Collective Capabilities, Culture, and Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom
An Analysis by Peter Evans
In this paper, Peter Evans, Professor in the Sociology Department at the University of California, Berkeley, argues that the more challenging implications of Sen’s are largely left unexplored in Development as Freedom and that exploring them makes Sen’s capability approach even more provocative and promising.
The Challenge of the Capability Approach
Development as Freedom’s basic proposition is that we should evaluate development in terms of “the expansion of the capabilities of people to lead the kind of lives they value and have reason to value”, which is Sen’s definition of freedom. Unlike increases in income, the expansion of people’s “capabilities” depends both on the elimination of oppression and on the provision of facilities like basic education, health care, and social safety nets. Basic education, health care, and women’s rights are themselves constitutive of development. Growth in real output per head is also likely to expand people’s capabilities, especially at lower levels of income, but it cannot be considered, in itself, the ultimate yardstick of development or well-being.
The “capabilities approach” broadens the core definition of economic development and theorizes the possibility and necessity of “social choice.” Sen has argued convincingly that increasing the amount of information taken into consideration in making a decision, for example, allowing even relatively crude interpersonal comparisons of individual utilities, returns social choice to the realm of possibility. Having shown that social choice is possible, he then goes on to suggest that it is necessary.
Sen states that for the less privileged attaining development as freedom requires collective action and organised collectives-unions, political parties, village councils, women’s groups, etc.—are fundamental as they provide an arena for formulating shared values and preferences, and instruments for pursuing them, even in the face of powerful opposition. He argues that some of the greatest intrinsic satisfactions in life arguably come from social interaction with others who share our interests and values—friends, families, communities, and other groups. These sorts of interactions are not just sources of “utility,” they are also central to the development of our identities, values, and goals. They are fundamental in our efforts to figure out what we “have reason to value.” At the same time, opportunities for collective action are clearly of instrumental value in securing the other kinds of freedoms that Sen enumerates—from transparency to social opportunities to protective security.
Similarly, Sen states that democratic elections and civil rights may be prerequisites for politically potent associational life. But, dense, diverse, organized collective action is necessary to exploit the opportunities created by elections and civil and complement the dispersed efforts of groups and individuals.
Culture, Social Choice, and Preference Formation
Sen is clear that “informed and unregimented formation of our values requires openness of communication and arguments”, but he does not pursue the question of how distribution of economic power over cultural processes in the modern economy might undermine the processes he advocates.
In his discussion of traditional culture and values, Sen says that preferences and values should not be a question for “the elite guardians of tradition to settle”. He emphasizes the multiple potentialities of all great cultural traditions and argues for “people being allowed to decide freely what traditions they wish or do not wish to follow” rather than being forced to “obey the decisions by religious or secular authorities who enforce traditions—real or imagined”.
What is missing is an analysis of the extent to which modern market processes might constitute an impediment to the kind of deliberative preference formation that is essential to the expansion of capabilities. While Sen explicitly criticizes the choice-based utilitarianism of economics on grounds that its relation to individual well-being is “is not very robust, since it can be easily swayed by mental conditioning and adaptive attitudes”, he does not explore the ways in which influences on “mental conditioning” might systematically reflect the interests of those with greater economic clout and political power. For example, Sen acknowledges that “the sun does not set on the empire of Coca-Cola or MTV” but he doesn’t explore the implications of these kingdoms for the ability of people to choose the kind of lives they “have reason to value.”
Institutional strategies for facilitating collective capabilities are as important to the expansion of freedom as sustaining formal electoral institutions. Indeed, without possibilities for collective mobilization formal elections too easily become a hollow farce. Sen’s capability approach provides an invaluable analytical and philosophical foundation for those interested in pursuing development as freedom, but it is a foundation that must be built on, not just admired.
Amartya Sen interview on “Development as Freedom” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6A7k6peWRM
An Introduction to Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BunGwSCuksE
Development as Freedom: The Human Capabilities Approach – https://raggeduniversity.co.uk/2014/05/10/development-freedom-digest-alex-dunedin/
What is Amartya Sen’s “Capability Approach” to Development and Poverty – A comprehensive study.
Disclaimer: This is a summary handout I had prepared during an internship program. The content belongs to the author/s of the original article/s.