Basic Capabilities, How Universal Are They?

Nussbaum advocates for a universal metric of basic capabilities. However, a Tibetan village that maintains a traditional way of living may challenge her progressive outlook towards ensuring certain basic capabilities.


Imagine a community. It is situated at a disadvantageous location and lacking natural resources, and develops through limited subsidies. The underdevelopment in infrastructure discourages children from travelling to schools outside. However, within this community, everyone is respected equally and equally distributes their basic necessities (food, shelter, income). What’s more, this community is deeply religious and bothers itself very little with material needs beyond a minimum level of survival. Observing religious practices is deemed the key to self-realization as a human being. This is a village I visited in the Tsang region of Tibet in China–Village LuoLin.

Left on its own, this village community would not feel unjustly disadvantaged in either material or social conditions. Moreover, given their strong sense of reciprocal respect for one another, it could even be used as an exemplary egalitarian community. However, the question arises when it is placed in a broader context of world: Are the villagers truly living their life to their human potential when they do not receive a formal education? I will examine this question from Martha Nussbaum’s perspective but point out limitations of her universal metric of basic capability in the context of Village LuoLin.

Nussbaum believes that there exists a list of ten universal basic capabilities that should underpin the political goals for any government. The concept of capability originates from an intuitive understanding of human nature, which is deemed to be dignified, free, and conscious.[1] Following from this conception, every human being has the capability to achieve their full human functions. Therefore, the guarantee for capabilities is an indispensable condition for any society that aims for political justice. Failure to do so leads to an “unjust and tragic” situation which demands urgent action.[2]

Importantly, the “capability” in Nussbaum’s conception is a combination of both internal development and social conditions.[3] Specifically, Nussbaum emphasizes that ripe “material and social circumstances” are essential for an individual to not only display her trained capabilities, but also cultivate her internal capability as a human being.[4] This understanding of capability underlies the moral obligation of governments to prepare the favorable environment for their citizens’ flourishing. Thus, to the Tibetan case, Nussbaum will argue for two courses of action: (1) redistributive policies to ensure the material basis for formal education, and (2) laws to ensure the social basis for formal education.

For Nussbaum, she would intuit the lack of education at LuoLin to be a tragedy, given that education is the critical component that shapes one’s capability of practical reason.[5] Given the remoteness of the village and difficulty in accessing primary and secondary schools, Nussbaum would advocate for more government subsidies, to build schools and infrastructure, provide transportations and even recruit more teachers for the children from Village LuoLin. Such a provision is costly. However, the ability to reason practically is a universal one. Thus, in spite of the costs, it is nevertheless necessary to provide each villager with an education.

However, the villagers may think otherwise. I learned from a conversation that most villagers do not feel strongly about their situation. To them, although conditions for basic survival could be improved, they are already satisfied with their current way of living. Moreover, all families teach their children a Tibetan Buddhist way of living by practicing religious worship. Some households expressed that they would prefer sending children to monasteries over educational institutions in town so as to continue their rootedness in Tibetan Buddhism.[6] Therefore, it shows that Buddhist worship is the foundation of a meaningful life to these villagers.

In response, Nussbaum would contend that happiness is not the correct metric to institute policies. The essential question, rather, is what the villagers are capable of achieving if they were given the opportunity to choose different ways of living. Because they never received an education, it could be argued that these villagers were being conditioned to believe they did not need one. Such a scenario is a deprivation of a critical human capability.

Nussbaum’s underlying justification is the difference between functioning and capability, where functioning refers to the actual exercise of a human potential, and capability refers to the opportunity of displaying functioning.[7] Nussbaum uses an analogy: comparing the difference between fasting and starving, a religious ascetic can choose to fast but still have the option to eat whenever he wants to. As such, even if the villagers choose not to activate their functioning of literacy and numeracy, the government should still devote resources to make formal schooling an available option, showing respect for citizens’ universal capability of practical reason.

On the surface, it seems that Nussbaum shows great respect for the choice of each human being. However, a closer examination of her stance in the aspect of practical reason reveals contradictions. While Nussbaum acknowledges that individuals have the choice to decide whether or not to exercise their actual capability, she specifies that certain functioning should be pursued by the government for its citizens regardless of their will. This can be seen in her emphasis that “functioning in childhood is necessary for capability in adulthood,” and there are reasons to “protect capability by requiring a limited degree of functioning.”[8] In other words, Nussbaum believes that (1) certain functioning is essential for cultivating the internal conditions (for example, intellectual capacity) for capability, (2) capability is the basis for exercising full human functioning in future. Therefore, it is essential to promote certain functioning as a starting point. As such, it is insufficient to merely have an option of schooling–there must be social basis that ensures compensation for natural and social differences in order to respect human capabilities.[9] Such social basis would manifest in laws related to education.

