Traditionally, a country’s Gross Domestic Product has been used as a rough measure of its quality of life. If Country X’s GDP is higher per capita than Country Y’s, the thinking held that we should be able to assume that people in Country X have a higher standard of living than people in Country Y.
But that’s not actually the case. It turns out that an increase in GDP is not very strongly correlated with improvements in many of the areas that affect the lives of a nation’s people. So how should we comparatively assess quality of life, if not via GDP? And how can we shift the conversation from a purely economic basis to one focused on people? As an alternative to the focus on GDP, the Capabilities Approach (also referred to as the Capability Approach and the Human Development Approach) was developed to help the world think about what it means to live a full life, and how governments can provide the opportunities to help their people do so.
The philosopher and University of Chicago Professor of Law and Ethics Martha Nussbaum has been one of the leaders in developing this approach, along with the economist and philosopher Amartya Sen. This way of thinking about development led to the creation of the Human Development Index, a UN-backed measure that has thankfully been replacing GDP as a metric of quality of life in policy discussions.
The conversation about this approach has been conducted in academic circles, mostly among development economists. However, we recently published Martha Nussbaum’s Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach, the first book intended to outline the approach for non-specialists. In the book, she outlines what it means to use an approach that takes each individual person as an end. She explains what’s meant by “capabilities” (“not just abilities residing inside a person but also the freedoms or opportunities created by a combination of personal abilities and the political, social, and economic environment”), and presents her list of the ten most central capabilities, the threshold requirements for a life of human dignity.
In the video below, Professor Nussbaum explains why the Capabilities Approach is superior to a focus on GDP, and why good governments should be supporting the kinds of vulnerability that enrich life while helping to shield people from the kinds that don’t.
As Creating Capabilities makes clear, the embrace of the Capabilities Approach has entailed a shift from a conversation about economics to a conversation about justice.