January 29, 2012
Amartya Sen, in Inequality Reexamined, made the distinction between capabilities and functionings. He says “Capability is primarily a reflection of the freedom to achieve valuable functionings” (3.5). His analysis in this passage and the way he differentiates between these two is very important for his argument, and interesting. It is not enough to have the ability (functioning) to do something, you must also have the substantive aspects of that ability such that doing that act is acceptable and thinkable. In other words, a maximization of raw freedom, in this formulation, is not enough to add value unless you are knowledgeable enough and substantively able to use that freedom. This is important, though arguably incorrect, because it casts doubt on a mainstream view that freedom, in other words an expansion of your choice set, actually adds real benefit to your life. If taken seriously, the amount of freedom a government allows has will no longer be a measure of the country’s freedom. A way to index substantive freedom should be formulated if possible.
In Book X, 1101a 14-17 of the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle says “If [that the future is uncertain] be granted, we shall define as ‘supremely happy’ those living men who fulfill and continue to fulfill these requirements, but blissful only as human beings.” It is unclear in the passage what Aristotle means by this. Perhaps other translation of a close look at the Greek would resolve the dilemma. I will discuss what I understand to be his very subtly and very interesting distinction. I do not think he is necessarily incorrect, but such a judgment could easily be made unless his sentence is understood in a certain way. I will explore this path.
Perhaps Aristotle is saying that people are supremely happy as “living men” qua living men, but only blissful as “human beings” qua human beings. In this case he is drawing some sort of distinction between living humans and human beings. In order to make the terminology more clear I have changed “living man” to the equivalent “living human,” Even with this change, it is unclear what Aristotle means, and a problem arises. Clearly all living humans are living beings. It is equally clear that all human beings are living humans (the soul unattached to the body, I do not think Aristotle believed to be a human being in the proper sense). But if the two groups are identical how can he attribute something to one and not the other? His distinction may be one of focus or grouping. Imagine, for example, that we could see all the planets in the universe shinning in the sky, and that was all the objects we saw in the sky. We could categorize the objects as “all the shiny objects we see in the sky” or as “all the objects in the solar system of significant mass.” In both cases the group being discussed is identical but nevertheless, I think different statements are being made. The planets being able to be seen is not what makes them planets, that is a byproduct (though a necessary byproduct) of their being a planet. But being a certain mass is a crucial fact of their being planets. That is the fact without which they would not be planets. It is the planetness of their planethood.
Full text available on the Academic Ledger.