Hand lent by Dhiraj Singh
  Women and work—the capabilities approach  

  Vol I : issue 1

  Noam Chomsky
  Amartya Sen
  Ashis Nandy
  Nabaneeta Dev Sen
Raj Kamal Jha
  Martha Nussbaum

Krishna Sobti
  Ramakanta Rath
  Mrinal Pande
  Antara Dev Sen
  Only in Print

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Martha Nussbaum

The basic intuition from which the capability approach begins, in the political arena, is that human abilities exert a moral claim that they should be developed. Human beings are creatures such that, provided with the right educational and material support, they can become fully capable of these human functions. That is, they are creatures with certain lower-level capabilities (which I call "basic capabilities"9) to perform the functions in question. When these capabilities are deprived of the nourishment that would transform them into the high-level capabilities that figure on my list, they are fruitless, cut off, in some way but a shadow of themselves. If a turtle were given a life that afforded a merely animal level of functioning, we would have no indignation, no sense of waste and tragedy. When a human being is given a life that blights powers of human action and expression, that does give us a sense of waste and tragedy — the tragedy expressed, for example, in Tagore’s heroine’s statement to her husband, when she says, "I am not one to die easily." In her view, a life without dignity and choice, a life in which she can be no more than an appendage, was a type of death of her humanity.

We begin, then, with a sense of the worth and dignity of basic human powers, thinking of them as claims to a chance for functioning, claims that give rise to correlated social and political duties. And in fact there are three different types of capabilities that play a role in the analysis. First, there are basic capabilities: the innate equipment of individuals that is the necessary basis for developing the more advanced capability, and a ground of moral concern. Second, there are internal capabilities: that is, states of the person herself that are, so far as the person herself is concerned, sufficient conditions for the exercise of the requisite functions. A woman who has not suffered genital mutilation has the internal capability for sexual pleasure; most adult human beings everywhere have the internal capability for religious freedom and the freedom of speech. Finally, there are combined capabilities, which may be defined as internal capabilities combined with suitable external conditions for the exercise of the function. A woman who is not mutilated but who has been widowed as a child and is forbidden to make another marriage has the internal but not the combined capability for sexual expression (and, in most such cases, for employment, and political participation).10 Citizens of repressive non-democratic regimes have the internal but not the combined capability to exercise thought and speech in accordance with their conscience. The list, then, is a list of combined capabilities. To realise one of the items on the list entails not only promoting appropriate development of people’s internal powers, but also preparing the environment so that it is favourable for the exercise of practical reason and the other major functions.

Functioning and capability

We have considered both functioning and capability. How are they related? Getting clear about this is crucial in defining the relation of the ‘capabilities approach’ to our concerns about paternalism and pluralism. For if we were to take functioning itself as the goal of public policy, a liberal pluralist would rightly judge that we were precluding many choices that citizens may make in accordance with their own conceptions of the good. A deeply religious person may prefer not to be well-nourished, but to engage in strenuous fasting. Whether for religious or for other reasons, a person may prefer a celibate life to one containing sexual expression. A person may prefer to work with an intense dedication that precludes recreation and play. Am I declaring, by my very use of the list, that these are not fully human or flourishing lives? And am I instructing government to nudge or push people into functioning of the requisite sort, no matter what they prefer?

It is important that the answer to this question is no. Capability, not functioning, is the appropriate political goal. This is so because of the very great importance the approach attaches to practical reason, as a good that both suffuses all the other functions, making them fully human, and also figures, itself, as a central function on the list. The person with plenty of food may always choose to fast, but there is a great difference between fasting and starving, and it is this difference that we wish to capture. Again, the person who has normal opportunities for sexual satisfaction can always choose a life of celibacy, and the approach says nothing against this. What it does speak against (for example) is the practice of female genital mutilation, which deprives individuals of the opportunity to choose sexual functioning (and indeed, the opportunity to choose celibacy as well).11 A person who has opportunities for play can always choose a workaholic life; again, there is a great difference between that chosen life and a life constrained by insufficient maximum-hour protections and/or the ‘double day’ that makes women unable to play in many parts of the world. The approach does not rest content with internal capabilities, indifferent to the struggles of individuals who try to exercise these in a hostile environment. In that sense, it is highly attentive to the goal of functioning, and instructs governments to keep it always in view. On the other hand, it does not push people into functioning: once the stage is fully set, the choice is theirs.

Capabilities and human rights

Earlier versions of the list appeared to diverge from approaches common in the human rights movement by not giving as large a place to the traditional political rights and liberties — although the need to incorporate them was stressed from the start. This version of the list corrects that defect of emphasis. The political liberties have a central importance in making well-being human. A society that aims at well-being while overriding these has delivered to its members an incompletely human level of satisfaction. As Amartya Sen has recently written, "Political rights are important not only for the fulfillment of needs, they are crucial also for the formulation of needs. And this idea relates, in the end, to the respect that we owe each other as fellow human beings."12 There are many reasons to think that political liberties have an instrumental role in preventing material disaster (in particular famine13), and in promoting economic well-being. But their role is not merely instrumental: they are valuable in their own right.

