Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
The Quality of Life$

Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen

Print publication date: 1993

Print ISBN-13: 9780198287971

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2003

DOI: 10.1093/0198287976.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 05 August 2021

Thomas Scanlon: Value, Desire, and Quality of Life

Thomas Scanlon: Value, Desire, and Quality of Life

(p.201) Thomas Scanlon: Value, Desire, and Quality of Life
The Quality of Life

Sissela Bok

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Bok notes that Scanlon shifts the discussion from the ‘goods’ or things that make lives better to what makes these things good as he doubts the existence of any unified account of this metaethical inquiry. Bok, however, foresees communities which hold different and perhaps incompatible unified accounts and concludes that Scanlon's contractualist theory, mentioned towards the end of his paper, can help to resolve differences of opinion in such accounts, much like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has shaped a network of partially coherent, partially weighted, partially agreed upon, and partially implemented values affecting the quality of human lives.

Keywords:   contractualism, enforcement, judgment, metaethics, unified accounts, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

In this paper, Scanlon continues and refines the analysis of the issues of preference and choice that he has carried out in previous writings. He sheds new light, in so doing, on the relation of these issues to different questions about the quality of life and in turn to his own conception of contractualism. This approach is of special significance from the point of view of economic and social development; for among the factors that impede efforts at such development, and that often injure rather than enhance the quality of life for the intended beneficiaries, a faulty understanding of human needs plays a prominent role. The ignorance, miscalculations, and assorted biases that skew so many well‐meant projects from the outset do so the more easily to the extent that policy‐makers ignore the deeper issues concerning the quality of life that Scanlon raises in this paper:

  1. What are the central questions about helping individuals and societies achieve a better quality of life?

  2. What types of answer address these questions?

  3. Does the standpoint of those answering affect the appropriateness of the type of answer given?

  4. What is the role of moral argument with respect to such questions, such answers, and such standpoints?

Because these issues are so often bypassed, the development debate displays a curious discrepancy: it addresses human problems of the highest significance, yet it peters out, too often, into triviality—either through improbable dogmatic assertions about what enhances or damages the quality of life or else through equally improbable doubts as to whether anything can be said that goes beyond sheer subjectivity. By analysing these issues more closely, Scanlon helps open them to reasoned debate in a practical context.

To begin with, Scanlon lists three questions that might be associated with the topic of the quality of life: ‘What kinds of circumstances provide good conditions under which to live? What makes a life a good one for the person who lives it? What makes a life a valuable one (a good thing, as Sidgwick put it, “from the point of view of the universe”)?’ Scanlon suggests that the second of the three questions should be central for the discussion of the quality of life, with the possible addition of the closely related first question. He expressly sets aside the third question, having to do with value. The various efforts to make lives more valuable through improving their quality seem to him ‘to depart from the concern with what we owe to the person which lies at the heart of morality and justice’.

(p.202) Leaving this third question out of the paper on such grounds is understandable. There is little agreement about where to locate ‘the point of view of the universe’. And even if the question were simplified so as simply to ask, as so many thinkers have, what makes lives more valuable, it would call for lengthier exploration than the paper allows—the more so because distinctions between human lives on the basis of their value are used to buttress innumerable abuses in practice. But precisely for that reason, the question must not be dismissed from the larger debate about the quality of life in social and economic development. Valuations on the basis of race, religion, or nationality affect development efforts everywhere, intertwining with valuations based on wealth, gender, health, and status. Measures that alter the sense of felt worth or worthlessness of some category of individuals affect the quality of their lives, even their chances of survival. In villages in Bangladesh, for example, where around 30 per cent more girls die during infancy and childhood than boys, that difference has been wiped out by projects in which village women are encouraged to do something that raises their value in their own eyes as well as in those of their husbands or fathers: contributing to the family economy, for instance, by raising chickens and selling eggs.

