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In which I explain my weird contrarian ethical system
I’ve noticed that I keep writing posts and wanting to say “…because I’m a capabilitarian” as an explanation for my beliefs, and failing because no one knows what that means. So here is an explanation of my weird form of consequentialism.
In this post, I’m mostly planning to explain capabilitarianism and what I like about it, and not to defend it against challengers. I might write more later when I have a better sense of how people argue against it.
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Capabilitarianism is based on the philosophy of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. It is consequentialist, but heavily influenced by deontology (especially Kantianism) and virtue ethics (especially Aristotleanism). (If that doesn’t mean anything to you, don’t worry about it.) Capabilitarianism is about making sure people have certain central capabilities.
Freedom is important. And let’s be clear about what we mean by “freedom” here. If you have the legal right to leave your house, but you can’t because it’s taboo for women in your culture to leave the house, or because you use a wheelchair and your house has steps, you don’t meaningfully have the freedom to leave the house. The thing that matters is not just whether you technically have the legal right to do something, but whether you can actually do it.
Intuitively, not all freedoms are as important as all other freedoms. It’s not a big deal if I can’t whistle; it’s a big deal if I can’t vote. The list of freedoms that we think are particularly important are called the “central capabilities.” Society should make sure that everyone has the central capabilities. When everyone has the central capabilities, then we are from my perspective Done With Ethics and we can spend the rest of our time writing extremely high-context fanfic. (I, uh, don’t expect this to happen any time soon.)
When I say “society should make sure,” I don’t mean “the government should make sure.” While the government has an appropriate role in making sure people can exercise the central capabilities, so do markets, civil society, charities, families, and individuals. Many central capabilities are best met by a combination: for example, the best way to make sure everyone has the “enough food” central capability is a free market in groceries, combined with a robust welfare state to take care of those who can’t afford to buy food on their own.
Finally, what matters is that you have the capability, not that you choose to exercise the capability. If you can’t leave the house, that’s bad. If you legally and socially and physically can leave your house, and freely choose to live the Emily Dickinson lifestyle, that is fine, and capabilitarians have no problem with this.
What are the central capabilities?
Martha Nussbaum offers a first-draft list:
Life. 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.
Bodily Health. Being able to have good health, including reproductive health; to be adequately nourished; to have adequate shelter.
Bodily integrity. 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.
Senses, Imagination, and Thought. 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.
Emotions. 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.)
Practical Reason. 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.)
Being able to live with and toward others, to recognize and show concern for other humans, 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.)
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, national origin and species.
Other Species. Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature.
Play. Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.
Control over one's Environment.
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.
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, exercising practical reason and entering into meaningful relationships of mutual recognition with other workers.
(Because my readers are effective altruists, I should clarify that this list is intended for humans, and posthumans, digital minds, etc will likely have different central capabilities.)
Of these, the two most important are practical reason and affiliation. (No, I’m not really sure why Nussbaum put them in the middle of the list.) These two reflect fundamental things about what it means to be human. A human being, to live a life suitable for a human being, must be able to form a conception of the good and work towards it, to have relationships with other humans, and to live a dignified life without humiliation. Nussbaum has a whole Kant/Aristotle-based argument for this but to be honest it seems very intuitive to me. If it doesn’t seem intuitive to you probably this is not the moral ideology for you.
Isn’t this just utilitarianism in a funny hat?
Uh. Sooooort of?
Utilitarians maximize “utility,” which is pleasure or happiness or preference satisfaction or some more complicated thing. But all our ways of measuring utility are really quite bad. Some people use self-reported life satisfaction or happiness, but these metrics often fail to match up with common-sense notions about what makes people better off. GiveWell tends to use lives saved and increased consumption, which are fine as far as they go, but everyone agrees that that’s only a small fraction of what we care about. A lot of people wind up relying basically on intuition, or on heuristics like “I would not like it if I went hungry” or “probably if you give people more money they’ll be happier.”
In my experience, a lot of utilitarians tend to stuff how hard it is to measure utility up into the attic like the first wife in a gothic novel. It is rare to find a work of utilitarian philosophy that comes up with any sort of well-thought-out principled system for determining what people prefer or what brings them pleasure.
The thing I like about capabilitarianism is that it puts its arbitrariness up front. “There are the things we care about!” it says. “These are the things we’re going to be trying to measure! You can argue with us about them if you want.” Nothing is being smuggled in through the back door.
I do, incidentally, disagree with utilitarians about some things. I do think if an adult with all the central capabilities chooses, of their own free will, at reflective equilibrium, to make themself miserable for no greater benefit whatsoever, then I might think this is a bad decision but neither I nor society should be permitted to stop them. But I think it is very rare for people to actually do that, and even rarer for everyone else to be certain enough of it that it would be ethical to interfere even if you’re a utilitarian, so I don’t expect it to come up much.
