University of Tasmania

File(s) under permanent embargo

A practical reasoning theory of development ethics: Furthering the capabilities approach

journal contribution
posted on 2023-05-19, 17:15 authored by Alkire, S, Rufus BlackRufus Black

Thoughtful discussions of the value judgements employed in the course of designing development, such as those exemplified in Nussbaum and Glover's volume Women Culture and Development, are rapidly proliferating, such that even the World Bank's president asserted 'that the World Bank's central mission is to meld economic assistance with spiritual, ethical, and moral development' (World Bank, 1996: 1). In light of the need to apply development ethics more widely and satisfactorily it is necessary to consider what Glover (Nussbaum and Glover, 1995: 135) referred to as the first agenda item of a research programme for development ethics: rendering a 'more precise account' of the values and principles employed in the making of development decisions. This paper sets out certain constructive suggestions in response to Nussbaum's article on human capabilities.While this paper is theoretical, our concerns arise out of, and our suggestions have been refracted through, practical considerations, and we offer them in the hope that the capabilities approach may become more readily operational in the field.

If economic assistance is to consider issues of distribution, of interpersonal variation in needs, of values and of the 'inherently multidimensional' shape of human well-being, it requires a non-utilitarian decision-making framework. The most powerful theoretical alternative to economic growth as an objective of development is to be found in Amartya Sen's capabilities approach. This approach challenges utilitarianism by describing the objective of economic development as 'the promotion and expansion of valuable capabilities' (Sen, 1990) and the aim of justice as equality in the space of capabilities. These 'capabilities' are the positive freedom to achieve valuable 'functionings' which range from basic functionings such as being nourished or having shelter to higher level functionings involving friendships, self-respect, and meaningful work.

Sen's capability approach is deliberately incomplete and requires specification (a further valuation exercise) before it can be operationalized (Nussbaum and Sen, 1993: 48-49). Martha Nussbaum has sought to elaborate such a specification in light of criticisms that Sen's account results in an unwieldy incompleteness (Sugden, 1993, Williams in Nussbaum and Sen, 1993, Desai, 1990) - while leaving room for local and plural specifications - by applying her significant work on Aristotle's ethical and political theory to the capabilities approach. Sen, she claims, "needs to be more radical than he has been so far in his criticism of the utilitarian accounts of well-being, by introducing an objective normative account of human functioning and by describing a procedure of objective evaluation by which functionings can be assessed for their contribution to the good human life" (1988: 176). Her article, 'Human Capabilities, Female Human Beings', in Women, Culture and Development, explains how her account of human functioning could form the centrepiece of a workable development ethic.

In furthering this important and urgent undertaking, we shall draw Nussbaum's article into discussion with the work of John Finnis, Germain Grisez and their collaborators. This group has over the past 20 years produced a highly comprehensive and refined modern Aristotelian form of ethics (1980, 1983, Grisez et al., 1987) and applied it to issues of law (1981), war (1987), government (1994) and social concerns (Grisez, forthcoming). The theory has a carefully articulated account of valuable, but in themselves premoral, human 'functionings'. It is based on an exercise of practical reason which yields a substantive, objective description of dimensions of human flourishing while preserving a need for historical, cultural, and personal specification. The theory goes beyond Nussbaum's by developing an account of procedural (moral) principles for translating a normative account of human flourishing into particular, locally appropriate proposals for action, and lays the groundwork for an account of the formation and value of a community's common commitments, be these moral or 'immoral'.

The reason for the initiating this discussion is that Finnis' broadly parallel ethical system is able to circumnavigate the central diffculty of Nussbaum's analysis, namely the perception that her normative conception completes Sen's approach too much: that it overspecifies a conception of the good life (Hurley, O'Neill in Nussbaum and Glover, 1995: 107, Qizilbash, 1996) and forges too inflexible an account of political obligation. In Benhabib's words "I think that the step that leads from a formulation of the 'thick vague conception of a human being' to 'the task of politics in relation to the thick, vague conception' is illicit" (Nussbaum, 1995: 254). She and many other contributors to Women Culture and Development urged a greater focus on procedure: either by the development of Nussbaum's principles of practical reason and affiliation or by the adoption of a form of Kantianism (O'Neill), pragmatism (Alcoff and Putnam), or dialogical universalism (Benhabib). Benhabib effectively points out the central problem when she observes, "What I find lacking in the Aristotelian account of human capabilities is the space, both in theory and in practice, which allows one's understanding of the 'human condition' in Aristotelian terms to be translated into actively generated moral insight on the part of human actors" (Nussbaum and Glover, 1995: 255). In contrast Finnis' approach structurally separates the identification of basic premoral reasons for action which are shared by all persons, from the principles for their ethical pursuit. This offers a promising model of the way normative and procedural approaches might be bridged, and how further questions of justice, community, and culture may be addressed.

An engagement between Finnis' and Nussbaum's ethical accounts can usefully focus on three issues: (a) the generation and content of a set of 'basic human functional capabilities' (Sections 1 and 2 below), (b) the need for a fuller description of the historically, institutionally and culturally embodied nature of `basic human functional capabilities' (Section 3), and (c) the grounding and nature of the moral obligation to further human flourishing (Section 4).


Publication title

Journal of International Development








Vice-Chancellor's Office


John Wiley & Sons Ltd

Place of publication

United Kingdom

Rights statement

Copyright 1997 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Repository Status

  • Restricted

Socio-economic Objectives

Social ethics

Usage metrics

    University Of Tasmania


    Ref. manager