The Good Life and Economic Activity

The Good Life and Economic Activity


When we evaluate the economic performance of any particular society, be it our own, those of the former communist countries, or those of the Third World, a central criterion is whether or not there has been a general and sustained rise in the standard of living. If there has not been, or, if relative to the performance of other countries or its own performance in other periods the results have been mediocre, then this strongly suggests some problem with economic institutions or economic policy.

       Implicitly or explicitly, such evaluations are constantly being made. They fill our news pages; they flesh out our sense of where progress is being made and where it is not; they serve as the backdrop for our ongoing policy discourse.

       Of course, the validity of the evaluations and the use to which they are put rest on the adequacy of the concept of standard of living. If we are operating with a faulty conception of the standard of living (or of some analogous concept such as economic well-being), then the evaluations will be flawed and the policy prescriptions misguided.

       Given the impact of how we understand the fundamental concepts, it is striking that more attention is not paid to them. Both Amartya Sen and Martha C. Nussbaum have played a significant role in insisting on the importance to public policy of alternative conceptions of the good and in challenging the dominant notions of the good that are implicit within mainstream economic discourse.

       Specifically, both Sen and Nussbaum have argued against conceiving of the individual good (or well-being or standard of living) either in terms of utility or preference satisfaction, or in terms of levels of income or possession of goods. Instead, drawing on earlier thinkers, in particular Aristotle, they have articulated a general approach that emphasizes human functioning—what people actually do, feel, and


experience—and their capabilities to function. In this approach, having a good life is above all else to live (and experience) in particular ways.   In her essay “The Good as Discipline, the Good as Freedom” Nussbaum opens with a quotation from Aristotle: “A person who is going to make a fruitful inquiry into the question of the best political arrangement must first set out clearly what the most choice-worthy life is. For if that is unclear, the best political arrangement must also be unclear” (Pol. 1321a14-17). She writes, “The reason [Aristotle] plausibly gives for this claim is that the goods distributed by politics, such as money, honors, and entitlements, are not good in and of themselves. They are good insofar as they are tools of human functioning.”1

       This is a perspective with which I agree, and my primary concern is with these goods: money, honors, and entitlements, not as distributed by politics but rather as generated and distributed through economic life. In this essay, I seek to use a version of the capabilities/functionings approach to shed light on one of the most fundamental questions of economics: What is the relationship between higher levels of income and increased standard of living (or economic well-being)? This question can be posed on two levels, that of each person taken individually and that of the society as a whole. For the individual the question emerges as: Does my standard of living go up as my money income rises? And for the society as a whole, the question might be posed as: To what extent does a general rise in the level of income increase economic well-being?

       These crucially important questions do not even get formulated if we start off on the wrong foot, conceptually speaking. Thus, if we understand standard of living as identical to the income or consumption level of the individual, then economic growth that results in a general rise in the income level or in the level of consumption will have produced—by definition—a rise in the standard of living. Our question will have been answered before we even start. It is a central virtue of the capabilities/functionings approach, which understands well-being as a pattern or variety of patterns of human functionings and/or capabilities, that it blocks any automatic transition from increased consumption to increased well-being. Thus, what the dominant economic discourse approaches as a matter of logical truth is on the capabilities/functionings approach revealed to be an empirical matter of considerable complexity and subtlety.

       In what follows I first review Nussbaum’s explication of what she terms “the central functional capabilities” to consider the usefulness of her specific approach to the question at hand. Second, I introduce a different approach within the larger capabilities/functionings orientation, one that I believe can shed considerable light on the relationship of income growth to higher standards of living.



