How Are We to Live? A Critique of the Capabilities Approach

Paul has written a truly formidable series on the relationship between the capabilities approach and libertarianism, and what the two communities can learn from each other. Fellow Sweet Talker Sam Hammond has rightfully called it “a true tour de force,” elsewhere proclaiming that Paul may as well have written a whole new section of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

There is a lot to like about Paul’s series, but you’re not here to read a post kissing his ass, nor would that be useful to him. But you ought to give these a read:

  1. What the capabilities approach is
  2. Why the absolutist bullet-biting libertarian arguments are wrong
  3. What libertarians can learn from the capabilities approach
  4. The genuine insights of libertarianism that the capabilities community can learn from

My critique will be two-fold: first, the capabilities approach cannot give us an answer to Socrates’ crucial question “how are we to live?” Second, in attempting to side-step this question, its proponents cripple their ability to take the political implications of their theory seriously—just like most explicitly libertarian theories.

A bit of cowardly hedging: I am no expert on the capabilities approach. I have not read either Sen or Nussbaum on it. I have listened to an interview with Nussbaum, which was the entirety of my prior exposure. Sweet Talk is a place of conversation—you must imagine that Paul and the rest of us have been sitting around and talking, and Paul has gotten fired up about capabilities and just finishing a long diatribe about it. Within the context of that conversation, this will be my response.

Independent Practical Reasoners

Alasdair MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals takes a point of view that I think a High Liberal (as Paul calls them) enamored with the capabilities approach would be largely sympathetic to. MacIntyre is probably the most famous proponents of virtue ethics, especially outside of the community of academic philosophers. And yet in Dependent Rational Animals he is highly critical of ancient and medieval philosophers’ attempt to do away with luck and vulnerability through their ethics. This is significant, as for a great deal of its history the main point of virtue ethics was precisely the degree to which it abolished moral luck from the equation. They were, quite frankly, a little obsessed.

MacIntyre’s ideal of becoming an independent practical reasoner seems. to my non-expert eyes, to map fairly closely to the capabilities ideal of “effective agency.” But—and I admit here I may simply be misreading Paul—I think MacIntyre grapples with the paternalistic implications of dependency better than the capabilities community.

Consider the following:

What is or would be good or best for me is something on which, apart from the fact that generally and characteristically I know more about myself than others do, I may in many and crucial respects be no more of an authority than some others and in some respects a good deal less of an authority than some others. My physician, or my trainer, if I am an athlete, or my teacher, if I am a student, may well be better placed to make judgments about my good than I am. And so on occasion may my friends. About both goods in general and our own good in particular we have to learn from others, if we are to be able to judge truly for ourselves, and the others whom we first encounter as teachers are such persons as parents, aunts, nurses, and the like. What each of us has to do, in order to develop our powers as independent reasoners, and so to flourish qua members of our species, is to make the transition from accepting what we are taught by those earliest teachers to making our own independent judgments about goods, judgments that we are able to justify rationally to ourselves and to others as furnishing us with good reasons for acting in this way rather than that.

This closely parallels fellow virtue ethicist Julia Annas’ notion of moving beyond mimicking the practical reasoning of our mentors and making that skill our own.

MacIntyre begins to describe this process:

It begins from our infant condition as human animals, dependent as the infant dolphin or the infant gorilla are dependent. It is completed when and insofar as we emerge as independent practical reasoners.

The process has three dimensions.

The first salient aspect of this transition, as I noted earlier, is that it is a movement from merely having reasons to being able to evaluate our reasons as good or bad reasons and by so doing to change our reasons for acting and in consequence our actions.

The second “involves the transformation of the child’s desires and passions.”

To have learned how to stand back in some measure from our present desires, so as to be able to evaluate them, is a necessary condition for engaging in sound reasoning about our reasons for action. Here one danger is that those who have failed to become sufficiently detached from their own immediate desires, for whom desire for their and the good has not become to a sufficient degree overriding, are unlikely to recognize this fact about themselves.  And so what they present to themselves as a desire for their own good or for  the good may in fact be and often enough is some unacknowledged form of infantile desire, a type of desire that has been protected from evaluative criticism. Hence in deliberating they both reason from unsound premises and act from badly flawed motivation. Sound practical reasoning and good motivation are related in sometimes complex ways, but an incapacity to distance oneself from one’s desires is a danger to both.

