Monthly Archives: May 2010

Sen, ‘The Idea of Justice’, Chapter 13, ‘Happiness, Well-being, and Capabilities’

In Chapter 13, Happiness, Well-being, and Capabilities, Sen concentrates on three issues.  The first is the success of economics as a discipline in accounting for happiness and its importance.  The second is the relationship between happiness and capability. The third is the relationship between capability and well-being.

Turning to the first issue, welfare economics is the discipline devoted to the assessment of the goodness of states of affairs and policies.  According to Sen, it has been and largely remains utilitarian in character.  Happiness is often understood as the sole determinant of human well-being/advantage and as the sole criterion for evaluating societies and policies.  Well-being/advantage is usually defined in terms of utility.  Utility is defined as happiness.  Happiness is understood as desire-fulfillment.  Policy evaluations are based on a comparison of the “sum total of individual welfares.”  Many economists hold that interpersonal comparisons of utility are impossible.

Sen advances three criticisms of welfare economics.  First, Sen argues that the new welfare economists are mistaken to think that interpersonal comparisons of utility are impossible.  We can, Sen argues, get general agreement on partial orderings of the joy and pain in different lives.  Second, the informational basis of well-being/advantage in welfare economics is incomplete.  It should be broadened to include factors such as substantive opportunities, negative freedoms, and human rights.  Omitting this information prevents us from making important distinctions in our judgments of the relative advantage of individuals who enjoy the same level of happiness, but differ dramatically along these other dimensions.  Omitting this information also leads to distorted assessments.  Individuals who are persistently deprived may adapt to their circumstances to make life tolerable, learning to “take pleasure in small mercies” and refusing to desire or hope for change in their circumstances.  If we assess the well-being/advantage of such individuals on the basis of their happiness alone, then we would fail to get an accurate picture of their actual disadvantage.  Third, Sen argues that contemporary welfare economists fail to sufficiently recognize the limits of using a monetary metric to gauge utility or happiness.  Sen references empirical evidence suggesting that there is not a direct correlation between increasing wealth and increasing happiness and the joylessness of the lives of individuals in prosperous economies.

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Sen, ‘The Idea of Justice’, Chapter 12, ‘Capabilities and Resources’

Chapter 12, Capabilities and Resources, begins with the well-known contrasts between capabilities (as what opportunities people actually have) and resourcist views. Sen then outlines four kinds of contingencies that figure importantly into the conversion of resources into the lives people can actually lead. These are: personal “heterogeneities,” differences in the physical environment, differences in the social climate, and differences in relational perspectives. Variations in the social climate refer to social structural differences—for example, the availability of publicly funded health care. Differences in “relational perspectives” refer to difference in social norms that may affect the need for resource expenditure to achieve desired goals; for example, in one society, the clothes required to command social respect may be far more expensive than in another. These types of contingencies may be interconnected; an example would be how a physical environment in which there is a great deal of snow interacts with mobility impairments in affecting how people can get around in society.Sen places particular emphasis on the interrelationship between disability and the opportunities provided by resources. He cites familiar data about the interrelationship between disability and poverty, and notes that much disability is preventable (e.g. disabilities that result from preventable infectious diseases such as polio or measles) and that this is a particularly important matter for social justice. Overall, Sen emphasizes both the conceptual and the normative importance of disability for theorizing about justice.

The remainder of the chapter is devoted to criticizing Rawlsian primary goods and Dworkinian hypothetical insurance markets. Sen commends Rawls for paying attention to “special needs,” but contends that the Rawlsian structure mistakenly downplays human difference. Pace Rawls, human variations in conversion capacities should not be seen as derivative matters for attention at the legislative stage. Rather, in Sen’s view they are ubiquitous to how social structures should be organized and analyzed. Sen recognizes that the capabilities approach will not be able to give a complete or even a linear ordering of social states, but contends that it directs us to make the important comparisons about justice.

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Final CFP: Democracy and Legitimacy: Dealing with Extremism

Central European University, Budapest, 22-23 July 2010 | CFP: 31 May 2010

Please submit a 400 words abstract, suitable for blind review to molesA [at] or to MiklosiZ [at] by 31 May 2010. The conference is free of charge, but participants will need to provide for their own travel costs.

