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Amartya Sen and Capability

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As I believe I've mentioned in this blog before, I contend that there are four components that must go into an complete and accurate ethical (and metaethical) philosophy, but to my dismay, few if any contemporary philosophers combine them.

Such a successful ethics would be cognitivist, intuitionist, teleological, and pluralist.

That is: it would see right and wrong, good and bad, as issues open to knowledge, not mere taste; it would allow room for intuition (a direct apprehension analogous to but not in fact sensory perception) at the base of this cognition; it would see the right as the way to get to the good; it would allow for more than one goodness, and perhaps then more than one right, too.

I believe that Isaiah Berlin combined all these features But he's been dead for 20 years, and his period of "flourishing" requires that one go back somewhat further than that.

A figure of more recent vintage? The Indian philosopher Amartya Sen, who is still with us, and the author for example of  THE IDEA OF JUSTICE (2009).

I've said all that before. Today is as good a day as any to expound a bit on Sen's "capability approach" to the matter of well being. This is an idea he outlined in the 1980s that has proven quite fruitful in subsequent discussions. The heart of it is that whether a person is well, is flourishing, depends and must be understood to depend upon what that person can do, not what that person has, or feels.

Sen wrote, for example:

Our mental reactions to what we actually get and what we can sensibly expect to get may frequently involve compromises with a harsh reality. The destitute thrown into beggary, the vulnerable landless labourer precariously surviving at the edge of subsistence, the overworked domestic servant working round the clock, the subdued and subjugated housewife reconciled to her role and her fate, all tend to come to terms with their respective predicaments. The deprivations are suppressed and muffled in the scale of utilities (reflected by desire-fulfilment and happiness) by the necessity of endurance in uneventful survival. 

For such reasons, utilitarian evaluations turning on how people feel about their lives will be misleading. The labourer "precariously surviving at the edge of subsistence" might be quite happy with some good news received today that will allow him to continue working a while longer, but anyone in a position to take a broader view of his situation (as a philosopher and an economist by definition both should) must regard the goodness of that good news with a heck of an asterisk. Individuals differ in their capability to turn resources into welfare, and a sensible teleology should aim at increasing this capability.

A simple numerical fact valid as of 2010 illustrates his point here. The gross national income per capita in the Philippines stated in US dollars was then $4,002 per year. In South Africa the analogous number was $9,812. Using those numbers as a rough metric of "resources," let's ask which society best turns those resources into positive outcomes. The average life expectancy in the Philippines is 72.3 years. In South Africa? only 52 years. The mean years of schooling for a resident of the Philippines? 8.7 years. In South Africa? 8.2. 

On the face of such numbers, Filipinos would seem to be doing more with less. Why? Ah, that is the question, my friends....

And does the superior performance of the Philippines have anything to do with "predistribution" as I discussed it yesterday? Another good question! You're just full of them today, aren't you? I can't answer that, but I will say something about contrasts between Thomas and Sen tomorrow.


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