Amartya Sen’s capability approach is, on the one hand, in line with universalism such as exhibited in Martha Nussbaum’s capabilities approach and Len Doyal and Ian Gough’s human need theory. On the other hand, his approach puts priority on people’s “self-evaluation” of capabilities and needs. The latter emphasis makes his approach distinctly sensitive to people’s differences such as gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, etc.. One could ask, however, how successfully the former commitment to universalism relates to this latter feature that places importance on taking difference seriously. This question is especially relevant with respect to global justice and gender, for example. To offer a potential answers to this question is main goal of this paper.
My answer will come from contrasting his theory with two related but distinct theories, and from connecting his discourse about need construction, identity, and democracy with his capability approach. His version of universalism I construe could be called “constructive universalism.” First, Sen’s theory is situated within universalism. Secondly further examination reveals that some distinct features of Sen’s work contrast starkly with other universalist accounts. The meanings of such feature are not so explicitly explained in his theory. To understand the meanings is the third task of this paper. I will further argue that his theory has great potential to take people’s difference seriously, and will present this interpretation from the perspective of feminist studies, disability studies, and cultural / post- colonial studies. How this potential can be realized will comprise the fourth part of this paper. I will present the case for understanding his theory as “constructive universalism,” and address how this interpretation could solve the above question.