PhD thesis defence: Thomes Wells, 27 June, 2013

On 27 June, Thomas Wells (Erasmus Institute for Philosophy and Economics) had publicly defended his PhD thesis entitled Reasoning about development: Essays on Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach in Rotterdam (Netherlands).

Prof. dr. J.J. VROMEN, Erasmus University Rotterdam (co-promoter)
Prof. dr.  I. ROBEYNS, Erasmus University Rotterdam (co-promoter)
Prof. dr.  I. van STAVEREN, International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam (referee)
Dr. R.J.G. CLAASSEN, Utrecht University (referee)
Dr. G. van OENEN, Erasmus University Rotterdam (referee)
Prof. dr. M. QIZILBASH, University of York (UK)
Prof.dr. J.A. VAN RULER, Erasmus University Rotterdam

Thesis Summary:
Over the last 30 years the Indian philosopher-economist Amartya Sen has developed an original normative approach to the evaluation of individual and social well-being. The foundational concern of this ‘capability approach’ is the real freedom of individuals to achieve the kind of lives they have reason to value. This freedom is analysed in terms of an individual’s ‘capability’ to achieve combinations of such intrinsically valuable ‘beings and doings’ (‘functionings’) as being sufficiently nourished and freely expressing one’s political views. In this account, ‘development’ is conceived as the expansion of individuals’ capability, and thus as a concept that goes beyond the economic growth of third world countries. 

My thesis is a philosophical examination of Sen’s capability approach. In the first part (chapters 1-3) I present and defend my interpretation of Sen’s work. I examine an influential critique by political philosophers who argue that the incompleteness of his account makes it deficient for theorising about justice, and hence that it cannot support making normative judgements about deprivation and injustice. I argue that the theoretical incompleteness of Sen’s capability approach is a deliberate feature and not a flaw. Sen is primarily concerned with the evaluation of how well people’s lives are going, and the identification of how improvements might be brought about. His project thus has a different aim than debating the right theory of justice, and therefore has different requirements. A theory of justice is a product of the development and testing of a conceptual system in terms of theoretical virtues such as precision, consistency, and coherence. The evaluation of well-being is a more empirical exercise, in the tradition of social science. Its methodological challenge is to grasp a particular complex and multi-faceted case by means of the conceptual resources and information one has available. In particular, the appropriate standards to be used in the evaluation have to be determined as part of the evaluation itself. Formulated as a theory of justice, the range of information that the capability approach could consider in such evaluations would be limited in advance, by for example excluding ‘subjective’ aspects like desires, religious convictions, and happiness from consideration in any circumstances. I analyse Sen’s methodology of evaluation and show that it can support making reasoned judgements about deprivation and injustice, and that Sen’s rejection of the ideal of theoretical completeness is necessary for this.

In the second part of the thesis (chapters 4-6) I turn to the possible applications of the capability approach. Each chapter considers the application of the capability approach to a specific issue: practical reason (4), development (5), and social justice (6). Each chapter is organised around posing and answering a challenge faced by the capability approach. I start the chapters by explaining a significant challenge (respectively, acquiescence to deprivation, paternalism, and the absence of a political philosophy account of justice), and show that the capability approach (sometimes suitably extended but in line with Sen’s methods and concerns) can meet each of these challenges. This exercise identifies and clarifies several of the specific contributions and limitations of the capability approach.”

Key words : Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, Human Development, Capability Approach, Theories of Justice, Well-being, Social Choice, Methodology, Impartial Spectator, Adaptive Preferences, Autonomy; Freedom; Democracy; Free Prior Informed Consent.

Details of publications relating to the thesis can be found on the Thomas Wells website.

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