Ethics, ontology and capabilities

Nuno Martins*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

49 Citations (Scopus)


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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)37-53
Number of pages17
JournalReview of Political Economy
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2007


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