Human Capabilities and Collectivist Justice


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Virginia Tech


The capability approach to justice, made popular by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, has been a stalwart of the human development literature for the last 30 years, and its core ideals underwrite the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals. This dissertation offers a new version of the approach, rejecting many of its ideological commitments to liberal-democratic humanism and replacing them with more distinctly collectivist and communitarian ones. It contends that the capability approach, when used as a theoretical framework for global development, need not contain almost any ethical normativity with regard to a definition of justice, and indeed it is much more functional when it endorses a moderate ethical relativism. The argument proceeds in four steps. First, it shows that all existing versions of the capability approach are ideologically committed to a specific kind of liberal humanism, which its proponents consider universalist but that is actually quite provincial. Second, it argues that collectivist critiques from prominent capability theorists in the last decade have been misunderstood and their recommendations unheeded, a fact that this dissertation attempts to rectify. Third, it offers a properly collectivist account of group capabilities and group self-determination, which can do all the normative work that individual capabilities and agency perform in the approach's original versions. Finally, it introduces the notion of public objective capabilities, which justifies a higher deference to collective self-determination at the expense of some individual freedom and equitable participation in democratic polity. The overall goal of this new collectivist version of the approach is not to reject the worth of capability as a metric of global justice, but rather to reinforce it. A collectivist capabilitarianism shows that capability is so well suited to global development work that it can function across diverse political realities, without the ideological constraints of a liberal humanism that is widely accepted in the Global North but whose cross-cultural appeal has been far overstated by its proponents.



capability, justice, collectivism, individualism, liberalism, development