Can well-being be measured within the capability framework?
van der Deijl, Willem (2016). 'Can well-being be measured within the capability framework?' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.
In recent years, the question, how, if at all, well-being can be measured has soared in the social sciences. Alongside subjective well-being approaches, and preference-based approaches, the capability approach has been one contender in this debate. It has criticized existing measures and proposed, in broad strokes, how a capability-based alternative could look like. It is unclear however, how exactly such a measure should look like. The question whether the capability approach can be operationalized in practice has received much attention within capability scholarship already. Typical reasons for skepticism about the operationalizability of the capability approach to well-being are 1) that the identification of the valuable functionings and capabilities is difficult, and 2) that capabilities and capability sets are unobservable and may be difficult to identify and disentangle. In the paper I argue that there is a different problem that has more severe consequences for the possibility of well-being measurement within the capability framework. The problem is, roughly, that there is a practical incompatibility between the conception of individual good as being diverse – i.e. different capabilities and functionings matter differently to different individuals – and the skeptical attitude towards self-assessment of well-being within the approach due to, among other things, adaptation. Both features – I argue - are central to the approach. While this does not pose a problem to the capability approach as a framework for conceptualizing and theorizing about justice, freedom, poverty or advantage, or even as a framework to theorize about well-being, it does pose a significant problem for the approach as a framework to provide feasible operationalizations of well-being in the social sciences.
The paper first surveys three central claims. Firstly, it specifies the claim that one of the aims of the capability approach is to develop conceptualizations with the purpose of measuring well-being. It elaborates on what it means to develop a well-being measure. I argue that the capability approach does not aim at specifying a cardinal well-being measure, but at the same time has higher ambitions than providing a mere nominal – i.e. unrankable - measure.
Secondly, skepticism towards self-assessment of well-being is defended as a core feature of the capability approach. The adaptation problem is generally used by Sen, Nussbaum and other capability scholars to motivate the move away from well-being measures based on happiness, desire- or life-satisfaction. A small difference between Nussbaum and Sen is identified. Nussbaum argues that the adaptation problem makes any type of personal judgment a bad measure of well-being, while Sen leaves the door open for the possibility that value-based self-assessment of well-being may be possible – though difficult – when special conditions apply, such as cool reflection and deliberation.
Thirdly, the claim that the capability approach is committed to a particular type of diversity about human well-being is defended. Even if there is a list of functionings and capabilities that makes up human well-being generally, the capability approach generally still acknowledges that the importance of each of these is person-dependent. This diversity is distinguished from conversion factor diversity – signifying that different resources are transformed into certain functionings differently by different individuals – and pluralism about well-being – signifying that human well-being is made up of more than one intrinsic good.
Having established these three claims about the capability approach, the paper develops its main claim that if it comes to the development of well-being measures in empirical practice, there is no feasible method that can accommodate all these three claims in a satisfactory fashion. The reasoning behind this argument is that in order to come to a personal well-being measure, the different relevant functionings and capabilities must somehow be weighted. There are a limited number of ways in which the weighing can be personalized. The most obvious way would be to rely on personal judgment of the individual, or on some proxy measure of well-being of that individual. But both are excluded by claim 2. Less obvious alternatives – such as consensus judgments, or participatory methods - are discussed, but are rejected on the ground that it can either not take account of diversity sufficiently, or still is vulnerable to adaptation problems. It is thus concluded that that there is no practically feasible measure of well-being based on the capability approach.
Some proposals and actual measures from the empirical literature are surveyed and discussed in light of these considerations. This survey illustrates that the tension discussed above actually reflects how different proposals and attempts have been appraised in the capability literature. It is argued that the proposals and measures either fail to accommodate the diversity claim, or employ personal well-being judgments.
A number of caveats to the conclusion of the argument are discussed. Firstly, some considerations that can lead to weighting different functionings differently can be identified without having to rely on individual judgments. For example, the fact that someone is old rather than young, or a parent rather than single, can make a difference in a predictable manner. Secondly, even in case the weights cannot be identified, there may still be cases of dominance, in which well-being comparisons can be made. Both, however, at most qualify the conclusion, but do not significantly alter it.
In the discussion and conclusion section the consequences of the argument are discussed. It is argued that one of the three claims central to the capability approach surveyed in the paper should be dropped. The most plausible available option is to drop the claim that the capability approach can result in a practically feasible measure of well-being.
This conclusion, while somewhat hostile to some of the aims of the capability approach, need not undermine some of the main virtues of the capability approach, such as its virtue as a framework for reasoning about social justice. Moreover, while it may make well-being infeasible to measure, the conceptualization of the well-being within the approach may nevertheless be correct, or at least worthwhile to further investigate.