Martha Nussbaum’s problematic first capability: Is ‘being alive’ a capability or a functioning? Part 3

In my earlier 2 posts related to the Capabilities approach I tried to interpret ‘normal’ in the phrasing of the first capability:

Life. Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length;

Martha Nussbaum in Capabilities as fundamental entitlements: Sen and social justice

First using statistical/demographic concepts as ‘average’ or ‘typical’ in

Martha Nussbaum’s problematic first capability: what is ‘the end of a human life of normal length’? Part 1 

then tried ‘acceptable’ in

Martha Nussbaum’s problematic first capability: what is ‘the end of a human life of normal length’? Part 2

and I’ve failed spectacularly in all 3 attempts. So I tend this as a criticism as it seems something is not kosher with the first capability concerning lifespan.

 Today I step back and ask a fundamental question about life and lifespan (the concerns of the ‘first capability’) related to the basic concepts of this approach. These 2 concepts are ‘capabilities’ and ‘functionings’.

Bear with me to reach to the point (in a subsequent post) to show how Open Lifespan can be framed with the toolset of this approach as well.

Capabilities and functionings


are the answers to the question, “What is this person able to do and tend to be?” In other words, they are what Sen calls “substantial freedoms,” a set of (usually interrelated) opportunities to choose and to act.”

Creating Capabilities, Chapter 2: Central Capabilities, Martha Nussbaum

Note the fundamentally modal, ‘potential’ nature of capabilities. Functionings are the actualised, achieved, singled out capabilities.

Functionings are ‘beings and doings’, that is, various states of human beings and activities that a person can undertake. Examples of the former (the ‘beings’) are being well-nourished, being undernourished, being housed in a pleasantly warm but not excessively hot house, being educated, being illiterate, being part of a supportive social network, being part of a criminal network, and being depressed. Examples of the second group of functionings (the ‘doings’) are travelling, caring for a child, voting in an election, taking part in a debate, taking drugs, killing animals, eating animals, consuming lots of fuel in order to heat one’s house, and donating money to charity.

SEP, The Capability Approach, 2.1 Functionings and capabilities

Is ‘being alive’ a capability or a functioning?

So far so good. But what if we check our being, our existence, our ‘being aliveness’ through the lens of these concepts? Is our being a capability or a functioning, and if the latter, is our being a being- or doing- kind of functioning? Let’s have some conceptual fun, I feel like one of those linguistic enthusiasts in Oxford in the early fifties.

First of all, a surface reading would suggest that ‘being alive’ is a capability as ‘life’ occupies the super-posh first position on the list of Nussbaum’s suggested 10 capabilities.

But the term ‘being alive’ linguistically looks like one of the ‘beings’ kind of functionings that can be achieved. If that’s so, what would be the corresponding capability, the capability of being alive?

If we say that the capability of  ‘being alive’ leads to the corresponding functioning of ‘actually being alive now’ the only thing we do is to add a temporal indexical, the ‘now’ (and some spatially inclined might say to add the spatial indexical ‘here’, or some physics educated suggest to add the spatiotemporally situated ‘here and now’ double indexicals).

For people actually living it is not a capability, but a functioning. For dead people it is a past functioning, now a lost opportunity. For people not born yet, it is a future opportunity. For the living dead … well it’s a stuff of comic books and recreational series. It looks like the difference is all boiled down where (in the phrase, not spatial where) we put those temporal indices. Now this looks like a fun game with temporal and modal logic, my job here is not to engage in that. So go back to looking into ‘being alive’ as a functioning.

But if it is a functioning though, for us, the living, isn’t it kinda like a doing rather than a being? Isn’t it more like active travelling rather than completed and passive ‘being well-nourished’?

Luckily I don’t have to throw more stones into the pond of ‘being alive’ as the first capability is not actually talking about ‘being alive’ (well besides starting with the enigmatic ‘Life’) but it is talking about ‘Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length’.

Is being alive for a particular length a capability?

And here the conceptual clouds are clearing up a bit as ‘being alive for a particular length’ is hardly a functioning in the sense of a state of ‘being well-nourished’ or the doing of ‘travelling’. Well, maybe it could be a ‘doing’ if the particular length is minuscule and within arms reach, say a minute, so one can be thought of actually working (doing) on living into the next minute. But this scenario does not excite us as our focus here is to live up to years and decades and eventually more. So let’s just settle on years and decades ahead here where thinking about a particular length, slice of life lived.

It can be said though that it requires a lot of agency on one’s part to stay alive for another decade of life. It requires substantial freedoms and opportunities (even if in the negative sense of not living in a civil war zone or near to an epidemiological centre of a deadly viral disease) to be alive for another decade. And it requires a lot of efforts to reach the upper side of average life expectancy, and the majority of the people are not going to make it as we analysed it descriptive statistically on part 1 of our mini-series.

‘I’m going to stay alive for the next 20 years against all the hard circumstances’ sounds like a statement on what a person is capable of doing.

Let’s conclude here by now, we have what we need in order to proceed towards putting Open Lifespan to play.

Besides, I want to go to the bath and study further a marvellous book (by Julian Havil) on the Gamma function, known otherwise as Euler’s constant, the harmonic series minus ln x. And this difference of 2 divergent series can be rewritten as an infinite number of convergent Zeta series. Crazy, utterly exciting and still don’t know who killed divergence here.