How do we decide what capabilities are central?
Sen and Nussbaum tend to go “oh, you know, discussion! Reasoned debate!” which I find an unsatisfying answer. But I can make some gestures at a more satisfying answer.
First: central capabilities give you a lot of options. Life and bodily health are central capabilities because you can’t do much if you’re dead or starving. Less obviously, literacy is a central capability, because reading opens up a whole new world: if you can read, you can work a wider variety of jobs, are less likely to be cheated on contracts, have an easier time voting, can learn more subjects, and can appreciate Jane Austen or for that matter E. L. James.
Second: central capabilities tend to support each other. Sen is very excited by how democracies don’t have famines, and with good reason. You wouldn’t necessarily expect “bodily health” and “political control over your environment” to be linked. But it turns out that when people can vote, they will vote people out of office if they’re legibly doing an extremely bad job. Politicians know this, so they enact policies that make sure that thousands of people don’t wind up starving to death. In looking for central capabilities, you should look for an unexpected lack of tradeoffs: a situation where improving one capability naturally makes it easier to improve others.
Third: central capabilities tend to make it easier to exercise practical reason and affiliation. Like I said, those are the two (three?) most important ones. Ultimately, what we want is a society where everyone can set their own life course and form relationships with others, without fearing humiliation. Central capabilities are those which are particularly important for these goals. For example, having a wide range of emotions helps you empathize with people and love people, and gives many people valuable information about what the good looks like for them.
Okay, so I don’t buy the stuff about practical reason. Why should I pay attention to capabilitarian thought?
I actually just think that everyone should be able to exercise the central capabilities of practical reason and affiliation, so capabiliarianism is an easy sell for me. But if you’re like “Ozy! I’m not a pluralist! I think there is actually a single The Good that people should pursue!”, I think you should still be into capabilitarianism.
Capabilitarianism is a liberal philosophy: that is, it says that people should mostly get to do as they like, as long as they’re not bothering other people, for a particularly expansive sense of “bothering.” Part of liberalism is that if you think you know what The Good is, then you are allowed to try to convince people with reasoned argument, or by writing emotionally moving fiction, or by making fun of them, or with “in this house we believe” yard signs. You are not allowed to try to convince people by punching them or putting them in jail or starving them or (usually) getting them fired from their jobs.1
The difference here is that the things on the first list are things we generally expect to work better for ideologies which are true, not morally reprehensible, etc.2 (Maybe not the yard signs.) On the other hand, you can punch people if you’re right, and you can punch people if you’re wrong. The effectiveness of this tactic is mostly related to your upper body strength and martial arts training, not the righteousness of your cause.
Therefore, if you think that your ideology is right, you should be totally behind liberal approaches! Liberalism is the only ideology that means you’re more likely to win than to lose.
Capabilitarianism specifically is a good liberal ideology for people who believe in some other ethical system, because of its emphasis on capabilities. For many ideologies, the capability to choose itself is valuable: for example, many variants of Christianity believe that it is virtuous to choose to be chaste, but that it is not virtuous one way or the other if you’re chaste simply because you have never had the opportunity to have sex. Even if the capability to choose is not valuable in your belief system, the fact that capabilitarians only care about capabilities and don’t make people do anything limits the harm from choosing an incorrect capability. If no one should have sex and you have the capability to seek out sexual satisfaction, then you can simply not exercise that capability, while you convince everyone else that it is a stupid capability and shouldn’t be protected.
You talked about posthumans a bit up there, but what about animals? Animals are odd too.
Nussbaum talks a bit about animals3 but tries to apply the human central capabilities to them, which I am unsatisfied by.
Fortunately, someone already came up with a list of central capabilities for animals, the Five Freedoms:
Freedom from hunger and thirst.
Freedom from discomfort (i.e. adequate shelter at a good temperature).
Freedom from pain, injury, and disease.
Freedom to express normal behavior.
Freedom from fear and distress.
I believe this list is appropriate for nearly all animal species. I do support closer attention to the central capabilities appropriate to more cognitively sophisticated species (e.g. elephants, marine mammals, primates, perhaps parrots).
My beliefs about this are too complicated for a footnote but I do think most cases of people being fired from their jobs for their beliefs are unethical.
A lot of social justice people seem weirdly convinced that if we rationally argue with Nazis the Nazis will win. I disagree with this. Dude, they’re Nazis. I don’t argue with Nazis, because I have better things to do with my time and also love myself, but if it comes up I expect my “it is bad to kill millions of people” argument to carry the day.
She cares about wild-animal suffering, and a quote from her about wild-animal suffering—“the gradual replacement of the natural by the just”— used to be my blog header.