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.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
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.
The other interpretations of utility, Sen (1984) mentions and criticises, are desire fulfilment and choice.
See Kristoffersen (2010) for issues concerning cardinal and ordinal measures.
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.
Some of the examples are drawn from Robeyns (2011).
For a discussion on positive freedom and negative freedom see Sen (1987b), among others.
“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’”.
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.
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.
See Sen (1991) on these issues.
In the case of prisoners’ dilemma, for example, what is individually desirable may not be optimal.
Alkire, S. (2002). Dimensions of human development. World Development, 30(2), 181–205.
Alkire, S. (2005). Measuring the freedom aspects of capabilities. In Paper given to the American Economic Association Conference, Mimeo Harvard University.
Alkire, S., & Santos, M. E. (2010). Acute multidimensional poverty: A new index for developing countries. OPHI Working Paper 38, UNDP HDRO Background Paper 2010/11.
Anand, P. (2011). Reviews. Capabilities and happiness. In L. Bruni, F. Comim, & M Pugno (Eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Economics and Philosophy, 27:175–215.
Anand, P., Hunter, G., Carter, I., Dowding, K., Guala, F., & Hees, M. (2005). The measurement of human capabilities. www.oecd.org/dataoecd/63/37/38363699.pdf.
Anand, P., Krishnakumar, J., & Tran, N. B. (2011). Measuring welfare: Latent variable models for happiness and capabilities in the presence of unobservable heterogeneity. Journal of Public Economics,95, 205–215.
Anand, P., & van Martin, H. (2006). Capabilities and achievement: An empirical study. The Journal of Socio-Economics,35, 268–285.
Binder, M., & Broekel, T. (2011). Applying a nonparametric efficiency analysis to measure conversion efficiency in great Britain. Journal of Human Development and Capabilities,12(2), 257–281.
Binder, M., & Coad, A. (2011). Disentangling the circularity in Sen’s capability approach—An analysis of the co-evolution of functioning achievement and resources. Social Indicators Research,103(3), 327–355.
Blanchflower, D. G., & Oswald, A. J. (2011). International happiness. NBER Working Paper No: 16668.
Bruni, L., Comim, F., & Pugno, M. (Eds.). (2008). Capabilities and happiness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Burchardt, T. (2005). Are one man’s rags another man’s riches? Identifying adaptive expectations using panel data. Social Indicators Research,74, 57–102.
Burchardt, T. (2009). Agency goals, adaptation and capability sets. Journal of Human Development and Capabilities,10(1), 3–19.
Burchardt, T., & Vizard, P. (2011). Operationalising the capability approach as a Basis for Equality and Human Rights Monitoring in Twenty-first-century Britain. Journal of Human Development and Capabilities,12(1), 91–119.
Bykvist, K. (2010). Can unstable preferences provide a stable standard of wellbeing? Economics and Philosophy,26, 1–26.
Colander, D. (2007). Edgeworth’s hedonimeter and the quest to measure utility. Journal of Economic Perspective, 21(2), 215–225.
Comim, F. (2001). Operationalising Sen’s Capability Approach. In Paper prepared for the conference on justice and poverty: Examining Sen’s capability approach. Cambridge University Press.
Comim, F., Qizilbash, M., & Alkire, S. (Ed.). (2008). The capability approach-concepts, measures, and applications. Cambridge University Press.
Dasgupta, P. (1993). An inquiry into wellbeing and destitution. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Diener, E., Lucas, R., & Scollon, C. N. (2006). Beyond the hedonic treadmill: Revising the adaptation theory of well-being. American Psychologist,61, 305–314.
Easterlin, R. (1974). Does economic growth improve the human lot? In P. A. David & M. W. Reder (Eds.), Nations and households in economic growth: Essays in honor of Moses Abramovitz. New York: Academic Press Inc.
Edgeworth, F. Y. (1881). Mathematical psychics: An essay on the application of mathematics to the moral sciences. London: C.K. Paul Publisher.
Fisher, I. (1892). Mathematical investigations in the theory of value and prices. New York: Cosimo Classics Publisher.
Frey, B. S., & Stutzer, A. (2002). What can economists learn from happiness research? Journal of Economic Literature,40, 402–435.
Frisch, R. (1932). New methods of measuring marginal utility. Bridgwater: Porcupine Pr.
Hausman, D. M., & McPherson, M. S. (2009). Preference satisfaction and welfare economics. Economics and Philosophy,25, 1–25.
Human Development Report. (2010). The real wealth of nations: Pathways to human development. New York: UNDP. Retrieved from http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/reports/270/hdr_2010_en_complete_reprint.pdf.
Kahneman, D., & Krueger, A. B. (2006). Developments in the measurement of subjective wellbeing. Journal of Economic Perspective,20(1), 3–24.
