„COMPARE THE CASES OF A STARVING MAN IN A FAMINE, A
FASTING PRIEST, A PERSON WITH VERY EXPENSIVE TASTES
IN FOOD, AND AN UNDERNOURISHED WIFE NOURISHING
HER HUSBAND, IN ORDER TO INVESTIGATE ADVANTAGES
AND DIFFICULTIES IN TAKING „THE APPROPRIATE “SPACE”‟ FOR MUCH EVALUATION TO BE „THAT OF THE
SUBSTANTIVE FREEDOMS – THE CAPABILITIES – TO
CHOOSE A LIFE ONE HAS REASON TO VALUE‟ (SEN).
Essay no. 2 for Paper 14, Philosophical Issues in Economics
Submitted in part-fulfilment of the requirements for the MPhil in Development
Studies at the University of Cambridge
2004 - 2005
In order to assess a state of affairs such as the level of development, wellbeing,
or inequality different evaluative approaches have been developed focusing on different informational bases (Sen 1999:57). The capability approach as developed by Sen, which places freedom as its main focus, asserts that income and wealth are “not desirable for their own sake”, but because they typically are a means for having “more freedom to lead the kind of lives we have reason to value” (Sen 1999:14). To investigate the advantages and difficulties in taking “the appropriate „space‟” to be “that of the substantive freedoms – the capabilities” (Sen 1999:74), this essay will
contrast this view with four others with different evaluative spaces, namely those of income, utility, primary goods and the human development index (HDI) while focussing on four particular cases as outlined in the table below.
Income is commonly used to assess the comparative wellbeing or poverty
levels within and between societies. By fixing a poverty line in terms of income, comparative analysis has often been facilitated (Sen 1995:102). In contrast, welfarists evaluate a state of affairs by the individual utilities in that state (Sen 1995:43). Utility is defined in terms of a mental condition, such as pleasure, happiness or desire, sometimes as reflected in choice (Sen 1995:53). Rawls on the other hand maintains a wide and less subjective informational basis of primary goods. Primary goods are the resources people need to promote their ends. They include income and wealth, rights, liberties and opportunities, and the social bases of self respect (Rawls 1971: 60-5). Lastly, proponents of the human development approach, who advocate a people-centred view of development, developed the HDI (Stewart 2004:2). The HDI maintains the simplicity of a single numerical value, like income-based approaches (Sen 2004:4). It, however, has broadened its informational base to include not only income, but also health, which is measured by life expectancy and knowledge, which is measured by a weighted average of adult literacy rate and either mean years of schooling or the combined enrolment ratio (Stewart 2004:3).
According to Sen the objective of an evaluative approach should be to
concentrate on an individual‟s real opportunities to pursue his or her objectives, criticising the above approaches for maintaining a too restrictive informational base (Sen 1999:56-8). To do this the capability approach focuses on the characteristics of commodities that enable a „functioning‟. Commodities, can be compared to Rawls‟ primary goods, whereas functionings are what certain characteristics enable people to do or be. For example a bike is a commodity and it enables the functioning of
8088 DS ~ Paper 14 Philosophy of Economics ~ Second assessed essay 2
mobility (Robeyns 2000: 5). Personal, social and environmental conversion factors
must be taken into account that influence an individual‟s ability to convert the
characteristics of the commodity into a functioning (Sen 1999:74). If a person is
physically disabled and cannot ride a bike or can ride it with more difficulty, if
women are not allowed to ride bikes in a certain society, or if there are no roads, all of
these factors restrict an individual‟s potential functioning to be mobile. An
individual‟s potential functionings are referred to as capabilities and all of an
individual‟s capabilities are referred to as a capability set (Robeyns 2003:12). The
capability set thus represents the freedom a person has to achieve certain things.
Hence, the capability approach does not merely focus on an individual‟s achieved
functionings, which form a partial reflection of an individual‟s capability set and are,
as Robeyns indicates, influenced by individuals‟ different ideas of what a good life consists of (Robeyns 2003:14-5).
