Poverty, Capabilities and Social Justice

The renowned social philosopher discusses her concept of essential human capabilities, and their implications for dealing with poverty and social development.

Date Posted

1 Oct 2007


Issue 3, 14 Oct 2007

You have developed the concept of a set of essential human capabilities: how might this approach help us to gain fresh insight into the problem of poverty?

My work is concerned with describing a minimum threshold conception of justice, in terms of a set of fundamental entitlements without which no society can lay claim to basic justice. I formulate this list of entitlements in terms of a set of “capabilities,” or opportunities for functioning, in 10 central areas. (See box story on "The Central Human Capabilities")

What I mean by essential capabilities is the combination of internal formation with external possibility. Thus, for the capability involved in the freedom of speech, we need an adequate system of education (internal formation) and then suitable political conditions favourable to actual free speech, the latter being supplied by protective laws.

Some of these capabilities, like the entitlement to freedom of religion, are not usually understood to be related to poverty; some, such as the entitlement to healthcare and housing, are closely related to poverty as traditionally conceived.

What is important to me, however, is that each of these is a separate item: they are not commensurable with one another. Many accounts of poverty ignore the plurality of value and convey the illusion that if people have enough of one thing (for example, wealth and income), they are then all right. Of course, this may not be the case.

All of these capabilities have a material foundation: thus someone too poor to go to school will not have the freedom of speech in a full way. But the traditional account of poverty is too unilinear and too narrow. The theory that a rising tide lifts all boats is simply not empirically true. Dreze and Sen,1 in their field studies of the different Indian states, have shown that the pursuit of economic growth does not translate into improvements in healthcare and education.

The whole point of the capabilities approach was to conceive of the whole topic of human empowerment in radically different terms. People might be reasonably well off in terms of wealth and income, but deeply lacking in other areas fundamental to a dignified human life, such as political rights and liberties. And it is also true that two people might have equal amounts of wealth and income but be very differently placed in their ability to function in society because of entrenched social prejudice and inequality.

What are the implications of these capabilities on social mobility?

There are many different implications. One cannot rise in society if one has no healthcare, and education is of the very most central importance to social mobility. Women all over the world lack employment opportunities and political voice because of their differential access to healthcare and education. Political participation is also, of course, very central to changing one’s living conditions, as the success of the panchayat system in rural India has shown: the rural poor now have a powerful political voice, and it is clear that it was they who determined the 2004 election. Another capability that is very important to social mobility is the freedom of speech: people who are not allowed to express themselves freely have no opportunity to challenge the society in which they live and to try to secure one that reflects their aspirations better. As for bodily integrity, it is extremely difficult to aspire and to move up in society if one is being beaten up at night at home.

To what extent are governments responsible for—and capable of—ensuring that all their citizens can exercise the essential capabilities, in order to ensure their own development?

In my conception, government is responsible for minimal social justice, and that is a very traditional conception of government. The capabilities on my list are only the ones that, I would argue, form part of a minimal conception of a decently just society.2 There are, of course, many other capabilities that are of interest to people in their lives, but these will be determined by their own comprehensive conceptions of value, religious or secular.

That is where the role of government leaves off: if my religious conception tells me to pursue virtue in a certain way, government should not be assisting me, beyond giving me the basic wherewithal of a decent human life that it also gives to all others; it is not the business of government to pursue Christian virtue, atheist virtue, or Buddhist virtue. That is for the citizens themselves to do, once they have basic education, healthcare, employment opportunities, freedom of speech and religion, and so forth.

Governments should respect all citizens as equals, and that includes citizens with mental and physical disabilities, who are often not treated as equals. For instance, if a claim is made that we cannot afford to educate children with disabilities, then we can reply, as a US court did, that the inefficiencies of the school system (which had spent its money unwisely) cannot be permitted to bear more heavily on one group of children than on another.

