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May 22, 2017 | by  | in Philosoraptor |
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Philosoraptor

What does it mean to possess true freedom? Although we traditionally believe that freedom consists in protection from direct restrictions on our actions, some philosophers believe that this conception does not adequately capture what we mean by “freedom.”

Elizabeth Anderson provides an illuminating example: consider two alternative societies, one that lacks traffic lights and traffic regulations (call this Society A) and one that has them (Society B). In Society A, there are no legal restrictions on my freedom to drive as I wish, so in the traditional sense I am completely free; but at the same time, all of the roads are clogged with traffic jams, such that I can barely drive anywhere. In Society B, despite the fact that the government interferes with me coercively by banning me from driving through red lights, I can more easily drive wherever I want. The traditional definition of freedom would suggest that I am more free in Society A; but it seems that in the truly important sense of freedom, the sense that I would actually care about, I am more free in Society B.

This notion of freedom as consisting in “what we can actually do” has been deeply explored in philosophy. In particular, it forms the basis for the Capabilities Approach, a theory created and developed by the philosopher/economist Amartya Sen and the philosopher Martha Nussbaum. The approach seeks to offer a comprehensive method of measuring individual and social well being. It argues that we should evaluate people’s welfare by their “capabilities” — their actual ability to pursue their goals and projects. A person’s capabilities depend on a wide variety of factors: their social and political freedoms, their economic well being (it’s difficult to pursue your goals if you’re living in crippling poverty), their health, and so forth. The Capabilities Approach thus offers a very holistic picture of the well being of societies and individuals.

Sen and Nussbaum believe that their theory is superior in many ways to other theories of social well being and regulation: for example, utilitarian theories which state that we ought to maximise total happiness, or libertarian theories which claim that the state should never interfere in people’s lives. They emphasise two advantages in particular. The first is that their theory is value-pluralistic — since it imposes no restrictions on what people’s goals should be, it does not privilege any particular lifestyle over any other, and is committed to the liberal values of tolerance and diversity. In this sense it is superior to utilitarianism, which reduces everything to happiness and may not care about lives which are unhappy but contain many other valuable elements. The second is that it strikes a balance between caring about individual rights and caring about actual outcomes. In this sense it is superior to libertarianism, which cares only about rights; the Capabilities Approach is more permissive, for example, towards redistribution which radically improves the lives of the worst off.

Philosophical discussions are often confined to academia, and it is rare that a philosophical idea has a profound impact on the real world. The Capabilities Approach is one of those rare instances. Sen and Nussbaum’s work has influenced policy makers, development economists, and many other social scientists around the world: for example, Sen’s writings on capabilities strongly influenced the development of the UN’s Human Development Index, a measure of a country’s well being which aims to rival traditional, solely financial measures like GDP or GNP.

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