Nussbaum’s List of Central Human Functional Capabilities


Here then is Nussbaum’s list of central human functional capabilities.2


  1. Life. Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length; not dying prematurely, or before one’s life is so reduced as to be not worth living.
  2. Bodily Health and Integrity. Being able to have good health; to be adequately nourished; to have adequate shelter; having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction; being able to move from place to place; being secure against violent assault, including sexual assault, marital rape, and domestic violence.
  3. Pleasure and Pain. Being able to avoid unnecessary and nonbeneficial pain, so far as possible, and to have pleasurable experiences.
  4. Senses, Imagination, Thought. Being able to use the senses; being able to imagine, to think, and to reason and to do these things in a way informed and cultivated by an adequate education, including, but by no means limited to, literacy and basic mathematical and scientific training. Being able to use imagination and thought in connection with experiencing and producing spiritually enriching materials and events of one’s own choice (religious, literary, musical, and so forth). Being able to use one’s mind in ways protected by guarantees of freedom of expression with respect to both political and artistic speech, and freedom of religious exercise.
  5. Emotions. Being able to have attachments to things and persons outside ourselves; to love those who love and care for us, to grieve at their absence; in general, to love, to grieve, to experience longing, gratitude, and justified anger. Supporting this capability means supporting forms of human association that can be shown to be crucial in their development.
  6. Practical Reason. Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s own life. This includes, today, being able to seek employment outside the home (in a regime protecting the free choice of occupation) and to participate in political life.
  7. Affiliation. Being able to live for and to others, to recognize and show concern for other human beings, to engage in various forms of social interaction; to be able to imagine the situation of another and to have compassion for that situation; to have the capability for both justice and friendship. Protecting this capability means, once again, protecting institutions that constitute such forms of affiliation, and also protecting the freedoms of assembly and political speech.
  8. Other Species. Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature.
  9. Play. Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.
  10. Separateness. Being able to live one’s own life and nobody else’s. This means having certain guarantees of noninterference with certain choices that are especially personal and definitive of selfhood, such as choices regarding marriage, childbearing, sexual expression, speech, and employment.

10a. Strong Separateness. Being able to live one’s own life in one’s own surroundings and context. This means guarantees of freedom of association and of freedom from unwarranted search and seizure; it also means a certain sort of guarantee of the integrity of personal property, though this guarantee may be limited in various ways by the demands of social equality, and is always up for negotiation in connection with the interpretation of the other capabilities.


       Nussbaum has presented a list of capabilities to function. Each is claimed to be necessary for the good human life. She says that “a life that lacks any one of these capabilities, no matter what else it has, will fall short of being a good human life.”3 And while Nussbaum is open to the possibility that the list might need to be further augmented or revised, I believe her intention is to be comprehensive, to have identified all of the capabilities that are necessary for the good life.

       Since for every capability term there is a correlate functioning term (for instance, for the capability “being able to live a normal life span” there is the correlate functioning “living a normal life span”), Nussbaum easily could have presented her list as a set of functionings. Her reason for not doing so is that “capability, not functioning, is our political goal  . . . . For political purposes it is appropriate for us to shoot for capabilities, and for those alone.”4 At the same time Nussbaum states, “It is perfectly true that functionings, not simply capabilities, are what render a life fully human: if there were no functioning of any kind in a life, we could hardly applaud it, no matter what opportunities it contained.”5

       While fear of excessive state interference might lead one to specify the specific targets of what Nussbaum refers to as “political planning” in terms of capabilities (enabling the citizenry to function in certain ways) rather than in terms of their actually functioning in a desired way, it does not seem to me that the needs of public policy can be met fully by an analysis that remains on the capabilities level.

       For instance, when we seek to define and measure actual standards of living, we are legitimately concerned with the actual lives that people are living, not just what potential they might have to be living at any given standard. Thus, a family might have an income that enables them to live free from avoidable diseases, but our concern for well-being extends to at least knowing the extent to which they are doing so. What the state decides to do about it, if anything, is a separate matter.

       This concern for the actual functionings on the individual level is similar to what is now a commonplace with respect to evaluating overall economic performance on the societal level. For instance, in looking at socioeconomic performance in Third World countries, we are not just concerned with whether or not the economy has the potential to reduce infant mortality to negligible levels but whether or not it has actually done so. Thus, I would argue that for policy purposes we need information not only on capabilities but also on actual functionings as well.

       This point brings me to a particular problem I have in understanding how functionings and capabilities are related on Nussbaum’s account. Given what she has said, that “it is perfectly true that functionings, not simply capabilities, are what render a life fully human,” one might infer that in her view the good life consists of functioning in a certain manner, and the various capabilities deemed “necessary” for the good life derive their status from the logically prior necessity of the correlate functionings to the good life.

       Yet, from specific passages in her account it would seem that this is not what she is saying. Thus, she has made clear her view that not all of the correlate functionings are necessary. She writes:


A deeply religious person may prefer not to be well nourished but to engage in strenuous fasting. Whether for religious or other reasons, a person may prefer a celibate life to one containing sexual expression. A person may prefer to work with an intense dedication that precludes recreation and play. Are we saying that these are not fully human or flourishing lives? And are we instructing government to push people into functioning of the requisite sort, no matter what they prefer?

