Friday, March 4, 2011

On Amartya Sen's "Development as Freedom"

“Development as freedom,” in the work of Amartya Sen, means that the achievement of human well-being is “commensurate to the amount of freedom people do enjoy”. The lack thereof, due to cultural or political impediments, most especially among women, curtails the very meaning of life. But what is the meaning of human life? Crucial to the answer of this question, I think, is to be able to consider in the first place, why one asks such a question. The question is asked not because there are ends that human beings desire. The question is posed because without this question, the ends with which we position ourselves don’t have any meaning at all.

Central to Sen “is the choosing, reasoning individual, but with little farther specified content of being human, the dominant impression is of people as choosers”. This concept of personhood, it is argued, lacks concrete ontological grounding. It can be said that Sen has not developed an account of the human person in terms of his or her “being”, one whose life matters in an existential way. Thus, Gasper thinks that Sen has not found a way out of economism, noting that “mainstream economics is not based on any explicit theory of and evidence on, being.”

Being Human

Sen’s concept of humanness then is “more of what is humane”, and not really the kind of development of what is human and truly human. It can be said that human beings “are not just choosers”, but to put it more succinctly, “actors in a much larger context”. Human life is not just a result of what is merely personal, of things that matter to the individual, for one’s being is grounded on a social identity, of a “being with” and a “being for others”. Human choice, and therefore our humanity, is not abstract but concrete, situated and contextualized. In Soren Kierkegaard’s philosophy, this means that human “existence” must refer “to a quality in the individual, namely, his conscious participation in an act.” One is conscious of his or her choices in order to exist truly as human, and this consciousness is not abstract but real. But while this reality is the reality of the individual in terms of his or her life, to be “this” or “that” individual means that “I am a being” only in so far as “I am a being for someone”; thus, it is always “an act of commitment” on my part.

It can be argued then that Sen’s “thin” concept of the “human” is a picture of an individual who has no experience of love, angst, or belongingness. He lacks a holistic account of a person who belongs and cares for the other. Without “the ideas of friendship, enmity, pride and anger, love and fear”, Gasper says that Sen “gives us a thin and often insufficient basis for a theory of well-being and human development”. Well-being or “doing well” and “living well”, is not just economic or social, but “transcendental”. It points to a self that is “free” to realize the meaning of human life, in love and even in death. But is there a way to merge Sen’s ideas with existentialist fervor? What makes human development human?

It is important, I believe, to ask what makes the human being value his or her life. Life is not a set of objectives that one needs to accomplish. Rather, it is precisely because we value life that some things are treasured and aimed for. The basis of one’s choice then is the meaning that one puts into that choice, a meaning that emanates from the kind of life that one lives. For instance, a woman, in the manner by which she frames her choices, sees and considers marriage as something beyond the notion of economic welfare. One does not get married because one wants to be happy. Rather, one is happy “being with someone” and it is for this reason that one gets married. Thus, one’s sense of self is beyond the notion of material well-being or economic comfort. A woman also wants to enjoy life and realize what it means to be of value to someone. She needs to be loved.

Thus, she needs the “communal” and “interpersonal” aspects of living and being. If she becomes a mother, for example, she does not only need nourishment, but also the emotional support of her husband, friends, and her immediate family. There is a certain joy and excitement in “motherhood” that economic provisions do not capture. The care and attention from her husband and family, the self-confidence of motherhood, and the pure emotion having to nurture another life are things that contribute to a greater sense of being and self-achievement.

A person needs recognition, respect, compassion, and a lot of love – existential values which reveal that her being is irreducible to economic terms. The enjoyment of these values reflects what it means to be one’s self. Of course, paradoxically, being oneself is what makes one happy. What a person does in his or her life happens not only from an empirical end, for instance in terms of outcomes or results, but also “inside”, inside oneself, one’s person, one’s being. While we can see the significance of our achievements, there is also that inner sense of success, of joy, of accomplishment.

The human struggle, the triumph of the human spirit, or the value that one puts into one’s choice is not to be defined in an arbitrary or an abstract way, but rather, in terms of a subject who exists for another, for life finds its value only when it is for another. Jean Paul Sartre emphasizes that “our responsibility is thus much greater than we had supposed, for it concerns mankind as a whole,” and as such, this awareness of a world out there means that “resignation is my will for everyone, and my action is, in consequence, a commitment on behalf of all mankind”. Being human then means that I am a “being for another”, and that I am “this” or “that” being only in so far as I participate in a community of beings. Being “this” or “that” person means that my life is my responsibility. If I choose to be, I choose to become “a being for someone”.

On Self-realization

Ananta Giri connects the idea of being human to the idea of self-realization. What is self-realization? Obviously, Sen’s background necessitates not that he elucidates a metaphysical concept of the self. I suppose that he takes his questions on a macro level, and as such, he shouldn’t be faulted for whatever is lacking in his approach. The task at hand, I think, is to be able to expand his insights by merging his concepts with the available literature, such as an exposition of the notion of the self.

