Political Perfectionism Revisited: The Capability Approach

by thewedewer

Note: these are some very tentative musings on political perfectionism. I’m trying to develop an argument in favor of the “capability approach”, an approach

In an earlier post, I expressed some misgivings about the origins of the Western political tradition, which are firmly tethered to works of the political perfectionists, Aristotle and Plato. I expressed that I was very wary of the paternalism expressed in both Politics and the Republic. After a week of reflection and an intense schedule of reading and research, I’ve come to the conclusion that that the Western political tradition has been too quick to discard the pre-modern focus on the good life. I was led down a number of research traps, trying to comprehend the Rawlsian critique of teological conceptions of justice, before I realized that I firmly believe that the good must come before the right. This is rooted in an inclination I possess, one that leads me to believe that there are universal needs that are shared by all of humanity. While I shudder to use the term “human nature”, which contains too much historical baggage, there is ample evidence that suggests that there are some goods that have inherent value because they allow for a much fuller expression of humanity. Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum defined this particular conception of the good to be the “capability approach”. To Sen and Nussbaum, the capabilities and boundaries of human nature are shaped by the distribution of material and political goods. The fact that these goods shape the boundaries of human nature serves as the justification for distributing these goods.

I’m drawn to the “capability approach” because I believe that is a human account of justice, one that cuts sharply against both the transcendental ethics of Kant and the radically situated, and therefore dehumanizing, ethics of utilitarianism. Furthermore, the “capability approach” avoids metaphysics in favor of a empiricism that avoids the calculation errors of utilitarian logic. For far too long, political theory has avoided the empirical insights of the social science, insights that demonstrate that there are institutional changes that increase human flourishing and human happiness. By avoiding these insights, political theorists have avoided grappling with the implications of the deep desire for economic development in the global South, a desire that demonstrates the primacy of material concerns, a primacy that must be re-stated in an era where liberalism has triumphed.

Again, these are some very tentative thoughts designed to crystalize my reasoning. I’m not sure where I’m headed with this.