Krishnakumar, J. (2007). Going beyond functionings to capabilities: An econometric model to explain and estimate capabilities. Journal of Human Development,8(1), 39–63.
Krishnakumar, J., & Ballon, P. (2008). Estimating basic capabilities: A structural equation model approach applied to Bolivian data. World Development,36(6), 992–1010.
Kristoffersen, I. (2010). The metrics of subjective wellbeing: Cardinality, neutrality and additivity. Economic Record,86(272), 98–123.
Krueger, A. B. (2009). Measuring the subjective wellbeing of nations: National accounts of time use and wellbeing. University of Chicago Press.
Krueger, A. B., & Schkade, D. (2008). The reliability of subjective well-being measures. Journal of Public Economics,92, 1833–1845.
Kuklys, W. (2005). Amartya Sen’s capability approach—Theoretical insights and empirical applications. Berlin: Springer.
Nussbaum, M. (2000). Women and human development: The capabilities approach. Cambridge University Press.
Nussbaum, M. (2005). Well-being, contracts and capabilities. In L. Manderson (Ed.), Rethinking well-being (pp. 27–44). Perth: API Network.
Oswald, A. J., & Wu, S. (2010). Objective confirmation of subjective measures of human wellbeing: Evidence from The USA. Science,327, 576–579.
Qizilbash, M. (2011). Sugden’s critique of the capability approach. Utilitas,23(1), 25–51.
Ramos, X., & Silber, J. (2005). On the application of efficiency analysis to the study of the dimensions of human development. Review of Income and Wealth,51(2), 285–310.
Robeyns, I. (2000). An unworkable idea or a promising alternative? Sen’s capability approach re-examined. Discussion Paper Series (DPS) 00.30. Center for Economic Studies, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven.
Robeyns, I. (2003). Sen′s capability approach and gender inequality: Selecting relevant capabilities. Feminist Economics, 9(2–3), 61–92.
Robeyns, I. (2005). The capability approach: A theoretical survey. Journal of Human Development,6(1), 93–117.
Robeyns, I. (2006). The capability approach in practice. Journal of Political Philosophy, 17(3), 351–376.
Robeyns, I. (2011). The capability approach. In E. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford encyclopaedia of philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2011/entries/capability-approach.
Roemer, J. (1996). Theories of distributive justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Sen, A. K. (1971). Choice functions and revealed preference. The Review of Economic Studies,38(3), 307–317.
Sen, A. K. (1973). Behaviour and the concept of preference. Economica,40(159), 241–259.
Sen, A. K. (1977). Rational fools: A critique of the behavioural foundations of economic theory. Philosophy & Public Affairs,6(4), 317–344.
Sen, A. K. (1979). Personal utilities and public judgements: Or what’s wrong with welfare economics. The Economic Journal,89(355), 537–558.
Sen, A. K. (1984). Resources, values and development. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Sen, A. K. (1985a). Wellbeing, agency and freedom: The Dewey Lectures 1984. Journal of Philosophy,82(4), 169–221.
Sen, A. K. (1985b). Commodities and capabilities. Amsterdam: North-Holland.
Sen, A. K. (1987a). Standard of living. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sen, A.K. (1987b). Freedom of choice: Concept and content. World Institute for Development Economics Research of the United Nations University, Working Paper, 25.
Sen, A. K. (1990). Justice: Means versus freedoms. Philosophy & Public Affairs,19(2), 111–121.
Sen, A. K. (1991). Welfare, preference and freedom. Journal of Econometrics,50, 15–29.
Sen, A. K. (1992). Inequality reexamined. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sen, A. K. (1993). Positional objectivity. Philosophy & Public Affairs,22(2), 126–145.
Sen, A. K. (1997). Maximisation and the act of choice. Econometrica,65(4), 745–779.
Sen, A. K. (1999). Development as freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sen, A. K. (2002). Rationality and freedom. Massachusetts: Belknap Press.
Sen, A. K. (2004). Dialogue: Capabilities, lists and public reason: Continuing the conversation. Feminist Economics,10(3), 77–80.
Sen, A. K. (2009). The idea of justice. London: ALLAN LANE, Penguin Group.
Stiglitz, J., Sen, A., & Fitoussi, J. P. (2009). Report by the commission on the measurement of economic performance and progress. http://www.stiglitz-sen-fitoussi.fr/documents/rapport_anglais.pdf.
Sugden, R. (1993). Welfare, resources, and capabilities: A review of inequality reexamined by Amartya Sen. Journal of Economic Literature,31, 1947–1962.
Sugden, R. (2010). Opportunity as mutual advantage. Economics and Philosophy,26(1), 47–68.
Van Ootegem, L., & Spillemaeckers, S. (2008). With a focus on well-being and capabilities. In Contribution to the 2008 Conference of the HDCA, New Delhi/10-13 September.
About this article
Cite this article
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