Social Goals Re-examined: Amartya Sen’s Idea of Justice and the Application of Subjective Well-being
Kim, Seonga (2016). 'Social Goals Re-examined: Amartya Sen’s Idea of Justice and the Application of Subjective Well-being' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.
Social policy aims to improve the “substantial quality of life” of the people. To reach this goal, policy makers set objectives for intentional effort and choice of appropriate trajectories. However, the meaning and even the expression of the “substantial quality of life” differ between researchers and individuals in the modern era.
Modern industrialized states act according to the belief that increases in gross domestic product (GDP) will improve household income and standards of living. Governments invest revenues to enhance the quality of life of the people, supported by Kuznet’s theory that even though economic development widens inequality in its early stage, increases in national income per capita alleviate the level of inequality. Yet, the fruits of economic growth are not fairly distributed among the people, income gaps have increased, and inequality within and between nations has become worse in industrialized states (OECD, 2011; Stiglitz, 2012; Piketty, 2014): thus, we are facing the need to search for an alternative social goal to GDP.
2. Sen’s Idea of Justice as an alternative to GDP and Criticism
Sen (1999, 2009) argues that development is the process of expanding substantial freedoms and that this is the justice. In this regard, economic growth, including the objective of increasing GDP or personal income and industrialization is a narrow view of social development and only a means to reach the ends, namely expansion of freedom. Society has a responsibility to equip social conditions to aid people to choose their own lives without limitation (Sen, 2009).
We must go back to the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle to understand the relation between the ultimate goal and instrumental objectives. Aristotle took happiness to be the highest good among all that we can attain and that politics can pursue. Even if some define happiness as pleasure, wealth, reputation, or health, Aristotle sees all of those as means to reach the ultimate good. In this respect, policy efforts of the welfare state should aim at the fundamental goal via instrumental objectives.
Aristotle also showed that different behaviors or techniques may have various objectives. Medical science aims at health, architecture is for buildings, and the goal of military science is victory. Apart from instrumental objectives for other objectives, the highest good is happiness because it is impossible to pursue it for other goods, and it is the good of all behaviors. This happiness is a mental activity rather than a physical meaning. That is, happiness is an activity rooted in rational principles, and to achieve this, other activities, such as wealth and relationships with others, are required.
Sen’s idea of justice which is developed in the form of Human Development Index(hereafter HDI), however, has to meet numerous challenges for its application in social policies. First, HDI, the number indicating where individual countries are in terms of human development, can be achieved to a certain range. HDI appears to hit a ceiling especially in advanced countries. The rate of increase of HDI is decreasing after 1995, unlike that of GDP. The introduction of HDI has drawn international attention, and social efforts to improve standards of human development have practical effects. Yet, once a country reaches a certain level of human development, the effect shown in the form of a number is tied up. The years of schooling and life expectancy cannot be increased limitlessly.
In this respect, most studies based on Sen’s idea were conducted in developing countries. The places where Sen’s idea that “growth of GNP or individual incomes can, of course, by very important as means to expanding the freedoms enjoyed by the members of the society” is most valid may be advanced countries which still concentrate their policy effort on the pursuit of instrumental objectives. However, the issue that indicators of HDI may have reached a ceiling will have to be dealt with.
3. A social goal re-examined: Subjective well-being
Sen’s capabilities approach provides theoretical clues for the re-examination of social goals in the context of post-industrialized societies. Problems such as index ceilings and indicator validity still remain unresolved. Kim (2012) classifies the factors making up the environments surrounding adolescents into two groups: objective and subjective factors. The results show the influence of adolescents’ subjective relations to their environments on their work development, offsetting the impact of objective environmental conditions. This implies that subjective well-being is an important area of focus for the improvement of quality of life.
Subjective well-being is, however, based on a personal interpretation of the world, leading researchers to test reliability and validity. Wang (2014) shows a high degree of correlation among surveys and a consistent level of subjective well-being within nations. The survey results on subjective well-being show a reliable level of correspondence with objective environmental conditions.
The important choice dimension is how to apply the concept of subjective well-being to the area of public policy. While Bhutan where is well-known for its national goal of gross national happiness determines weighting based on specialized knowledge, Jung and Kim (2015) utilize a statistical method or principal factor analysis. Additionally, Kim (2012) considers the possibility that subjective recognition adjusts the power of objective environmental conditions. Therefore, to take advantage of subjectivity in the area of public policy, it must be determined how to measure the concept and how to apply it to the policy field. In this research proposal, happiness will be tested as a signal of instinctive emotion, and the adjustment method of objective environmental conditions with subjective well-being will be chosen to apply to policy domains.
4. Application of Subjective well-being to human development
To set new social goals for public policy, objective environmental conditions and subjective well-being should be considered to ensure freedom of individuals. HDI is chosen as the variable to explain objective environmental conditions, and happiness is a potential variable expressing subjective well-being. The basic frame for this idea is the following.
SubjHDI = Subjective Wellbeing * HDI