The following table will be discussed in relation to the capability approach;
FOCUS ON: Income Utility Primary Capabilities HDI
(as goods (Sen) (human
supported by (Rawls) development
CASE OF: welfarists) approach)
Under poverty Starving man in Low utility Would reflect Would reflect Would reflect line a famine lack of food lack of capability inadequate levels of health CASE I and income Above poverty Fasting priest Most likely Would reflect Would reflect Would reflect line normal utility the fact that the that the priest the priest‟s priest has had the access to adequate capability to be adequate access to food well-nourished income and lack CASE I of health Would reflect Undernourished Most likely Unlikely to low household Indian wife Would reflect Would reflect normal utility take this case income but nourishing her lack of wife‟s lack of into account probably not husband (with capability/choice health compared personal an inadequate to her husband‟s distribution of household and their income income) inadequate CASE II amount of
income * * *
Above poverty Most likely Person with very Not a case of Depends on Would reflect line low utility expensive tastes utility injustice which person‟s in food (and only but a case of functionings one adequate health normal income) preferences is focusing on and income that are own CASE III responsibility * *
* The cases marked with a star are those that DO NOT seem intuitively satisfying.
CASE I – The starving man versus the fasting priest
8088 DS ~ Paper 14 Philosophy of Economics ~ Second assessed essay 3
By contrasting the cases of the starving man and the fasting priest Sen shows the advantage of focusing on capabilities instead of achieved functionings. Both
would appear to have the same lack of achieved functioning to be well nourished. The
capability approach however, directly shows the difference in capabilities between the
two, where the priest has the capability to be well nourished whereas the starving
person does not (Sen 1999:75).
However, since the other evaluative spaces in the table above focus on other achieved functionings, which influence ones‟ ability to choose to be well nourished,
the same difference can be deduced out of the fact that the priest is not lacking income,
utility or access to food.
CASE II – The undernourished Indian wife
The case of the undernourished Indian wife illustrates one of the weaknesses of using income data, which generally relates to household income as a whole, as the
evaluative space, since it does not account for unequal distribution within the
Sen demonstrates that marginal utility‟s weakness as the evaluative space is due to its limited concern with the maximisation of the utility sum, which leads it to
ignore inequalities in distribution (see Sen 1980:203 for an example). Sen points out
that „total utility equality‟ can overcome this problem by no longer focussing on the
“additional utility that would be generated if the person had one more unit of income”
but by concentrating on observed utility, aiming to increase the utility level of the
worst-off person (Sen 1980:205-6). This type of utility is however also problematic.
When comparing the cases of the Indian wife and the person with expensive tastes in
food, according to total utility equality, the person with the lowest utility will be
granted more resources. Total utility equality overlooks the fact that the Indian wife‟s
level of utility will not reflect her entrenched deprivation and apparent worse situation
than the person with expensive tastes and low utility, since the Indian wife has
adapted to her situation (Sen 1999:62-3). It thus, fails to account for adaptation and
mental conditioning effects (Sen 1999:62).
Rawls‟ theory of justice does not take the diversity of human beings fully into
account (Sen 1980:215). As Rawls states, “I also suppose that everyone has physical
needs and psychological capacities within the normal range, so that the problems of
8088 DS ~ Paper 14 Philosophy of Economics ~ Second assessed essay 4
special health care and of how to treat the mentally defective do not arise […] hard
cases can distract our moral perception by leading us to think of people distant from
us whose fate arouses pity and anxiety”(Rawls 1975:96). Consequently Rawls‟ theory
considers the cases of, for example, physically or mentally handicapped people
irrelevant. In the case of the Indian wife it is unclear whether Rawls‟ conception of
primary goods, particularly that of equal opportunity, would recognise the Indian
wife‟s personal constraint. One of the problems with applying Rawls‟ theory to the
same objective as Sen‟s approach, to assess people‟s substantive freedoms and
committing to equality in this domain, may be, as Sugden explains, due to the fact
that Rawls‟ theory does not share this objective (Sugden 1993:1957).
