What Can the Capabilities Approach Learn from an Ubuntu Ethic? A Relational Approach to Development Theory

World Development 97 (September):153–164 (2017)
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Over the last two decades, the capabilities approach has become an increasingly influential theory of development. It conceptualises human wellbeing in terms of an individual's ability to achieve functionings we have reason to value. In contrast, the African ethic of ubuntu views human flourishing as the propensity to pursue relations of fellowship with others, such that relationships have fundamental value. These two theoretical perspectives seem to be in tension with each other; while the capabilities approach focuses on individuals as the locus of ethical value, an ubuntu ethic concentrates on the relations between individuals. In this article, we ask: to what extent is the capabilities approach compatible with this African ethical theory? We argue that, on reflection, relations play a much stronger role in the capabilities approach than often assumed. There is good reason to believe that relationality is part of the concept of a capability itself, where such relationality has intrinsic ethical value. This understanding of the ethical centrality of relations grounds new normative perspectives on the capabilities approach, and offers a more comprehensive grasp of the relevance of relationships to empirical enquiry.

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Thaddeus Metz
University of Pretoria


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