Thus capabilities have a very close relationship to human rights, as understood in contemporary international discussions. In effect they cover the terrain covered by both the so-called ‘first-generation rights’ (political and civil liberties) and the so-called ‘second-generation rights’ (economic and social rights). And they play a similar role, providing the philosophical underpinning for basic constitutional principles. Because the language of rights is well-established, the defender of capabilities needs to show what is added by this new language.14

The idea of human rights is by no means a crystal clear idea. Rights have been understood in many different ways, and difficult theoretical questions are frequently obscured by the use of rights language, which can give the illusion of agreement where there is deep philosophical disagreement. People differ about what the basis of a rights claim is: rationality, sentience and mere life have all had their defenders. They differ, too, about whether rights are prepolitical or artifacts of laws and institutions. (Kant held the latter view, although the dominant human rights tradition has held the former.) They differ about whether rights belong only to individual persons, or also to groups. They differ about whether rights are to be regarded as side-constraints on goal-promoting action, or rather as one part of the social goal that is being promoted. They differ, again, about the relationship between rights and duties: if A has a right to S, then does this mean that there is always someone who has a duty to provide S, and how shall we decide who that someone is? They differ, finally, about what rights are to be understood as rights to. Are human rights primarily rights to be treated in certain ways? Rights to a certain level of achieved well-being? Rights to resources with which one may pursue one’s life plan? Rights to certain opportunities and capacities with which one may make choices about one’s life plan?

The account of central capabilities has the advantage, it seems to me, of taking clear positions on these disputed issues, while stating clearly what the motivating concerns are and what the goal is. Bernard Williams put this point eloquently, commenting on Sen’s 1987 Tanner Lectures:

I am not very happy myself with taking rights as the starting point. The notion of a basic human right seems to me obscure enough, and I would rather come at it from the perspective of basic human capabilities. I would prefer capabilities to do the work, and if we are going to have a language or rhetoric of rights, to have it delivered from them, rather than the other way round.15

As Williams says, however, the relationship between the two concepts needs further scrutiny, given the dominance of rights language in the international development world.

In some areas, the best way of thinking about what rights are is to see them as combined capabilities. The right to political participation, the right to religious free exercise, the right of free speech — these and others are all best thought of as capacities to function. In other words, to secure a right to a citizen in these areas is to put them in a position of combined capability to function in that area. (Of course there is another sense of ‘right’ that is more like my "basic capabilities": people have a right to religious freedom just in virtue of being human, even if the state they live in has not guaranteed them this freedom.) By defining rights in terms of combined capabilities, we make it clear that a people in country C don’t really have the right to political participation just because this language exists on paper: they really have this right only if there are effective measures to make people truly capable of political exercise. Women in many nations have a nominal right of political participation without having this right in the sense of capability: for example, they may be threatened with violence should they leave the home. In short, thinking in terms of capability gives us a benchmark as we think about what it is really to secure a right to someone.

There is another set of rights, largely those in the area of property and economic advantage, which seem analytically different in their relationship to capabilities. Take, for example, the right to shelter and housing. These are rights that can be analysed in a number of distinct ways: in terms of resources, or utility (satisfaction), or capabilities. (Once again, we must distinguish between the claim that ‘A has a right to shelter’ — which frequently refers to A’s moral claim in virtue of being human, with what I call basic capabilities) — from the statement that ‘Country C gives its citizens the right to shelter.’ It is the second sentence whose analysis I am discussing here.) Here again, however, it seems valuable to understand these rights in terms of capabilities. If we think of the right to shelter as a right to a certain amount of resources, then we get into the very problem I discussed earlier: giving resources to people does not always bring differently situated people up to the same level of capability to function. The utility-based analysis also encounters a problem: traditionally deprived people may be satisfied with a very low living standard, believing that this is all they have any hope of getting. A capabilities analysis, by contrast, looks at how people are actually enabled to live. Analysing economic and material rights in terms of capabilities thus enables us to set forth clearly a rationale we have for spending unequal amounts of money on the disadvantaged, or creating special programmes to assist their transition to full capability.

The language of capabilities has one further advantage over the language of rights: it is not strongly linked to one particular cultural and historical tradition, as the language of rights is believed to be. This belief is not very accurate: although the term ‘rights’ is associated with the European Enlightenment, its component ideas have deep roots in many traditions.16 Where India is concerned, for example, even apart from the recent validation of rights language in Indian legal and constitutional traditions, the salient component ideas have deep roots in far earlier areas of Indian thought — in ideas of religious toleration developed since the edicts of Ashoka in the third century BC, in the thought about Hindu/Muslim relations in the Moghul Empire, and, of course, in many progressive and humanist thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, who certainly cannot be described as simply Westernisers, with no respect for their own traditions.17 Tagore portrays the conception of freedom used by the young wife in his story as having Moghul origins, in the quest of Meerabai for joyful self-expression. The idea of herself as "a free human mind" is represented as one that she derives, not from any external infusion, but from a combination of experience and history.

