New Co-Authored Publication: Capabilities as Substantive Opportunities and the Robustness of Conversion Factors

Together with Morten Fibieger Byskov and Matthias Kramm, I have contributed with an entry to the Handbook of Equality of Opportunity about what capabilities are. It offered one of the most fun times I’ve had writing anything philosophical, and much thanks to my co-authors I believe it is a great edition to the literature on capabilities, freedoms, and equality. More info below!

Title: Capabilities as Substantive Opportunities and the Robustness of Conversion Factors
From the book: Handbook of Equality of Opportunity


According to the capability approach, human well-being should be conceptualized in terms of capabilities – the real freedoms of individuals to achieve certain doings and beings. Yet, what does it mean to have the “real freedom” to achieve these things? In this chapter, it is argued that “real freedom” implies that someone has the substantive opportunity to do or be something (i.e., turn it into the corresponding functioning), in the sense that there is nothing or no one that impedes its achievement. This notion of “substantiveness” is analyzed and it is argued that enabling and disabling factors can be conceptualized along three dimensions, namely (i) whether they are of a personal, social, or environmental nature; (ii) whether they are of a positive or negative nature; and (iii) whether they are of a tangible or intangible nature. Moreover, it is argued that the substantiveness of someone’s opportunities could be called into question insofar as the capability – that is, the real freedom to achieve a certain doing or being – is not robust or secure. Consequently, five conditions of robustness are identified, which specify the robustness of a capability and/or its conversion factors, namely (i) noncompetition for finite capabilities, (ii) permanence of enabling conversion factors, (iii) decisive control over the outcome and decisive preference over the choice, (iv) content- and context-independence, and (v) non-dependency on favors. Finally, it is argued that this analysis reveals two ways of conceptualizing substantive opportunities. On the binary view of substantiveness, all conditions need to be met for someone to have the corresponding capability, because only if all conditions are met can it be said that the opportunity has been cleared of all obstacles to its realization and therefore be substantive. By contrast, on the incremental view of substantiveness, it is possible to hold that the opportunity to realize a certain doing or being is more or less substantive beyond either being present or not.

Keywords: Capability approach, Freedom, Substantive opportunity, Well-being, Equality.

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