Well-being, Public Policy and the Capability Approach
The capability approach is often seen as an account of well-being. The approach argues that we should have capabilities to perform certain valuable functionings (activities or states of being), which can be interpreted to mean that an individual’s well-being consists in the capabilities available to them. It is on this basis that Cohen mounts his criticism of the approach. He argues that by focussing on capabilities – and so the freedom to control our life – capability theorists ignore passively-received benefits, and provide an excessively ‘athletic’ account of well-being. By contrast, Cohen insists our well-being does not depend on the world conforming to our will because it is our will, or as a consequence of our choices or actions. Yet Cohen’s criticisms are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of the capability approach: it is not a comprehensive account of all factors that contribute to our well-being, but is concerned, too, to delineate the legitimate bases of government action. Thus, even if passively-received benefits do contribute to our well-being, the capability approach’s failure to account for them is no reason to reject it if such benefits are an inappropriate policy goal which, I will argue, they are.