Twenty years after the fall of Communism we witness an important rise in support for right wing political parties across Europe. In the last European elections the vote shifted to the right dramatically. Worryingly, far right political parties have fared well recently in the UK, Bulgaria, Italy, Austria, the Netherlands and Hungary. All of these countries have representatives from far right wing parties in the European Parliament. Many analysts suggest that people are turning to the far right groups as a reaction to (what they perceive as) shortcomings in democratic regimes.

In the face of these developments several questions arise: what resources does democracy have to resist far right parties? And more generally how should liberal democracy respond to illiberal groups? In many cases, these groups challenge the limits of free speech, making necessary to reflect once again on to what extent and why even “hate speech” ought to be protected against legal restrictions. On a related note, some governments have reacted against some groups by restricting the scope of free association or by interfering with the entry policies of some groups. Are there any limits to private association?

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CFP: Collective Responsibility and Global Justice

Workshops in Political Theory

7th Annual Conference
Manchester Metropolitan University
1-3 September 2010
Convenor: Avia Pasternak (University College London)

In recent years there’s a growing interest amongst philosophers and political theorists in questions of collective responsibility. Discussions cover a range of issues: What is the nature of corporate agency? Can groups be held morally responsible for their actions? Could they be punished and, if so, what are the implications for the individual group members?

Answers to these questions are of pertinent relevance to another major debate in contemporary political theory which concerns global justice, or the principles that should govern the distribution of primary goods at the global level: Are the primary holders of duties of global justice groups or individuals? What type of groups should be held collectively responsible for global injustices (states, multinational corporations, peoples, ethnic groups)? Can we ascribe responsibility for global injustices to groups which lack coordination mechanisms and formal decision-making procedures? Should groups like states be held collectively responsible for past wrongs which they have inflicted on other groups (e.g. colonialism)? And how should the responsibility of groups (states, nations, corporations) for global injustices pass on to their members?


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Sen, The Idea of Justice, (Chapter 11, “Lives, Freedoms and Capabilities”)

Chapter 11, the first chapter in a part of the book entitled « The Materials of Justice”, presents us with Sen’s well-known theory of capabilities. The main focus of the chapter is to emphasize that the capability approach is essentially a theory about human freedom, or more precisely, a theory about how freedom should be factored into the assessment of advantage and disadvantage. As against welfarist construals, Sen points out that we care not just that we achieve what we want, but also how we achieve what we want. Whether what we achieve results from our own agency, and whether we were able to exercise our agency on a range of valuable “functionings”, matters to an assessment of how well we do just as much, if not more, as does the result of our activity. We should be interested in “comprehensive outcomes”, not just “culmination outcomes”.

Two aspects of the capability approach are emphasized by Sen. First, the theory has an “informational focus”. As opposed to the approach developed by Martha Nussbaum, Sen’s just tells us what we should be concerned with in the measurement of advantage and disadvantage. He does not tell us what we should do with that information once we achieve it. Nor does he fill in the detail about what, precisely, we have reason to care about. The theory is thus neutral, at least on its face, as between different approaches to distributive justice – egalitarian, sufficientarian, prioritarian, and so on, as it is between various ways of filling out the detail of what we have reason to care about.

Second, the theory is pluralistic. There are a range of things that we have reason to value, that cannot be reduced to one metric. Bundles of desirable functionings will reflect this.

Sen deflects two worries about the capability approach. The first comes from welfarists like Arneson and Cohen who argue, on Sen’s way of putting their arguments, that we should be concerned with what people actually achieve, rather than with what they can achieve. Sen’s response to this is that the capability approach includes the welfarist approach because the functionings realized by an individual are part of the set of functionings that he could achieve. Making this broader set the index of his advantage provides us with better information about advantage because it includes freedom to achieve a range of bundles as an ingredient.

The other worry has to do with commensurability. How can we evaluate options given the irreducible pluralism of reasons to value that Sen affirms? Sen responds by stating, in line with much of the recent literature on evaluation, that incommensurability makes evaluation harder, but not impossible.

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Science, Knowledge, and Democracy


“Science, Knowledge, and Democracy”

TRiP 2011 – Three Rivers Philosophy Conference

University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC  USA

April 1st – April 3rd, 2011

PDF flyer here.

Keynote Speakers:

Elizabeth Anderson (University of Michigan)

Miranda Fricker (Birkbeck, University of London)

Henry Richardson (Georgetown University)

Miriam Solomon (Temple University)

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