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.

On the second issue, the relationship between happiness and capability, Sen argues that happiness is a very important human functioning and the capability to be happy is one aspect of the freedom we have reason to value.  Sen also notes that happiness and other capabilities are interrelated.  Achieving certain goals and things we value can itself be a source of happiness.  Conversely, failure to achieve the things we value can lead to a diminishment in our happiness.  Thus, happiness can “be of great circumstantial relevance in checking whether people are succeeding or failing to get what they value and have reason to value.”  Finally, Sen emphasizes a fundamental difference between capability and happiness.  Unlike happiness, the capability of an individual has implications for his or her duties and obligations.  This is because capability, unlike happiness, is a kind of power.  In Sen’s view, an important ground for our duties and obligations stems from our effective power.  In his words, “if someone has the power to make a difference that he or she can see will reduce injustice in the world, then there is a strong and reasoned argument for doing just that.”

Sen concludes by discussing the relationship between capability and well-being/advantage.  He begins by making two distinctions related to well-being/advantage.  The first is between individual well-being and agency.  The second is between freedom and achievement.  Well-being/advantage can refer to either the “promotion of an individual’s well-being” or the promotion of an individual’s agency goals.  Agency goals are a broader category of goals, encompassing everything an individual has reason to pursue.  The promotion of well-being versus agency can sometimes be parallel.  Some of what an individual has reason to pursue might include her own well-being, and so an increase in well-being will be also an increase in agency achievement.  However, because agency frequency includes goals that are not directly about individual well-being, the achievement of agency goals can sometimes be at the expense of individual well-being.  Using the freedom/achievement distinction, we can see that an individual’s advantage/well-being might relate to well-being achievement, well-being freedom, agency achievement, or agency freedom.

Keeping these distinctions in mind, Sen claims that capability, broadly understood as the dimension of freedom concerned with substantive opportunities, can include both well-being freedom and agency freedom.  He argues that more capability often enhances well-being/advantage, when well-being/advantage is defined in terms of agency.  However, because that same agency freedom can be in tension with, or indeed go against, individual well-being freedom depending on the goals a particular agent has, capability may not always enhance well-being/advantage understood as well-being freedom.  Moreover, since greater agency freedom, or effective power, has implications for our duties and obligations, the use to which we should put our effective power is not always in a way that increases individual well-being.  In Sen’s words, “when more capability includes more power in ways that can influence other people’s lives, a person may have good reason to use the enhanced capability- the larger agency freedom- to uplift the lives of others, especially if they are relatively worse off, rather than concentrating on their own well-being.”

There are two main points I want to make in response to Sen’s discussion.  The first is that there is a tension between central claims that Sen advances, stemming, I believe, from his failure to define what he means by happiness.  Sen claims that capabilities are a kind of power and, as such, provide grounds for the duties and obligations of individuals.  In this respect, he claims, capability and happiness are different; only capability grounds duties.  Yet, later in the chapter, Sen claims that happiness is an important functioning, and the capability to be happy is one capability individuals have reason to value.  This would suggest that happiness, or the capability for happiness, can ground duties.  On the face of it, the claim that happiness is not a power and so cannot ground duties, and the claim that happiness is a capability, which implies it can ground duties, are inconsistent.  Perhaps when Sen discusses happiness in the context of the capability he has a different conception of happiness than the standard understanding in welfare economics.  Indeed, there are Aristotelian roots in many discussions of capability, and so perhaps what Sen has in mind by happiness is a kind of flourishing and not simply desire satisfaction.  However, if Sen has in mind a different understanding of happiness, there is no discussion of what that alternative understanding is.  Alternatively, perhaps the capability for happiness is an effective power in the way that the functioning of happiness is not.  However, it is not clear why or how adding capability in front of happiness fundamentally transforms the normative significance of happiness.

The second question the discussion in this chapter raises is about the normative guidance a capability approach can provide.  There are a number of places in the chapter where Sen’s discussion is frustratingly silent on the criteria by which we make crucial choices to which the capability framework gives rise.  For example, Sen argues that, depending on the purpose of a given assessment exercise, individual advantage may best be conceptualized as well-being freedom, well-being achievement, agency freedom, or agency achievement.  He mentions a few cases in which one of these four dimensions seems most relevant.  However, he offers no guidance as to the general criteria we should use to make the decision about which domain of advantage is relevant in other cases.  Is this decision driven by factors external to the idea of well-being or agency, such as liberal theories about the appropriate role of the state?  Or do well-being and agency themselves provide criteria or guidance that can aid in such decisions?  Presumably, insofar as Sen believes the distinctions between well-being/agency and freedom/achievement are important and substantive the distinctions can provide some guidance on the question of choice.  However, Sen never spells out how this is so.

Another place where the normative guidance of the capability approach comes up is in Sen’s discussion of the way capability grounds duties and obligations.  Here the question is what the nature of the duty or obligation is that Sen has in mind.  How are we to understand the weight of the duty that stems from the fact that we are in a position to reduce a certain kind of injustice?  Is Sen advocating a utilitarian approach, in which we must act so as to reduce injustice whenever doing so would have the best consequences, regardless of the sacrifice to our own well-being and agency?  Or rather are individuals to decide for themselves how to weigh the duties they have to others to use their effective power to reduce injustice against their individual reasons to pursue their own well-being and agency goals?  Or does the capability approach itself offer principled guidance on how the importance of respect for agency freedom is to balanced against the duties that effective power generates?  Sen never addresses this question, and so again we are left wondering precisely what kind of normative work the duty grounded in effective power is doing and what normative guidance the capability framework provides to questions of justice.

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

  1. I agree that Sen’s claim that duties are grounded in our effective power to make a difference is frustratingly underdeveloped. Some guidance to what he has in mind is given by the fact that he contrasts this approach to grounding duties to the social contract approach. He says, “if someone has the power to make a difference that he or she can see will reduce injustice in the world, then there is a strong and reasoned argument for doing just that (without having to dress all this up in terms of some imagined prudential advantage in a hypothetical exercise of cooperation.)

    I don’t see why a social contract theorist could not incorporate Sen’s suggestion–the contract device is typically used to justify very general principles of justice that govern institutions and is an exercise of ideal theory. This seems compatible with the idea that individuals living under those institutions, who are able, are bound to eradicate injustice where it arises. The nature of these obligations would be a matter for non-ideal theory.

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