3.2. The Capability Approach
There is a plurality of competing theories of justice. The capability approach (CA) competes with Rawlsian approaches within the field of justice. For the purpose of this article, it must be sufficient to compare both approaches. These and other underlying ethical approaches are not neutral with respect to institutionalization.
CA comes in two variants, given in the many writings of A. Sen and M. Nussbaum [16
]. CA is appealing from the moral point of view since it is universalistic and it takes humans as practical beings longing for a good life. It provides some moral ideas about a life worthy of the human being, a concept of development as freedom and a system of moral entitlements in terms of capabilities. CA has a clear position with regard to scope (universalism), pattern (sufficientarism) and currency (capabilities) of justice. All persons should reach sufficiently high standards of all crucial capabilities. If this is not the case, injustice occurs. CA allows differentiating the ethical notion of the good into (a) a general anthropological, and (b) a specific cultural dimension. This distinction sheds new philosophical light upon the relationship between the (axiological) “good” and the (moral) “right”. Under the CA, the general human good is prior to the moral right, while the moral right is prior to the cultural good of specific lifestyles. (This idea emerged from discussions with Lieske Voget-Kleschin. The basic idea is hers.) CA has a hard universalistic (“essentialist”) core, while leaving much room for cultural interpretation, discourse and personal freedom. CA commits states to social policies which may improve and strengthen the capabilities of all individuals with some focus on disadvantaged groups. Capabilities are entitlements which support political right-claims. “Capability, not actual functioning, should be the goal of public policy” [21
]. For these and other reasons, CA has attracted many scholars (Robeyns) and influenced high-level political declarations within the UN system. Even within the ethics of sustainability, CA is currently the most prominent approach. (The theory of strong sustainability also made use of the CA with respect to an absolute inter- and intragenerational standard of justice [22
].) At a second glance, however, it seems fair to mention the following problems of CA. (The following critical comments rely on Pogge’s important article [23
Within CA, injustice occurs if not all persons can realize all their capabilities up to a given threshold. The famous list of ten capabilities as presented by Nussbaum [24
] does, as such, not determine any specific threshold up to which any human being is entitled to realize the capability at stake. To Nussbaum, however, the list is already “an account of the second threshold” [21
]. (The first threshold is about a life that counts as human, while the second threshold determines a good life. I only deal with the second threshold.). Indeed, there are some axiological attributes in the list, as “a human life of normal length,” “good health,” “adequate shelter,” and the like. Nonetheless, such attributes do not determine any threshold. As Sen argues, Nussbaum’s list implies only “minimal rights against deprivation” [25
]. The conceptual way from a mere list to a robust system of thresholds is thorny and, with some likeliness, will be essentially contested on cultural, political, and economic grounds. Nussbaum concedes the necessitation for interpretation and refinement. But if such thresholds were to be determined completely on cultural and political grounds, CA would collapse back into culturalistic ethics. It seems fair to say that CA has a threshold problem.
The notion of capability is a dispositional one, sometimes defined as “effective opportunities” [26
]. “Capable” roughly means “actually being able to perform a course of action (which one has reason to value).” Capabilities are both freedoms and potencies. Furthermore, capabilities can be perceived either as “the power to do something” [27
] or as a conjunction of internal dispositions and external circumstances or resources [28
]. If so, one has to distinguish between internal and so-called combined capabilities. Entitlements can refer to both kinds of capabilities.
Capabilities have a good of their own and must be separated from other abilities, as the ability of cheating or mere physical strength. This distinction between valuable capabilities and abilities rests on moral suppositions. We furthermore must distinguish this evaluative notion of capability from its additional qualifiers (“actual,” “real,” “effective”). The qualifiers oppose mere formal freedom, as given in legal rights, and wish to focus on “real” (“actual”, “substantive”) freedom instead. The combination of the notion of capabilities and qualifiers implies the concept of “real” freedom. If one adopts the idea of “real” freedom, one can always ask: “How real is real enough?” If the qualifiers are to be determined by thresholds, and if there are no thresholds within the CA yet, the qualifiers tend to become political rhetorical devices with respect to policies of empowerment. All in all, capabilities serve as indicators for the extent of the (real) freedom a person has. What must be sustained in the first instance, therefore, is human freedom [29
]. Institutionalization of sustainability does not refer to natural resources in the first instance but to institutions as human rights, democratic life and social systems of education, health care and public infrastructure.
