Sen’s idea is that the correct goal for those seeking to further social justice is to remove barriers to people living the life that they choose and to give them the wherewithal to achieve what they can. Illiteracy, poor nutrition and discrimination are examples of ways in which people’s capabilities are damaged.
Danny likes this, but is concerned about the word ‘equality’ in this context:
Purnell used this word for political reasons, to reconnect Blairites with the Left. But it is hard to see it being helpful. In fact, the very idea of capability — which stresses individual differences that act as a barrier to them living a full life — pulls against the idea of equality.
And… although Purnell wants a debate about capability, he is going to get one about equality.
This suggests that Danny doesn’t know his Sen as well as he might. Purnell used the word because it’s the word Sen himself regularly uses. And the notions of capability and equality don’t pull in opposite directions at all. Consider this passage from Sen’s 1992 book Inequality Reexamined:
Libertarians must think it important that people should have liberty. Given this, questions would immediately arise regarding: who, how much, how distributed, how equal? Thus the issue of equality immediately arises as a supplement to the assertion of the importance of liberty.
It is neither accurate nor helpful to think of the difference…in terms of ‘liberty versus equality’.
Indeed, strictly speaking, posing the problems in terms of this latter contrast reflects a ‘category mistake’. They are not alternatives. Liberty is among the possible fields of application of equality, and equality is among the possible patterns of distribution of liberty.
Substitute ‘capability’ for ‘liberty’, and it’s just as true: capabilities can be distributed more or less equally. Of course Danny’s right that there are great individual differences, but that’s just the point: many people’s lives are blighted because they lack the capabilities that others take for granted.
And of course total equality - of income, opportunity, health, happiness, capability, almost anything - is a chimera whose unwavering pursuit would be folly, but Sen takes an ameliorative rather than a utopian approach, as these two reviews of his latest book make clear.
The idea is to identify specific cases where some people are prevented from making the most of their lives by obstacles that many others do not face and that can be feasibly removed through political action. We need not pre-define a perfectly just society in order to remove some of the most glaring injustices that exist. And the desire to prioritise people whose circumstances are the most fraught rather than the desire to promote capability generally, even among the already advantaged, is what motivates talk about equality of capability.
Purnell’s aim, I suspect, is less to spark an intra-left debate about the focus of equalisation than to muster strength for a left-right debate about the distribution of capability – although the former may be a stepping-stone towards the latter.