Community Engagement · Social Justice

Distinguishing Individualism — the Capability Approach and Fostering Community

I would categorize both my professional and personal vocation as fostering community. As with any such development work, this brings with it value judgements of what should be improved so as to foster community. I’m increasingly finding, however, that our country’s myopic focus on economic growth as measured by the gross domestic product is counter to what I value with regard to fostering community. As Robert F. Kennedy stated in a speech delivered to the Commonwealth Club January 4, 1968:

The Gross National Product of the United States is the largest in the world, but that GNP, if we should judge our nation by that, counts air pollution and cigarette advertising and ambulances to clear the highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and jails that break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder and chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead and armoured cars that fight riots in our streets. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

Market Neoliberalism vs. Capability Approach

I’ve been exploring the Human Development and Capability Approach as originally developed by economist Amartya Sen and philosopher Martha Nusbaum as an interesting alternative to market neoliberalism. Market neoliberalism is an economic model that seeks market freedom, defined as freedom from interference. It puts growth and economic wellbeing as the primary objective of development policy. Education, infrastructure, and the health of people and communities are seen as investments for maximizing economic growth. Government policy leads towards happiness and the good life to the extent that they invest in programs that increase economic growth while minimizing interference of the market.

By contrast, the capability approach focuses on how a range of intersecting resources, one of which is financial resources, can serve as a means to support our agency — the ability to pursue goals — and capability — the freedom to enjoy those goals, those things which we value being and doing. Freedom in this case is then defined not only in the negative such as freedom from interference by exclusionary forces such as agism, sexism, and racism, but also in the positive, having the resources and agency to do or be that which a person states that they value. Education, infrastructure, and health have intrinsic value in their own right as they are things which people value. Government development policy is guided by concerns of negative and positive freedoms focused on equity and justice.

Both models, though, focus on the individual. Can either serve as a framework for fostering community?

Different Meanings of Individualism

Individual vs. community has been an issue I’ve struggled with for some time. It can be said that both my education and research focus as much and more on individuals as they do on community. So for instance, I give a grade to each student and not a single grade to the whole class. Does this mean I work to foster individuals rather than community? Is it possible for this to be a both/and rather than an either/or proposition?

On page 35 of An Introduction to the Human Development and Capability Approach, the question of individual vs. community is helpfully explored. In doing so, they distinguish between three uses of the term individualism, where capability approach draws from the first and neoliberalism draws from the second:

  • Ethical individualism ‘postulates that individuals, and only individuals, are the ultimate units of moral concern… This, of course, does not imply that we should not evaluate social structures and societal properties, but ethical individualism implies that these structures and institutions will be evaluated in virtue of the causal importance that they have for individual well-being.’
  • Ontological individualism holds that ‘society is built up from only individuals and nothing (but) individuals, and hence is nothing more than the sum of individuals and their properties.’
  • Explanatory or methodological individualism presumes ‘that all social phenomena can be explained in terms of individuals and their properties.’

If we are then to have equity and justice as an outcome of our development work fostering community, we need to start with the individual because each individual brings with them different mixes of social, material, natural, geographic, human, psychological, information, and cultural resources as well different social structures which aid or constrain agency. As such, each individual will need different levels of development assistance if we are to ethically help them to advance their agency and capabilities so as to achieve that which they value being and doing. Such a starting point does not necessarily preclude an additional recognition that we are an interdependent collective and so must consider the emergent characteristics and values beyond those of the individuals that comprise the collective.

Ultimately, then, I find the capability approach a useful alternative to displace the highly problematic market neoliberalism as I seek to foster community. Neoliberalism begins and ends with the individual. Consider the trajectory of U.S. and increasingly global development policy since the 1980s, and we note that policies of equity and justice and programs with intrinsic value to people are being displaced by policies that minimize interference on individuals and markets — and primarily interference on those individuals and markets with the most power. Capability approach starts with the individual because ethically it is the only way to assure justice to each person.

However, I do not find the capability approach a sufficient alternative in that it cannot inform how we move from the individual to the community, although it doesn’t preclude such a move as does neoliberalism. For that, I draw on Freire and popular education. I’d love to hear from others both on their thoughts regarding neoliberalism vs. capability approach, and also on other models that may be used to inform the move from individual to community.

To Learn More About the Capability Approach

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