The capability approach is one of the most recent additions to the landscape of normative theories in ethics and political philosophy. Yet in its present stage of development, the capability approach is not a full-blown normative theory, in contrast to utilitarianism, deontological theories, virtue ethics, or pragmatism. As I will argue in this chapter, at present the core of the capability approach is an account of value, which together with some other (more minor) normative commitments adds up to a general normative framework that can be further developed in a range of more specific and detailed normative theories. The aim of this chapter is both to describe the capability approach, as it has been developed so far, as well as briefly exploring how a capabilitarian ethical theory could look like if we were to develop it in full. So what is the capability approach? In its most general description, the capability approach is a flexible and multi-purpose normative framework, rather than a precise theory of well-being, freedom. At its core are two normative claims: first, that the freedom to achieve well-being is of central moral importance, and second, that freedom to achieve well-being is to be understood in terms of people’s valuable capabilities, that is, their real opportunities to do and be what they have reason to value. This framework can be used for a range of evaluative exercises, including most prominent the following: (1) the assessment of individual well-being; (2) the evaluation and assessment of social arrangements, including assessments of social and distributive justice; and (3) the design of policies and proposals about social change in society, which is at the core of social ethics. In all these normative endeavors, the capability approach prioritizes (a selection of) peoples’ beings and doings and their opportunities to realize those beings and doings, for example their genuine opportunities to be educated, their ability to move around or to enjoy supportive social relationships. This stands in contrast to normative frameworks which endorse other accounts of value, like mental states or which focus on instrumental values (e.g. resources).

Erasmus School of Philosophy

Robeyns, I. (2012). Capability ethics. Retrieved from