The capability approach, Aristotle, and the systems approach

Last week I blogged a post on the capability approach. I mentioned the two versions of the capability approach, the original one by Sen and the more Nicomachean version of Nussbaum. The term Nicomachean refers to Aristotle’s ethics, which Nussbaum is an acclaimed expert of and which must have influenced her take on the capability approach. Aristotle’s teleological ethics dominated Western thought for almost 2000 years, so there must be something to it. Strange then that I knew so little about it. In fact, until last week, I was hardly interested. Here follows my understanding of the relationship between Nussbaum’s angle on the capability approach, the Nicomachean ethics of Aristotle, and Churchman’s dialectical systems approach. Churchman hardly mentions Aristotle in his works, but he does consider his systems approach to be teleological in nature.

Nussbaum’s capabilities        Martha Nussbaum has written mostly about feminism and the capability approach (see here). In this post I will focus on what she calls the central capabilities. Her list of 10 central human capabilities is described here. They are: (1) Life; (2) Bodily Health; (3) Bodily Integrity; (4)  Senses, Imagination, and Thought; (5) Emotions; (6) Practical Reason; (7)  Affiliation; (8 ) Other Species; (9) Play; and (10) Control Over One’s Environment. I have played around with them in the blue box of below concept map. I changed the terminology a bit. Number 4 was changed in ‘imaginative expression’, number 5 was changed into emotional growth, and number 10 was changed into co-management. To me management implies control and co-management implies the social aspect of it. The capabilities are in Nussbaum’s view the necessary preconditions for individual freedom and development. This has implications for the way in which we promote societal freedom and development.

Freedom and development     The capabilities are in Nussbaum’s view the necessary preconditions for individual freedom and development. This has implications for the way in which we promote societal freedom and development. In order to be able to shape the political conditions for development basic human rights such as the right of political participation, and the protection of free speech and association must be guaranteed. This includes legal protection. Practical reason entails entails protection for the liberty of conscience and religious observance. The capability of social affiliation provisions of non-discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, caste, religion, national origin. Bodily integrity implies having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction. Education in one form or another is crucial in stimulating imaginative expression and enabling practical reason. Practical reason can design justifiable plans to organize the co-management of environment whilst showing full concern for the other central capabilities. To all this I added systems thinking as one of the approaches to help practical reason to make good plans in a complex world, which seems to be the case even at the individual level.

Nicomachean ethics        … is quite a mouthful, but is not as difficult as it may seem at first. Besides it is about things we all have to deal with and think about, such as character, virtues, good habits and happiness or well-being (‘eudaimonia’). The name may have somehow come from Aristotle’s son, Nicomachus, who was named after Aristotle’s father. The Nicomachean ethics are based on a teleological philosophy, which claims that the things around us have natural ends or purposes (sing.: teleos), which are expressed or represented by their proper functioning. Humans have three categories of functions: vegetative, animal and human ones (see concept map or my post on Schumacher, a Thomist). The main teleos of the human functions is practical reason (or practical wisdom), which uses deliberation to examine and decide on options for human behaviour, ideally to enable living a more full, complete life. The human functions include moral and intellectual values, which are complex skills such as justice, courage, and temperance. Human character is what unifies these virtues in a way to balance the rational, emotional, and social areas of living. We must somehow acquire the necessary inner dispositions (or virtues). That is not always easy or obvious.

Systems approach       Now, 2368 years after it was written, Aristotle’s ethics still makes a lot of sense. And I have just scratched the surface of it (also using a lecture by Arthur Holmes, recorded on video in the 1980s and available here, highly recommended, just 35 minutes of your time!!!!). Richard Kraut, in his article on Aristotle’s ethics, speaks of an innovative “systematic examination of the nature of happiness, virtue, voluntariness, pleasure, or friendship.” I would prefer to call it systemic, because he also points out that “what we need, in order to live well, is a proper appreciation of the way in which such goods as friendship, pleasure, virtue, honor and wealth fit together as a whole.” Anything that is considered “as a whole” is considered systemically. My conclusion is that if human well-being requires a whole-system appreciation, both personally and socially, then the dialectical systems approach (see e.g. here) may well provide a generally applicable method for starting the necessary deliberation. This seems especially true since both Aristotle’s ethics as well as Nussbaum’s capabilities are highly systemic in nature. Another, more simple way of looking at all this is by taking all this in, both ethics and capabilities, and use them as general insights to be used in one’s application of the systems approach whenever the need arises. You may find both approaches useful. Just try it. With or without the help provided in ‘Wicked Solutions‘.


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