Of course, many other things affect people’s ability to exercise their capabilities, for example, their treatment within the family. That is one reason why John Rawls and I have both argued that the family is actually a political entity. Government does not directly structure the family, but it can do a great deal to render that structure more just: for example, by enforcing laws against domestic violence and child abuse, by ensuring all children have decent nutrition and a decent education, and by teaching about the equal worth of all citizens, in public schools. In India, there are many creative strategies that have empowered women, who often get unfair treatment in the family: one that has worked well is giving women one-third representation in the panchayats. This has led to much more emphasis on the education of girls, and in general to a stronger bargaining position for women in the family.

It is also important that government can delegate part of its role to nongovernmental bodies, such as the market or the family: but if citizens do not achieve the capabilities in that way, we ought to hold the government accountable and seek a better one. If one has the capabilities as one’s goals, one can then experiment with different economic and social structures and see to what extent they deliver the desired results.

The Central Human Capabilities

  1. Life
  2. Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length; not dying prematurely, or before one’s life is so reduced as to be not worth living.

  3. Bodily Health
  4. Being able to have good health, including reproductive health; to be adequately nourished; to have adequate shelter.

  5. Bodily Integrity
  6. Being able to move freely from place to place; to be secure against violent assault, including sexual assault and domestic violence; having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction.

  7. Senses, Imagination and Thought
  8. Being able to use the senses, to imagine, think, and reason—and to do these things in a “truly human” way, a way informed and cultivated by an adequate education including, but by no means limited to, literacy and basic mathematical and scientific training. Being able to use imagination and thought in connection with experiencing and producing works and events of one’s own choice, religious, literary, musical, and so forth. Being able to use one’s mind in ways protected by guarantees of freedom of expression with respect to both political and artistic speech, and freedom of religious exercise. Being able to have pleasurable experiences and to avoid non-beneficial pain.

  9. Emotions
  10. Being able to have attachments to things and people outside ourselves; to love those who love and care for us, to grieve at their absence; in general, to love, to grieve, to experience longing, gratitude, and justified anger. Not having one’s emotional development blighted by fear and anxiety. (Supporting this capability means supporting forms of human association that can be shown to be crucial in their development.)

  11. Practical Reason
  12. Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s life. (This entails protection for the liberty of conscience and religious observance.)

  13. Affiliation
    1. Being able to live with others, to recognise and show concern for other human beings, to engage in various forms of social interaction; to be able to imagine the situation of another. (Protecting this capability means protecting institutions that constitute and nourish such forms of affiliation, and also protecting the freedom of assembly and political speech.)
    2. Having the social bases of self- respect and non-humiliation; being able to be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others. This entails provisions of non-discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, caste, religion, or national origin.
  14. Other Species
  15. Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature.

  16. Play
  17. Being able to laugh, to play, and to enjoy recreational activities.

  18. Control Over One’s Environment
    1. Political. Being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one’s life; having the right of political participation, protections of free speech and association.
    2. Material. Being able to hold property (both land and movable goods), and having property rights on an equal basis with others; having the right to seek employment on an equal basis with others; having the freedom from unwarranted search and seizure. In work, being able to work as a human being, exercising practical reason and entering into meaningful relationships of mutual recognition with other workers. – Martha C. Nussbaum


Martha C. Nussbaum is Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, appointed in the Law School, Philosophy Department, and Divinity School. She is the current President of the Human Development and Capability Association. Her most recent books are Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Belknap Press, 2006) and The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future (Belknap Press, 2007).


  1. Dreze, Jean and Sen, Amartya, India: Development and Participation, 2nd ed. (USA: Oxford University Press, 2002).
  2. For a discussion of how minimum thresholds and implementation priorities might be set in accordance to a nation’s resources and economic conditions, see Nussbaum, Martha, “The Costs of Tragedy: Some Moral Limits of Cost-Benefit Analysis,” in Cost-Benefit Analysis, ed. Adler, M. D. and Posner, E. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

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