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On Economic Inequality$

Amartya Sen

Print publication date: 1973

Print ISBN-13: 9780198281931

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2003

DOI: 10.1093/0198281935.001.0001

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A.7.2 Functionings and Capabilities

A.7.2 Functionings and Capabilities

On Economic Inequality
Oxford University Press

The critique in Sen (1980) of welfarism and utilitarianism, on the one hand, and of the Rawlsian approach, on the other, was coupled with arguments for using an alternative informational perspective: the space of ‘functionings’, the various things a person may value doing (or being). The valued functionings may vary from such elementary ones as being adequately nourished and being free from avoidable disease, to very complex activities or personal states, such as being able to take part in the life of the community and having self‐respect.133

The focus of this ‘capability approach’ could be either on the (p.200) realized functionings (what a person is actually able to do) or on the set of alternatives she has (her real opportunities). A simple representation may be helpful. If the extent of each functioning enjoyed by a person can be represented by a real number, then a person's actual achievement is given by a functioning vector in an n‐dimensional space of n functionings (presuming finiteness of distinct functionings).134 The set of alternative functioning vectors available to her for choice is called her capability set. Diagram A7.1 illustrates a two‐dimensional functioning space, with the capability set of a person being given by the shaded region K, and from this capability set, the person chooses one functioning vector x (though this need not necessarily be unique). It may be useful to think of choice in this space in terms of an indifference map of valued living, defined over the functioning vectors, and x can then be seen as belonging to the highest reachable indifference curve (as shown).135

The ‘capability approach’ can be used either with a focus on what options a person has—given by the capability set—or by the actual functioning combination she chooses—given by the chosen functioning vector. In the former procedure, what may be called the ‘options application’, the focus can be on the entire set K, whereas in the latter—the ‘choice application’—the concentration is more narrowly on x. The options application is directly concerned with the freedom to choose over various (p.201) alternatives, whereas the choice application is involved with the results actually chosen. Both the versions of the capability approach have been used in the literature, and sometimes they have been combined.136

A.7.2 Functionings and Capabilities

Diagram A7.1

How distant are the two applications? They do share a common ‘space’—that of functionings—in contrast with, say, the utility space, or the space of Rawlsian ‘primary goods’. But they can make quite different uses of this shared space. How significant is the contrast? Much would depend on the nature of the valuation procedure used, in the options application, to assess the value of the ‘capability set’. A well‐established tradition in economics suggests that the real value of a set of (p.202) options lies in the best use that can be made of them, and—given maximizing behaviour and the absence of uncertainty—the use that is actually made. The valuation of the opportunity, then, lies in the value of one element of it (to wit, the best option or the actually chosen option); this approach is called ‘elementary evaluation’ of the capability set.137 In this case, the focusing on chosen functioning vector coincides with concentration on the capability set. With this type of elementary evaluation, the two uses of the capability approach share not only the identification of a relevant space (that of functionings), but also the ‘focal variable’ in that space (the chosen functioning vector).138

On the other hand, the options application can be used in other ways as well, since the value of a set need not invariably be identified with the value of the best—or the chosen—element of it. Importance can also be attached to having opportunities that are not taken up. This is a natural direction to go if the process through which outcomes are generated is of a significance of its own. Indeed, ‘choosing’ itself can be seen as a valuable functioning, and having an x when there is no alternative may be sensibly distinguished from choosing x when substantial alternatives exist.139

An alternative line of reasoning on the importance of opportunities suggests that the valuation be done not in terms of only one (‘given’) preference ordering (over functioning vectors), even if it is the one that the person opts for—possibly ‘on balance’—to determine what is maximal in the available set. Rather, the valuation can be done by using a set of plausible preference orderings (preferences a person could have quite reasonably had), and this would give importance to having other opportunities even when the maximal alternative (p.203) (according to the ‘given’ preference ordering), or the chosen option, is the same.140

