Capacity as freedom?: Foundation of Amartya Sen’s capacity approach

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This article serves as a preliminary research on the capability approach, which was proposed by Amartya Sen in the 1970s. Beginning with an argument that nearly all theories arc egalitarian in some senses. Sen proposes that people and social arrangements should be evaluated in terms of capabilities—actual freedom for people to achieve valuable beings and doings—but not utility or resources (Sen, 1980/1995), However, due to Sen's reluctance in providing a complete theory of justice or even a list of basic capabilities, the apparently simple capability approach turns out to be abstruse when people try giving it a deeper examination. In this article, therefore, I step back and closely examine the various concepts used in or related to the capability approach. The ultimate goal is to explore what is really meant by “capability”. As a remark, I also argue that Sen's notion of “capability as freedom" is ambiguous because it collapses the distinction between capability and functionings, which, as a consequence, would lead to problematic implications on justice. This potential problem has made important with the growing concern on developmental issues.
There are three sections in this paper. In the first section I explain the scope of Sen's capability approach, which is based on his response to the question “equality of what?". In the second section, I look closely into the different core constitutive parts of the capability approach, namely functionings, capabilities, and freedom. Through articulating the different concepts of the capability approach, several characteristics of the approach are identified. Finally, with a better understanding of the capability approach, in the third section, the ambiguity of his theory are spelled out as criticisms. These criticisms will then leave room for further research. Copyright © 2008 Dept. of Government and Public Administration, Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4-33
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2008


Lee, S.-Y. (2008). Capacity as freedom?: Foundation of Amartya Sen’s capacity approach. Civilitas, 1, 4-33.


  • Alt. title: Capacity as freedom?: The foundation of Amartya Sen’s capacity approach


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