, which is a common problem among the world's very poor.

In contrast, capabilities are inherently good things, yet increasing one's capabilities does not restrict one's freedom. Furthermore, capabilities are defined loosely enough so that they are compatible with various forms of diversity. For instance, I would say that there is a capability of "raising children." Increasing this capability does not compel anyone to raise actual children. And people can choose to express it in diverse ways, from parenthood within a nuclear family, to participation in a peasant village where everyone raises all the kids, to working in a convent orphanage.

Applying the capabilities approach to adolescent development would mean saying that we want (and will help) teenagers to develop a list of capabilities, such as: providing for themselves financially; loving others; expressing themselves creatively; developing spiritually; understanding nature; raising the next generation; and participating politically.

October 21, 2003 12:20 PM | category: philosophy | Comments


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