       Here we must answer no: capability, not functioning, is our political goal.6


       Given that she has asked two questions, one about whether these functionings are necessary for a flourishing life and one about whether the state should intervene, it is not fully clear whether her “no” applies to both questions or only to the latter. As I find it implausible that these correlate functionings are each necessary for the good human life, I will interpret her as having similarly recognized that people can flourish without all the functionings.7 But if this is her position, then for those functionings that are not necessary it is hard to understand why the correlative capabilities are necessary.8

       This is not merely a theoretical point about the logic of her claim that these capabilities are necessary; it emerges again and again when we ask of specific capabilities whether they are necessary for the good human life. Examples:


  1. “Having opportunities for sexual satisfaction.” Some people have very little or no sex at all—certain priesthoods, certain nineteenth-century utopian communes, some people who are impotent, some people who are faithful to one who has died. Nussbaum would agree that we cannot say that none of them are living a good life. But if it is not necessarily important that these people have sexual activity, why is it necessary for their living a good human life that they have opportunities for such activity? Is the life of the monk with reduced opportunities less good than that of the priest facing daily temptation?
  2. “Being able to move from place to place.” If this merely means the ability to walk around, then almost everyone has it. I assume Nussbaum means something more, such as the ability to travel within one’s country, a freedom that serfs did not have and that is generally lacking among the poor. But if so, then while this capability may be important to many people, it would seem excessive to say it is a necessary feature of the good life. Some people live well without ever leaving their valley; indeed if life is good, they have less incentive to roam.
  3. “Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature.” I’m not sure what it means to not be able to live in this way. Consider this first on the level of functioning. Is it really the case that people who do not like animals, or who take little interest in them, do not live a good life? How did Shakespeare, Aristotle, Descartes, or Balzac live in relation to animals and nature? Does it matter? Suppose we find that they lacked the capability “to live with concern for animals and plants,” perhaps because they believed that animals were mechanisms without consciousness. Would this show that they did not have good human lives?
  4. “Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.” On the level of functioning, why is it necessary that every good human life must contain play and recreation? There are good lives of dedication and devotion to ideals of religion, service to others, knowledge, political transformation, or art. Some people are very serious—and they may not be well-rounded individuals. Playing, laughing, and recreating may be absent in their lives; yet it seems that they can have a good life. Indeed, they may find pleasure, satisfaction, meaning, and even joy in what they do without playing, laughing, or recreating at all. Suppose that they not only do not play or recreate but also lack the capability of doing so—either because of the time demands of what is vital to them or because of psychological disposition. It would seem odd to maintain that because they lack this capability (which need not be actualized in any event) their lives fall short of being good human lives.
  5. “Being able to live one’s own life and nobody else’s . . . having certain guarantees of noninterference with certain choices that are especially personal and definitive of selfhood, such as choices regarding marriage. . . .” Is it really true that no one who had an arranged marriage ever had a good life? Are entire cultures ineligible? We may want to protect the right of people to choose for other reasons—after all, everyone has an inalienable right to make mistakes—but that is very different from saying that being able to choose is a necessary feature of any good life.
  6. “Being able to live one’s own life in one’s own surroundings and context.” By this Nussbaum “means guarantees of freedom of association and of freedom from unwarranted search and seizure . . . .” Such freedoms are unfortunately rather rare in human history. Are we saying that no one who lives in a society without freedom of association lives a good life?9 For some people this lack of freedom is utterly irrelevant; for others it may mean they are thwarted. But even for those who chafe and struggle against it, can one not find the good life in the political struggle against injustice? Many people have found that they flourished most intensely in political struggle—over the Vietnam war, for example, or in the civil rights movement. Such struggle can be the most meaningful part of someone’s life, a kind of high point of creative energy and common cause with others against injustice.


       I see no reason to deny that people may flourish without significant freedom (political or psychological) to move about, to marry whomever they wish, to participate in political activity, or to enjoy nature. We can have good lives without freedom from potential unwarranted search and seizure and without freedom from suppression of political speech or assembly. Indeed, people who have these freedoms may ask, with some despair and emptiness, “Where have all the causes gone?” This is not to say that as a general matter such capabilities and freedoms are not of great importance to the human good. It is merely to say that there are many ways and circumstances in which people can flourish. We cannot assume that those capabilities and freedoms are necessary for every good life or even that they matter in every life.

