The concept of functionings was introduced by the Indian economist Amartya Sen in Commodities and Capabilities (1985), in the context of the “equality of what” debate. This debate involved scholars interested in the definition of social justice after the influential work of the American political philosopher John Rawls (1971). Rawls defined social justice in terms of equality of rights and of priority given to individuals who receive the smallest quantity of basic resources (which he called primary goods ). This view represented a striking break with the utilitarian tradition focusing on individuals’ subjective well-being and launched a debate about the quantity that should be equalized across individuals in a just society: welfare, resources, opportunities, and so on.
Sen criticized Rawls’s choice of a resource metric for the definition of social justice on the grounds that different individuals may have different abilities to transform resources into achievements of various kinds. He called such achievements functionings, encompassing all achievements, not only actions (doings ) but also states of the body and the mind (beings ), that might be considered relevant. For instance, an individual’s level of happiness is a functioning, as well as his marital status, his income, the kind of job he has, and how much he works. Sen, however, did not propose to define social justice as equality of some index of functionings across individuals, or as priority for those who have the smallest level of functionings. He argued that what is important, out of concern for freedom and responsibility, is not that people actually have good levels of functionings, but that they have access to such levels. The set of functioning levels that an individual is able to achieve is called a capability, or capability set, in his theory, and he favors a definition of social justice in terms of equality of capabilities (or priority for the worst off in terms of capabilities).
One difficulty with the concepts of functionings and capabilities as used in Sen’s theory is that they are so large that one must find ways to determine how to weigh the importance of various functionings in the construction of a synthetic index. Whether individuals’ personal preferences or expert opinion about prudential values should be relied upon in such an exercise is open to controversy. A list of important functionings has been proposed by Martha Nussbaum. There are also alternative theories of justice that combine the double concern for unequal abilities on the one hand and freedom and responsibility on the other hand in different ways, as in Richard Arneson’s equality of opportunity for welfare (which singles out subjective welfare as the only ultimately relevant functioning) or Ronald Dworkin’s equality of resources (which includes personal abilities in the definition of resources). Some authors (Elizabeth Anderson, John Baker, and Marc Fleurbaey) have argued that achievements (functionings) and not only opportunities (capabilities) are relevant for the evaluation of individual situations in terms of social justice.
The notion of functionings has been influential in empirical measurements of standards of living, most notably in the United Nations Development Program construction of a “human development index” that adds education and health data to income statistics for the comparison of countries. Many other applications are being pursued. A Human Development and Capabilities Association was created in 2004.
SEE ALSO Needs; Needs, Basic; Sen, Amartya Kumar; Want Creation; Wants
Anderson, Elizabeth S. 1999. What is the Point of Equality? Ethics 109: 287–337.
Arneson, Richard J. 1989. Equality and Equal Opportunity for Welfare. Philosophical Studies 56: 77–93.
Baker, John, Kathleen Lynch, Sarah Cantillon, and Judy Walsh. 2004. Equality: From Theory to Action. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan.
Dworkin, Ronald. 2000. Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Fleurbaey, Marc. 1995. Equal Opportunity or Equal Social Outcome? Economics & Philosophy 11: 25–55.
Nussbaum, Martha C., and Amartya K. Sen, eds. 1993. The Quality of Life. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Sen, Amartya K. 1985. Commodities and Capabilities. Amsterdam: North-Holland.
Sen, Amartya K. 1992. Inequality Reexamined. Oxford: Clarendon Press.