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Amartya Sen's Capabilities Approach

Updated on October 24, 2009

In Development as Freedom, economist Amartya Sen advances his “capabilities approach” to international development. Sen classifies a capability as a type of freedom that enables one to choose a lifestyle one wants to live. Sen also suggests that freedom is both the end and the means to development (p. 75). Thus, the objective in international development, for Sen, is to expand the freedom of people, and the way to obtain this freedom is to remove restrictions on freedoms that limit one’s ability to make free choices. Thus, Sen places a premium on freedom, and it is through freedom that the capabilities approach is grounded. In his defence of freedom as the overriding principle of development, Sen dismisses other principles of valuation, such as happiness. Here I will argue that freedom is not the one “good thing” that people value. Instead, I take the utilitarian argument of advancing happiness as the highest good. While this short essay does not put forward an alternative approach to international development, I do hope to demonstrate the weakness of the capabilities approach by discrediting freedom as the ultimate good.

Before proceeding to argue that happiness is more valuable than freedom as the one good thing, let us first briefly discuss Sen’s capabilities approach and then hear his arguments in support of freedom. Sen offers a rich conception of development that goes well beyond considerations of material wealth. He notes that GNP ought not to be the sole (nor even the main) indicator of development. Rather, Sen presents development as a process of expanding freedoms people have reason to value. Some of the freedoms people have reason to value include economic freedom, access to education and healthcare, and access to political and civil rights. In Sen’s view, these are the best indicators of development. Involved in the expansion of freedoms is a limiting of the sources of “unfreedoms.” Sources of unfreedoms include lack of access to healthcare, clean water, sanitation, political and civil rights, and lack of gender equality and adequate income. According to Sen, these are the primary factors that limit freedom. Hence, we see that the capabilities approach is very broad in scope and measure, and takes into consideration a variety of factors necessary for development.

None of this seems controversial thus far. It is difficult to see how things such as lack of access to political and civil rights could not result in lack of freedom. However, we are not interested in arguing that people do not value the freedom of having access to these things, or that Sen has failed to identify the primary sources of unfreedoms; we simply want to argue that freedom is not the ultimate good that people desire. So, why does Sen think freedom is the good that people value most?

It may be that Sen is basing his argument for freedom on arguments originally propounded by Aristotle many centuries ago. Aristotle thought there was a purpose to everything. For instance, he argued that people have a natural purpose and ought to strive to fulfill their purpose. The purpose of humankind is found in that particular quality which separates us from other species of beings, mainly, reason. Thus, in Aristotle’s view, we are fulfilling our purpose (i.e., doing what we were all meant to do), when we pursue rational goals and activities. From this, Aristotle concluded that the life of contemplation was the most rational and the best fulfillment of our purpose as human beings (p. 177).

Sen’s approach is similar to Aristotle’s in that Sen thinks people should pursue goals they have reason to value. Goals that people have reason to value include the pursuit of education, financial stability, and an increase in civil and political rights, to name just a few. Sen considers these activities reasonable because people naturally desire freedom, and these activities best produce freedom. Thus, it seems that Sen’s view is that freedom is the ultimate good because it is the best way to fulfill our nature as rational beings. This fulfillment of our nature would also appear to be the basis for the capabilities approach. I will try again later to strengthen this connection between the view of Aristotle and Sen; until then, we will try to determine what Sen’s specific reasons are for valuing freedom as the ultimate good.

Ordinarily, we think of freedom as something that is extrinsically valuable. That is, we do not usually think of valuing freedom for its own sake. Rather, we seem to value freedom because of what we are able to gain by it. For example, we may desire political freedoms in order to express our will. Or, we may want freedom from poverty in order to achieve the quality of life we desire. Here, the “in order to” signifies that we are seeking freedom for some other purpose than to simply have freedom for its own sake. By valuing freedom as only extrinsically worthy, we place freedom as a secondary type of good (goods that are intrinsically valuable being primary goods). However, this is not Sen’s view on the value of freedom. Sen argues that freedom is both extrinsically valuable and intrinsically valuable, and I am inclined to agree. I will try to illustrate this point with the following example.

Sally has recently moved from a remote rural community to a large bustling city. Sally is impressed with the many activities and events that take place in this new city. In Sally’s old community she had very few opportunities to attend social functions and other recreational activities. Now, Sally feels a sense of comfort in her new ability to take part in the many activities and events at her doorstep. However, Sally really is not planning on partaking in any of these events, she is simply comforted by the fact that if she wanted to partake in the activities, she could, whereas before, while living in her remote community, she did not have the option of taking part in any events. Thus, here we have an example of a person valuing freedom for its own sake. It is clear that Sally is not valuing her newfound freedom in order to fulfill some end (e.g., to attend social events); rather she is valuing freedom for its own sake. Thus, freedom does appear to have intrinsic value.