Even apart from differential values ascribed to different categories of individuals, troubling questions of value remain central to the development debate. Many practices involved in distribution and policy‐making regarding, say, maternal health, AIDS, or earthquake relief rely on implicit or explicit quantitative assumptions about the value of lives. So long as these assumptions remain implicit, there is room for every form of bias and miscalculation. But setting them forth explicitly often reveals egregiously shallow criteria of value and appears disrespectful in exactly the sense Scanlon indicated. The practical dangers of either response call for taking the third question as seriously as the first two and for including it among those that require analysis.

Having chosen to focus on the question of what makes a life good for the person who lives it, Scanlon takes up three standard types of answer, set forth by Derek Parfit and discussed by Brandt and others. They are hedonistic theories, which hold that nothing can affect the quality of a life except by affecting the experience of living that life; desire theories, according to which a person's life can also be made better by occurrences elsewhere in the world which fulfill that person's preferences; and objective list theories, for which an assessment of a person's well‐being involves a substantive judgement about what things make life better — one that may conflict with the judgement of the person whose well‐being is in question.

Scanlon opts for the third type of theory. But he suggests calling such theories, instead, ‘substantive good theories’, since they are based on substantive claims about what goods, conditions, and opportunities — or, as he sometimes calls them, ‘ingredients’ — make life better. Rawls's ‘primary goods’ are central ones for Scanlon as well; and he sees Sen's ‘functionings’ as capable of being incorporated into such a list without much difficulty, just as their loss can be part of a list (p.203) of ‘bads’. He mentions as especially compelling those ‘substantive bads which everyone recognizes as serious, such as the loss of life, intense physical pain, and mental or physical disabilities’.

Although Scanlon admits that the term ‘list’ suggests ‘a kind of arbitrariness’, he takes such an interpretation to be erroneous, given the agreement about many of the ‘ingredients’ on people's lists and the process of debate and efforts at persuasion that he suggests for including still further items. His paper continues to refer to such lists; but the likelihood that the term will be misinterpreted is one of the reasons he offers for calling the theory he prefers a substantive good theory rather than an objective list theory.

But simply renaming the theory while continuing the practice of referring to lists will not satisfy those who seek more coherent criteria for what should go on the lists in question: some underlying conception of what it is that helps make human lives better. Exploring such conceptions is what much of moral philosophy has traditionally been all about. In response, Scanlon shifts the discussion from the goods or things that make lives better to what makes these things good. He argues that it is unlikely that any ‘unified account’ of ‘what makes things good’ is to be had, ‘since it is unlikely that there are any good‐making properties which are common to all good things’.

People who hold unified accounts may argue, in response, that human lives are good precisely to the extent that they acknowledge such an account: to the extent, perhaps, that they are lived in accordance with certain secular or religious ideals; or in so far as they further the life of the mind, the well‐being of a particular community, or global survival; or, more generally, in so far as they are part of some larger meaning or contribute to some greater good. Others might question Scanlon's narrowing of the choice regarding unified accounts to one between only two alternatives: holding an account in which all good things possess the same good‐making properties and rejecting all unified accounts. They might argue that what matters is not so much a unified as a coherent account. It need not hold that all good things share identical good‐making properties but rather that these properties relate to one another and enhance one another, much as do the virtues and other factors that contribute to eudaimonia for Aristotle.

Can Scanlon's contractualist theory help resolve differences of opinion about such accounts? Can it, in particular, help evaluate the different preferences of the holders of unified or coherent accounts, as well as the differences between them and those who, for differing reasons, reject such accounts? The contractualist theory, as set forth in the last part of his paper, aims to facilitate the working out in imagination of ‘the terms of a hypothetical agreement’ among an indefinite range of individuals who have different or only partially overlapping lists of goods, and thereby to produce a weighted ‘system of moral goods and bads’.

The contractualist process of working out an agreement is envisaged purely as a thought experiment. As such it could prove instructive at many levels. But (p.204) could it arrive at specific items on a shared list? It might help, in order to answer this question, to consider it in the light of actual debates about the quality of life. Doing so might reveal difficulties less easily perceived in carrying out the thought experiment at a more general level.