Giri argues that the “thick” dimension of the self, a concept that provides us an inner view of who the individual is to herself, is lacking in Sen because “the dimension of self-criticism has not be properly habilitated in Sen’s notion of well-being”. Her point is that it is important for the individual to possess the ability to choose and understand the atmosphere that makes that choice possible. For instance, it can also happen that the individual can make bad choices. The notion of the self also underscores the importance of self-criticism.

Freedom provides us the opportunity to choose a life that can be lived well, but freedom at the same time can make a person lose control of his or her sense of the good. And this happens when the person is not self-critical. Many Filipinos, consigned to their miserable existence, lack this self-critical attitude. I have observed for instance the failure of many community-based programs and projects aimed at helping the poor. Non-Government Organizations and government institutions may be working together in one way or another in addressing their concerns, but as a matter of fact, after the initial phase of the program, without real participation from people, the indigent recipients will not find the value of the program for their future. The problem of course can be institutional, for instance, due to the absence of sustainable policies and the lack of funding. But people also need to be responsible, and in this case, the problem is more fundamental than a mere policy concern.

Thus, the problem does not only confine itself in the criteria set by Sen, on what he calls heterogeneities and diversities, i.e., age, gender, health, but also in the person’s sense of being, on whether he or she finds meaning in his or her life. The way the problems of the poor are addressed, with emphasis on their well-being achievement, seems to suggest a big loophole. According to Giri:

Sen’s notion of well-being lacks a notion of a critically reflective, creative, transformative self, and his notion of capability does not embody the seeking and quest for being, becoming, self-development and self-realization on the part of the actors.

This aspect of self-criticism or self-understanding is important because a fuller sense of oneself or of one’s value as a person is crucial in understanding how and why it means so much to be “this” or “that” person. To be this or that person means that I am this or that set of possibilities. I am a set of potentialities. Thus, the awareness of oneself means the awareness of my capabilities and at the same time, the awareness of my limits. It is precisely because I am a set of possibilities that there is a value to the decisions that I make in life. William Luijpen writes,

Man’s being cannot be a task if his being does not include any potential. It should be evident, however, that this potential exists.

Giri notes that “the realization of well-being requires the subjective preparation of individuals”, and more realistically, “to be friends to themselves” and she also adds that, “in the first place not to be enemies to themselves”. Sen, she opines, does not address this need for self-criticism in his concept of the person. But I assume that Sen’s concerns are not in the realm of the “microcosm” of the self, but rather, on the “political ends” of building institutions and the requisite socio-economic infrastructure for human development. It can be said, however, that Sen’s ideas far extends the socio-political.

We find in Sartre that the person is concerned about his active role is forging his or her own destiny. By enunciating what the person is “able to do and be”, I think Sen is aware of the person’s crucial role in making or achieving the kind of life he or she “wants to be in”. The person makes his or her choice, in this sense, because he or she is aware of the human condition. It is a choice, then, that puts value to life, for it is a choice that makes manifest what it means to be. To say that Sen fails to account for a deeper meaning of that choice is without any finality.

While his ‘thin’ concept of the person is locked up as a “being” striving to attain well-being within the framework of an economized world, but without, as Giri notes “a critical attitude into one’s given situation in life” , Sen has forcefully demonstrated how the necessary mechanisms for human development can contribute in terms of how the person’s possibilities may be actualized. The task at hand, in this sense, is not to criticize Sen, but rather, to enhance his approach in order to highlight the significance of the concept of being human, or as Giri suggests, an “ontological striving” that can “only be facilitated by building appropriate institutions of self-learning, mutual learning, dialogue, and the public discursive formation of the will”.

On moral choice

Critical to Sen’s idea of freedom is in the notion of moral choice. If one’s well-being is foremost, on what basis should that well-being be? It is claimed by others that Sen’s conception of well-being amounts to moral individualism. According to Ingrid Robeyns, “moral individualism postulates that the individual and only individuals are the units of moral concern”. The obvious limitation of moral individualism is that it suggests that social existence as a whole matters only in as much as it is for the good of the individual and the individual alone.

Critics like Gasper and Charles Gore argue that Sen seems to be pre-occupied with individual well-being. They say that for Sen, individual freedom and life-choices are primary, while interpersonal, family and community values are secondary or instrumental. For instance, Gore asserts that for Sen, “the goodness or badness of social arrangements is evaluated on the basis of what is good and bad for individual well-being and freedom and is also reduced to the good of those individuals”. He accuses Sen’s approach as guilty of disregarding the other, for it is an approach that evaluates the morality or “the goodness of social arrangements based exclusively on the properties of individuals”.

But does Sen’s approach exclude others? I think that Sen is conscious of the reality that there are “givens” in the social, economic, and political spheres and that in order to transcend all these difficulties, the “quality of human life” must be changed by means of the person’s conscious decisions. It is a conscious decision done also on behalf of others. If “existence precedes essence”, then this means that the person in the beginning is not a “complete article” in the social, economic, and political sphere. It is precisely because the person is free that he or she can do something about the political apparatus. By emphasizing on one’s capacities, one is aware of the value of one’s “power to be” in realizing what one desires to achieve in life and also of what one desires to achieve for others.

