The Capabilities Approach

37 Pages Posted: 17 Jan 2008 Last revised: 3 Feb 2008

See all articles by Erik Schokkaert

Erik Schokkaert

Catholic University of Leuven (KUL)

Date Written: January 2008


The origins of the capabilities approach within welfare economics are to be found in a series of influential papers and monographs, written by Amartya Sen in the early eighties of the previous century (Sen, 1980, 1985a; Sen et al., 1987). He developed and discussed the approach further in some widely read books (Sen, 1992, 1999; Nussbaum and Sen, 1993). The basic purpose of the approach is neatly summarized in the preface to the seminal monograph "Commodities and capabilities": " present a set of interrelated theses concerning the foundations of welfare economics, and in particular about the assessment of personal well-being and advantage" (Sen, 1985a, my italics). At first sight, this may seem a purely descriptive exercise. However, normative considerations were crucial from the very beginning. The introduction of the capabilities idea was meant to be an answer to the question: "Equality of what?" (Sen, 1980). The basic idea is to find a definition of personal well-being and advantage that can be used in a meaningful way as the equalisandum for an egalitarian policy (or, in a less egalitarian approach, as the basic concern for policy-makers).

Suggested Citation

Schokkaert, Erik, The Capabilities Approach (January 2008). Available at SSRN: or

Erik Schokkaert (Contact Author)

Catholic University of Leuven (KUL) ( email )

Oude Markt 13
Leuven, Vlaams-Brabant 3000

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