Waylaid Dialectic

July 7, 2014

Human Development vs GDP & Capabilities vs Utility

Filed under: Development Theory — terence @ 9:13 am

Martha Nussbaum has an excellent piece in the Boston Review explaining why Narendra Modi ought do more than focus on GDP growth as he seeks to emulate the Gujarat miracle for India as a whole.

Economic development is important, but it isn’t everything when it comes to human welfare:

Now let us return to Narendra Modi’s Gujarat. Measured by the growth paradigm, its achievements are strong indeed. The growth rate of per capita SDP (State Domestic Prodct) between 2000 and 2011 averages 8.2 percent, higher than any other State excepting Uttarakhand (10.0). Other high performers, close behind Gujarat, are Tamil Nadu (7.5), Kerala (7.0), and Maharashtra (7.5)…If, however, we begin to examine distribution, things immediately look very different. Gujarat’s rate of rural poverty is 26.7 percent, of urban poverty 17.9 percent; the combined poverty rate is 23.0 percent. Of the high economic performers, Maharashtra does worse, but Uttarakhand, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala do much better, with combined rates of poverty of 18 percent, 17.1 percent and 12.0 percent respectively.2 Moreover, the following States, not such stellar economic performers, have lower combined rates of poverty than Gujarat: Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, and Punjab…Let’s now look more closely. Gujarat has life expectancy at birth of 64.9 years for males, 69.0 years for females. The figures for Tamil Nadu are 70.9 (female) and 67.1 (male), for Kerala 76.9 (female) and 71.5 (male).3 Lest we ascribe these differences to climate or genes, quite a few other States also outperform Gujarat: these include Maharashtra, Haryana, Punjab, Karnataka, and West Bengal. In infant mortality and maternal mortality, Gujarat also lags well behind the two southern States and quite a few others. In maternal mortality, indeed, Gujarat has the high rate of 148 deaths per 100,000 live births, as compared with just 81 for Kerala and 97 for Tamil Nadu.4 So: comparable growth achievements, utterly disparate health outcomes.

Nussbaum lists similar discrepancies in gender and education.

As it critiques GDP as a measure of welfare, the piece makes the case for Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach to development — the belief that the end goal of development should be to maximise human functioning in a range of aspects of the human condition. Nussbaum lists these as: life, bodily health, bodily integrity, ‘senses, imagination and thought’, emotions, practical reasons, affiliation.

I’m not convinced. Or to be more exact: I am convinced that measuring the state of our lives across a range of indices will provide a better approximation/measure of welfare than measuring GDP alone. But I’m not convinced that maximising human capabilities is a better end goal than the one which supposedly underpins most economic thought: human happiness.

One problem with the capabilities approach is the same trouble all non-utilitiarian philosophies face. What if it turned out that maximising capabilities (or at least certain ones) made us less happy as a whole? Would you really want us to be talented but miserable? Not me, I’d settle for mediocre bliss for our species any day. You can argue that maximising capabilities won’t make us less happy. I’d agree with you. Hence my support of measuring welfare across a range of human indices. But it seems to me that if that’s your way out, you’re tacitly agreeing happiness, not capabilities, is the ultimate end goal.

The other problem with the capabilities approach, is a problem confronting all Aristotelian philosophies — how do you adjudicate trade-offs between the different things you want to maximise (capabilities in this case)? What happens when you need to curtail someone’s affiliation to increase someone else’s bodily health? For a utilitarian this is easy enough (in theory): you act to maximise the greatest good. But this option would not seem to be there for Aristotelians.

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. Good that you’re allowing comments on this one Terence 🙂

    What if it turned out that maximising capabilities (or at least certain ones) made us less happy as a whole? Would you really want us to be talented but miserable? Not me, I’d settle for mediocre bliss for our species any day.

    I offer the Brave New World critique.

    What happens when you need to curtail someone’s affiliation to increase someone else’s bodily health? For a utilitarian this is easy enough (in theory): you act to maximise the greatest good.

    And the utilitarian has the problem that, theoretically, making someone suffer could make 100 people slightly happier, therefore increasing overall happiness.

    Also, this is not a principled objection, but in practice there tends to be a slippery slope from ‘greatest happiness’ to ‘greatest whatever can be easily measured’ to ‘most $’

    Comment by cabanacondeturismo — July 7, 2014 @ 7:13 pm

  2. Comments are open for 5 days on all posts then get closed automatically, sorry. Not because I’m opposed to comments but to reduce the spam.

    Your argument’s a good one — the best that can be made against utilitarianism. My defence is as follows: there is no perfect political philosophy, utilitarianism is simply the least worst. Least worse because, although thought experiments like the one you propose make it look bad, they do much worse to deontological political philosophies: i.e. rather than have one person suffer a little we should let many more suffer a lot to protect person one’s right (to silence, to property, to health, to whatever…) And I don’t think Aristotelians fare any better on this (indeed, I’ve never really heard them confront it).

    Thanks for the comment.

    Comment by terence — July 8, 2014 @ 8:14 am


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