Sen argues that Rawls‟ theory of justice by overlooking these “hard cases” does more injustice than justice (Sen 1980:215-16). Hence one of the main focuses of
the capability approach is the diversity of human beings and the differences between
people‟s ability to convert the same commodities into achieved functionings (Sen 1999:69-70). In the case of the Indian wife, her gender acts as a limiting factor in her
ability to convert the inadequate household income to her advantage. If the Indian
wife would have access to adequate means to nourish herself, she most likely would.
But in her current situation she chooses, influenced by her social and cultural
environment, to feed her husband before herself.
The Indian‟s wife entrenched deprivation can be deduced from the HDI, but it
does not directly include the reason for her deprivation in comparison to her husbands.
CASE III – The person with expensive tastes
Sen uses Rawls‟ theory to illustrate its superiority over that of utility in the
case of someone with expensive tastes and thus a lower utility with a normal amount
of resources (for Rawls‟ response refer back to the table) (Sen 1999:72). The
capability approach is however much more ambiguous in this particular case.
Robeyns makes the case for a businessman who „needs‟ an expensive car to
gain respect from his peers and/or to appear in public without shame (Robeyns,
2003:22). A similar case can be made for the person with expensive tastes in food. If
the person with expensive tastes in food would be a chef, for example, would he
„need‟ more expensive food to gain respect from his peers? As Sen‟s capability
approach is not a theory and only sets out a framework, in the case of someone with
expensive tastes in food it depends on which functionings are chosen as the focus for
8088 DS ~ Paper 14 Philosophy of Economics ~ Second assessed essay 5
evaluation (Robeyns 2003:8). If the focus is on the functioning to be well nourished,
expensive tastes would be irrelevant since a lesser amount of resources would amount
to the same capability. If the functioning of focus would be to gain respect from peers,
expensive tastes in food might influence an individual‟s capabilities. This supports the
argument that if the purpose of evaluation is poverty analysis there is a need to make a
clear distinction between basic capabilities and other capabilities. Basic capabilities
are the capabilities individuals need to fulfil their basic needs, thus including
relatively agreed upon functionings. Other capabilities are more open to debate and
would need to be selected in direct context to whatever one is aiming to evaluate.
It follows from the comparison between the different approaches based on
their varying informational bases that in terms of poverty analysis the HDI is capable
of reflecting individual deprivation on the basis of its indicators focussing on health,
education and income. The HDI‟s simplicity makes it easier to operationalise than the
capability approach and to make large comparisons, between countries or regions.
However, for policy interventions, the situation needs to be understood in more detail;
the reason why the Indian wife is relatively less well off than her husband becomes
essential. The capability approach due to its non-exclusive informational base, taking
the social and cultural environment and individual conditions into account, thus
provides an appropriate, all-inclusive framework to base policy decisions on. Due to
the fact that its informational base - the capabilities - are not fixed and must be
decided on a case basis, the capability approach‟s disadvantage, with regard to the
case of the person with expensive tastes, can be overcome. Hence, the advantage of
the capability approach‟s flexibility outweighs its main disadvantage in a policy-
Rawls, J. 1975. “A Kantian Concept of Equality.” in Cambridge Review, February
1975, Vol. 96, pages 94 - 99.
Rawls, J. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
8088 DS ~ Paper 14 Philosophy of Economics ~ Second assessed essay 6
Robeyns, I. 2003. “The Capability Approach: An Interdisciplinary Introduction.”
Robeyns, I. 2000. “An unworkable idea or a promising alternative? Sen‟s capability
approach re-examined.” in Center for Economic Studies Discussion paper 00.30.
Sen, A. 1980. “Equality of What?” in The Tanner Lectures on Human Values,
delivered at Stanford University May 22, 1979, pages 197 - 220.
Sen, A. 1995. Inequality Reexamined. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sen, A. 1999. Development is Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sen, A. 2004. “The Human Development Index,” forthcoming, in Clark, D. (ed.).
Sugden, R. 1993. “Welfare, Resources and Capabilities: A Review of Inequality
Reexamined by Amartya Sen,” in the Journal of Economic Literature,
December Vol. XXXI, pages 1947-1962.
Stewart, F. 2004. “Human Development,” forthcoming, in Clark, D. (ed.).
8088 DS ~ Paper 14 Philosophy of Economics ~ Second assessed essay 7