On the possibility of a hedonistic capability theorist
van der Deijl, Willem (2014). 'On the possibility of a hedonistic capability theorist' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.
Amartya Sen (e.g. Sen, 2008) has criticized welfarism on two grounds. Firstly, 1) he has argued that there are important instrinsic values, like freedom, that matter in and of itself, independent of whether it contributes to welfare (see also Sen, 1985), hereby rejecting hedonism and utility views on what constitutes a good life. Secondly, 2) he has argued that utility and happiness are unidimensional concepts, while the concepts that make the lives of different people good are plural. Therefore, welfarism leaves out much important information for evaluating the quality of lives of individuals.
The capability approach has regularly been criticized for being undertheorised for normative valuations (see Wells, 2012). Nussbaum (2003) has argued that the capability approach by itself is too vague for normative evaluation and Sumner (1996) has criticized Sen's writings as a substantial view of prudential value. Nussbaum, in turn, has been criticized for her specific, and controversial, account of prudential value (e.g. Alkire, 2005). In brief, Sen's first criticism of utilitarianism is normatively much more controversial than his second criticism. In the paper, I argue that the core of the capability approach criticism to welfarist evaluations should be understood as the second argument. I argue that these two criticisms are only loosely related, and apply to two different questions. The second argument is more essential and more plausible than the first. If seen in this way, the capability approach does not entail a particular account of prudential value; and is compatible with both hedonism and utility accounts of prudential value.
In the main body of the paper, an account is developed in which the matter of what constitutes a good life is understood on two levels: firstly, the question might refer to a) Which kind of aspects of a life make a life good? A second question is b) What concrete ingredients, or functionings, are important for achieving a good life? Both questions can be rephrased as 'What constitutes a good life?', but are nevertheless substantially different. The first question has been the topic of much philosophical discussion, and has centered on the matter whether all prudential good can be reduced to a single concept (happiness, pleasure, preference satisfaction, or informed desire-satisfaction). The second question is concerned with the matter of how to evaluate the substantial content - or, the ingredients - of the lives of individuals. While these two questions are related, their connection has been largely overemphasized. Sen (1985) has taken stance against monist views on the good-life, and Nussbaum takes on an Aristotelian pluralist view on the good-life. I argue that this is by no means necessary to motivate, or maintain, the capability approach as a framework of evaluating the lives of others.
The first question only provides a very rough guidelines for the second. What kind of functionings constitute a good life (question b) should be understood in a pluralist sense: different functionings matter to different people. This plurality of different possible lives that can be good can be motivated from almost any philosophical account of the good life: hedonism (see Qizilbash, 2008), desire-satisfaction views, or objective list theories (like Nussbaum, 2003, does). Which of these views is endorsed is to a large extent irrelevant to understand the importance of considering a capability outlook on social evaluations. Whether freedom is intrinsically prudentially valuable, or instrumentally prudentially valuable has little bearing in on the importance of promoting certain capabilities in society.
As an illustration, I argue that it is perfectly possible to be a hedonist about first question, while at the same time believing that a valuable (and, thus, happy) life exist out of a large variety of functionings, and that a proper evaluation of lives should involve capability measures. Hedonists need to acknowledge that even if welfare is constituted by the single concept of happiness, the large plurality of functionings that can make different people happy, makes happiness a empty term for evaluating the lives of others. Information on capabilities are therefore important for informing policy, even if, in the end, happiness is all that matters. Qizilbash (2008) has argued, for instance, that much of Sen's arguments against welfarism was present in the work of J.S. Mill, who holds a sophisticated hedonist view on prudential value.
In the end of my paper, I illustrate the importance of the argument. I argue that the issue of which functionings/capabilities matter (the list controversy; e.g. Satz, 2012), is much less controversial if it is seen from the perspective of answering which capabilities matter to different people's personal views of a good life, rather than potentially constituting the Good Life in a deep philosophical sense. For instance, it shows that the core of the capability approach is save from Sumner (1996)'s argument that such a capability list will be eternally contextual, and that this cannot be allowed in a substantive theory of the Good Life.
I end the paper with the reflection that the argument shows that while policy aimed at improving welfare is highly value-laden, the question of what constitutes prudential value in a philosophical sense, need not be considered very important for policy. Sen has successfully shown that monist theories of what constitutes the Good Life are not sufficiently informative to inform social policy.