Capable of anything?

January 16, 2013 by
Filed under: The RSA 

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?



14 Comments on Capable of anything?

  1. David Richmond on Wed, 16th Jan 2013 10:38 am
  2. I’m delighted to see you promoting a capabilities approach, flaws and all – it’s refreshing to take an approach that doesn’t assume to have all the answers. Nonetheless I think it’s a great place to start.
    I am working to apply this approach to my work which is about helping people help each other (or ‘designing strategic approaches to creative development!’).
    I wonder if you’d be interested in the work we are doing at art + power in Bristol? We are encouraging everyone we work with to join a creative development programme – a programme that is open to all and particularly designed for disabled people with learning difficulty. The programme aims to support everyone to achieve their own creative potential whilst supporting others to do the same.
    If you are interested in finding out more – and maybe giving us some advice – do get in touch

  3. Jonathanrowson on Wed, 16th Jan 2013 10:47 am
  4. Good to see the idea of ‘human capability’ being fleshed out. I personally find the social aspiration gap a more powerful way of expressing the underlying idea because it suggests a deeper diagnosis, and a clearer sense of mission.

    In so far as behavioural insights are the key, there is a huge body of evidence on the value-action gap and/or attitude-behaviour gap that supports this emphasis on the massive systemic challenge (interaction of psychological, social, institutional, policy etc) of getting people to ‘walk the talk’ of the worlds they profess to want, so I think it is a worthwhile and coherent way of framing the overall purpose of the organisation.

    That said, in addition to the two objections you mentioned, and in the spirit of being part of the transparent organisation you have advocated, I would raise another that is slightly more personal. It sometimes feels that your ability/need/tendency to find a third way is almost a reflex. Over time, it begins to look (to me at least) that when you strip away the content of your main arguments and look at the form it almost always reads like: “One side says this, the other side says that, but we take the best of both and say this instead.”

    I am not sure how much of a problem that is, but I suspect whatever is gained in narrative traction may be lost somewhere else, and thought you should at least be mindful of it.

  5. Zio Bastone on Wed, 16th Jan 2013 12:52 pm
  6. ‘Over time, it begins to look (to me at least) that when you strip away the content of your main arguments and look at the form it almost always reads like: “One side says this, the other side says that, but we take the best of both and say this instead.”’ (Jonathan Rowson)

    I agree: thesis – antithesis followed by Third Way. I’d merely add that the two rejected alternatives are sometimes artificial and, in any case, don’t represent some of the rich conceptual differences that are out there. Often they are depressingly close together, so that one’s impression can be of two competitive angels and some pins; plus a third who wants to be compere.

  7. Robert Burns on Wed, 16th Jan 2013 12:52 pm
  8. Matthew,

    in principle I agree with you.

    A major practical stumbling block is that we have a system (if it can be so called) where one person ‘being who they want to be’ means that several other people can’t be who they ‘want to be’.

    The same is true of desirable and attainable futures.

    In truth we inhabit a finite domain and there is only so much of anything to go around (this includes the liberty of individuals to be who and what they desire).

    Consequently, unless everybody is willing to downsize what they currently have and/or what they desire the extreme examples of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ that define the current world order stand little to no chance of being eliminated.

    Will the Chinese and Indians voluntarily cut back their ambitions for future economic development for the benefit of others outside their borders?

    Will the US, Canada and the states of the EU voluntarily roll back what they currently have and what they aspire to in the future for the benefit of others outside their borders?

    Doubt it on both counts.

    Like so much else: great in theory, impossible in practice.

  9. Benjamin D on Wed, 16th Jan 2013 6:05 pm
  10. Well, I saw this slightly differently to others in that I thought you were discussing the difference between negative and positive liberty – and perhaps advocating that a capabilities approach could be considered as attaining positive liberty?

    Maybe I’m reading between the lines too much.

    But talk of a third way reminds me of Blair’s letter to Isaiah Berlin in 1997, shame that Berlin was too ill to respond, maybe history might have been slightly different

  11. Julie Stansfield on Wed, 16th Jan 2013 8:39 pm
  12. More of these questions should be asked in social policy context.
    People need…. someone who loves them, something to do and something to look forward to. And these are the “least focused” on issues in any human services.

  13. David Wilcox on Fri, 18th Jan 2013 11:40 am
  14. Matthew – if one RSA focus for enhancing human capability is in-house – fostering mutual support and networking among Fellows – there’s a possible solution to the challenge you pose in an earlier post about not achieving as much as might be hoped through the Fellowship.
    With a broadly agreed mission, the Fellowship could be further developed as a collaborative economy/social ecosystem to mesh as you suggest “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”
    Your posts have helped inspire some positive ideas along these lines in our discussion over on Linkedin
    I’m sure we could move things further if we could also get contributions from Board, Fellowship Council and staff – either on Linkedin or some other collaborative space. Any chance?

  15. David Richmond on Mon, 21st Jan 2013 8:20 am
  16. I agree with Julie and David’s comments. I’d be interested to see what a whole organisation approach to developing human capability would look like for the RSA. David’s post suggests some useful start points with this.

