Rawls and capabilities: the current debate [draft]

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Virginia Tech

The capability approach to justice was con-ceived as an alternative to the Rawlsian scholar-ship that became dominant in moral and political philosophy at the end of the XX century. Among other issues, capability theorists have objected to Rawls’s identification of the currency of distribu-tive justice with primary goods and to the claim that the appropriate subject of distributive justice is the basic structure of society. As Ingrid Robeyns (2011) puts it, capability theorists argue that capability as a “metric of justice” does a better job than Rawlsian primary goods at capturing what human beings seek in a social distributive scheme. How-ever, the relation between the two sides of the debate is not one of stark opposition, but rather one of productive exchange: all work within the liberal political tradition, and in the last few years there has been considerable mutual understanding, co-operation, and a certain softening of the two sides’ original positions—pun intended.

This paper surveys the main arguments in the debate and evaluates recent (2003-2013) contributions to the literature that attempt to bridge the gap between justice as fairness and the capability approach.