The third is the “movement from awareness only of the present to awareness informed by an imagined future.” As Deirdre McCloskey would put it, this is when we begin to nourish the virtue of hope. MacIntyre’s comments on the contingencies involved here are quite illuminating:

How we structure our understanding of the future depends in part of course on the established uses of clocks, calendars, and modes of scheduling of the culture in which we find ourselves. But as a practical reasoner I have to be able to imagine different possible futures for me, to imagine myself moving forward from the starting point of the present in different directions. For different or alternative futures present me with different and alternative sets of goods to be achieved, with different possible modes of flourishing. And it is important that I should be able to envisage both nearer and more distant futures and to attach probabilities, even if only in a rough and ready way, to the future results of acting in one way rather than another. For this both knowledge and imagination are necessary.

As mentioned above, MacIntyre not only acknowledges that we rely on others who have a better sense of our own good throughout the process of becoming independent practical reasoners, he makes this dependency aspect quite central to his philosophy. Moreover—this is crucial—this dependency does not truly go away once we become independent practical reasoners. We still have to consult people like physicians, for instance.

The difference is that we have learned to ask the physicians for reasons and have taken on the responsibility for evaluating those reasons ourselves. This is why the prudent practical reasoner often gets a second opinion for important and risky medical decisions, for instance. An imprudent person, of course, simply looks for the doctor who tells them what they want to hear. But the prudent person who embraces what it means to be an independent practical reasoner will seek another, more informed perspective to see if there is any flaw in the initial doctor’s reasoning which we, as non-experts, have missed.

Again, the way dependency intertwines our lives with others is emphasized:

The history of any self making this transition is of course not only a history of that particular self, but also a history of those particular others whose presence or absence, intervention or lack of intervention, are of crucial importance in determining how far the transition is successfully completed. And those others enter into that history in two different ways. They provide first of all the resources for making the transition, by nursing, feeding, clothing, nurturing, teaching, restraining, and advising. What resources an individual needs varies with circumstances, temperament, and above all the obstacles and difficulties that have to be confronted. We need others to help us avoid encountering and falling victim to disabling conditions, but when, often inescapably, we do fall victim, either temporarily or permanently, to such conditions as those of blindness, deafness, crippling injury, debilitating  disease, or psychological disorder, we need others to sustain us, to help us in obtaining needed, often scarce, resources, to help us discover what new ways forward there may be, and to stand in our place from time to time, doing on our behalf what we cannot do for ourselves.

However, the telos of becoming independent practical reasoners, in the sense of deciding for oneself, is still the target:

The father, in order to be able to discharge his responsibilities to his wife and children, had had to abandon aspirations for a career as—no matter what, something that involved long and arduous training, but a later prospect of great riches, power, and glory. He now projects his phantasies concerning the career that he might have had on to one of his children. He allows his passionate wish that that child should become what he could not become to blind him to his child’s need to become independent. And that child, already exercising her or his powers as an independent practical reasoner, has identified excellent reasons for not pursuing such a career. The father demands that she or he do so, invoking parental authority to legitimate threats of economic and other sanctions. The mother treats this refusal to obey the father as disgraceful. And there have been—indeed are—many cultures in which the established rules confer on the parents just the kind of authority that would justify this father and this mother in their attitudes.

If the child, however, were to do what her or his parents demand, she or he would fail in two closely related ways. She or he would show her or himself to be defective in the virtues of independent practical reasoning. And she or he would make a serious mistake about what they in fact owe to others, the kind of giving which according to the rules of giving and receiving is the counterpart to what she or he has received.

So far, so good. We don’t just want people to decide for themselves, we want them to become truly capable of deciding for themselves. And developing that capability requires an acknowledgement of their dependency on others, both during the process of that development, and afterwards. This sure sounds a lot like the “effective agency” of the capabilities approach. So what’s the problem?

How Are We to Live?

The capabilities approach is entirely parasitic on liberal assumptions. The idea that we should protect the option to lead as wide a variety of lifestyles, and make as wide a variety of choices, as possible, is the heart of a philosophy of pluralism. But despite the name, no version of pluralism is neutral. Any one vision of pluralism precludes, at minimum, all visions of monism—something MacIntyre himself emphasizes. This is something that avowed pluralists, such as those espousing the capabilities approach, often gloss over. See Paul:

The distinction between functionings and capabilities is frequently emphasized. Functionings are not required in the capabilities approach in most cases. So voting, or being able to participate in the decision-making processes of a community, is a capability, but the actual functioning of this capability is not required: anarchists, the Amish, neoreactionaries, and other skeptics of democracy are free to refrain. Likewise, one can fast and, engage voluntarily in dangerous behavior, and seek assisted suicide, thereby forsaking the capabilities to lead healthful lives free from unreasonable danger to a full term. This distinction between functionings and capabilities preserves agency for the individual, the power to achieve change in one’s life based on one’s own goals and values, another key aim of the capabilities approach.

The problem is that “one’s own goals and values” are not formed in a vacuum, but within the context of the communities we have lived and grown in, and have subsequently filled a large space in the specific histories of our individual lives. You don’t just wake up one day and decide to be Amish—that is, for almost in entirety, completely at odds with the reality of what it means to be Amish. The Amish are born Amish. They are raised with a certain set of values. They receive a specific kind of education, which is the result of a compromise that the Amish had to fight a hard political battle to get.

This brings us to the direct conflict between MacIntyre’s position and the capabilities approach. Back to Paul again:

Preserving effective agency, meanwhile, also explains the few exceptions that might be found for prioritizing capabilities over functionings. For example, a child’s desire to exercise their capability to remain ignorant and stay home from school will cut no ice with a capabilitarian. The functioning of getting a basic education overrides the choice to remain uneducated because the child doesn’t have enough information, experience, or perspective to act with meaningful or effective agency. Perhaps more controversially, a woman in a severely patriarchal society may believe she chooses her life of raising children in the home and socializing only under the guidance of male relatives, but a capabilitarian will view this evaluation with skepticism on account of the woman’s lack of perspective and other feasible options. Such skepticism would not, however, be warranted for an educated woman who chose this life amidst a society where various other life possibilities were clearly and effectively available.

Bold added by me.

This is where the parasitic relationship between the capabilities approach and garden variety liberalism becomes clear. There is no such thing as a neutral education that we can provide in a neutral society where a range of options are present, and living in a patriarchal community such as the Amish is merely one among many. That is not how it works. The very education that Paul is speaking of and Nussbaum definitely advocates pushes for people to value some of those options more highly than others. This is unavoidable. Your typical liberal (note the word) arts education, K-12 and higher, encourages a specific worldview which inculcates particular values. Part of those values in this country, for example, takes the form of the American democratic religion, something I’m quite fond of.

But the idea that education encourages effective agency, or is the most important piece of developing our ability to become independent practical reasoners, seems, frankly, like an enormous joke. Education as I remember it was nearly all about conformity. It was the biggest component of that life-directional conveyor belt that is supposed to carry you into adulthood. In terms of becoming independent practical reasoners, a good school does help children acquire mastery over their language as well as a basic grasp of math and how to make structured arguments. Perhaps (if they’re very lucky) it even gives them a sense of how to conduct research in something like a scholarly way.

But the most important episodes in which we begin to make the skill of practical reasoning are own are, in my experience, almost entirely in those moments where circumstances places us outside of the scope of the conveyor belt. When you have to make hard choices for which there is no clear right answer, no grades, no structured exam. Modern education is designed for the most part to insulate us from such circumstances, and for that reason I think it largely does us all a great disservice.

But that’s a subject for another day (though on this matter see, for example, our own David Duke).

The point is, as MacIntyre emphasizes, there is an ineradicable tension between the innate dependency and vulnerability of human life, and the goal of developing independent practical reasoners. Navigating this tension requires a substantive point of view of what a good, flourishing human life is. This does not mean that there is only one path or one form of such a life, but our vision must nevertheless be more complete than what is implied by the capabilities approach and by formulations of liberal neutrality generally. As MacIntyre put it in After Virtue:

In any society where government does not express or represent the moral community of the citizens, but is instead a set of institutional arrangements for imposing a bureaucratized unity on a society which lacks genuine moral consensus, the nature of political obligation becomes systematically unclear.

As it happens, I am a pluralist myself, but I think that any formulation of pluralism must address MacIntyre’s critique rather than pretending it does not exist. I do not think the capabilities approach has done this—though I invite Paul to point me to arguments made by Sen or Nussbaum (or anyone else in the tradition) which demonstrate otherwise.

In his list of libertarian insights that the capabilities community can learn from, Paul expresses his horror at Nussbaum’s casual acceptance of the value of compulsory youth service. On top of the benefit of “getting a lot of this work done by energetic young people at relatively low cost” (showing an utter lack of understanding of opportunity costs) she praises the practice because:

Young people, both men and women, would learn what this work is like, how important it is, and how difficult; this experience could be expected to shape their attitudes in political debates and in family life. They would also see different parts of the country, different social classes, and one another — something that the abolition of the military draft has made very rare in the experience of most Americans.