This example is helpful in demonstrating how freedom can be seen as more than merely extrinsically valuable, however, it does not establish that freedom is the ultimate end for which we aim. So, we must look further to see Sen’s argument for freedom as the ultimate good if we are to accept his capabilities approach toward development. Let us now see the argument in favour of freedom.

Sen argues, “…that freedom is not only the basis of the evaluation of success and failure, but it is also a principal determinant of individual initiative and social effectiveness. Greater freedoms enhance the ability of people to help themselves and also to influence the world….” (p. 18). Thus, it is obvious from this that Sen places a great deal of importance on freedom, but what reason has Sen given us to accept these claims? For example, do we really believe that freedom is the basis for evaluating success and failure? It would seem that success and failure are often gauged by things such as economic stability, having a fulfilling career, maintaining positive relationships and a happy and healthy lifestyle, and so on. These factors seem to me to be the more obvious candidates for standards of measurement of success and failure than freedom.

It is reasonable to think that greater freedoms do in fact enhance people’s ability to be effective and influential. After all, the more freedom one has to explore a multitude of options, the more opportunities one can create for oneself. For example, those who have the financial freedom to obtain a university degree have increased their opportunity to qualify for higher paying job, and, as a result, increase their potential for a more influential career than those who do not obtain a university degree. But this does not establish the fact that freedom is the principal determinant of individual initiative and social effectiveness. Perhaps we could just as easily think that high self-esteem and a strong sense of self-worth enhance the ability of people to help themselves and to contribute to the world. We have not been provided with good reasons to think that freedom is the main factor in producing individual initiative and social effectiveness.

However, if we want to be as effective as possible in our criticism of Sen’s position on freedom, we must go beyond these minor points we have just raised. We must propose an alternative to freedom as the ultimate good. I would argue that happiness is a better candidate for the ultimate good. Freedom is less valuable than happiness because freedom is a means to happiness. That is not to say that freedom is not valuable for its own sake (we have already demonstrated above that freedom can be taken as both intrinsically and extrinsically valuable). However, it is important to note that happiness is not something we value as a means to anything else. In other words, not only is happiness valuable in itself, but more than this, we never value happiness in order to gain something better than happiness. If it is true that happiness is never sought in order to achieve some higher end, happiness must either be the highest good possible, or at least one of the highest goods. And we know that freedom cannot count as one of the highest goods because it is a means to something greater (i.e., happiness). Therefore, happiness must be more valuable than freedom.

While discussing approaches to development, Sen directly criticizes the utilitarian doctrine of happiness, and in his critique, he reveals his ties to the Aristotelian doctrine we discussed earlier. Sen argues:

To insist that there should be only one homogeneous magnitude that we value is to reduce drastically the range of our evaluative reasoning. It is not, for example, to the credit of classical utilitarianism that it values only pleasure, without taking any direct interest in freedom, rights, creativity or actual living conditions. To insist on the mechanical comfort of having just one homogeneous “good thing” would be to deny our humanity as reasoning creatures (p. 77).

Here, Sen is clearly against any approach to development that focuses on one primary good. He suggests that valuing just one good thing does not adequately express our nature as rational creatures. Rather, he argues that an approach to development should include an analysis of many different aspects of life, because reason demands this. In his reliance on reason, Sen has exposed his ties to Aristotelianism. But, Aristotelianism values only one good thing (a life of contemplation) rather than a multitude of things. So, why think that reason demands valuing more than just one good thing when considering approaches to development?

Sen seems to think that valuing one good thing in the evaluation of development is limiting for us, therefore, we must consider multiple factors. This is so, Sen argues, because when we value just one good thing, we ignore other important factors we ought to consider, such as rights, actual living conditions, etc. But, I would argue that valuing happiness does not amount to valuing just one thing. When we value happiness, we end up valuing all the things that contribute to happiness. For instance, when we pursue happiness as our end goal, we also, at the same time, inevitably pursue other freedoms like access to education and employment. In our pursuit of happiness, we are not ignoring important freedoms; it is these very freedoms like access to education and employment that help us achieve happiness. So, it should be clear that to value happiness as the ultimate good is not to ignore other important goods such as freedom. Therefore, to value one homogeneous magnitude such as happiness is not limiting as an approach to development because happiness inherently takes in to consideration other important factors such as the various freedoms Sen mentions.

