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.

Continue reading “How Are We to Live? A Critique of the Capabilities Approach”


Nussbaum Reaches out to Psychology, Finds Only Philosophy

I highly enjoy Martha Nussbaum’s “Who is the Happy Warrior? Philosophy Poses Questions to Psychology” but Pamela believes that Nussbaum is not fair to the psychologists she mentions. It’s been a month or two since I first read the paper, so I decided to reread it with Pamela’s critique in mind.

Nussbaum certainly presents a good, nuanced picture of the various theories of happiness and satisfaction in philosophy. What she does not do is really engage with psychology, even with the two psychologists—Seligman and Kahneman—on whom she focuses her criticism.

I am convinced by the paper that Nussbaum knows what she’s talking about when it comes to the philosophy of this area. Indeed, I would be concerned if she did not. What I did not come away with is the sense that she had really familiarized herself with the positions of any psychologists. It’s quite possible that she has—but I don’t think she quotes more than three words of Kahneman in the whole paper, and even Seligman, who she treats in greater length, she does not deal with in more than paraphrase.

The contrast with the philosophers, with whom she is obviously quite familiar, is stark. Even Rousseau’s Emile, which she only mentions in passing, she manages to communicate the sense that she is quite familiar with the work and could explain it in depth if called to.

The greatest sin that Deirdre McCloskey calls out in Knowledge and Persuasion in Economics is the failure to even credibly attempt to understand what someone is criticizing. Unfortunately, “Who is the Happy Warrior” seems more like an opportunity Nussbaum took to restate what she had already said elsewhere, rather than an opportunity to engage seriously with points of view within another discipline.

Staking out a position is an important part of starting a conversation, but so is listening.

Is Philosophy Necessary for the Good Life?

Like many of my fellow Sweet Talkers, I’ve got an interest in philosophy, and especially ethics. But as interested as I’ve found it to be, the more I read, the more I have this nagging question:

Is philosophy necessary for a good and virtuous life? If so, then must we write off all of humanity as incapable of achieving the good life, save for the tiny sliver of those that engage in philosophy (never mind getting particular about which philosophy). If not, then what is the purpose of a philosophy of morality in the first place?

In the preface to Fragility of Goodness, Martha Nussbaum writes:

Like Socrates, I think that modern democracies need philosophy, if they are to realize their potential. And they not only need Socratic inquiry and self-examination, they also need engagement with complex ethical theories, prominently including theories of social justice.

If democracy’s potential requires the median voter to have “engagement with complex ethical theories”, then democracy is doomed to never fulfill its potential. Forgive me if that is excessively cynical.

But if philosophy and complex ethical theories are not to play the role that Nussbaum envisions, what role are they to play, if any?