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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

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(p.v) Foreword

(p.v) Foreword

The Quality of Life
Oxford University Press

These papers derive from a conference that took place at the WIDER in Helsinki in July 1988. It was organized by Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen. The organizers wish to thank Dolores E. Iorizzo for her invaluable role in looking after every phase of the conference and the preparation of this volume of essays, and would also like to acknowledge the help received from Iftekar Hossain and Richard L. Velkely.

An important part of WIDER'S mandate–symbolized indeed in the acronym ‘WIDER’–was to engage in interdisciplinary research. What is meant by the ‘quality of life’, and what is required in terms of social policy for improving it, has been a common preoccupation of both economics and philosophy, and an obvious focus of WIDER's work was a conference that would bring scholars together from both these disciplines. At the aggregative level, economists work with a crude measure of per capita income as indicative of human welfare, and a number of questions are begged here which require closer investigation. Similarly, at the micro level, the notion of maximizing an individual's utility underlies much of conventional demand theory. But this raises two questions: is utility measurable? And is utility the right thing to be measuring, when we are interested in assessing the quality of human lives?

Philosophers have been debating both these issues from a variety of points of view, providing sophisticated new perspectives on them. At the aggregative level, they have been critical of the single crude measure provided by per capital income, insisting that we need to consider the distribution of wealth and income as well, and that we need to assess a number of distinct areas of human life in determining how well people are doing. There have been a number of different proposals about how this should be done, and the most prominent of these are represented in the papers in this volume. At the individual level, the notion of measurable utility has been criticized in several difficult ways. Even those philosophers who would still defend utility as the best measure of quality of life argue that this notion must be refined in a number of ways, especially by discounting preferences that are formed in an inappropriate manner. Others have more profoundly criticized the notion of utility, suggesting that we should instead measure people's capabilities, that is, whatever they are able to do and to be in a variety of areas of life. Again, several prominent approaches to these questions are represented in this volume.

The introduction to the present volume by Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen focuses in greater detail on the way in which contributors to the conference have analysed these issues. My purpose in this foreword is to look, as it were, beyond the conference to see how far the objective of getting the two disciplines together was in fact achieved, namely, encouraging debate between philosophers and economists on the issue of improving the quality of life, and, more specifically, encouraging further co‐operative inquiries between members of (p.vi) both disciplines so as to lead up to results assimilable by policy‐makers. The conference, and its resulting papers, show that some economists are in fact becoming more sensitive to the importance of facing fundamental philosophical questions about their starting points. This sensitivity needs to become far more widespread. Especially in the area of development, it is becoming increasingly clear that an adequate approach to complex economic problems cannot be found if these questions are avoided. On the other hand, it is clear that philosophers are also becoming aware of the importance of linking their foundational and theoretical inquiries to an understanding of complex practical problems. Once again, such awareness needs to become more widespread; and such practical inquiries need to be informed by a concern for the entire world, not only for a small group of privileged and developed nations, which are frequently the point of reference for philosophical discussions of distributive justice. The examples in this volume of Finnish and Swedish approaches to the formulation of public policy–in which social scientists examine activities and not just satisfactions, and measure achievements in a plurality of distinct areas of living–point toward the sort of benefit that can be expected for both sides, if economists and philosophers continue and develop further the type of co‐operative effort begun in this conference.

Such co‐operation is perhaps especially necessary in two areas, on which the conference focused: the area of health, and the area of gender justice. Reflection about the complex decisions public policy must make concerning health, and the distribution of the goods connected with health, reveals the need to think about the whole issue of life quality in a way that goes beyond conventional crude economic measures. The assessment of women's quality of life is an area of special urgency in the developing world. For here, because of the ways in which people's desires can be limited and warped by a lifetime of deprivation and lack of education, so that expectations adjust to substandard living conditions, one frequently sees a very large gap between utility (construed as satisfaction) and a woman's actual ability to function in a variety of important ways. And one also sees the need to press philosophical questions about tradition and cultural relativity, in order to determine whose beliefs and judgements should be the source of the measures to be used by policy‐makers. These two issues are the focus of continuing interdisciplinary research at WIDER, which will lead to the production of a further volume on human capabilities and gender justice, and to a research programme on the ethical implications of health policy.

Lal Jayawardena

Director, WIDER

27 August 1990