Martha Nussbaum on measuring human development

Martha Nussbaum has another book out. Does she never sleep?? This one is called Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach, and looks at the necessity of moving beyond GDP by measuring a broader range of human ‘capabilities’, such as education, health etc, which are then incorporated into a single index called the Human Development Index.

Professor Nussbaum developed the ‘capabilities approach’ together with the Cambridge economics professor Amartya Sen, who then went on to advise the French government on its well-being measurements, so it’s interesting to hear Nussbaum’s thoughts on whether we can measure emotional well-being – particularly as she is, I would say, the leading contemporary philosopher on emotions.
It’s all a question of what you think happiness is. And this is a question that philosophers have asked for centuries. And the minute that Jeremy Bentham said that we should look at happiness in terms of pleasure and satisfaction, John Stuart Mill immediately said, “Now wait a minute, it’s better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” And so he then insisted that we had to think about happiness as containing many different kids of experiences, many different kinds of activity. And well, Mill wasn’t the first to say that. He was really getting all of that from Aristotle. So I’m with Mill, and I think that the Bethamite approach, where we just think of happiness as a single feeling, has got very little going for it. If you just think about a daily experience, the pleasure I get from writing is very different from the pleasure that I get from going out and buying a very nice dress. They’re just very different things. And the pleasure that somebody might get from bringing up a child is different again. So I think that’s not a good idea. And I think we should have a much more Millian rather than Benthamite conception of happiness.

Very well, I agree so far. The question is, does she think this more Millian or Aristotelian idea of well-being can be measured? If you look at the list of capabilities Nussbaum and Sen come up with, the list includes some rather intangible things like ‘play’, ‘practical reason’, ‘senses / imagination’, ‘emotional attachment’, ‘control over one’s environment’. When I say they’re intangible, I’m not denying they exist. But does Nussbaum think these capabilities can be measured for an individual, or for a society? Or does she think this more Aristotelian idea of human flourishing simply isn’t readily measurable using social statistics?
A second very interesting area to think about in Nussbaum’s thinking is the relationship between capabilities and virtues. Does Nussbaum believe we can measure the good life, and does she believe that politics can or should promote a particular conception of the good life? Would a life where her capabilities are developed constitute, in her mind, a ‘good life’?
This is a key question, because Nussbaum is trying to find a balance between the ancient Greek (Stoic / Aristotelian) idea of the good life, and the political liberalism and pluralism of John Rawls.
Aristotle’s concept of the good life, or eudaimonia, is grounded in a functionalist account of human nature. Humans, Aristotle argues, have a unique nature. It is rational, ethical, political and religious. Eudaimonia is the fulfilment of these human functions. Politics should promote well-being or eudaimonia in the people. So it should educate the people and instil habits of virtue in them both through state education, and through creating spaces and institutions in which they can practice the virtues – for example, the university, and parliament.
So what Aristotle gives us is a state-backed model of the good life. This particularly inspired Karl Marx, who also came up with a state-backed model of the good life. The Marxist project obviously went a bit wrong. And it should alert us to the dangers inherent in Aristotle’s political philosophy – it is illiberal, anti-pluralist, anti-multiculturalist, and potentially a recipe for totalitarianism.
So what is Nussbaum’s solution? She suggests governments should protect human capabilities, rather than develop human functions. Her capabilities are, she argues, not virtues. They are the basic constituents which each human deserves to have. They create the space for the pursuit of our different conceptions of the good life.
For example, if we’re a Stoic, Muslim or Buddhist, our conception of the good life might involve some ascetic practices, such as fasting, designed to develop our agency and moral freedom. We might choose to follow such practices. But this doesn’t give the state the right to impose these practices on the people, through a Ramadan-style official month of fasting, for example. On the contrary, the state should protect humans’ access to basic nourishment. If they choose to go without food some days for moral purposes, that is their choice.
Another example: if we’re Stoic or Buddhist we must strive to free ourselves from emotional attachments in order to attain tranquility and freedom from desire. But the state should not strive to free us from our emotional attachments through some enforced Platonic or Stoic regime (for example, by taking children away from their parents at the age of five as Plato suggested). On the contrary, Nussbaum argues the state should protect our basic right to form emotional attachments. If we choose, then, to work to free ourselves from these attachments, that’s our choice.
Another example: our conception of the good life might include God. But that doesn’t mean the state should back one particular conception of God’s existence (or absence). But it should protect our opportunity to follow our particular religion, if we want to.
So really the state should not be in the business of telling us how to live our lives, but should merely protect our opportunities to follow our own good.
But there remains the question of state education. Nussbaum follows Aristotle (and TH Green), in believing the state should play a bigger role in providing education both to young people and to adults, to develop their capacities, such as their capacity for practical reason, imagination, debate, citizenship and so on.
She also, however, criticizes the notion of some forms of art being ‘higher’ than others. So she’s quite wary of the state subsidizing opera, for example – such elitism goes against her liberal, Rawlsian, pluralist instincts. She herself was brought up in aristocratic family, and she has self-consciously rebelled against that elitism ever since – this is why she hated Allan Bloom’s very elitist book on higher education, The Closing of the American Mind.
Still, I wonder if there’s a contradiction here. Doesn’t her Millsian rejection of the utilitarian definition of happiness commit her, as it committed Mill, to the idea that some forms of happiness and beauty are higher and better than others, and that it is the job of education to guide us, to some extent, towards these higher conceptions of happiness, justice and beauty?
Nussbaum’s own work – such as The Therapy of Desire, Cultivating Humanity, and Upheavals of Thought – put forward a Greek conception of education, arguing that through it we can move from lower conceptions of the good (based, for example, on money, status, power, tribe etc) to higher conceptions of the good (for example, the good of the whole of humanity rather than our particular tribe).
But doesn’t that mean the state should teach people some conception of the good? Particularly with the education of young people – surely the state has to teach children some conception of the good life? With adults, ie people over 16, obviously there should be more room for debate, disagreement and critical reasoning. But still, isn’t the whole idea of higher education that it involves, in some sense, an education of our emotions, and a guiding of them to higher conceptions of the good and the beautiful?
I think it’s possible to negotiate our way round this problem. What Nussbaum does in her books, and what I’ve tried to do in the book I’m writing at the moment, is show how Greek philosophy offers not one but several models of the good life. These models share some basic Socratic conceptions of human nature, but take it in different directions – Stoic, Epicurean, Sceptic, Cynic and so on – with different conceptions of the emotions, of politics, of God and so on.
So perhaps we could teach young people these various different models of the good life, these different approaches, without trying to usher them down one particular path?

Comments:

  • Anonymous says:

    " So perhaps we could teach young people these various different models of the good life, these different approaches, without trying to usher them down one particular path? "

    Isn't that what Christianity is about ? In it's ideal form, of course. Arguably Christianity is hopelessly compromised these days due to embedded misconceptions of language and practice.

  • Steven says:

    "Isn't that what Christianity is about ? In it's ideal form, of course."

    No, I don't think that is the case. In my understanding Christianity is just another philosophy of life, with influence of Stoicism and other schools/philosophers – see: http://www.bookreviews.org/bookdetail.asp?TitleId=7733. Subsequently it could be presented besides the Greek schools.

  • Mark says:

    In principle your suggestion seems unarguable (at least for someone not dogmatically devoted to any particular model). In practice we must make some choices as to which models to teach children (due to time constraints, at least). Particular conceptions are already implicit in the educational system (and society in general). So I agree that the state has to teach children some conception of the good life, if only because it will do so regardless; it's better to do so explicitly, knowingly, and transparently.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *