A response to the MacIntyrical critique of my capabilities approach

Adam has graciously offered some criticism of my series on the capabilities approach. He raises some serious concerns, but I think he also overstates the differences between us. He contrasts my version of the capabilities approach with Alasdair MacIntyre’s ideal of fostering “independent practical reasoners”. Before I get to the disagreements though, I want to highlight how close we are. Adam says,

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.

Adam’s first complaint is that the capabilities approach fails to grapple with the implications of its own pluralism. The political philosopher Eric Nelson has made a similar critique. In trying to allow for individuals to choose from as wide a variety of lifestyles as possible, the capabilities approach embraces pluralism, but as Adam notes, “any one vision of pluralism precludes, at minimum, all visions of monism”. Adam goes on to accuse pluralists generally of glossing over this paradox. Well, I hereby acknowledge the paradox, and its doozy nature. I have no clever way out of it, except to point out that this affects all pluralist liberal paradigms, not just the capabilities approach. A capabilities approach à la Nussbaum is worse on the pluralism front than other forms of liberalism, as Ingrid Robeyns argues in an article explicitly trying to distinguish the core tenets of the capabilities approach from extraneous items added on by particular versions,

The fact that the capability approach has, at its very core, more to offer in terms of the theory of the good than in terms of the theory of the right has an important implication, namely that it is not very suitable for ethical issues that primarily concern the right. For example, the capability approach is not a very helpful theory in considerations on the morality of abortion since so much of that ethical debate is about issues of the right rather than about issues of the good. That is, most of the philosophical debates on the ethics of abortion concern the moral status of the fetus, notions of personhood, or questions about the autonomy and self-ownership of the pregnant woman — issues on which the capability approach remains mute [citations]. It is therefore not surprising that the capability approach is more useful and more widely used as a theory analyzing socio-economic policies where there is a consensus on those aspects that are questions about the right or where the questions about the right are much less weighty than those about the good. Examples include debates about poverty alleviation, distributive justice, and disability ethics.

So the capabilities approach can be tuned to taste along a pluralism spectrum. But I don’t think this really solves the problem; for any issue where someone claims there’s an overlapping consensus, I can find someone — usually not even obviously insane — who fervently dissents. And anyway this doesn’t get me out of the hot water because I am willing to affirm most of Nussbaum’s controversial list. This is all very consistent with another of Adam’s points: life is inevitably political. Pluralism is a value because humans are fallible and not all-wise. It’s therefore prudent to allow people (and peoples) wide latitude in choosing their own way. But sometimes life forces us to take a side. Speaking for myself and not for other capabilitarians or libertarians, I am willing to call myself a partisan for such issues as, say, a woman’s right to an abortion. And I will use capabilitarian rhetoric to make my case (partisan disagreements are bound to exist among capabilitarians too).

Adam is troubled by my example of a capabilitarian accommodation for the Amish choosing not to exercise the capability to vote:

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.

He presses the point that there can be no education or other political environment that can really accommodate the Amish. Any education not occurring within the social context of an Amish community under full Amish regulation will presume an alternative, non-Amish worldview and set of values. I agree, but I don’t understand how this is seen as a problem for the capabilities approach, which focuses so much energy on showing how the “social context” can be just as important as the formal legal rules of a society. No one, least of all a capabilitarian, is suggesting there is or should be a level playing field for alternative ways of life. I, and I’m guessing most capabilitarians, instead favor a society in which the individual has the option to choose ways of life different from what they were born into, even if exercising that option is difficult.

If this freedom (effective, rather than merely legal) to exit, as one might phrase it, means that the Amish way of life is doomed, then that’s just bad luck for the Amish way of life. The capabilities approach is unapologetically individualistic. While an individual surely has reason to value their affiliations and group identities, they shouldn’t be held hostage to those affiliations and groups. And if an individual while growing up is not taught to read, not granted wide access to uncensored information, not encouraged to be curious about that information, and effectively prevented from social contact with nonmembers of their group, then that individual effectively is a hostage.

The use of the Amish as an example is cute, because at least in my experience people have warm and fuzzy feelings about the Amish. And honestly I don’t know enough about the Amish to accuse them of violating my capabilitarian sensibilities. But consider replacing “the Amish” with whatever backward cult you may object to more feverishly, perhaps Christian Scientists who withhold modern medicine from their children or those Pakistani tribesmen who will kill their daughters for the sake of “family honor”. The point is that there must exist some limiting principles by which some social context an individual is raised in is deemed too restrictive to qualify as fertile for the “development of independent practical reasoners”. Honestly, I don’t see how MacIntyre’s project of developing such reasoning individuals can deny the existence of such disqualifying social contexts, even if the specification of limiting principles is left murky and subject to political contest. Finally, I also want to point out that the Amish are not a stagnant society; cultural evolution is at work in their midst as well.

So, in this sense, I essentially accept Adam’s criticism that the capabilities approach excludes certain lifestyles but I choose to own the implications. My capabilitarianism tries very hard to be as pluralistic as possible, accepts that “true neutrality” is impossible except maybe in Dungeons & Dragons, and yes, constrains the set of lifestyles effectively on offer to those that might be chosen by fully informed and intelligent human beings.

Adam is right that the capabilities approach is an incomplete theory. Unsurprisingly, Deirdre McCloskey makes a similar argument in her review (pdf) of Nussbaum’s Frontiers of Justice. All the virtues are necessary for a flourishing society full of flourishing individuals.

As Smith said in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), the invisible hand will not produce humans if we start where Mandeville starts, with selfish prudence only. Oddly, an older view is reinstated. The wider our list of virtues for flourishing — that is, the wider our list of capabilities — the stronger is the Nussbaum Lemma [that one cannot extract justice from initial conditions that do not already include justice in some form] — that is, the more and more implausible does it become that some ‘immensely simple theory’ (as Bernard Williams, 1985, put it) will turn out to give a human society. In other words, the civic republican notion that the way to have a good society is to make a bunch of good people — which seems very naive in the light of invisible hand liberalism — turns out to be much more plausible than we liberals thought.

But this is a strange criticism of the capabilities approach. McCloskey says Nussbaum’s capabilities approach is, instead of the Prudence-only of Rawls and friends, “Prudence, Justice, and a bit of Love.” So clearly capabilitarians have added something worthwhile. And if we haven’t grokked the full picture, it’s because we haven’t gone far enough in adding the virtues to a Prudence-only skeleton. But fully engaging virtue theory within a political theory will only narrow down the eligible set of lifestyles we can pursue. If I have already thrown the Amish under the buggy, pulling in more virtues into the theory will just be backing up and trampling the Amish under hoof and wheel all over again. This is because my liberal worldview is a product of my ethical commitments — that is, my understanding of the virtues. This is surely controversial and requires a detailed defense, but I will leave that to another day.

There is one final source of confusion for me in Adam’s critique. He says,

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.

But I concluded my series with this very theme. The considerations of a thoughtful libertarian, while not able to dispel the inevitability of politics, should nonetheless rein in the earnest capabilitarian from assuming the machinery of state is always the proper weapon against any given injustice or failure to flourish (this includes persuading the Amish of their alleged shortcomings). I suggested that this implies most of the work to build flourishing human beings must be done “within the murk and mire of the social context, where we talk with one another, and raise consciousness about failures of justice.” So, I guess I’m trying to end this response on a conciliatory note. I find very little theoretical structure that Adam and I disagree about; I am just more aggressively liberal in the values I would persuade the world to adopt.

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