Martha Nussbaum has another book out. Does she never sleep? This one is called Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach, and looks at the necessity of moving beyond GDP by measuring a broader range of human ‘capabilities’, such as education, health etc. Professor Nussbaum developed the ‘capabilities approach’ together with the Cambridge economist Amartya Sen, who then went on to advise the French government on its launch of national well-being measurements in 2009. But, unlike her former colleague, Nussbaum seems determinedly sceptical about the value or point of national measurements of subjective well-being. She says, in an interview on the Freakonomics podcast:
It’s all a question of what you think happiness is. And this is a question that philosophers have asked for centuries. And the minute that Jeremy Bentham said that we should look at happiness in terms of pleasure and satisfaction, John Stuart Mill immediately said, “Now wait a minute, it’s better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” And so he then insisted that we had to think about happiness as containing many different kids of experiences, many different kinds of activity. And well, Mill wasn’t the first to say that. He was really getting all of that from Aristotle. So I’m with Mill, and I think that the Benthamite approach, where we just think of happiness as a single feeling, has got very little going for it. If you just think about a daily experience, the pleasure I get from writing is very different from the pleasure that I get from going out and buying a very nice dress. They’re just very different things. And the pleasure that somebody might get from bringing up a child is different again. So I think that’s not a good idea. And I think we should have a much more Millian rather than Benthamite conception of happiness.
Very well, I agree so far. Others – like Charles Seaford of the New Economics Foundation, have noted this contemporary clash in well-being policy between Benthamite and Aristotelian definitions of well-being. The question for Nussbaum is, does she think this more Aristotelian definition of well-being can be measured in individuals or nations using social science? If you look at the list of capabilities Nussbaum came up with, it includes some rather intangible things like ‘play’, ‘practical reason’, ‘senses / imagination’, ’emotional attachment’, ‘control over one’s environment’. When I say they’re intangible, I’m not denying they exist. But does Nussbaum think these capabilities can be measured for an individual, or for a society? Or does she think this more Aristotelian idea of human flourishing simply isn’t readily measurable using social statistics?