There are different ways of seeing freedom and options, and little hope of an easy acceptance of a fully agreed ‘indicator of freedom’. The importance of this type of discussion lies more in drawing attention to broader concerns than in offering a quick resolution of interpersonal comparison of freedoms (and thus of overall individual advantages that take note of the significance of freedom). While an analysis of economic inequality has to be sensitive to these issues, there exist rival claimants to ways of making interpersonal comparisons of advantage.141


(133) See also Sen (1984, 1985a, 1987a, 1992). This approach has clear linkages with Adam Smith's (1776) analysis of ‘necessities’ (on this see Sen 1981, pp. 17–18, 1984, pp. 332–8), and with Aristotle's discussions of well‐being in Nicomachean Ethics and in Politics (on this see Nussbaum 1988, 1993). See also Mill (1859) and Marx (1875). The conceptual broadening has powerful implications on practical procedures for assessing advantage and deprivation; see also Crocker (1992), Nussbaum and Sen (1993), and Nussbaum and Glover (1995).

(134) When numerical representation of each functioning is not possible, the analysis has to be done in terms of the more general framework of seeing the functioning achievements as a ‘functioning n‐tuple’, and the capability set as a set of such n‐tuples in the appropriate space, which will not be a vector space.

(135) While the use of such an indifference map in explaining the valuation of functionings may be of considerable pedagogic value, especially in moving from the familiarity of the commodity space to the unaccustomed functioning space, it is important to recognize that the nature of the indifference map in the functioning space may not altogether mirror what we standardly presume in the case of commodity space. In particular, there may be considerable areas of incompleteness as well as fuzziness (on which see Sen 1985a). The recent literature on ‘fuzzy set theory’ can be helpful in analysing the valuation of functioning vectors and capability sets, on which see particularly Chiappero Martinetti (1994, 1996), and also Delbono (1989), Cerioli and Zani (1990), Balestrino (1994), Balestrino and Chiappero Martinetti (1994), Ok (1995), Casini and Bernetti (1996), among other contributions.

(136) See Sen (1980, 1984, 1985a, 1985b), Hawthorn (1987), Kanbur (1987b), Williams (1987), Muellbauer (1987), Drèze and Sen (1989, 1995), Bourguignon and Fields (1990), Griffin and Knight (1990), Hossain (1990), Schokkaert and Van Ootegem (1990), UNDP (1990), Crocker (1992, 1996), Anand and Ravallion (1993), Pettini (1993), Nussbaum and Sen (1993), Balestrino (1994, 1996), Chiappero Martinetti (1994, 1996), Cornia (1995), Desai (1994), Granaglia (1994), Lenti (1994), Arrow (1995), Atkinson (1995), Balestrino and Petretto (1995), Fleurbaey (1995a, 1995b), Herrero (1995), Carter (1996), Qizilbash (1995, 1996), Casini and Bernetti (1996), Piacentino (1996), among other contributions.

(137) On the nature and scope of elementary evaluation, see Sen (1985a).

(138) Cohen's (1989, 1990, 1995) arguments for concentrating on what he calls ‘midfare’ also lead to this particular focus; see also Arneson (1989, 1990).

(139) See Sen (1985a, 1985b). There remains the more difficult issue of determining how this process consideration should be incorporated. For various alternative proposals, and also axiomatized formulae, see Suzumura (1983), Wriglesworth (1985), Suppes (1987), Pattanaik and Xu (1990), Sen (1991a), Foster (1993), Herrero (1995), Arrow (1995), Puppe (1995), among others.

(140) This approach has been explored by Foster (1993) and Arrow (1995). It has analytical links to the instrumental value of ‘flexibility’ when one's own preferences are not fully known, for example because they may relate to the future (on which see Koopmans 1964 and Kreps 1979). The idea of considering plausible preferences even when the actual preference is known extends the scope of such reasoning very extensively.

(141) This leads to different views of inequality in any given social state, which in turn must influence the ranking of different social states in terms of inequality. Here too there is considerable opportunity of using ‘less exacting’ structures such as fuzzy sets and fuzzy rankings. On some suggestions for the use of fuzzy set reasoning in the evaluation of inequality, see Basu (1987b) and Ok (1995).