Here, it is important to clarify that Nussbaum believes that education is the key to practical reason. Practical reason is the ability “to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s life.”[10] Furthermore, such critical reflection needs to take “complex forms of discourse, concern, and reciprocity with other human beings.”[11] Nussbaum interprets “complexity” in a very specific way–the option to multiple possibilities of living one’s life. To illustrate, Nussbaum claims that “a child raised in an environment without freedom of speech or religion does not develop the same political and religious capabilities” as one raised in an environment that protects those capabilities.[12] This means that, in the Tibetan village case, Nussbaum views the mere exposure to religious practices of Tibetan Buddhism without formal modern education as an inadequate, even depriving one. It restricts the roadmap of living to one specific interpretation and does not prepare children with the same ability to formulate multiple interpretations of their life path which could include reconsidering their traditions. To push for the option of realizing their full human functioning of reasoning, Nussbaum would advocate for the necessary pro-education laws, which can be seen in her endorsement of the legitimacy to “require primary and secondary education, given the role this plays in all the later choices of an adult life.”[13] By such reasoning, it would be unacceptable to Nussbaum if the Tibetans decide not to send their children to formal schools but simply raise them with practices of Tibetan Buddhism.

However, comparing her arguments above, a contradiction exists between enforcing mandatory education to protect capabilities and respecting individual human choices. In order to respect individuals as truly worthy human beings, Nussbaum expects a top-down approach to enforce rules which would potentially violate individual choices. Such contradiction, however, reveals an implicit assumption of Nussbaum’s universal capability metric–that complexity in a person’s plan of life is only possible through going beyond her status quo, which thus necessitates modern liberal education. This reasoning may sound plausible in Nussbaum’s anecdotal encounters with Indian women who want to work outside of home but are restricted by their environment. However, it does not apply to this Tibetan village where the villagers choose to keep to their way of living despite their awareness of the possibility for change. Specifically, the Tibetan lady who I encountered told me that villagers will donate whatever extra portion of wealth or gifts they receive from visitors to local monasteries because they believe that is the moral way of living.[14] While the topic is not directly targeted at education, her view nonetheless reveals a different belief in human worth, which is neglected by Nussbaum. To the Tibetan villagers, their human value and capability rest in their embodiment of the religiosity of Tibetan Buddhism through maintaining their way of living and practices. Even without formal education, it does not mean the capability of practical reason is non-existing, but rather, it manifests differently in the Tibetan village context. Hence, the villagers sense little need in bridging the difference between their educational opportunities and those enjoyed by the modern world–the basis of comparison for human worth is not the same.

Admittedly, my experience with the Tibetan village is an anecdotal account. Nevertheless, it reveals an exception to Nussbaum’s principle of universal capability, specifically targeting the aspect of practical reason. Ultimately, as Nussbaum’s principle targets governments worldwide, a crucial question to ask is where to draw the line between protecting universal capabilities and imposing certain capabilities deemed universal by progressivists. In this specific case where the villagers base their meaning of life fundamentally on the maintaining of Tibetan religiosity, a change in education will inevitably challenge the value it holds dear, even creating frictions that break this close-knit community. In the end, Nussbaum’s approach is likely to bring more disruptions to the village than human progress.



One possible counter argument to my interpretation of the Tibetan villagers’ way of living is the perspective of the children. In this case, the parents are making decision on behalf of the children, who may or may not want to preserve the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and may actually yearn for a progressive education condition that widens their choices. This is a claim that I do not have sufficient evidence to validate. Nonetheless, in terms of the impact on the village, I maintain that it is essential to consider the perspective of the villagers and their underlying belief about human value. Without a gradual transition, any form of change in the name of universal humanist goals can create disruptive impacts on the village.



Nussbaum, Martha. “In Defense of Universal Values.” In Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach. Vol. 3. Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Quzhen. Personal interview with villager, June 29, 2016.



I thank my seminar Professor Sandra Field for her passionate discussion and insightful comments, without which this paper will not develop in such complexity. I also thank Isaac Lee for his valuable feedbacks and great patience in peer editing my draft.

[1]. Martha Nussbaum, “In Defense of Universal Values” in Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 72.

[2]. Ibid., 71.

[3]. Ibid., 84.

[4]. Ibid., 86.

[5]. Ibid., 82.

[6]. Quzhen, personal interview with a LuoLin villager, June 29, 2016.

[7]. Ibid., 87–88.

[8]. Ibid., 90, 93.

[9]. Ibid., 92.

[10]. Ibid., 79.

[11]. Ibid., 82.

[12]. Ibid., 85.

[13]. Ibid., 90.

[14]. Quzhen, personal interview with a LuoLin villager, June 29, 2016.

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Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

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