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The Quality of Life$

Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen

Print publication date: 1993

Print ISBN-13: 9780198287971

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2003

DOI: 10.1093/0198287976.001.0001

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G.A. Cohen: Equality of What? on Welfare, Goods and Capabilities Amartya Sen: Capability and Well‐Being

G.A. Cohen: Equality of What? on Welfare, Goods and Capabilities Amartya Sen: Capability and Well‐Being

(p.54) G.A. Cohen: Equality of What? on Welfare, Goods and Capabilities Amartya Sen: Capability and Well‐Being
The Quality of Life

Christine M. Korsgaard

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

These two papers propose ways to understand and measure certain important aspects of the quality of life. Gerald Cohen is concerned specifically with equality: what it is people must have an equal amount of, in order for them to be equal in the sense egalitarians ought to care about. His paper criticizes the views of Rawls and Sen, and offers his own answer, which is that people should be equal in their ...

These two papers propose ways to understand and measure certain important aspects of the quality of life. Gerald Cohen is concerned specifically with equality: what it is people must have an equal amount of, in order for them to be equal in the sense egalitarians ought to care about. His paper criticizes the views of Rawls and Sen, and offers his own answer, which is that people should be equal in their access to advantage.1 Both terms in this formula are meant to be eclectic. ‘Advantage’ includes both welfare and resources, and whatever else we might decide is a ‘desirable state of the person’.2 You have ‘access’ to things you have or can get or are given to you. To say that people should be equal in their access to advantage, according to Cohen, is to say that any involuntary disadvantage–any disadvantage which either was not chosen or cannot be voluntarily overcome–ought to be eliminated or compensated.

Amartya Sen's view is that the quality of a person's life should be assessed in terms of the person's capabilities. A capability is the ability or potential to do or be something–more technically, to achieve a certain functioning. Functionings are divided into four overlapping categories, which Sen calls well‐being freedom, well‐being achievement, agency freedom, and agency achievement. Our capabilities are our potentials for all of these things. Sen's view, like Cohen's began as a thesis about the kind of value that egalitarians ought to be concerned about. People ought to be made equal in their capabilities, or at least in their basic capabilities. But Sen is now prepared to claim that his view provides a metric for other purposes as well.

We may assess any proposal about what constitutes the quality of life in various ways. First, we may assess it simply as a philosophical proposal about what a good life is. Second, we may assess it for its legitimacy as a political objective: whether it is the sort of thing we ought to bring about through political means. And third, we may assess it for its utility in determining actual political and economic policy–that is, whether it provides accurate enough measures to assess the effects of policy. Obviously, these three forms of assessment are not unrelated, and all are necessary. If capability and access to advantage were not at least important features of a good life, equalizing or maximizing them would not be politically desirable. If they were not legitimate political objectives, the fact that they enable us to make measurements, if it were one, would not carry any weight. (p.55) Nevertheless, the three forms of assessment are separate. And the question I will focus on, in considering both access to advantage and capability, is their legitimacy as political objectives.

In assessing the legitimacy of a political objective, we must keep in mind that the state uses coercion to achieve its aims, and that the use of coercion is in general wrong. Only the pursuit of certain kinds of aims, in special circumstances, can justify the use of coercion; only these, therefore, can be legitimate as political objectives. There are two familiar and related devices to which political philosophers appeal in order to alleviate the moral problem created by the coercive nature of government. One is the idea of the consent of the governed, either actual or hypothetical, to the general institution of government. I take it for granted that since actual consent has not in fact been given, hypothetical consent is the best we can hope for. That is, the best we can hope is to show that political institutions and their objectives are ones that it is reasonable for people to consent to. The other device is the mechanism of voting, as a way of approximating actual consent within society. Some philosophers believe that these two devices work together to dissipate the moral problem created by the use of state coercion. Each individual is supposed, hypothetically, to consent to submit to political decisions as long as she is allowed, actually, to contribute to those decisions by voting. But at least since Mill, few philosophers would say that voting is sufficient to justify the use of state coercion, for it leads to one version of what de Tocqueville called ‘the tyranny of the majority’.3 Even in a democratic society, we must place limits on what may be achieved through political means. Political objectives must reflect the reasons people have for submitting to the coercive authority of the state in the first place.