Capabilities cannot be observed directly. Only human behavior can be observed directly; the capability set of a human individual must be supposed and indirectly assessed. The crucial “object” being the final goal of justice, is invisible. If so, there is an invisible disposition at the heart of a theory of justice which is surrounded by a multitude of influential factors and circumstances to be assessed by social sciences. The societal surrounding that constitutes and shapes capabilities includes natural, cultural, economic, familiar, psychological factors. The specific force of these bundles of factors upon an individual’s capability set is hard to determine and will remain, in part, speculative since individuals are never fully transparent to others (and not even to themselves).
The stylized non-dynamic model of a person’s capability set that Robeyns [30
] proposed in the line of Sen’s ideas, has been clearly influenced by economic schemes. One faces an economic production function with (a) resource-input, (b) the “black box” of the internal capability set and (c) the output of doings and beings (functionings). Resources (inputs) are converted by capabilities into doings and beings (outputs). Conversion is performed differently by different individuals. The performance of how to convert is intrinsically determined by the invisible capability set and by many circumstances. Sen points out that CA allows taking into account “the parametric variability in the relation between the means, on the one hand, and the actual opportunities, on the other” [25
]. This parametric relation might be useful for explanations within social sciences, but the ethical and distributive implications of the conversion problem remain unclear. Should resource inputs increase if individuals convert badly and should inputs be shortened if individuals perform efficiently?
CA is highly “idio-logic” in the sense that the real capabilities of specific individuals are to be assessed. Individuals as such count in CA. Therefore, CA moves between (folk) psychology and single stylized narratives which shall serve as paradigm examples. No one might seriously oppose the claim that disabled people need wheelchairs while healthy people do not. However, there are far more contingencies in individual lives, such as caring in early childhood, good fortune in schooling or features of family life. In any case, CA must immerse in the contingencies and randomness of single biographies in different natural and cultural settings. With respect to future individuals, the constituencies and shapings of capabilities remain largely speculative. Since capabilities are formed and shaped in quite early stages in child development, such as trust in oneself, CA is closer to psychology than to environmentalism.
CA sharply opposes resourcism. It implies a “fundamental shift” from means to actual opportunities [31
]. To CA, natural resources are mere means and of instrumental value with respect to the currency of justice, namely capabilities. Sen opposes “resource fetishism” which occurs if resources are addressed without clear reference to capabilities. In some sense, it is true that within a broadly anthropocentric concept of sustainability there is value in nature only if humans are benefitted by some welfare effects of nature. CA, however, shifts the burden of proof to nature conservation if conservation (preservation, restoration) is justified only as long as a clear contribution to capabilities can be demonstrated. Otherwise, the criticism against resource fetishism applies. Even if one takes a closer look at the capability to live with concern for a world of nature (Nussbaum) [16
], it remains unclear how much nature is required to perform this capability up to the threshold of justice. To CA, the intra- and intergenerational distribution of natural resources must be assessed with respect to (unobservable) capability sets and unspecific thresholds. What are species and wild places good for in terms of capabilities? How do marine biodiversity or restoration activities affect capabilities? The relationship between natural resources and capabilities remains open in many cases. The attempts to re-integrate environmentalism and nature conservation into a CA-based theory of sustainability have been, so far, of limited success (The idea of conceiving basic ecological conditions such as “meta-capabilities” [32
] is rather unconvincing.). It might suffice for CA to bequeath only critical natural capital to future generations.
With respect to institutionalization, the direct moral and political concern for human capabilities implies an agenda of how to organize, design and arrange different (“emancipatory”) policies of empowerment. Such policies of empowerment of capabilities refer primarily to poor or impoverished societal strata whose members may live below some threshold levels. In the international arena, CA is primarily concerned with nourishment, shelter, medical care, participation in social life, gender equity, care for the elderly and the like. Such organized policies of empowerment may be widened to capabilities such as cooking, gardening, fixing things, playing music, performing physical exercise, a relearning of playful activities, and even enjoying leisure. Such policies to empower people in terms of capabilities must be implemented, administered, and financed. This agenda of empowerment to be institutionalized is a vast field on its own. (Liberals may reject it as a pathway into a leftist super-welfare and nanny state. To liberals, the rhetoric of emancipatory empowerment might correspond to the sober realities of soft dependency and subtle coercion within large welfare systems. I leave this kind of criticism aside.) If CA is to be taken seriously, such an agenda deserves some priority over resource-oriented agendas of FP because direct concerns of justice are overriding indirect concerns. I do not oppose such policies of empowerment, but I wonder about the relationship between such policies and an FP agenda in a non-ideal world of scarce moral resources and limited moral attentiveness.
