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Ethics, Ontology and Capabilities


  • Nuno Martins


Amartya Sen's capability approach is concerned with the evaluation of inequality, and in particular with the description of the space in which equality should be assessed (the space of capabilities, or potential functionings). I will argue that Sen's approach is a philosophical exercise aimed at providing the ground for substantive theorising to proceed, that it does not itself engage in substantive theorising, and that it is mainly concerned with ontological description. Sen uses the categories of capabilities and respectively functionings to describe advantage and well-being. This ontological description can then be used for ethical theorising. But, as will be argued, the main emphasis of Sen's approach has been on the former, not on the latter. I will also argue that ontological realism is essential to Sen's approach, and that much of the persuasiveness of Sen's arguments spring from this (not explicitly acknowledged) ontological dimension. Furthermore, I will argue that an explicit recognition of this dimension is crucial for the development of Sen's perspective.

Suggested Citation

  • Nuno Martins, 2007. "Ethics, Ontology and Capabilities," Review of Political Economy, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 19(1), pages 37-53.
  • Handle: RePEc:taf:revpoe:v:19:y:2007:i:1:p:37-53 DOI: 10.1080/09538250601080768

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    Cited by:

    1. Binder, Martin & Witt, Ulrich, 2012. "A critical note on the role of the capability approach for sustainability economics," Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics (formerly The Journal of Socio-Economics), Elsevier, vol. 41(5), pages 721-725.
    2. Martins, Nuno, 2011. "Sustainability economics, ontology and the capability approach," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 72(C), pages 1-4.
    3. Ballet, Jérôme & Koffi, Jean-Marcel & Pelenc, Jérôme, 2013. "Environment, justice and the capability approach," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 85(C), pages 28-34.
    4. Demals, Thierry & Hyard, Alexandra, 2014. "Is Amartya Sen's sustainable freedom a broader vision of sustainability?," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 102(C), pages 33-38.
    5. Nuno Ornelas Martins & Américo Mendes, 2012. "Social Exclusion of Immigrants from a Capability Perspective: The Case of Portugal," Chapters,in: Globalization Trends and Regional Development, chapter 10 Edward Elgar Publishing.
    6. Kenji Mori & Shintaro Tamate, 2014. "Pasinetti after Sen: Towards a Capability Approach to Structural Dynamics of Consumption," Metroeconomica, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 65(4), pages 690-716, November.
    7. Roberta Capello & Tomaz Ponce Dentinho (ed.), 2012. "Globalization Trends and Regional Development," Books, Edward Elgar Publishing, number 14815.

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