The legitimacy of a political objective obviously depends on what sort of political philosophy one espouses, what one thinks the state is for. So I will begin by discussing the kinds of political objectives that have been thought legitimate, and sketching a view that I find plausible. I will then assess Sen's and Cohen's proposals in the light of that view. Following Rawls, I begin with the distinction between liberal and non‐liberal political theories.4 In a liberal theory, the purpose of the state is to allow each citizen to pursue his or her own conception of the good. In a non‐liberal theory, some conception of the good is taken as philosophically established, and the goal of the state is to realize that conception. If a non‐liberal theory is accepted, my first two forms of assessment are not after all separate: to show that something is a legitimate political objective, all we need do is show that it is indeed an established good. According to such theories, the state is in the business of bringing about the good. As Rawls points out, classical utilitarianism is strictly speaking a non‐liberal theory, since it takes the goodness of the maximization of pleasure as both philosophically established and capable of justifying political policy.5 An Aristotelian theory that takes the purpose of the state to be to educate the citizens for a virtuous life, or a Marxist theory aimed (p.56) at rendering us truly human, would also be non‐liberal. These theories take a certain conception of the good life to be both established and capable of justifying the use of state coercion.

Rawls defines a liberal theory, by contrast, as one that ‘allow[s] for a plurality of different and opposing, and even incommensurable, conceptions of the good’.6 But the phrase ‘allows for’ is unfortunately ambiguous. Accordingly, there are two kinds of liberal. One kind of liberal agrees with the non‐liberal that the purpose of the state is to enable the citizens to achieve a good life, but disagrees that there is just one established conception of the good life. It is important that each person choose, construct, and pursue her own conception of the good. There are a number of different reasons why one might hold this view. They correspond roughly to the various reasons for religious tolerance, and, like those, they are held by many liberals in a rather jumbled way. One reason is scepticism: there is no best life, or anyway we cannot prove there is, so we have no solid ground for forcing people to lead one kind of life rather than another. Another reason is ethical individualism. According to this view, the goodness of a life essentially depends on its being chosen and constructed by the person who lives it. Your life, like your faith, must be your own spontaneous production if it is to be worth anything at all. A third reason, which lacks a theological analogue, is epistemological individualism, which consists of two propositions: first, there may be a best life for each person, but there is no one best life for everyone. Second, as a matter of fact, each person is best placed to find out for herself what the best life for her is. (It is by endorsing epistemological individualism that a utilitarian becomes a liberal.) What these views share is the idea that the direct realization of final goods, or best lives, is disqualified as a political goal. Either we do not know enough about final goods to use them in political justifications, or they are by their nature best left in the hands of individuals. The state can only be justified in controlling the distribution of instrumental or primary goods, the things that everyone pursuing a good life has reason to want. According to this view, the reason why people consent, or may be supposed hypothetically to consent, to political institutions, is because (i) they have a better life in society and (ii) the principles regulating society are such as they would have chosen. Because we must allow for a variety of conceptions of the good, however, the only legitimate way for the state to provide a better life is to increase and fairly distribute the stock of primary goods. For reasons that will become clear, I shall call this view ‘the New Liberalism’.

There is another, older way to be a liberal which is a little different. According to Locke and Kant, the business of the state is to preserve and protect rights and freedom, not to facilitate the pursuit of a good life. These philosophers believed that it is of the nature of rights and freedom that their preservation justifies the use of coercion. Locke believed that you have natural rights which you are entitled to enforce: first, and innately, a right to your own labour, and (p.57) second, by extension, a qualified right to what you mix your labour with.7 Kant believed that everyone has an innate right to freedom, and, as a necessary extension of that right, to the acquisition of certain other rights, without which one cannot exercise one's freedom, and so which may be enforced.8 Kant argued that rights may be coercively enforced this way: rights are a necessary extension of freedom, so anyone who tries to interfere with rights tries to interfere with freedom. A rights violator is a hindrance to freedom. But anything that hinders a hindrance to freedom is consistent with freedom. And anything that is consistent with freedom is legitimate. The coercive enforcement of rights, being consistent with freedom, is therefore legitimate.9

These views also ground state coercive authority in a social contract, but the effect of the contract is different. In the New Liberalism, the hypothetical social contract seems to give rise to the coercive authority of the state. The justification of the use of coercion lies in the fact that people may plausibly be supposed to consent to arrangements that they would have chosen and that give them a better life. In the Old Liberalism, coercive authority is thought to attach to rights and freedom by their very nature — all that the contract does is transfer this already existing coercive authority to the state.10 Hypothetical consent is only allowed to determine who exercises coercive authority; it does not give rise to it.

