Confidence in Subjective Evaluation of Human Well-Being in Sen’s Capabilities Perspective

Abstract

While Sen’s capabilities approach provides a framework of justice for an assessment of human wellbeing, it faces a challenge on the operationalisation side in practice. The happiness approach to measuring wellbeing, in contrast, provides a workable framework of subjective wellbeing assessment using the tools of psychology. The present paper proposes a new way of subjective evaluation of capabilities with a critical review of literature on alternative methodologies addressing the issues in operationalizing Sen’s capabilities approach. The paper argues that some of the methodological problems, reviewed in this paper, can be greatly minimized if we consider capabilities of “being achieved”, which is an overall functioning, for the assessment of human wellbeing. The proposed subjective solution to these problems is defended against Sen’s popular criticism on happiness using Sen’s position-dependent argument.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The notable earlier efforts by economists to measure utility include Edgeworth (1881), Fisher (1892), and Frisch (1932). These efforts were abandoned in 1930s with “Lionel Robbins’s (1932) argument against using interpersonal welfare comparisons, which were necessary to use the statistical measurement approach” (Colander 2007, p. 222). Afterwards, ordinal axiomatic approach to utility was pursued with no connection to policy. With the emergence of behavioural economics particularly experimental economics, utility measurement has got a second wind. The work of Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues was further responsible for bringing this issue to the forefront of this debate.

  2. 2.

    The other interpretations of utility, Sen (1984) mentions and criticises, are desire fulfilment and choice.

  3. 3.

    See Kristoffersen (2010) for issues concerning cardinal and ordinal measures.

  4. 4.

    HDI covers three dimensions of wellbeing—health, education, and living standards (see HDR 2010, p. 13). Recently, Alkire and Santos (2010) proposed a multidimensional poverty index (MPI), which modifies the HDI to meet the requirements of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Kahneman, in the 1960s and, later, Easterlin (1974) developed an alternative approach in the form of subjective wellbeing or happiness.

  5. 5.

    Some recent literature estimates the impact of capabilities on happiness (life satisfaction), such as Anand et al. (2011) and Burchardt (2005).

  6. 6.

    See, for example, Robeyns (2005, 2011) for the theoretical survey and philosophical discussion on the capabilities approach.

  7. 7.

    Some of the examples are drawn from Robeyns (2011).

  8. 8.

    For a discussion on positive freedom and negative freedom see Sen (1987b), among others.

  9. 9.

    “It may indeed be illuminating up to a point to see functionings as ‘commodities’ produced by the household, but this analogy can also be misleading since functionings are features of the state of existence of a person, and not detached objects, that the person or the household happens to ‘produce’ and ‘own’”.

  10. 10.

    The method used to measure SWB dimensions by self-reports is commonly referred to as Experience Sampling Method as opposed to Kahneman’s Day Reconstruction Method. See Kahneman and Krueger (2006) for discussion.

  11. 11.

    Anand et al. (2005) also measure capabilities subjectively for the UK but by using a different set of questions. They however do not explicitly distinguish between functioning, freedom, and efficiency.

  12. 12.

    Sen (1973) discusses at length the problems with the revealed preferences approach. See Sen (1971), among others, for discussion on the difference between observed and unobserved choices, and weaknesses of rationality axioms.

  13. 13.

    See Sen (1991) on these issues.

  14. 14.

    In the case of prisoners’ dilemma, for example, what is individually desirable may not be optimal.

  15. 15.

    Sen (1991) criticises exclusive reliance on mental states for measuring welfare. See Robeyns (2011) on the issue of capabilities and utilitarianism.

  16. 16.

    Difficulties in objectivist and subjectivist views of wellbeing are discussed in Sen (1984). “Being ‘well off’ may help, other things given, to have ‘wellbeing’, but there is a distinctly personal quality in the latter absent in the former” (Sen 1984, p. 195).

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Correspondence to Hamid Hasan.

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Hasan, H. Confidence in Subjective Evaluation of Human Well-Being in Sen’s Capabilities Perspective. J Happiness Stud 20, 1–17 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-017-9927-1

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Keywords

  • Capabilities
  • Functionings
  • Happiness