Well-being and Social Justice: In Defence of the Capabilities Approach

Annie Austin


The question ‘Equality of what?’ has been fiercely debated in political theory, as well as in real world politics. What should be the focus of egalitarian social justice, and what should be measured to evaluate it? Influential theories of the best ‘currency of justice’ include resources, opportunities, and preference satisfaction. This paper argues that the most appropriate currency of justice is ‘well-being’. Furthermore, the Capabilities Approach provides the most suitable theoretical and practical framework. Some simplistic approaches prioritise subjective wellbeing (SWB) as a guide for policy. This paper argues against such an approach, illustrating the argument with data from the European Social Survey relating to the effects of the economic crisis on the quality of life in the UK. The paper concludes that, defining well-being in terms of resources, opportunities or subjective states all have merit, but each provides only a partial perspective. The Capabilities Approach brings together the most important aspects of these partial conceptions within a single approach, providing a sophisticated conceptualisation of the multi-level and multi-dimensional nature of well-being, and a sound currency of social justice.