A consequence is that, according to the Old Liberalism, state coercion can only be exercised in the protection and preservation of freedom. As in the New Liberalism, final goods are not legitimate political objectives, but there is a difference. In the New Liberalism, final goods are disqualified as political objectives because of their unknowability or variability. In the Old Liberalism, final goods are not so much disqualified as never qualified in the first place. I think the point is important because many people suppose that liberalism must be founded on philosophical scepticism about whether we can discover what the best life is. The Old Liberalism is consistent with the most thoroughgoing certainty about the best life. You can think, with Aristotle in book X of the Nicomachean Ethics, that you can prove that a contemplative life is best and still think that the state (p.58) has no business getting people to contemplate. Only the protection of freedom, and not the achievement of the good, is grounds for the use of coercion.

There are two objections to the Old Liberalism, both of which the New Liberalism is designed partly to overcome. Both objections complain that the Old Liberalism is too conservative. First, according to the versions presented by Locke and Kant, extensive property rights are supposed to have existed in the state of nature, and the business of government is to protect those rights. This is objectionable both because it depends on a questionable premiss — that property rights exist independently of and prior to the state — and because it seems to saddle the government with an obligation to carry on and fortify inherited inequalities. I do not think this is essential to the view in its Kantian form. The only thing essential is that a right to freedom exist prior to the state, and that this be taken to be a natural human right. We can allow, with the New Liberalism, that we should determine what further rights will count as necessary extensions or realizations of freedom within the bounds of the state, by determining what people can reasonably agree to. But, the objection continues — and this is the second complaint — the Old Liberalism amounts to what some of us will regard as a dreary form of libertarianism. If the only thing that the state can guarantee is freedom, and not a good life, there will be no grounds for guaranteeing things that seem clearly to be part of the good and not of freedom — food, medical care, an economic minimum, and so forth. This kind of theory makes it hard to be a welfare liberal.

There is also a way to overcome this objection. It is to insist both on the necessity of employing a rich positive conception of freedom, and on the idea that certain welfare conditions must be met in order to achieve what Rawls calls the ‘worth of liberty’, the real possibility of taking advantage of one's rights and opportunities.11 Rawls himself declines to treat the conditions of the worth of liberty as part of, or essential to, being free. But in fact it does not matter much whether we talk of the worth of liberty or its reality. We cannot effectively guarantee liberty without guaranteeing its worth. The general idea behind this view, then, is that unless certain basic welfare conditions are met and resources and opportunities provided, we cannot seriously claim that society is preserving and protecting everyone's freedom. The poor, the jobless, the medically neglected, the unhoused, and the uneducated are not free no matter what rights they have been guaranteed by the constitution. There are two reasons for this. The first is their impaired capacity for formulating and pursuing a conception of the good. The second is just as important. A person who lacks these basic goods is subject to intimidation by the rich and powerful, especially if others depend on her. As unskilled woman labourer who puts up with a lower income, poor conditions, or even sexual harassment on the job because her only alternative is to let her children starve is not free. To fail to satisfy people's basic needs and provide (p.59) essential skills and opportunities is to leave people without recourse, and people without recourse are not free.12

I think that there are some important philosophical advantages in a welfarist version of the Old Liberalism. For if we must justify state coercion by appeal to the notion of hypothetical consent, we need some way to limit what sort of thing is a candidate for such consent. We cannot suppose that people hypothetically consent to coercion in the name of just anything society decides is good. The older, freedom‐based theory allows the state to coerce people only for the sake of something for which they may legitimately be coerced anyway — the achievement of freedom for every person. It explains the priority of liberty over other goods, and yet at the same time its emphasis on positive freedom and the worth of liberty explains why the guarantee of basic welfare and opportunities is essential. The result of employing these notions is a very large coincidence in practice between the New Liberalism and the Old. But the justification is still different. In the Old Liberalism, primary goods are justified as essential to the worth, or the reality, of freedom in a positive sense, rather than as general means to various conceptions of the good.

