Friday, April 12, 2019

Capabilities, Freedom and Severe Poverty

Appearing in Thom Brooks (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Global Justice. Oxford University Press, 2019


Severe poverty is a key challenge for theorists of global justice. Most theorists have approached this issue primarily by developing accounts for understanding which kinds of duties have relevance and how responsibilities for tackling severe poverty might be assigned to agents, whether individuals, nations or states. All such views share a commitment to ending severe poverty as a wrongful deprivation with profoundly negative impact on affected individuals.

While much attention has prioritised identifying reasons for others to provide relief, this chapter will examine the nature of the wrongful deprivation that characterises severe poverty. One influential view is championed by Martha Nussbaum in her distinctive capabilities approach. An individual might be considered to experience severe poverty where she is unable to enjoy the use of her capabilities which should be available to her. But this position raises several questions. Take the fact that about 1 billion people are unable to meet their basic needs today. Would the capabilities approach claim the number is much higher given its wider grasp of human flourishing beyond mere material subsistence – and what implications would flow from this? Or would the capabilities approach claim only a portion of those unable to meet their basic needs are in a wrongful state because their circumstances are a result of free choice – and what would this mean? These questions indicate a potential concern about whether the approach is over- or under-inclusive and why.

This chapter will proceed by first providing a general overview of Nussbaum’s capabilities approach providing an indication about how her list of ten capabilities might be reformulated differently. The next section applies this approach to severe poverty in a critical discussion of how such poverty is best understood within the capabilities framework. The penultimate section considers the importance of freedom and choice that underpins the approach and its implications for how we apply it to severe poverty. The chapter ends with some concluding remarks about the broad limitations for understanding severe poverty as a kind of capabilities deprivation.


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