  17. David Wilcox on Mon, 21st Jan 2013 8:54 am
  18. Thanks David. The Linkedin discussion is going well, and I have pulled out some key points (though it is wide-ranging, and there are others):

    * there is a lot of enthusiasm for developing more Fellow-led projects and activities to contribute to the RSA’s overall purpose, as Matthew Taylor hoped for in his post (an earlier one about Fellowship)

    * however, rather than just identifying specific tip-of-the-iceburg projects as contributing to the purpose, we should take account of the overall contribution that the work of Fellows can make where that has been supported by networking within RSA and other support

    * in order to achieve that greater contribution, we need much better networking and support. This may be some sort of communication and innovation hub, plus well-facilitated online and offline spaces, specifically to serve Fellows

    * while the RSA has overall to pursue the charitable objects defined in its Charter, the notion of constraining Fellows’ individual activities as charitable does not make sense, and is not motivating

    * in order to retain, motivate and recruit Fellows we need a way of blending the achievement of some overall purpose with personal and professional development and learning … in ways that are relevant to the individual.

    There’s potential for testing some of these ideas within the London region development plan – and I’m sure other regions. Discussion here.

    The Linkedin group has the offer of a London meeting venue, and we are also considering Google hangouts.

    What is, as usual, extremely tedious and time-consuming is having discussions on this blog, and Linkedin, and on … and for those discussions to be held in the different domains of Board, staff and Fellowship. For a whole-organisation approach we need some shared space, and a mental model to endorse it.

    Are you in Linkedin? Great to have your thoughts there, as a start … or we can come to your place!

  19. David Richmond on Tue, 22nd Jan 2013 11:50 am
  20. Thanks David.
    I should say first that, whilst I am on LinkedIn, I’m not a fellow myself so my knowledge of the society is limited Nonetheless I hope the following is of some use.
    I’m inclined to agree with the two key areas you’ve identified – the need for a mental model that can be shared and personalised and for a shared space to explore, collaborate and disseminate.
    I think it is worth exploring how a capabilities approach could provide some solutions to these and the other issues you identify.
    I would suggest that if we took the mission of extending human capabilities seriously it would involve developing our own capability as well as making it easier for others to develop theirs.
    (By the way, whilst I understand Robert’s concerns, I actually see sustainability as a key strength of the capability approach. This is particularly true if you are prepared to accept (a) a definition of sustainable development as making the best use of resources to achieve a goal without impairing the development of others and (b) the view of Mahbub ul Haq that ‘The real wealth of a nation is its people and the purpose of development is to create an enabling environment for people to enjoy long, healthy and creative lives.’ (UN Development Programme, 1990). Capability approaches take a more nuanced view of the nature of development that recognise that my development is closely tied to the development of others.)
    Finding a shared space for fellows to explore their own, and each others’ development is part of this process of building enabling environments. It is also important to have a shared structure to facilitate this and building this into an effective, relevant and personalised professional development process is key. A clear structure is also important to facilitate the development of fellow-led projects that contribute towards a shared vision.
    This shared structure could come from an adaption of the frameworks outlined by Sen and Nussbaum (see link above). I’ve been working on adapting these frameworks to suit the work I do with people with learning difficulties, arts workers and partners in Bristol and am keen to see if other individuals or groups are interested in exploring a similar approach.
    I think the approach has tremendous potential particularly if we are able to adopt this approach ourselves as then we have much more chance of being able to adapt it for others. Also, adopting this shared approach would also help us move away from the transactional (provider/recipient) relationships that Matthew has decried in previous posts to more equal relationships in which each individual’s unique potential is valued and nurtured.

  21. David Wilcox on Tue, 22nd Jan 2013 12:38 pm
  22. Thanks David – that sounds like an exciting approach, that could be applied not just to RSA but also of course by Fellows in their own context. For me, it is just the sort of model-sharing and social learning that RSA can offer, with some more facilitation.
    How might you be tempted to become a Fellow? I’m pretty sure you would be very welcome.

  23. David Wilcox on Tue, 22nd Jan 2013 1:30 pm
  24. David – on further reflection – my immediate response to your ideas was to say why not join the RSA as a Fellow to explore as you indicate. And that would (in my view) be very welcome.
    I then thought, the RSA touches and enables thousands of people through its excellent staff-led projects, events and other activities, so the organisation has a core of staff, a wider society of Fellows, and then the bigger cloud of connections.
    Some of its online systems – like the Linkedin group – are closed, and some like are more open.
    So – does one aim to create shared spaces through organisational membership, or is that too restricting? How can one best work across boundaries? Earlier thoughts about that and RSA from 2007
    Meanwhile a search on Sen and Nussbaum is giving me plenty to read …

  25. David Richmond on Tue, 22nd Jan 2013 9:17 pm
  26. David- thanks very much for your positive response and encouragement. I’d be very happy to pursue any of the options you outline. As regards shared spaces I think there is a place for organisational membership particularly for face-to-face and detailed interactions and that this role is strengthened by sharing as much as possible in the public domain – something I think we are all starting to get better at.
    Hope you enjoy your reading!

  27. Neil Crowther on Wed, 23rd Jan 2013 9:56 am
  28. Excellent and welcome article. The capabilities approach holds great promise as a way to reform (replace?) the welfare state and in particular as a vehicle for securing ‘freedom to’ for hitherto excluded and disadvantaged groups, including disabled people. This blog explores this:

    This report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission employs the approach to propose reforms to adult social care:


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