Now I return to the proposals of Sen and Cohen. First, the view of legitimate political objectives that I have sketched leads immediately to a strong although qualified endorsement of Sen's proposal that we should distribute with an eye to capabilities. For Sen argues that the idea of capabilities gives us a way of understanding the idea of positive freedom, and I think that this is correct: to make people capable of effectively realizing their goals and pursuing their well‐being is to make them positively free. The qualification is this. In his paper Sen considers whether and to what extent his view can be justified by the idea that human well‐functioning, suitably defined, corresponds to some philosophical ideal of the final good: for instance that of Aristotle or Marx.13 On the view I have sketched, this correspondence, if it were one, would play no role in justifying the distribution of capabilities as a political objective.

What I have to say about Cohen's paper is more complicated. First, I want to (p.60) address Cohen's claim that ‘midfare’ is a legitimate political objective in its own right and his criticism of Sen's view on this point.14 Cohen accuses Sen of ‘athleticism’, noticing places where Sen seems to say that the point of providing someone with, say, food is that they may feed themselves rather than just that they may get fed, whoever is the agent in the case. Cohen argues that it is important that people get fed, not just that they feed themselves, and supposes that Sen misses this point because he is focused too much on freedom and activity. But a person's getting fed may be justified politically by the contribution to his freedom that being well nourished makes. We do not have to choose between giving nourishment a political weight which is unrelated to freedom and the ‘athleticism’ of which Cohen accuses Sen. Feeding yourself is not the only free activity for which the provision of an adequate diet is essential.

Cohen's own proposal gives a different role to freedom from those of Sen and Rawls. Cohen believes that it is unjust that people should be disadvantaged in ways they do not freely choose. He thinks that this idea is what gives intuitive force to the ‘expensive tastes’ criticism of welfarism propounded by Rawls and others. Cohen accuses Rawls of switching back and forth between a deterministic and a libertarian view of human nature. When he attacks the political use of the notion of desert, Rawls uses deterministic arguments, saying that if someone is more diligent or ambitious than others, these virtues are most likely the product of a favourable upbringing. On the other hand, Rawls claims that people should be held responsible for their tastes, and should be regarded as the autonomous authors of their own conceptions of the good. What Rawls ought to say, according to Cohen, is just that it is difficult to tell to what extent people are responsible for either their efforts or their preferences.15 But the fact that it is difficult to tell is no reason not to reward people to the extent that they are responsible for their efforts, and, more importantly to Cohen, no reason not to compensate them for disadvantageous preferences that they cannot help. Cohen acknowledges that his proposal requires assessment of the extent to which disadvantages are voluntary in individual cases, and that such judgements are not easy to make. But he says that ‘there is no antecedent reason whatsoever for supposing that judgements of justice, at a fine grain degree of resolution, are easy’.16

There are several things wrong here. First, Cohen assumes that there is a single answer, in any given case, to the metaphysical question of the extent to which one's choice or effort was free. But this ignores a certain complication. Freedom of the will may itself be the result of a favourable upbringing and social conditions. We may believe that a human being is free, if ever, when she not only has a range of options but an education that enables her to recognize those options as such and the self‐respect that makes her choice among them a real one. Ignorance, lack of imagination, and lack of self‐respect are not just external constraints (p.61) on the range of your options: they can cripple the power of choice itself. The possession of freedom of the will may itself be lucky.

If this is right, there is something better for the state to do than the acts of individual compensation Cohen proposes. We can set society up so that people's choices will be autonomous and free. And here it becomes important to insist, along with Rawls, that the subject of justice is the basic structure of society. Cohen envisions a world in which government officials make judgements about the extent to which people are responsible for their preferences. But part of the reason why Rawls thinks that we should focus on the basic structure is that this way we can avoid having to make moralizing judgements about individual cases. By setting up the basic structure of society as what Rawls calls a system of ‘pure procedural justice’, we avoid having to ask intractable questions about whether particular individuals deserve the positions in which they have landed.17 In a similar way, we should avoid having to make particular metaphysical judgements about whether persons have formed their preferences autonomously or not. Society should be set up so that we can assume, as far as possible, that they have done so.

