Utilitarianism and the Capability Approach

The twenty-first century is on the verge of fully integrating robots into human life. The development of carebots, which will assist or replace humanoid caregivers in caring for the young, elderly, disabled, and sick, is the most intriguing frontier in the use of robots. The goal of the academic paper is to see if the use of carebots as supplements or replacements for human caregivers is justified.
Utilitarianism and the Capability Approach
The capability approach was developed by Sen and Nussbaum as a novel approach to welfare economics. Traditional approaches to welfare economics had left out a number of concepts that Sen included in his capability approach. The core focus in the capability approach is what individuals are capable of doing. In their economic and political philosophies, Sen and Nussbaum argued the deliberations of justice entailed more than the obtainability and the distribution of resources, utilities along with other external goods (Sharkey, 69). The considerations of justice necessitate attention to the basic capabilities of human beings as well as the functionings. The functionings are the good things in the human life achieved through certain practices and activities. The accomplishment of the capabilities is critical to the burgeoning in human beings. However, the justice requirements demand that the sole reason for the realization of the capabilities should not be to exploit the overall utility. Although the aim of the conceptualization of the capability approach was to rejoin to the insufficiencies in the other theories of justice, it can play a significant role in helping humans to intellectualize the good life as well as its realization.

Pearson and Borenstein employ the capability approach to evaluating the ethical repercussions of the use of humanoid robots in caregiving. The two philosophers use the approach to clearly indicate that the carebots enable the caregivers to fulfill their moral responsibilities without destroying their capacities for friendship, love, and play. Besides, the capability approach helps in identifying ways in which human beings should not use the carebots. For example, by means that can divest the caregivers as well as the cared-for the power to control the environment. Coeckelbergh also acknowledges the capability approach as a model for ethical assessment of the carebots (Sparrow, 445). Although he feels that the approach is incapable of evaluating all the moral issues relating to the humanoid robots exhaustively, Coeckelbergh suggests the use of the approach in assessing whether any exercise of caregiving can be eligible for good care.

The capability approach also enables the human beings to conceptualize the inner possessions for caregivers in the caring practices which might be lost if people chose to capitulate some or all the caring practices to the carebots. Nussbaum offers the list of the central capabilities of human beings such as sensation, emotions, integrity, imagination, health, affiliation, emotions and practical reason. Engagement in the caregiving practices is critical in the development of the human capabilities. Pearson and Borenstein prefer the capability approach to the utilitarianism in the use of humanoid robots. The basic idea of utilitarianism is happiness that entails pleasure and nonexistence of pain. The approach demands the consideration of other people’s well-being and pleasure, not just one’s happiness. Mill says that in life, there is more than just knowledge, pleasure and virtues as other things are equally important. The utilitarian philosophers consider good as anything that brings pleasure and happiness while reducing or eliminating pain. For any action to be good, its outcomes should increase pleasure and reduce pain.

Although some robotics scholars have used utilitarianism, Pearson and Borenstein prefer the capability approach for several reasons. They critique the utilitarian approach for lack of adaptive preferences. The capability approach lays less emphasis on individuals’ happiness and satisfaction. They also critique the utilitarianism based on the act of consequentialism that entails assessing actions on the basis of the goodness or badness of their outcomes. The act fails to consider the morality of the action. For example, whether the action abides by the principles of individual agency as well as fairness. The utilitarianism would support carebots as long as they bring pleasure and happiness to the cared-for. However, the capability approach argues that achieving the pleasure would override important moral aspects of caretaking. The two philosophers also critique utilitarian aspect of welfarism. The primary concern of the welfarism is the psychological state of the feelings of people about their lives but not the reflective situations of such people (Mulgan, 125). The cared-for may feel satisfied with the services of the humanoid robots although they are deprived of the human company.

Additionally, the capability approach connects to the ethical structure of the interactions between human beings and the humanoid robots. The idea of producing and distributing goods and services in a way that promotes the individual’s capability is applicable in the robotic technology since it specifies clear conduits that guide the robot design morphology as well as the structures for the shared autonomy. The capability theory bases its agenda of fairness on a provision of capabilities to individuals to empower them to function. As compared to utilitarianism, capability approach also offers insights on the suitable methodologies to the evolution between the autonomy of robots and short-term hominoid control as the robots are introduced in more human environments. The utilitarian approach would support the use of carebots based on the act of consequentialism. The approach places more focus on the consequences of using carebots to help or replace the human caregivers in caretaking.

Utilitarianism advocates on assessing the carebots based on the moral values rather than its capabilities. In other words, the utilitarian approach guides human beings to evaluate the humanoid robots based on the role it plays in caregiving and its impact on the network of the involved parties along with the ethical nature of the care practice (Mulgan, 129). The moral elements should be incorporated in the care practice hence the carebots should abide by the moral; values. The meaning along with the prioritization of the moral elements depends on the cared-for as well as the caregivers. The utilitarian approach also states that the carebots should not be endorsed with capabilities that their role does not demand. Utilitarianism demands that human beings should establish a system that incorporates the moral, legal as well as social rules that will enable them to live a life full of enjoyments regarding quantity and quality. Moreover, all human beings are entitled to equal claim on the means of attaining happiness. Therefore, the elderly, sick, young, as well as the people living with the disability, are entitled to enjoy happiness just like the people living a normal life. Most people neglect the people with special needs. Hence the carebots comes into care and bring happiness to such people.

The capability approach is more advantageous than utilitarianism. The capability approach aims at realizing global justice with an objective of capturing the ethical traditions. However, the approach fails to incorporate the utilitarian emphasis on happiness and a deontological prerequisite for coherent considerations. The capability approach forms the foundation for the previous evaluations of ethical aspects of the robot care. For instance, the carebots intended for the elderly should extend a variety of capabilities to them. However, when introducing carebots, one should be cautious to ensure that they do not interfere with the social interaction of the elderly (Chiappero-Martinetti & Sridhar, 708). Besides, the carebots should improve the mental states for the cared-for without causing emotional states of reduced self-respect and humiliation. Besides, the capability approach provides a tangible approach to the meaning of living a life commendable of human dignity.


Conclusively, the 21st Century provides a platform for the development of carebots as adjuncts to the human caregivers and not a replacement of the human caretakers. Pearson and Borenstein employ the capability approach in evaluating the ethical considerations of the carebots in the care practice. However, the capability approach is not a justification for the use of humanoid robots in caring for the elderly, sick as well as the people living with disabilities. The approach fails to incorporate the utilitarian focus on happiness. Incorporating the carebots into the care practice would deprive the caregivers the opportunity to cultivate values such as empathy and reciprocity. Furthermore, the use of carebots will impoverish the ethical epitome nurtured in the caring relation.

Works Cited

Chiappero-Martinetti, Enrica, and Sridhar Venkatapuram. “The capability approach: a framework for population studies.” Etude de la Population Africaine 28.2 (2014): 708.

Mulgan, Tim. Understanding utilitarianism. Routledge, 2014.

Sharkey, Amanda. “Robots and human dignity: a consideration of the effects of robot care on the dignity of older people.” Ethics and Information Technology 16.1 (2014): 63-75.

Sparrow, Robert. “Robots in aged care: a dystopian future?” AI & society 31.4 (2016): 445-454.

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