The Concept of ‘Freedom’ in the Capability Approach

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“How come ‘freedom’ can be a goal for human wellbeing? Why is it better? If everybody has the freedom to do whatever they like, it will be chaotic. What about responsibility? Social goals?”

“If people are free to choose a house, everybody will choose the house in the city centre. The house with high property value. Expanding freedoms of individuals as a housing policy goal? It’s impossible.”

I often encounter these questions. Researchers are questioning about ‘freedom’ whenever I try to explain my research interest (i.e. applying the capability approach to housing policy evaluation). Freedom is a key concept of the capability approach. The approach suggests that development and policy intervention should aim at expanding the freedoms of individuals to achieve the lives that s/he has reason to value.

Positive vs. Negative Freedom

The concept of freedom in the capability approach is different from the freedom what people usually understand. Its concept is different from the one in the well-known phrase of ‘freedom of expression’. How are they different exactly?

Freedom is defined in two ways: positive and negative freedom. Here, the term ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ can be used interchangeably.

  • Positive freedom (Freedom To): I can act in a way to take control of my own life, and thus can realise my fundamental purposes. I can play an active role in my community.
  • Negative freedom (Freedom From): I’m free from external interference or coercion on my actions. Interference by others is absent.

This description is very simplified one. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy page provides an excellent overview of positive and negative freedom (but it requires quite an intensive reading). An additional useful source is a blog post “Freedom From…Freedom To…“. I find this can be good for (relatively) easy reading. It is also interesting to read how this blogger applied the two concepts of freedom to one’s life from childhood to manhood.

Positive freedom in the capability approach

The concept of freedom in the capability approach is positive freedom. Typical examples of negative freedom are the freedom of speech (expression/opinion), freedom of religion, and freedom of property. It also includes other daily practice matters, such as the freedom to own a gun. At the beginning of this post, I quoted some researchers’ question on freedom. They asked such questions because they understood it as negative freedom. In other words, they understood the capability approach promotes ‘absence of interventions’, while it actually promotes the enhancement of ‘one’s control over his/her own life’.

I realised that not many researchers in my field are familiar with two concepts of freedom, and are even unaware of its existence. Many people are familiar with only the negative definition of freedom. For example, if someone says, ‘I’m in favor of individual freedom’, we usually perceive s/he is strongly against the state’s intervention.

Positive freedom and capabilities

To convey positive freedom, a person needs to have abilities to lead her/his life. Amartya Sen calls it as ‘capabilities’. Thus, expanding the freedoms of individuals as a policy goal means enhancing the capabilities of individuals to control her/his life. Put it simply, the capability approach is about (imagine you have a daughter), for instance, ‘In order to let my daughter control and lead her life in the future, what capabilities of her should I foster?’ In relation to housing, it would be about (imagine you are a policy maker), for instance, ‘How can I expand the freedoms of citizens to take control and lead their own way of residing, rather than being subordinate to housing markets? What capabilities of citizens should I foster? ‘