Social Opportunities and Individual Responsibility: The Capability Approach and the Third Way
Series/Report no.Revue Éthique et Économique / Ethics and Economics;Volume 2, Numéro 2
The fashionable widespreading of Sen’s ideas coincides with a new mood in the shaping of public policies in affluent societies. In Europe indeed, an “opportunity”-based approach to social security has been implemented through the European Employment Strategy. Public action tends to rely on a procedural concern with individual opportunities or potentialities in the labour market. The underlying ethics is that individuals are then responsible to use these background opportunities in order to lead the kind of life they value most. More broadly, the discourse and practice of the so-called “Third Way” shares with the capability approach an appeal for a procedural and enabling depiction of the role of the State. The paper intends to clarify the relation between procedural and opportunity-based approaches to social justice, among them the capability approach, and these new patterns of public action. Our vision goes in the way of a yet renewed, but deeper action of the welfare state, where social agency is envisaged as the very condition of individual agency. Drawing on the various critics of mainstream equality of opportunity, two opposed approaches to responsibility are identified: on the one hand, responsibility is conceived of as i) a “luck vs. choice” fixed starting point, ii) a backward-looking conception and iii) a highly individualistic framework. On the other hand, responsibility is envisaged as i) an outcome of public policies rather than a starting point, ii) a forward-looking conception, and iii) a combined institutional-individual framework. We situate here Sen’s capability approach, as well as critics of the luck egalitarianism path. The Third Way rhetoric is assessed against both these perspectives. The issue eventually boils down to an ethical reflection on the articulation of responsibilities, and to a pragmatic and substantial concern for the content of what providing security should mean in practice.