Amartya Sen's Ethics of Substantial Freedom

© by Dr. Jan Garrett

This webpage (1) lays out the basic idea of positive or substantial freedom, (2) distinguishes it from negative freedom on the one side and happiness on the other, and (3) relates it to the notion of "capability," which is distinct from a raw capacity and an actual exercise of a capability.

This summary is mainly based on Amartya Sen's 1999 book, Development as Freedom (New York: Random House), hence DAF. At the bottom there is a link to information about Martha C. Nussbaum's extension of Prof. Sen's theory.

Composed: September 26, 2001; Revised January 2003

Minor Format Revision: August 2005


Sen's "perspective of [positive or, as he calls it "substantial"] freedom" is concerned with "enhancing the lives we lead and the freedoms we enjoy," in other words, "expanding the freedoms we have reason to value," so that our lives will be "richer and more unfettered" and we will be able to become "fuller social persons, exercising our own volitions [capacities for deliberate choice] and interacting with--and influencing--the world in which we live." (DAF, 14-15) In his view, positive freedom is "intrinsically important as the preeminent objective of development," that is, of public policy. (DAF, 37)

Public policy--the programs and rules by which government and other public agencies arrange our lives in society--is supposed to be the means by which human beings pursue what is good or ethically desirable in the public sphere. Perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to treat Sen's perspective as an ethical perspective that may also help us evaluate the interactions between people in families and other associations.

We should try to explain what Sen means by "substantial freedoms." Substantial freedoms are (1) valuable things that can be divided up and delivered to human beings (or groups of people in a region) in varying amounts. In that respect they are like money and freedom from coercion, things which can be preconditions for substantial freedom but are not very good indicators of it. In the case of money, a person can have very little, a middle amount, or a lot. In the case of freedom from coercion, the same can be said: one can be a slave, constantly subject to the whims of an overseer, or one can have maximum available freedom from coercion by one's fellow humans in their private or governmental capacities. What society does, and to some extent what individuals do, can determine how much substantial freedom we have.

But substantial freedom (2) has to be distinguished from other things that we "often have reason to value": money, negative freedom (aka negative liberty, or freedom from coercion), and happiness, on the other.

Substantial Freedom and Income Level

Monetary income alone cannot be used as a reliable indicator of substantial freedom. An increase in income might be converted into an increase in substantial freedom, but the conversion is not automatic or equally easy for everybody. A sick person is normally less able than a healthy one to convert a given increase in income into a wider range of real opportunities, i.e., into greater substantial freedom. The same might be said of a person who lives in a dangerous neighborhood that makes her fearful to go outside as compared to a person who lives in a safer neighborhood.

Thus it is often more effective, in the promotion of substantial freedom, to invest in public programs that will provide access to inexpensive health care or make neighborhoods safer places than to divide the money that would be used on these programs among the individual people who happen to be sick or who live in the affected neighborhoods.1

Substantial Freedom: Greater Than Negative Liberty, Less Than Happiness

Substantial freedom is somewhere between negative liberty and well-being or happiness. Sen appears to believe that the more substantial freedom one has, the happier one is likely to be. But the correspondence between negative liberty and happiness is not so close. Yet negative liberty can be a precondition for substantial freedom. Thus, perhaps we have a scale

negative liberty ---------------------------substantial freedom----------------------------happiness

What is negative liberty or negative freedom?

Negative liberty corresponds to what is sometimes called negative or non-interference rights. These rights, as I pointed out above, can be summed up as freedom from coercion. Negative liberty includes the freedom from assault (murder, rape, etc.), the freedom from enslavement and kidnaping, the freedom from theft of the products one has created solely from one's own labor, the freedom not to be prevented from making deals with other willing deal-makers, etc. (The only limits normally imposed by a pure system of negative liberty is that those who have it must respect the similar liberties of others.)

Substantial freedom differs from negative freedom in this way. A person who is without resources (a plot of land of her own to farm, seeds to plant, water to irrigate, education, access to health care, ability to pay for what she needs, powerful friends, etc.) may live a life that is unpleasant and short. But if she is not attacked or robbed by others or enslaved against her will, then her negative freedom is not violated. Yet we might forgive her for thinking that neither is her negative freedom worth very much to her. Substantial freedom, by contrast, provides people with real opportunities that negative freedom by itself does not.

Happiness is at least partly "up to us" alone

Happiness, on the opposite end, always requires the right attitude on the part of the person who is happy. Whatever else it requires, happiness implies that the happy person is not always wishing for something that he or she does not possess. We can easily imagine persons very rich or famous or physically healthy or politically powerful who are miserable because they strongly desire what they do not have and cannot easily get. (This observation led some ancient Greek philosophers to conclude that to be happy what one needed mainly to do was not just accept what fate dished out but welcome it.)

Substantial freedom is close to but not identical with happiness

The ability not to be frustrated just because one does not possess some conceivably valuable things is an attitude (something mental rather than physical). As an attitude it lies essentially in the power of the individual whose attitude it is. It is not something that other people can control. Yet positive freedom is something that people can promote for persons outside themselves. They can also sometimes create it in what they themselves are not yet, that is, in their own future lives. Pursuing education is a way of doing this. So positive or substantial freedom, though essential for happiness or true well-being according to Sen, is not equivalent to happiness.

