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Title: Can Sen's and Nussbaum's capabilities approach be justified as an approach to social justice?
Author: Chen, X.
Awarding Body: University of Cambridge
Current Institution: University of Cambridge
Date of Award: 2011
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My thesis offers an internal critique of Sen’s and Nussbaum’s versions of the capabilities approach (CA hereafter) as an approach to social justice. First, I examine the justifications that Sen and Nussbaum provide for their approaches to justice. I argue that neither Sen nor Nussbaum succeeds in providing a successful justification. Their approaches fail to make a good case for certain departures from or kinship with Rawls’ theory. Their justificatory strategies rely on some deficient conception of public reason (or lack thereof). Second, I try to defend a conception of public reason that can provide reasoned justification, which does not assume unjustified boundaries. I examine two dominant models of public reason (i.e., the political liberal model and deliberative model) in contemporary political philosophy and argue that neither can provide reasoned justification for CA. They either assume a very restricted conception of public or fail to give any account of reason-giving. Instead, I argue that a version of Kant’s conception of public reason – which requires that principles that cannot be universalised must be rejected – has the potential to reach the public in the world at large and sets requirements on what counts as reasoned. As such, it may be suitable to provide a reasoned justification for CA that aspires to a cosmopolitan scope. Third, I argue that although Kant’s conception of public reason has only thin modal requirement, it can have substantive implications for social justice. The modal requirement states that a justifiable approach to justice must reject principles that can destroy normative agency – understood as the capacity to choose and pursue a conception of worthwhile life – because they cannot be principles for all. Then, I sketch a vulnerability approach to social justice, which is anchored in protection of normative agency. Finally, I argue that a focus on vulnerabilities tells us more sharply about what social justice requires than Sen’s and Nussbaum’s versions of CA do. The latter suffer from fatal problems and are not adequate approaches to social justice. By contrast, my vulnerabilities approach under the constraints of Kant’s conception of public reason can avoid these problems. It also retains the most important insight of CA (i.e. its focus on the real possibilities for human action) and redirects CA’s philosophical focus on issues of basic justice that Sen vigorously argues for from the very beginning. I conclude that Sen’s and Nussbaum’s versions of CA contain unjustifiable claims of social justice and that my vulnerability approach is a more defensible version of CA.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available