Thursday, May 18, 2006

Are Sen's "capabilities" the same as Raz and George's "perfections"?

Virtue ethics generally views virtue as a deep-down habit or disposition to do the right thing. It is a concord between reason and the emotions, and it does the right thing for the right reason, and contributes, as much as internal decisions can, to a flourishing human life. But external conditions can help us to become virtuous---a good teacher, wise parents, and a healthy moral ecology are all important. A virtue is thus a capacity to engage in the good life, and is both a prerequisite and a component of individual and civic flourishing. The community is engaged in the project of making its members virtuous, and its members then build a strong community. (See, e.g. this previous post.)

It is no surprise then, to find that Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum's description of the central human capabilities are quite similar to John Finnis's list of the human goods in his virtue-ethics classic Natural Law and Natural Rights. And, similarly, "perfectionism"---spelled out by Joseph Raz, Robert George, and other natural law theorists, and reflecting the belief that society has a role to play in making men moral so that they can actualize their own goods---leads to a doctrine similar to the capability approach, of creating an environment that helps individuals develop the tools they need to flourish.

The question, then: is perfectionism more inherently liberal than many natural lawyers would claim (Raz's contention), or is capability theory more sternly objectivist? Googling shows that this question has already been asked, regrettably but unsurprisingly. For example, see Perfectionism, Paternalism, and Liberalism in Sen and Nussbaums's Capability Approach, 14 Rev. Pol. Econ. 497, Severine Deneulin, for an attack on Sen from this latter point of view. Of course, I agree with the paper's minor premise, I just disagree with the conclusions...


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