This is not just for the pragmatic reason that metaphysical judgements about free will are hard to make in particular cases. In the conceptions of Rawls and Sen, freedom is regarded as something society should bring about, not just as the occasion for judgements about what people deserve. And this leads me to a final point, which is that there is also a moral reason for working through the basic structure, and so avoiding particular judgements of the sort Cohen has in mind. Judgements about whether others have freely chosen their conceptions of the good are not only ones we cannot very easily make, they are ones we ought not to make. Such judgements are disrespectful. If one of our goals is to make it possible for the members of society to have decent moral relations with one another, this is an additional reason for making freedom appear instead as a consequence of justice; something that results, that is, from a just basic structure of society.


Bibliography references:

Kant, Immanuel (1797). The Metaphysical Elements of Justice, trans. John Ladd (1965). Indianapolis: Bobbs‐Merrill Library of Liberal Arts.

Locke, John (1690). Second Treatise of Government. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

Mill, John Stuart (1859). On Liberty. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

Rawls, John (1971). A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

—— (1980). ‘Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory: The Dewey Lectures 1980’, Journal of Philosophy, 77 (Sept. 1980).

—— (1982a). ‘The Basic Liberties and Their Priority’, in Tanner Lectures on Human Values, iii. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

—— (1982b). ‘Social Unity and Primary Goods’, in Utilitarianism and Beyond, ed. Amartya Sen and Bernard Williams. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


(1) Cohen defends his own view at greater length in his ‘On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice’, Ethics, 99 (July 1989), 906–44.

(2) Cohen, ‘Equality of What? On Welfare, Resources, and Capabilities’, in this volume, 9–29.

(3) Mill, 1859: ch. 1.

(4) Rawls, 1982b: 159–85.

(5) Ibid., 160.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Locke, 1690: ch. 5, s. 27.

(8) Kant, 1797: 52; Prussian Academy page numbers (standard in most editions), 246. (Citations hereinafter given as e.g. 52/246.)

(9) Kant, 1797: 35–6/231

(10) See e.g. Locke, 1690: ch. 7, s. 87. It follows that the goal of political society is the preservation of rights and property (ch. 9, s. 123). Locke, however, sometimes seems to give the government more extensive powers in acting ‘for the good’ of the citizens, so long as their property is not violated. But what licenses this, I believe, is that Locke believes that consent is actual (express or tacit), not hypothetical, and also that there is a real possibility of withdrawing it. Kant portrays government explicitly as arising from a hypothetical contract investing coercive authority in a state (1797: 76–7/312; 80–1/315–16). In this case, ‘transfer’ is not exactly the right word for the effect of the contract on coercive authority. Kant thinks that in order to be morally legitimate, the coercive enforcement of rights must be ‘reciprocal’ and therefore must be accomplished through the state (36–7/232; 64–5/255–6). In other words, the only legitimate way to enforce your rights is to join in a political state with the person whom you claim has attacked your rights and so submit yourself as well as him to coercive enforcement (71–2/307–8).

(11) Rawls, 1971: s. 32, 204.

(12) My way of portraying the situation may suggest that I think of Rawls as the exemplary New Liberal. On the whole this is correct, but I also think that there are elements in Rawls's later writings that suggest a shift in the direction of the welfarist version of Old Liberalism. A particular issue illustrates the point. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls treats liberties as items on the list of primary goods. In the general conception of justice, they may be traded off for other sorts of primary goods (s. 11, 62–3). Rawls then has to provide an explanation of the priority of liberty in the special conception of justice. That is, he has to explain why, in favourable conditions, the liberties come to acquire the special status of goods that citizens will not trade off for anything else (s. 82, 541–8). In his later writings, Rawls instead places more emphasis on the conception of the citizen as a moral person, one of whose highest‐order interests is in the exercise of autonomy itself: not just achieving her conception of the good, but freely choosing and revising it. The citizen so understood views the state not only as a locus for pursuit of her determinate conception of the good, but also as a locus for the exercise of autonomy. See Rawls, 1980 and 1982a. This is a shift in the direction of the Old Liberalism, and among other things it makes the priority of liberty easier to explain. See esp. 1982a: 27 ff. This does not mean that the general conception of justice has disappeared from Rawls's account; rather, he has made it clearer why this conception is only acceptable when the worth of liberty cannot be established.

(13) Sen, ‘Capability and Well‐Being’, in this volume, 30–53.

(14) See Cohen, ‘Equality of What?’, 18 ff. ‘Midfare’ is Cohen's term for the effect of goods on the person.

(15) Ibid.

(16) Ibid.

(17) Rawls, 1971: ss 14, 48.