Capable of anything?


I have described the modern mission of the RSA as enhancing human capability. This can provoke two different critiques. The first alleges blandness and vagueness - who could possibly be opposed to such a goal and isn't it possible to justify almost any activity under such a broad heading? The second warns against hubris; who are we to judge what is more or less enhanced capability and doesn't the idea of enhancing people's capability have rather sinister overtones of social engineering? Let me try to refute these perfectly reasonable sets of concerns.

Whilst it may be true that no one would say they were against enhancing human capability, one reason the capabilities school of political and social science has had such an impact is that it can be distinguished from the two other main strands of contemporary political thought and action: social democracy and free market liberalism.

Social democrats (British ones at least) have tended to act as though capability is largely a matter of access to material resources. A lack of concern about what dispositions and behaviours are best for individuals and society, and an unwillingness to be judgemental, goes some way to explaining why social democrats failed to see the dangers of allowing the reciprocal design of the welfare state to be gradually eroded.

For champions of the minimally regulated free market, a focus on capabilities is doubly flawed. First, it can help make the case for enhanced universal entitlements, confusing - from the perspective of liberals - the valid concept of ‘freedom from’ and the dangerous one of ‘freedom to’. Second, the idea of capabilities is judgemental, suggesting that some attitudes and attributes should be favoured above others. In contrast, free market liberals will argue that individual choices - as long as they don't infringe the freedom of others - are equally legitimate and that the market can be relied on to turn these choices into the stuff of economic progress.

The RSA's focus on capabilities is also, I would argue, of substance because we not only are interested in promoting policies and practices which enhance  capabilities but also in using behavioural science better to understand the basis of human capability.

What of the second critique: is a focus on enhancing capability in danger of being elitist or overbearing? It does unquestionably involve some judgement about how we should live. One - instrumental - justification arises from the concept of the ‘social aspiration gap’, which separates the kind of society most people say they want to live in from the one we seem likely to build relying on current predominant modes of thought and behaviour. I have sometimes formulated this in terms of 'enabling people to be the people they need to be to create the future they say they want'; unsurprisingly it hasn’t really caught on!

But I would go further, suggesting a very basic account of human fulfilment comprising three overlapping elements: first, contentment and quality of life, second, the fulfilment of potential (the domain of vocational skill and professional ambition) and third, the sense of contributing to the lives of others and the good of society as a whole. Individuals may not choose to take opportunities that are provided in these three domains, but the good society is one which, as far as possible, not only provides every person with the realistic opportunity – through institutions, rules, norms and entitlements - to pursue fulfilment in each.

There are, no doubt, many problems with what is a very broad brush arguments but what I find both depressing (about public discourse) and motivating ( about the RSA) is how rarely these kinds of questions are directly addressed in debate about politics and social policy. As is often said, our health service is a sickness service and we rarely explore what we mean by good health. The current administration is explicitly hostile to debates about young people’s capabilities in the context of education, seeing them as an excuse for dodging the real imperative of acquiring knowledge. And in welfare and criminal justice policy we work with almost medievally crude models of human motivation.

Who we need to be, who we should be and how we create the right circumstances for human development and fulfilment is blandly implicit in much debate; surely, politics would be more engaging and illuminating if these questions surfaced more often and more profoundly?

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