Capabilities and Human Rights: Building Theory for Human Rights-Based Corporate Responsibility

Friday, June 24, 2016: 2:30 PM-4:00 PM
639 Evans (Evans Hall)
Cesar Gonzalez-Canton, CUNEF, Madrid, Spain
Pablo Sánchez-Garrido, CEU San Pablo, Madrid, Spain
Sonia Boulos, Universidad Antonio de Nebrija, Madrid, Spain
The capability approach is gaining momentum as an innovative framework for corporate responsibility and business ethics (Enderle 2004, Wanderley 2001, González-Cantón 2012, Vogt 2005). At the same time, a United Nations-led initiative has emerged in order to provide a framework and tools to centre corporate responsibility around human rights: The Business and Human Rights (UN 2011) framework, aka Ruggie's Framework.
This paper is bent on exploring the conceptual appeal of capabilities as normative bedrock of human rights-based corporate responsibility by suggesting that human rights entail obligations to capabilities. In addition, it seeks to expand the realm of capabilities by arguing that the human rights enterprise, in itself, can be considered a creation of capabilities. By doing that, this paper lays the ground for a better understanding of the human rights responsibilities of business. In this context, it is argued that the capability approach is a solid candidate to a new moral economy narrative for the firm.
Therefore, our contribution lies in improving our understanding of the triad corporate responsibility – human rights – capability approach by focusing on the relationship between human rights and capabilities. A detailed treatment of the implications of our analysis for business, especially in the area of managerial applications, lies outside the scope of this paper. However, a brief discussion of them will take place in the conclusions section of this paper.
This paper's twofold goal is pursued in two ways. Firstly, it dives into Nussbaum’s (Nussbaum 2011, Sen 2004) claim that human rights are entitlements to capabilities. Capabilities play a complementary role to human rights. The validity of that statement is further confirmed through our discussion. However, we seek to go a stretch beyond this ancillary role by arguing that capabilities can be an optimal foundation for a key normative dimension of human rights: dignity. In order to do that, the superiority of the capability approach over other perspectives that put dignity at the core of human rights is demonstrated (Margalit 1996, Waldron 2010).
Secondly, it expands the reach and scope of the capability approach by suggesting that human rights are not only safeguards of, but capabilities in themselves. It is argued that human comprehension (and with it capability sets) can undergo significant changes over time, including the expansion of human beings’ horizons of self-interpretation. Human beings run their lifes on a self-concept that provides organization and meaning to its perception of itself and the world (Geertz 1973, Blumenberg 1997). They interact with themselves and the world through the mediating element of cognition, much in opposition to the unreflective way that is typical to animals¬¬, as highlighted by Scheler’s (1949) notions of ‘openness’. New knowledge modifies our self-concept; this process may radically change the way we understand what is like to be human and, consequently, the behaviors and thoughts that follow from that understanding. In this context, it is stated that the emergence of human rights in History has changed once and for all the way human beings understand themselves and, therefore, their capability sets.
In order to check human right's fulfilment of the definition of capabilities, a sort of “capability test” has been devised.
Firstly, in terms of implications for business responsibilities, this paper makes a twofold contribution. On the one hand, it theorizes that business human rights obligations must ultimately be discharged in the form of furthering capabilities. This may prove extremely helpful in guiding managerial decision-making, which is faced with the conceptual challenge of framing business responsibilities in terms of human rights. On the other hand, it helps to clarify the way in which the said responsibilities must be concretized, i.e, by engaging in the sort of practical reasoning put forward by the capability approach (Sen 2009).
Secondly, our proposition serves also to further developing the capability approach in two respects. On the one hand, it clarifies the abovementioned Nussbaum’s insight by moving capabilities closer to the normative core of human rights through the discussion of dignity.
On the other hand, it further elaborates on the dynamic aspect of capabilities, which had remained underdeveloped in Sen’s (2005) explanation of variability in capability sets over time and acoss cultures. Sen (2009) left the door open for an origination of new capabilities through social dialogue, on the ground of the possibility of an evolution of capabilities and needs, and of an evolving understanding of capabilities. However, none of this is further pursued by Sen and the novelty character of new capabilities remains somehow obscured. The analysis in this paper vigorously demonstrates that not only an evolution, but a creation of capabilities may often be taking place.

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