According to Gore, “normative practices to the community and culture are various features of the institutional contexts within which people’s lives are embedded”. Borrowing the term from Charles Taylor, Gore calls these things “irreducibly social goods”, which cannot be decomposed into individual occurrences. The values of one’s family, tradition, and respect for elders are not arbitrarily developed. These goods cannot be attributed to an individual as an exclusive property or possession. These are values which individuals submit themselves into, values which contribute to individual well-being. Moral choice, it can be said, can be anchored on the presence of these social “goods”.

For instance, one can cite the way Filipinos value marriage as the union between husband and wife. Neither of the two owns the value of “being one in marriage”, for reducing it to a property attributable to one individual alone will undermine the value of that union. The well-being of both husband and wife also depends on the strength of that union, a fact that strengthens the idea that the family is the “basic unit of society”. Marriage is a social norm, and as such, it is “a system that defines the legitimacy of actions and normative sanctions”. The vow of “being one through thick and thin”, in this sense, implies that for Filipinos the family is above everything else. Here, one finds an apparent choice, the choice to commit oneself to the family as the fundamental source of lasting values, i.e. love, belongingness, and self-respect.

It can be said that the state of affairs of marriage or of family life is also dependent on the overall well-being of the socio-political conditions of the people. It can be the case that “though human well-being is crucially dependent on functioning and capability of individuals, it also needs a wider supportive social, political, and cultural environment.” There is then the element of one’s situated existence, of a “being in a situation”, or a “being in love”, or “being one with the other”. Marriage cannot be contracted on utilitarian terms. It is not supposed to serve any person’s individualistic ends. It is meant for the union and the realization of the value of that union.

Of course, from the perspective of human development, the existential aspect of well-being may not be apparent. In studying the political and economic spheres, there is that tendency to objectify and reduce everything to the understanding of structures or policy formulations. I think, however, that while policy formulations are objective and scientific, this does not necessarily mean that the “individual” is abstracted or reduced to figures in a survey or study. Still, it is a matter of fact that the “person” exists, and valued in the way “programs” and “projects” are designed by development workers. Precisely, one makes or designs a program in a particular way because one is not blind as to the real conditions of people.

But Sen’s critics argue that Sen’s approach is tantamount to moral individualism because of its tendency to put the individual over and above the “social” and the “interpersonal”. The “overemphasis” on human freedom seems to suggest that everything that matters in human life depends on the individual. Critics contend that Sen fails to adequately account for other important aspects in human life other than the value of human freedom. For instance, critics like Gasper say that Sen “takes community membership, social and cultural affiliation as instrumental, not central, to human life.”

Gasper seems to suggest here that the human being cannot be limited to a microcosm of his or her choices. The primacy of the good for the individual cannot make the values inherent in the family, in one’s culture, in social affiliations through community membership, play, and other social activities a mere “means to an end”, or a mere instrument to the individual’s well-being, instead of it being “essentially” important. But in response to this, Robeyns argues that “a commitment to moral individualism is not incompatible with the recognition of connections between people, their social relations, and their social embedment.” Sen, for instance, says that “the substantive freedoms that we enjoy to exercise our responsibilities are extremely contingent on personal, social, and environmental circumstances.”

The human condition influences the choices that we make. Sen elaborates this in the idea that self-interest can include a concern for others. He says that “beyond our broadly defined well-being or self-interest, we may be willing to make sacrifices in pursuit of other values, such as social justice, or nationalism, or communal welfare.” Sen develops this in the concept of social commitment, which he identifies in the determined act of the person to help, for instance, a destitute individual beyond the idea of sympathy.

To sympathize, according to Sen, is to help because you are moved by someone’s condition. Commitment, he says, is “filled with a determination to change a system that you think is unjust.” Commitment is concrete action; it desires more than individual well-being in the sense that its ultimate goal is to change systems when they are detrimental to society as a whole. For instance, to reformulate the concept of well-being is a commitment to change the manner in which social arrangements address the problem of inequality. While it is the individual who makes a commitment, the commitment to do “what is good” means to choose “what is good for others” because we value the life of others.


Amartya Sen’s attempt to rectify the limiting concept of well-being in welfare economics has shown that development cannot be limited to the notion of income. The problem of poverty and social inequality cannot be solved by throwing money to the poor. It requires an in depth study on the very meaning of our humanity – on what really makes us who we are. Freedom means that life is something we can expand by actualizing what we are “able to do and be”.

In this paper, I hope to have shown that while Sen’s seems to have proposed a ‘thin’ concept of being human, the concept of basic human capabilities can be merged with the existential aspect of moral choice. Sen’s development paradigm, while it shows a strain of moral individualism, cannot be accused of neglecting the over-arching importance of one’s “social” and “interpersonal” existence. To choose also means to choose “what is good for others”, and it is precisely because of the fact that it is “good for others” that it is a choice worth making.

Thus, Sen’s concept of freedom or capability, while anchored on the individual, is also essentially conscious of the reality that human existence is intertwined with the social and interpersonal aspects of human life. This is apparent in the moral choices that we make. In making a choice, the commitment to human freedom means that for Sen, we are aware of its effects on the life of people and the meaning of the human condition as a whole.