       The significance of the foregoing points is this: If the list of capabilities is truly a list of necessary capabilities for the good life, then it is an extremely powerful tool. It allows us to look at societies or situations in which these capabilities are lacking and say that whatever else may be going on, these people are being denied the opportunity of the good life and, thus, that things must change. If, on the other hand, the list is, as I believe, a list not of necessary capabilities but of generally important capabilities, then it has less power. Where one or another capability is missing, the good life might still be possible, might even be compensated for by the availability of another capability. Nonetheless, if Nussbaum has provided a menu of clearly defined “building blocks” of the good life such that any concept of the good life worthy of respect is constituted by selections from the menu, she has accomplished a great deal.

       Let me then turn to another question: Do these capabilities, even if one has them all, add up to the good life? Or has something important been left out?10

       One difficulty that we encounter in trying to answer this question is that many of these functionings (or capabilities) are matters of degree. And often enough matters of degree can be very important. Thus, if someone has a great capability to love and to make friends and enjoy them—and if such capabilities are realized in his life—then one is tempted to say that he has a good life. But the case would be much less convincing if either the capacities or the functionings existed to a very limited degree. Because she is committed to explicating the good human life and not just human life per se, Nussbaum has, I believe, an intention to specify a minimal threshold of capability that is required. Yet, quite a few of these capabilities are articulated without any minimal threshold being evident. If there is no minimal required level, however, then nearly everyone has the capability in question, whether they are impoverished or rich, flourishing or languishing. Examples: “having opportunities for sexual satisfaction” (Nussbaum list #2); “being able to move from place to place” (#2); “being able . . .  to have pleasurable experiences” (#3); “being able . . .  to participate in political life” (#6); “being able . . .  to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s own life” (#6); “being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities” (#9).

       I would suggest that, at least to a minor degree, virtually everyone has such capabilities. If this is true then, without any minimal threshold being identified, the possession of all of these capabilities (and their minimal expression in the actual living of life) cannot be sufficient for the good life unless we are prepared to say that virtually everyone now leads such a life. The obvious corrective would be to identify substantial

thresholds for each valuable capability. The problem with this, however, is that while having (or exercising) all of these valuable capabilities might be sufficient for the good life, it would be very implausible that it was necessary to have each capability to such a high degree.

       The question of a threshold emerges from another direction as well. As I understand it, Nussbaum wants her account to accommodate a wide variety of specific visions of the good life. She believes that it is an essential part of the good life that each person work out his own conception of the good life; if this is to be meaningful, then multiple forms of the good life must be possible. The problem is that on different concrete conceptions of the good life very different elements are emphasized. What minimal threshold may be necessary under one conception may be viewed as quite unnecessary, even excessive, under another.

       Consider, for instance, the visions of the good life represented by Aristotle (contemplative), D. H. Lawrence (sexual/experiential), Leon Trotsky (revolutionary), Cotton Mather (religious), and Caribbean Cruise Lines (pleasure/play). I am not sure that Nussbaum would accept these as alternative forms of a good human life, but they seem plausible candidates to me. Each represents a vision that has had a powerful appeal to many. Each offers opportunities for a person to flourish, at least in some important domains of the human personality.

       Suppose for a moment that we view these as acceptable alternative ways of having a good human life. Note that they all have a common structural feature in that they all agree that one key element constitutes the very heart of the good life and that others are secondary, optional, or even excluded altogether. But they disagree sharply on what that one central element is. Is it self-examination, sex, political engagement, religious devotion, travel, recreation, absence of pain, fun, or what? All of these elements are represented on Nussbaum’s list, but the minimal threshold that would be necessary for any one of these visions might be excessive for the others. To remain open to all of them, the list could not require high thresholds. Yet from the perspective of each of these conceptions, if Nussbaum’s list only requires the most minimal level of that which it treats as central, then the entire list is thoroughly inadequate, failing to capture the essence of the good life.

       If this criticism is correct, then her list fails to provide in a meaningful sense the building blocks of the good life. It is not that someone else might do better than Nussbaum; rather, it seems that the project itself is not attainable. What were to have been the building blocks of any good life emerges only as a great menu offering the elements of the multiple incompatible visions. This, of course, does not get us very far.

       Nussbaum might respond by saying that each of these conceptions represents an excessive concentration on one or another element, and that they are all flawed. But I do not see how she could demonstrate this. Moreover, it seems to me that often enough the good life is somewhat lopsided. A person can have most or all of Nussbaum’s items in his or her life, and yet somehow it does not come together. The lopsidedness may emerge because the good life needs some central project or conception that pulls the pieces into a kind of coherence, so that it is in fact a life and not just a series of episodes: getting nourished, playing the piano, taking a walk in nature, visiting a friend, reflecting on the good life, choosing a mate, having sex. This integration is one dimension of what people refer to as “meaning.”

       Another aspect of “meaning,” I believe, has to do with feeling that it all amounts to something. People typically experience a need for some element of transcendence, a connection to something bigger than our interests and tastes—a connection to something of enduring value. This often means a life that is devoted to some ideal, be it service to others, art, knowledge, political transformation, or religion. And in this devotion, there may often be much that is good that is given up.

       Finally, and independent of the above, while Nussbaum emphasizes that the capabilities approach offers those concerned with public policy “guidance . . .  superior to that offered by several rivals on the development scene,”11 her analysis fails to provide much “guidance” just where one would look for it: with respect to questions of economic life.

       One way of thinking about the economic realm is to consider that most adults participate in two distinct markets. First, in the labor market we are sellers of our time and skills. In exchange we receive income and diverse nonpecuniary benefits that come with employment. Second, we enter the marketplace as consumers, purchasing, in exchange for income, a wide variety of consumption goods and services.

       With respect to the economic realm, understood in terms of these two kinds of market involvement, Nussbaum’s version of the capabilities/functionings approach offers relatively little for those concerned with central categories such as work, time, and consumption.





For most of us, one third of our life is spent at the workplace; there is in Nussbaum’s essay a striking absence of discussion of work environments. Meaningful work is absolutely central and at the core of any serious consideration of alternatives to the consumerist vision of the economic good. If it appears at all within Nussbaum’s list, it is in the brief reference to choice of employment within her category of “separateness.”12

       When we think of standard of living in terms of income levels, we completely miss the fact that the value we get from what we consume with our income is only half the story. The other half involves the work itself. Far from being neutral, work—for better or worse—represents a major component of our economic well-being. The work we undertake is a major determinant of our social status, individual sense of well-being, and self-fulfillment. So central are these elements to human well-being that a case can be made that, in societies in which basic elemental needs for food, clothing, and shelter have been met, economic activity’s primary impact on well-being is not through higher levels of consumption but through the work experience itself.

       If we focus on “authentic work”—work that is inherently rewarding and is deeply expressive of the individual—it is possible to argue for a fundamental reconceptualization of economic life. It would be excessive to maintain that to have this kind of work is to live well and to not have this work is to live poorly no matter what else one has in life, but authentic work is surely at the heart of the good life. Above the basic needs level, economies might reasonably take the provision of authentic work as their primary objective rather than the provision of consumption goods.





The choices we make when we sell our labor time have a powerful impact on the larger place of time in our lives. In purely quantitative terms, for those who seek the good life outside the realm of paid employment (and, given the nature of work in the real world, this applies to most people), the amount of time devoted to work, to getting to work, and to preparing for work determines what we have left for work in the home and for so-called leisure.

       The good life has much to do with our relationship to time. Life is a passage through time, and time itself has become part of our oppression. In part this has to do with the balance between time spent doing what is inherently valuable and that which is merely instrumental and often stultifying. Less subtly, the good life has to do with leisure. Aristotle was well aware of the impossibility of living the good life if too much time is devoted to the purely instrumental. To some extent, as a result, he saw slaves and servants as a necessary part of a sound household economy.

       Our lives are often sadly overburdened. This is especially true of women who work at paid employment and—more than their fair share—at home, but it is true also of men. Our lives are harried to the point that there is no gracefulness to them at all. Among the supposedly successful middle class, many live at the point of exhaustion. Even when freed from odious work, in a rage to live the good life we can drive ourselves crazy just running around. With no gracefulness to it all, without some crafting of an aesthetic of time, even an agglomeration of good activities does not constitute a good life.






At the core of the concern with the good life, from Aristotle to the present day, has been the issue of money and the things that money can buy. There has been a sense that our appetites are insatiable and that we are trapped in a never-ending escalation of our sense of the minimally necessary level of consumption. A central role for a concept of well-being, especially one grounded in the capabilities/functionings perspective, is to help us see such issues with greater clarity. Although Nussbaum believes that beyond a certain point additional consumption not only fails to improve life but may diminish it, only in a limited way does her list come into contact with things that we purchase.

       When we get to areas of major consumer expenditure—food, housing, education, transport—we get little or no guidance as to how to think about how much is enough. Nussbaum speaks of being “adequately nourished,” “having adequate shelter,” and “having adequate education.” But adequate for what? And in whose eyes?

       Presumably, Nussbaum intends “adequate” to serve a critical purpose, distinguishing what is enough from what our runaway desires may seek. And here the functionings/capabilities approach can be very useful as “adequacy” can be explicated in terms of specific valued functionings. Unfortunately, Nussbaum does not take the capabilities/ functionings approach in this more concretely economic direction.

       What we need is a general analysis somewhat akin to that example from Adam Smith to which Sen has called attention in recent years:


A linen shirt, for example, is, strictly speaking, not a necessary of life. The Greeks and the Romans lived, I suppose, very comfortably, though they had no linen. But in the present times, through the greater part of Europe, a creditable day-labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty which, it is presumed, no body can well fall into without extreme bad conduct. Custom, in the same manner, had rendered leather shoes a necessary of life in England. The poorest creditable person of either sex would be ashamed to appear in public without them.”13


Smith goes on to point out that in the Scotland of his day appearing without shoes was only shameful for men, while in France both men and women could appear without shoes and not suffer social stigma.14

       The point is that living at a high economic standard does not consist of wearing a clean linen shirt or a pair of shoes. Rather it consists (in part) of a specific functioning: appearing in public without shame.15 Exactly what clothing is required changes over time and differs from society to society. But in all or almost all societies there is some association between clothing, public appearance, and shame; and, thus, there is a valid cross-cultural formulation of this element of standard of living. And in any given culture in which one’s ability to be clothed depends upon one’s monetary income, a central driving force behind the pursuit of money would be that it enables one to be clothed at least to the level of being able to appear in public without shame.

       For our purposes, the capability “being able to appear in public without shame” has a direct connection to economic life that other capabilities, such as “being able to laugh” or “being able to form attachments,” do not seem to have, even though they are pertinent to human well-being in its broader aspects.

       Can we then build upon Smith’s example and formulate a set of functionings that collectively explicate what it is to live at a high economic standard? And can we use that analysis to shed light upon fundamental questions such as the role of growth of income within the individual and societal quest for a better life?



Focusing on the Economic Realm


I believe the capabilities/functionings framework can forcefully illuminate some of the central issues concerning consumption, economic policy, and economic performance. To see how this approach can be brought to bear on economic issues, let us consider that aspect of life that is distinctly economic. Rather than inquire about the good life or human well-being in all its richness, we limit our focus to the notion of standard of living. Typically, as mentioned earlier, economists think of a person’s standard of living as identical with his level of income (or consumption). Or, if they make a theoretical distinction between income (or consumption) and standard of living, they will use income (or consumption) as a proxy for standard of living.

       It is just this approach that Sen has criticized, and the great value of the linen shirt example is that it allows us to view income and consumption as tools that promote or facilitate central, and possibly universally valued, functionings such as “appearing in public without shame.” Moreover, the desire to appear in public without shame emerges as a key motivational factor in explaining consumption expenditures and, to some extent, labor market choices.

       In his essay “The Living Standard,” Sen calls for an explication of the concept of standard of living in terms of key capabilities to function rather than in terms of actual functionings.16 Here, as with Nussbaum, I take issue with this emphasis. Merely having the capability to live well materially speaking (whether or not this is the limit of appropriate concern of the state) is not the same as actually doing so. To have a high standard of living is to actually live well economically.

       Sen asks, “What about the wealthy ascetic who decides to fast and becomes undernourished despite his being rich and having the means of being excellently nourished? It seem rather odd to see him as deprived, with a low standard of living. He has chosen to fast; he was not forced to fast.”17 Sen is, of course, correct that there is a world of difference between the wealthy ascetic who decides to fast and the undernourished poor, even if both are undernourished. But this does not show that standard of living is best explicated in terms of capabilities. First, we want to keep open the possibility that a wealthy person might through choice or otherwise actually live at a very low standard. This would be foreclosed by definition if merely being able to live at a high standard were the same as doing so. Second, taken as functionings, fasting and starving are simply two different functionings. To fast is not to starve, even if nutritionally they come out the same. Understanding standard of living in terms of functionings does not mean that we obliterate the differences between different kinds of functionings.