So ‘rights’ are not exclusively western, in the sense that matters most; they can be endorsed from a variety of perspectives. Nonetheless, the language of capabilities enables us to bypass this troublesome debate. When we speak simply of what people are actually able to do and to be, we do not even give the appearance of privileging a Western idea. Ideas of activity and ability are everywhere, and there is no culture in which people do not ask themselves what they are able to do, what opportunities they have for functioning.

If we have the language of capabilities, do we also need the language of rights? The language of rights still plays, I believe, four important roles in public discourse, despite its unsatisfactory features. First, when used in the first way, as in the sentence "A has a right to have the basic political liberties secured to her by her government", it reminds us that people have justified and urgent claims to certain types of urgent treatment, no matter what the world around them has done about that. I have suggested that this role of rights language lies very close to what I have called "basic capabilities," in the sense that the justification for saying that people have such natural rights usually proceeds by pointing to some capability-like feature of persons (rationality, language) that they actually have on at least a rudimentary level. And I actually think that without such a justification the appeal to rights is quite mysterious. On the other hand, there is no doubt that one might recognise the basic capabilities of people and yet still deny that this entails that they have rights in the sense of justified claims to certain types of treatment. We know that this inference has not been made through a great deal of the world’s history. So appealing to rights communicates more than does the bare appeal to basic capabilities, without any further ethical argument of the sort I have supplied. Rights language indicates that we do have such an argument and that we draw strong normative conclusions from the fact of the basic capabilities.

Second, even at the second level, when we are talking about rights guaranteed by the state, the language of rights places great emphasis on the importance and the basic role of these spheres of ability. To say, "Here’s a list of things that people ought to be able to do and to be" has only a vague normative resonance. To say, "Here is a list of fundamental rights," is more rhetorically direct. It tells people right away that we are dealing with an especially urgent set of functions, backed up by a sense of the justified claim that all humans have to such things, in virtue of being human.

Third, rights language has value because of the emphasis it places on people’s choice and autonomy. The language of capabilities, as I have said, was designed to leave room for choice, and to communicate the idea that there is a big difference between pushing people into functioning in ways you consider valuable and leaving the choice up to them. But there are approaches using an Aristotelian language of functioning and capability that do not emphasise liberty in the way that my approach does: Marxist Aristotelianism and some forms of Catholic Thomist Aristotelianism are illiberal in this sense. If we have the language of rights in play as well, I think it helps us to lay extra emphasis on the important fact that the appropriate political goal is the ability of people to choose to function in certain ways, not simply their actual functionings.

Finally, in the areas where we disagree about the proper analysis of rights talk — where the claims of utility, resources, and capabilities are still being worked out — the language of rights preserves a sense of the terrain of agreement, while we continue to deliberate about the proper type of analysis at the more specific level.

Capabilities as goals for women’s development

Legitimate concerns for diversity, pluralism and personal freedom are not incompatible with the recognition of cross-cultural norms, and indeed that cross-cultural norms are actually required if we are to protect diversity, pluralism and freedom, treating each human being as an agent and an end. The best way to hold all these concerns together is to formulate the norms as a set of capabilities for fully human functioning, emphasising the fact that capabilities protect, and do not close off, spheres of human freedom.

Used to evaluate the lives of women who are struggling for equality in many different countries, developing and developed, the capabilities framework does not, I believe, look like an alien importation: it squares pretty well with demands women are already making in many global and national political contexts. It might therefore seem superfluous to put these items on a list: why not just let women decide what they will demand in each case? To answer that question, we should point out that the international development debate is already using a normative language. Where the capabilities approach has not caught on — as it has in the Human Development Reports of the UNDP — a much less adequate theoretical language still prevails, whether it is the language of preference-satisfaction or the language of economic growth. We need the capabilities approach as a humanly rich alternative to these inadequate theories of human development..

