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Agency goals, adaptation and capability sets

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'Agency goals' play an important role in Sen's capability approach. They are an acknowledgement that individuals aspire to achieve objectives other than their own immediate well-being. This article argues that using agency goal achievement as a basis for evaluating inequality or disadvantage is problematic. In particular, one of the principal charges against utilitarianism made by capability theorists — that based on adaptation or conditioned expectations — can be made with equal force and validity against a metric based on agency goals. The argument is illustrated using survey data on the educational and occupational aspirations of a cohort of young people in Britain. The article concludes that the conventional cross-sectional, objective, definition of a capability set needs to be broadened. Only if the capability set from which agency goals are formed and the capability set within which they are pursued are evaluated can we begin to properly assess substantive freedom.

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