Substantial freedom and "capability"

Sen sometimes uses the term "capability" to explain what he means by positive freedom. A capability lies between a raw capacity and an excellently executed activity. Most human beings are born with the raw capacity to participate in deciding about the conditions of our collective life together, just as most human beings are born with the raw capacity to see colors. But developing the capability to distinguish turquoise from sky blue or even dogs from cats is something that has to be developed by experience and (informal or formal) education. Likewise, developing the capability to reason together with others about social problems in order to reach a decision is not something we are born with, but we have to learn (partly by seeing how it is done when others do it, partly by practice ourselves.)

But having a capability is not a guarantee of use. A person who can lift weights because she has practiced doing so still has this capability when he is asleep or reading a book and not lifting weights. (What makes it a capability and not a raw capacity is that she could move to activate it relatively quickly.)

raw capacity-------------------capability------------------activity (done with excellence)

Substantial Freedom and Well-Being (added 9-01)

Just as capability is linked to activity but not identical to it, so substantial freedom is not identical to the achievement of well-being. Sen sometimes defines the latter in terms of being well and doing well. To understand the distinction between substantial freedom and well-being, consider the difference between a person like Gandhi who fasts, that is, deliberately goes without food, in order to witness to an ethical position that might otherwise be ignored and a person who is starving because she lacks the opportunity to get food. Neither are "doing well" in terms of their nutritional intake, an important aspect of health, but the person who can choose to fast has considerably greater substantial freedom. They similarly lack well-being, at least in one respect, but one has an element of substantial freedom that the other lacks.

The Constitutive and Instrumental Roles of Positive Freedom

Sen makes a number of important distinctions himself in clarifying the nature of positive freedom. He distinguishes for instance, its constitutive and its instrumental role in "development" (which is the goal of public policy especially in the face of poverty, famine, etc.). To say that freedom is constitutive of development is to say that the use of freedom is part of what well-being is. Sen has in mind chiefly rights to active political participation, at the local and higher levels, in determining the shape of one's social and economic environment.

There are important freedoms that have an instrumental role in making positive freedom possible. One of Sen's chief points as an economist is that we should not act as if there is just one of them. He lists five groups of instrumental freedoms:

political freedoms-- "the opportunities that people have to determine who should govern and on what principles, and also include the possibility to scrutinize and criticize authorities, to have freedom of political expression and an uncensored press, to enjoy the freedom to choose between different political parties, and so on. They include . . . opportunities of political dialogue, dissent and critique as well as voting rights and participatory selection of legislators and executives."

economic facilities "the opportunities that individuals . . . enjoy to utilize economic resources for the purpose of consumption, or production, or exchange." The quantity of income as well as how it is distributed is important. Availability and access to finance are also crucial. (Not being able to get credit can be economically devastating.)

social opportunities--arrangements society makes for education, health care, etc.

transparency guarantees--these relate to the need for openness that people can anticipate; the freedom to deal with one another with a justified expectation of disclosure and clarity. These guarantees play a clear role in preventing corruption, financial irresponsibility, and violation of society's rules of conduct for government and business.

protective security--a social safety net that prevents sections of the population from being reduced to abject misery. Sen refers to "fixed institutional arrangements such as unemployment benefits and statutory income supplements to the indigent as well as ad hoc (temporary) arrangements such as famine relief or emergency public employment to generate income for destitutes."


One of Sen's major accomplishments in the area of economics is that he has shown quite persuasively a number of concrete ways in which the instrumental freedoms are interrelated and enhance each other. What makes this important is that collective choices can make a significant positive difference in people's lives.

  • Access to income is no guarantee of well-being, though it can help if other conditions are met.

  • Famine has never occurred in democratic countries with a free press.

  • Coercive population control methods are less effective in limiting population than educating and empowering women.

  • Education and subsidized health care promote longevity better than increased income.

  • Education and access to income and finance (even if in modest amounts) can do a lot to promote well-being for women and their children.

    Nussbaum and Sen

    Sen's position on how substantial freedoms should be distributed, in particular on whether there is a threshold in terms of substantial freedoms below which no human being should be allowed to fall, is less clear than one might like. But Martha C. Nussbaum has developed Sen's ideas further in this direction. Nussbaum is also influenced by John Rawls, whose work she modifies from the perspective of substantial freedoms or capabilities. See Nussbaum's extension of Sen and Rawls and Martha Nussbaum on Capabilities.


    1. Even if we broaden the notion of income to include other resources that might be distributed among individuals such as land, food, actually used services, etc. we have not quite captured the notion of substantial freedom. Other factors of a less easily divisible nature can make a difference. The mix of goods and services available in one's neighborhood and from among which one could choose if one wished, their accessibility in terms of geographical layout, makes a difference in one's substantial freedom. Another example would be a healthy (pollution-free) and biologically diverse natural environment. Not all preconditions of substantial freedom can easily be apportioned among individuals. They include public goods whose presence tends to increase the substantial freedom of individuals who live in a certain place.