One difficulty is that of achieving compromises between people's views of what makes life good or valuable. The religious beliefs of some, for instance, lead them to insist that the point of human existence is to suffer for the sake of expiation of sins and for benefits in a future life; those sharing such a faith tend to downplay most development efforts in our present, earthly existence. For them, there is little incentive to take part in a process of accommodation with groups holding diverging beliefs. Holders of millenarian beliefs may be even more resistant. They may be willing to sacrifice not only their own present quality of life but that of countless others for the sake of the higher quality of life they expect to achieve in the new existence that they anticipate. The Anabaptists, who believed that the millennium would come in 1534, or the seventeenth‐century Jews who were convinced by Sabbatai Sevi that the messianic kingdom was near, were no more interested in their earthly quality of life than the twentieth‐century American groups preparing for an imminent Second Coming.1 Many Marxists have advocated working to counteract reformist development efforts, holding that human welfare is best served by increasing chaos and misery wherever doing so can speed the revolution that is bound to come.

Scanlon specifically includes the capacity to follow one's religion (and, presumably, belief systems more generally) as one of the values to be weighed with others in a list of substantive goods. But with divergences among belief systems such as those I have noted, the problems of accommodating diametrically opposed views on the part of policy‐makers or beneficiaries of aid become acute. In addition, what is often at issue in practical contexts is more than respect for the beliefs of others. It is a question of the degree to which those aiming to improve the quality of life in a community or region take seriously the recipients' own view of what makes life good or worth living. Even when efforts to provide them with what most people would place on a ‘list of substantive goods’ are utterly well intentioned, any approach that does not take into consideration precisely the recipients' own unified account about what makes lives good, better, or more valuable, can be destructive.

A second set of difficulties that might arise in a practical application of Scanlon's contractualist procedure has to do with assigning weights to the goods that should go on the list that the different parties debate. What are the ‘moral weights’ that he suggests will be assigned to a ‘heterogeneous collection of conditions, goods, and categories of activity’? Who assigns them? What kind of ‘system of moral goods and bads’ is it that emerges from this process? Will it be a closed system to replace the heterogeneous collection with which the contractualist (p.205) effort at persuasion would normally begin? Or, if it is an open‐ended system, how will diverging preferences count within it? And is there, once such preferences are taken into account, a risk of collapsing back from Scanlon's substantive good theory into a preference theory?

These questions about how the contractual approach relates to practical social choice are linked to a more general inquiry. Is this approach meant to be of universal scope? Is it, in particular, intended to encompass non‐contractual circumstances outside of the Western democratic societies that have traditionally been regarded as contractualism's home territory? John Rawls has stated his hesitation about extending the reach of the conception of ‘justice as fairness’ beyond such societies. He has held that he is not ‘trying to find a conception of justice suitable for all societies regardless of their particular social or historical circumstances’. Rather, he hopes that a common desire for agreement along with a ‘sufficient sharing of certain underlying notions and implicitly held principles’ will offer some foothold to the effort to reach an understanding.2

In ‘Contractualism and Utilitarianism’, on the other hand, Scanlon has indicated that he does not envisage his version of contractualism as thus bounded. Rather, it applies to all beings for whom things can be said to go better or worse and with respect to whom the idea of trusteeship consequently makes sense.3 But does his procedure not itself presuppose some agreement about shared liberal values? The very notion of arriving at decisions through efforts at reasonable persuasion aiming at achieving agreement, so central to the proper functioning of democracies, is far from universally accepted. The same is true for the conceptions of what is reasonable and unreasonable, rational and irrational. Thus Scanlon proposes ‘finding a mode of argument that others could not reasonably refuse’ and suggests that participants, in evaluating goods, must consider what they would recognize as good ‘if they were fully informed and rational’. But how does one incorporate into the hypothetical negotiating process the differing views of what constitutes informed and rational assessment of items on different lists?

