Creating Capabilities: Normative Issues: Which Capabilities? Whose Capabilities?

This panel was recorded April 23, 2010 as part of the conference "Creating Capabilities," held at the University of Chicago Law School and organized by James Heckman, Martha Nussbaum and Robert Pollak.

Human beings have many capabilities, including genetic predispositions, acquired skills, and personality, and preference traits.  Different social institutions permit or inhibit the expression and development of these traits.  We cannot avoid posing normative questions from the very start of this inquiry.   One operating assumption maintained in much of the literature on the Human Development Approach is that the goal of society is (a) to produce people capable of leading fruitful lives, and (b) to produce citizens capable of sustaining the political life of a pluralistic democracy. We will not, however, hew faithfully to what has been interpreted by some as a Western vision of the Good Life.  Political freedom, and even Piagetian openness to experience, may not be a welcome value for all groups, even in Western pluralistic societies.  We will consider competing points of view about what constitutes the Good Life.  This normative discussion will set the stage for the orientation of the rest of the discussion.

This session will also address crucial questions about equality of capabilities.  Should the goal of society be understood as that of producing complete equality in all relevant capabilities (a goal sometimes wrongly imputed to Sen, e.g., by Ronald Dworkin)? An ample threshold level of capability (as defended in Nussbaum)?  A substantial increase in the level of the capabilities of the most disadvantaged groups (as suggested by John Rawls's work, and to some extent in the work of Heckman)?  Will development of capabilities foster greater economic, social, and political inequality?  In what dimensions?

  • Chair: Martha Nussbaum
  • Harry Brighouse 
  • Joshua Cohen
Participating faculty: 
Martha C. Nussbaum