Let us now return to Vasanti and Jayamma, assessing their stories against the background of the capabilities list. The script of Vasanti’s life has been largely written by men on whom she has been dependent: her father, her husband, the brothers who helped her out when her marriage collapsed. This dependency put her at risk with respect to life and health, denied her the education that would have developed her powers of thought, and prevented her from thinking of herself as a person who has a plan of life to shape and choices to make. In the marriage itself she fared worst of all, losing her bodily integrity to domestic violence, her emotional equanimity to fear, and being cut off from meaningful forms of affiliation, familial, friendly, and civic. For these reasons, she did not really have the conception of herself as a free and dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others. We should note that mundane matters of property, employment and credit play a large role here: the fact that she held no property in her own name, no literacy and no employment-related skills, and no access to a loan except from male relatives, all this cemented her dependent status and kept her in an abusive relationship far longer than she would otherwise have chosen. We see here how closely all the capabilities are linked to one another, how the absence of one, bad in itself, also erodes others. Vasanti also had some good luck: she had no abusive in-laws to put up with, and she had brothers who were more than usually solicitous of her well-being. Thus she could and did leave the marriage without turning to any physically dangerous or ‘degrading’ occupation. But this good luck created new forms of dependency; Vasanti thus remained highly vulnerable, and lacking in confidence.

The SEWA loan changed this picture. Vasanti now had not only an income, but also independent control over her livelihood. Even when she still owed a lot of money, it was better to owe it to SEWA than to her brothers: being part of a mutually supportive community of women was crucially different, in respect of both practical reason and affiliation, from being a poor relation being given a handout. Her sense of her dignity increased as she paid off the loan and began saving. By the time I saw her, she had achieved considerable self-confidence and sense of worth; and her affiliations with other women, in both groups and personal friendships, were a new source of both pleasure and pride to her. Her participation in political life had also gone way up, as she joined in Kokila’s project to prod the police to investigate more cases of domestic violence. Interestingly, she now felt that she had the capacity to be a good person by giving to others, something that the narrow focus on survival had not permitted her to do.

Reflecting on her situation, we notice how little the public sector did for her, and how lucky she was that one of the best women’s NGOs in the world was right in her backyard. Government failed to ensure her an education; it failed to prosecute her husband for abuse, or to offer her shelter from that abuse, it failed to secure her equal property rights in her own family; it failed to offer her access to credit. Indeed, the only strong role government played in Vasanti’s life was negative, the cash payment for her husband’s vasectomy, which made her vulnerable position still more so.

Jayamma’s situation provides an interesting contrast. On the one hand, she had a much worse start in life than Vasanti, and has done worse throughout her life on some of the measures of capability. She has had to worry constantly about hunger, and she has at times suffered from malnutrition; she has engaged in extremely dangerous and taxing physical labour. She has had no supportive male relatives, and, though she has had children as Vasanti has not, they have been more of a liability than an asset. She has no savings, and has never had a loan; her property rights to the land on which she squats are unclearly established. She has suffered from discrimination in employment, with no chance of rectification. And she has had to do what countless women in developing countries routinely do, but Vasanti did not, that is to shoulder all the burden of running a household with children, while working a full day at a demanding job.


On the other hand, Jayamma has in some ways done better than Vasanti. Her health has been good, no doubt on account of her impressive physical strength and fitness, and she has never suffered physical abuse from her husband, who seems to have been a lot weaker than she was. She doesn’t seem to be intimidated by anyone, and she has a consciousness of political issues that Vasanti developed only recently. Unlike Vasanti, she has never been encouraged to be submissive, and she certainly isn’t; through the years she has fought effectively to keep her family together and to improve its standing.

Government has done much more for Jayamma than for Vasanti. The squatters on government land now have been given property rights in the land, although they will need to go to court to establish their claim clearly. Services provided by government are invaluable aids in Jayamma’s taxing day. Water now comes into the squat itself, and a government programme built her an indoor toilet. Government medical services are nearby, good, and available free of charge. Even though Jayamma did not take advantage of educational opportunities for her own children, her grandchildren have profited from government’s aggressiveness against traditions of non-education. Government certainly failed to eradicate sex discrimination in her place of employment. But in many respects the government of Kerala can be given good marks for promoting human capabilities.

The capabilities framework squares pretty well with the things these women are already thinking about, or start thinking about at some time in their lives. Insofar as it entails criticism of traditional culture, these women are already full of criticism; indeed, any framework that didn’t suggest criticism wouldn’t be adequate to capture what they want and aim for. In particular, the ideas of practical reason, control over environment, and non-humiliation seem especially salient in their thought, alongside more obvious considerations of nutrition, health, and freedom from violence. Even where the list doesn’t exactly echo their thoughts — as, for example, in the value it ascribes to education — it still seems to capture well, for normative political purposes, aspects of life that stand between these women and the general goals of independence, dignity, and mastery for which they are both intensely striving.

Women all over the world have lacked support for central human functions, and that lack of support is to some extent caused by their being women. But women, unlike rocks and trees, have the potential to become capable of these human functions, given sufficient nutrition, education and other support. That is why their unequal failure in capability is a problem of justice. It is up to all human beings to solve this problem. I claim that a cross-cultural conception of human capabilities gives us good guidance as we pursue this difficult task.

p. 1 p. 2 p. 3

Martha Nussbaum is Ernst Freund Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago