Human Capabilities and the Ethics of Debt

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Lewiston, Justin
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Padgett-Walsh, Kate
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Philosophy and Religious Studies
The Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies focuses on two areas of study. Its major in Philosophy seeks to examine human experience and reality through critical reflection and argument, developing skills in critical analysis and knowledge of ethics and philosophy. The major in Religious Studies seeks to investigate and reflect upon world religions in an objective, critical, and appreciative manner, providing students with knowledge of religion’s nature and its roles in social and individual life.
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To live in human community is, in part, to owe debts to others and to be owed in return. How should we evaluate, normatively, the varied forms, practices, institutions, and relationships of debt? Which should be constrained and which accepted or encouraged? These questions have far-reaching implications given the pervasiveness of debt within human experience. This paper brings the resources of the capabilities approach developed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum to bear on normative assessments of debt. Our thesis is that the theoretical resources provided by this approach can help philosophers to examine the wide range of costs and benefits afforded by actual debts. We examine six contemporary examples of debt, arguing that the capabilities approach offers a nuanced and holistic framework for evaluating each. The framework is nuanced in that it provides resources for conducting fine-grained analyses of different cases and related policy proposals. It is holistic in that it takes into account more than a narrow range of either positive or negative considerations, instead encompassing the wide array of debt’s bodily, cognitive, and social impacts upon individuals.


This accepted article is published Padgett Walsh, K., Lewiston, J. Human Capabilities and the Ethics of Debt. Journal of Value Inquiry (2020). Posted with permission.

Wed Jan 01 00:00:00 UTC 2020