Caution is needed in envisaging how such a process might function between individuals, organizations, and societies that do not share the ‘underlying notions and implicitly held principles’ of which Rawls speaks in his article on Kantian constructivism. Shaping a contractualist approach to ethical issues between (and presumably across) societies remains, as he suggests in the same article, ‘immensely difficult’.4

One factor that may encourage moral theorists to explore new approaches to international ethics is a greater sense of urgency. Nations now face two overriding threats: the possibility that vast numbers of human lives may be destroyed in an escalating world‐spanning war, nuclear or ‘conventional’; and the (p.206) slower‐acting but equally deadly risk of accelerating environmental deterioration, exacerbated by increasing poverty and population levels. These threats call for co‐ordinated social choice beyond anything that governments, organizations, and individuals have ever mustered in the past. It will help parties trying to attain such levels of co‐ordination if they can trust one another to take seriously certain fundamental moral principles. Among them, the constraints on violence and on deceit are foremost, since they are the two ways in which human beings do deliberate harm to whatever others value in their lives. These constraints are basic to a great many moral, religious, and political traditions, including, but not limited to, democratic ones. They can therefore serve in a coherent framework of fundamental principles shared by widely diverging moral theories and cutting across national, professional, and disciplinary boundaries.5

The debate over the Universal Declaration of Human Rights illustrates how such agreement on fundamentals might be achieved, much as Scanlon's contractualist debate proceeds on the basis of ‘substantive bads which everybody recognizes as serious: such things as loss of life, intense physical pain, and mental or physical disabilities’. The provisions of the Declaration range from the right not to be enslaved or tortured to the right to adequate food, clothing, housing, and medical care.6 Each one represents a good that signatories have agreed, at least in principle, to consider as so essential to human well‐being that it should count as a right. Yet the numerous violations of these rights have been defended in quite different ways. There is relative consensus, once again at least in principle, regarding extreme uses of violence such as torture. No state legalizes torture in its constitution or penal code.7 As Henry J. Steiner has pointed out, even governments engaged in massive repression

do not advance legal justifications for their murder and torture, as they might to defend against certain charges of group discrimination or censorship. Rather, they try to shield their conduct from the public eye, or accuse their critics of distortion, or attribute responsibility to non‐governmental terrorists, or simply bear the label of outlaw as they ignore foreign censure. Even if governments claim moral justification for such conduct because of temporary exigent circumstances, they do not dispute what a full realization of the right [not to be arbitrarily deprived of life or subjected to torture] would entail.8

At least such fundamental rights, then, can form the basis for moral agreement among widely differing groups. Many other rights are increasingly accepted as preferable, however wide the gulf is between acceptance and implementation. In a number of nations, moreover, that gulf is narrowing. This is in part because pressures are mounting for governments to abolish practices violating human (p.207) rights — pressures from the international community, armed with legal provisions not previously available, from domestic political parties, and from human rights organizations. These pressures cannot by themselves bring about a respect for the social and economic rights included in the Declaration of Human Rights, but they are increasingly helping to structure development efforts. Over the past four decades, they have shaped, not so much a system as a network of partially coherent, partially weighted, partially agreed upon, and partially implemented values affecting the quality of human lives.


(1) See S. Bok, Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982), 232–4, for a discussion of studies of millenarian societies.

(2) John Rawls, ‘Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory’, Journal of Philosophy, 67, (1980), 518.

(3) T.M. Scanlon, ‘Contractualism and Utilitarianism’, in Amartya Sen and Bernard Williams (eds.), Utilitarianism and Beyond (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

(4) Rawls, ‘Kantian Constructivism’, 524.

(5) For a discussion of the role of such fundamental moral principles in personal, national, and international ethics, see S. Bok, A Strategy for Peace (New York: Pantheon Books, 1989).

(6) Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 (United Nations, Department of Public Information).

(7) Amnesty International, Torture in the Eighties (London: Amnesty International, 1984), 4.

(8) See Henry J. Steiner, ‘Political Participation as a Human Right’, Harvard Human Rights Yearbook, 1 (Spring 1988), 82.