So what does all this amount to? What I want to point out is that if we are to establish a base for an approach to development, we should establish as a base, the ultimate good (i.e., happiness), not a secondary good (i.e., freedom). Sen has endorsed his capabilities approach so that a person can have the freedom to live a life he or she has reason to value. But the life we value most is a happy life. We want freedoms like access to education, healthcare, civil and political rights, in order to be happy. Thus freedom cannot be considered more valuable than happiness if we desire freedom in order to be happy. Therefore, if we want the best approach to development, we ought not to ground it in something that is not the ultimate end. But this is precisely what Sen has done with his capabilities approach.

While we may not have firmly established a better approach to development than the capabilities approach, we have demonstrated that freedom, which is central to the capabilities approach, may not be the ultimate good that people strive for. With that in mind, we have reason to doubt whether an approach that places such a premium on freedom really is the best indicator of development. It seems more reasonable to think that the ultimate good ought to be the primary factor that should be considered as the main indicator of development. But a more complete argument that establishes this point will have to wait for another day.


Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom, (New York: Anchor Books, 2000)

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. by W. D. Ross, (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1995).


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      7 years ago

      While the author raises a number of interesting points, I think that any proponent of Utilitarianism need only turn to the works of dystopian fiction of the 20th century: are the subjugated masses depicted in novels such as Huxley's "Brave New World" and Zamyatin's "We" not, on the surface at least, entirely happy with their lot? The point of the novels is to show what happens when freedom of choice and expression is sacrificed for pre-ordained notions of happiness, and the books serve to warn us not to grow complacent as civil liberties are sacrificed for for security and material gain

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      7 years ago

      full time chawlia by author

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      Syeda nasrin, Bangladesh 

      7 years ago

      I do support prof Sen than Trevor. Sen has very rightly adopted the capability approach. But freedom as an ends and means of human ultimate goal is not so much rightly used. Human development mostly includes the consistent development of all peson. It includes evrey individual's consistently developed life and sometime it demands and needs more than consistent. Moreover, Trevor probably mistakenly emphasised on the human happiness which is vague and usually confers no duty on others.

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      Erica B. 

      7 years ago

      I think the author tries to raise some interesting points but he misses Sen's and I also think thje author fails to fully understand Utilatarianism and the idea of evaluating a society based on one homogenous magnitude such as total happiness. Sen argues not against happiness, but agains the utalitarian approach because it posits that we should focus on total happiness of society and should seek to maximize it independent of whose happiness and to what degree is contributing to the total sum...ignoring gaps and means. And while yes, we should try to seek and maximize everyone's happiness it cannot be done in a way that conceptually allows for increasing the misery of some as long and the general outcome is positive.

      Also... and this is a personal thought, you cannot at any point try to make happiness more or less valuable than the means that allow you to achieve it. They are two separate things.... happiness is an internal state, freedom is a means, and a principal one, by which we may achieve that state.

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      Ved Prakash 

      8 years ago

      I feel very sorry for the writer that he has tried to unnecessarily create confusion in the mind of the reader.I hope he did not understand the true Sen theory. Capability approach directed towards the freedom is nothing but achieving the same happiness which writer is talking about.Its a mere change of word and unnecessarily showing happiness as the universal set, where as Sen's approach of freedom is a synonyms of happiness. The conventional approach of unidirectional interpretation of development in terms of economic indicators like PCI etc was given a broader and more realistic face by the capability approach. One must agree to feeling of not being deprived either socially or economically or politically etc is the ultimate development of an individual which decides the position of the highest location of Social welfare function.

      The writer needs to understand the theory again with happiness being interchanged for freedom.

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      8 years ago

      ifully agree with sen man should be free to live his life the way he values....

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      strongly agree with amartya sen

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      8 years ago

      I agree with Jamie.

      Further, happiness indexes exist for countries, but happiness to subjective; how is "happiness" defined, and by whom?

      The satisfaction with life index, used to measure happiness, does so by measuring health, wealth and access to basic education. Two of these are supported by Sen's approach. Unless you are arguing for a different definition of happiness (which, again, is defined by whom and does it represent all?), then Sen's work seems to be a more detailed and focused measurement of the happiness index.

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      8 years ago

      This essay misses the point. Sen in 'Development as Freedom' is proposing a realistic approach to development not arguing that freedom is the ultimate value.

      If one took a happiness-based approach to development then the unhappy diva in NY who can't afford her 5th Gucci bag would score lower on our development index than the average woman in Senegal.


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