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This month, we speak with Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago. You can listen to our conversation here.

What do we mean when we talk about nations being more or less developed? Is it simply a matter of being financially better-off? If not, then what would be a better measure of how well a country is doing?

In recent years, an increasingly influential group of philosophers, economists, and development professionals have been arguing that the best measure of development is not GDP per capita or average household income, but “capabilities”. Central to this approach is the idea that human well-being cannot be represented on a single scale, but consists in a range of different physical, rational, emotional, political and spiritual capabilities that need to be understood as irreducible components of a good human life. According to these theorists, if a nation’s average household income goes up at the same time as female participation in the political process goes down, there is an important sense in which that nation is becoming less rather than more developed.

In this podcast, Martha Nussbaum discusses the difference between the various ways in which a person may be said to possess (or not to possess) a given capability, gives her list of the ten most central human capabilities, and responds to some potential criticisms of that list. She also draws upon the work done by her colleague Amartya Sen to give examples of how the capabilities approach applies to the history of development in India, and offers her thoughts on the question of what kind of policy priorities the capabilities approach might be used to recommend.

Mark Hopwood