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Episode 35: Martha Nussbaum discusses the capabilities approach

This month, we speak with Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago. You can listen to our conversation here.

What do we mean when we talk about nations being more or less developed? Is it simply a matter of being financially better-off? If not, then what would be a better measure of how well a country is doing?

In recent years, an increasingly influential group of philosophers, economists, and development professionals have been arguing that the best measure of development is not GDP per capita or average household income, but “capabilities”. Central to this approach is the idea that human well-being cannot be represented on a single scale, but consists in a range of different physical, rational, emotional, political and spiritual capabilities that need to be understood as irreducible components of a good human life. According to these theorists, if a nation’s average household income goes up at the same time as female participation in the political process goes down, there is an important sense in which that nation is becoming less rather than more developed.

In this podcast, Martha Nussbaum discusses the difference between the various ways in which a person may be said to possess (or not to possess) a given capability, gives her list of the ten most central human capabilities, and responds to some potential criticisms of that list. She also draws upon the work done by her colleague Amartya Sen to give examples of how the capabilities approach applies to the history of development in India, and offers her thoughts on the question of what kind of policy priorities the capabilities approach might be used to recommend.

Mark Hopwood

Posted in Podcast.

4 Responses

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  1. rinky says

    looking forward to listening to this, but itunes is currently giving an error (URL could not be found on the server) when I try to download…

  2. Jeff says

    Great to hear Mark back on the show!

  3. Mark Balaz says

    Having an undergrad background in Econ, I thought highly of this topic. It was always a sticky issue when we “held all other thing equal” and then analyzed one aspect or variable. In the real world this is a tough issue to rationalize at times. The relationships between variable is usually far more complex than our assumptions profess. This can pigeonhole our attitudes and assumptions regarding these complex variables. This is why economics can sometimes go in circles (as I can imagine philosophy going now and again like it has for the last few thousand years). This makes these topics never become boring.

    I would like to interject the ideas of Maslow and his Heirarchy of Needs. This foretold of people not being “happy,” ” fulfilled,” and the Luke when certain worldly, mental, or physical “needs” are not met. These ideas could have insights to how people define happiness or satisfaction.
    On top of this is the whole ability vs. intent paradigm. I will be quiet vs. I can be quiet. I can succeed vs. I will succeed. What if you will something you can never do? The Buddhist would say you will suffer because you are acting too selfish…

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