In other words, it’s great because it satisfies the High Liberal desire to expose citizens to many points of view. Don’t get me wrong, I think broadening perspectives is important—notice that it is crucial for steps two and three of MacIntyre’s development process. I am even less horrified by the idea of two to three years of compulsory service, in the style of the Swiss or Norwegians, than Paul is. I have seen several cases of young men of my generation, finding it hard to get motivated and harder to find good options in the job market, turning to the military to help them find their way. I myself considered this option, in a moment of deep doubt about the choices I had made in my life. My incurable libertarian mind-virus, however, forces me to emphasize the difference between one who chooses a military life and one who is forced into it.

The point is not that we should or should not emulate the Swiss here. The point is that this question is political, in the very sense that Will Wilkinson speaks of the political.

When you assume this stance and take the rules that govern ordinary life as the starting point of philosophy, the sense in which everything is political becomes clearer. By political I mean contested, negotiated, and normatively binding. Coercion is a limiting case of rule enforcement and not the essence of the political, in this sense.

But, as Paul emphasizes, there is coercion. That is certainly part, though contra libertarians not necessarily the most important part, of the political. But as Will argues, libertarians often skirt the question of how they participate in politics, including their participation in the use of coercion. Libertarians think of politics as “distorting.”

[W]hat would undo the distortion, according to libertarians? Interestingly, the only answer is politics. Libertarian think tanks advise emendations to current public policy. These changes can only be implemented through the political system. Even to recommend them is a fundamentally political act. Free Staters coordinate to take over the state politics of New Hampshire. The seasteaders and champions of startup cities are directly involved in the very complicated geopolitical realities of founding new city-states. Founding a new sovereign or semi-sovereign polis is, of course, politics par excellence.

The capabilities approach seems to me nothing more than an attempt to gauge the extent to which High Liberal goals have been achieved. Perhaps this isn’t fair, but in the formulation that Paul provided, I don’t see how it could be anything else. I admire Paul’s attempt to temper the paternalism of the approach with insights from libertarianism, and to use the approach to shed light on the failings of certain libertarian arguments. But I think all of this does not go far enough.

It does not get to the question of which capabilities we are supposed to care about, something left to background assumptions rather than argument. The version of the capabilities approach that Paul presented us with precludes the Amish. It just does. If one must start by standing outside of the Amish, with a neutral education in a neutral society in which being Amish is merely one of many things we are capable of, you will in practice get a liberal education in a liberal society in which the Amish are at worst a bunch of reactionary lunatics, at best noble savages. To expand the capabilities approach to all is simply to abolish the effective option of anyone being Amish, as well as other long tail lifestyles that don’t conform to High Liberalism.

I have not read Nussbaum on this subject, but my perception of her is that she has a fairly naive vision of how politics works. Paul suggests that she and others in her school of thought could learn from public choice economics. Russ Roberts, while no expert in public choice, nevertheless is a former GMU professor who is at least moderately well read in it. I found the conversation between Roberts and Nussbaum on the subject of politics to be completely pathetic, well beneath the intellectual standards of the two great minds involved. Roberts had the worst of a complete parametric view of politics, in which no matter who is elected, appointed, or involved, you always get a certain outcome. Nussbaum, on the other hand, just seemed to have some wishy-washy version of the romantic story of democracy—we’re all in this together folks, if we all work at it we’ll get better, and so on. They talked past each other and it was, as I said, pathetic.

To take well-being and the goal of developing independent practical reasoners, in a dangerous world where goodness itself is fragile and people are vulnerable, is to take politics seriously. To take politics seriously is to reject reductionist and formalist pictures of politics, except in so far as they are used as thought experiments within a more hermeneutic vision. That is, a vision that focuses on persuasion and rhetoric and ethics.

Remember that feminism and the civil rights movement and India’s independence movement all achieved their victories through persuasion and ethical commitment. If Deirdre McCloskey is right, persuasion and ethics are the whole story behind our present enrichment, and therefore the only reason we can talk about having taxpayer-funded welfare at all in any meaningful sense.

I do not think that the capabilities approach, in my limited understanding of it, deals with its political implications in a satisfactory manner. From what I have seen, it seems to have smuggled in most of its premises at the outset; it seems perfectly designed to arrive at High Liberal conclusions.

But perhaps I have misread Paul’s fantastic summary of the matter. I invite him and anyone else to point out what I have missed, how the capabilities approach might be compatible with MacIntyre’s vision of independent practical reasoners. Keeping in mind that—in my reading—MacIntyre sees the Amish way of life as it actually exists as entirely legitimate.

Previous Posts in This Thread

One thought on “How Are We to Live? A Critique of the Capabilities Approach

  1. Pingback: Theoretical Approaches to the Human Rights of Marginalized and Excluded Individuals or Groups – Part II: A Short Critique of the Capabilities Approach | Rethinking Disability

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.