To sum up briefly: CA, by its intrinsic logic, will focus on the topics of poverty reduction and, in Nussbaum’s variant [33
], animal ethics in the overall cluster of sustainability ethics, while a resourcist FP seems a secondary and derivative concern at best and “resource fetishism” at worst. The focus is clearly on social and welfare-state policies. There is no conceptual relation between CA and strong sustainability.
3.3. The Rawlsian Approach
The Rawlsian construction of the original position gives a theoretical device which allows one to regard principles as just, if they might have been adopted freely (and with knowledge about alternative sets of principles) in such an original position (“veil of ignorance”) [34
]. Rawls’s theory focuses on the basic structure of society seen as a scheme of cooperation which requires the fulfillment of some functional values (coordination, efficiency, cohesion). The theory is centered on single states and not on international relations, though it can be broadened beyond states [35
]. Under the veil of ignorance that covers any social position, free, detached, envy-free and reasonable persons would adopt (a) a principle of personal freedom which constitutes a system of liberty rights including political rights, (b) a principle of fair equality of opportunities to reach attractive positions in a given society, (c) a principle of solidarity with the least advantaged group (within a system of cooperation) (“principle of difference”) and (d) a principle of intergenerational fairness. The first three principles are ranked lexicographically, while the fourth principle serves as a constraint over the principle of difference [36
]. These four principles are constitutive elements of a just basic structure of a given society. While the first three principles go back to the tradition of the French revolution (liberté, egalité, fraternité
), the fourth principle has been often overlooked in its significance for a comprehensive Rawlsian theory of justice and for an ethics of sustainability. (Since the theory of justice is only one field within the overall realm of practical reasoning, there are many other sources of moral action beyond the field of justice.) To Rawls, this fourth principle has something to do with fair savings and investments by which future generations are benefitted. The problem of a fair saving rate should not be subject to altruistic preferences of grandmothers to their grandchildren but should be part of the basic structure of a just society. Natural inclinations to bequeath goods to one’s descendants must be overcome in a theory of justice.
§ 44 [37
] within the “Theory of Justice”, however, entails several flaws that have their root cause in a confusion about “timing.” This confusion can be resolved [38
] without modeling persons behind the veil as being representatives of family lines, as Rawls [39
] did. Another problem lies in the concept of real capital, which is supposed in the precept of an intergenerational fair saving schedule. On the one hand, Rawls defines the notion of real capital so broadly as to include natural capital, while on the other hand he focuses on monetary savings and investments in manmade capital. Although Rawls sometimes mentions environmental pollution, he does not address the role of nature within intergenerational fairness. Thus, natural capital is not mentioned by Rawls but, in a sympathetic reading, would fall under his notion of real capital. Most environmental economists would agree that natural capital is a type of real capital that provides (ecological) services by which humans are being benefitted in many ways. Since some scientifically based general knowledge remains intact behind the veil of ignorance, general ecological knowledge must or may be supposed in the original position. Reasonable people behind the veil of ignorance may know that nature provides several types of services, such as provisioning, regulating, and cultural services, but do not know what role such services of nature may play in their individual concept of the good. If so, they cautiously might opt for more conservation and restoration since they, as real individuals, may be benefitted highly by the cultural values of nature (such as beauty or recreation). Under this interpretation, one can conceive the fourth principle as an overall fair intertemporal bequest package. Such a concept directly turns into the (clearly resourcist) FP question:
“What to sustain?” Citizens and policy-makers are confronted with this question within a fair basic structure of society. Even if the persons in the original position had some broad insights into the reliance of human systems upon nature and knew about ecosystem services, this knowledge would remain too unspecific to answer the question “What to sustain?” This question cannot be resolved behind the veil of ignorance anymore (The fourth principle does not imply any answer to the political question how the relationship between private and public bequests should be determined in a given society and which system of property rights may best serve the idea of sustainability.).