       Sen offers another example, saying “the capability to visit friends and relatives may be important for standard of living. However, a person who chooses not to make use of that capability, and curls up instead with a good book, may not be sensibly seen as being deprived and having a low standard of living.”18 Again, I do not believe Sen has made his case. It is impossible to undertake all valuable functionings at the same time. Merely forgoing one in favor of another does not show deprivation. But consider someone who, in favor of staying in his room with a good book, permanently gives up visiting relatives, or eating good meals, or any other valued functioning. At some point, I believe, we would want to say that he is living at a very low standard. Whether this is self-inflicted or a result of deprivation is yet another matter.

       Whether standard of living is best explicated in terms of capabilities or functionings, or as a mix of the two, should remain an open question. Better to judge actual analyses than to foreclose alternatives. In the current essay, I offer an account based only on functionings.

       One way to approach the task of isolating economic well-being is to focus on the individual as a consumer, as an agent in the marketplace making consumption expenditures. From this perspective, we might ask

if it is possible to identify one or more key functionings for each of the major categories of consumption expenditure. Such functionings would capture the forms of life experience and activity that consumer expenditures enable.

       Consider table 9.1, which pairs functionings with areas of consumption expenditure. Families spend most of their money on these six areas of consumption expenditure.


Table 9.1: Areas of Expenditure and Core Functionings


Area of Expenditure Core Functioning


Clothing                                 Appears in public without shame


                           Housing                                  Hosts with pride in a dwelling a reasonable distance from work and in a safe neighborhood


                           Transportation                       Gets around relatively quickly among the central loci of everyday life (home, work, friends, schools, shops)


              Food                                       Eats meals that are healthful, appetizing, and leisured


              Health                                     Receives effective preventive and remediable health care


Education                               Children are schooled effectively and safely




And while the core functionings identified in table 9.1 do not exhaust the functionings that may be enabled through consumer expenditures in these areas, and which motivate these expenditures, they do offer a picture of a way of life or, let us say, a level of economic life that can serve as an alternative to the level of income or consumption in appraising the standard of economic life.

       One of the virtues of identifying the level of economic life (or standard of living) with a set of functionings rather than with income or expenditures is that it allows us to inquire about the role of money or expenditures in bringing about the good economic life. It does this in two ways. First, we can ask for any given individual (or family) about the connection between income and the core functionings. For each of the core functionings above, income is necessary but not sufficient. Not only must the money be spent for specific commodities but also the commodities must be utilized in a particular way. Thus, one may have the food but not the leisured meals. One may have the house and still fail to host or to host with pride. What then becomes clear is that, on the individual level, the translation of income into a high standard of living is itself an art form. It is very much a matter of knowing how to live and may involve a broad range of knowledges and psychological capabilities. To see things this way is a useful broadening of perspective on “the economic.”

       Second, however, once we begin to inquire about the set of functionings that make up a form of economic life, it becomes clear that those directly connected to expenditures are only part of the picture. There are other realms of concern than consumer expenditure that are central to our motivation as economic agents, in particular those that are central to our behavior in labor markets (where we are sellers) rather than the market for goods and services (where we are buyers).

       Thus, a more complete notion of standard of living or economic functioning would have to go beyond these six areas of consumer expenditure to include the nonpecuniary labor market concerns shown in table 9.2. These four areas, and the core functionings that are identified with them, enter into the decisions we make in labor markets. To a greater extent than with consumption expenditures, these functionings may be enabled by nonmonetary aspects of our economic involvement. With respect to our desire to live in an aesthetically rich urban or natural environment, we make decisions about which labor markets to enter (we might look for work in Seattle, New York, or Aspen). And in pursuit of a life free from anxiety over loss of income, we may choose to trade off higher pay for greater security. (There are consumption expenditures—disability insurance policies, for instance—that also promote security functionings.) Similarly, we may prefer greater leisure to higher income. And in some circumstances the pursuit of social esteem and self-expression also may represent a trade-off against income, though clearly income level itself is a factor in attaining social esteem.


Table 9.2: Nonpecuniary Labor Market Concerns and Core Functionings--------------------------------



Nonpecuniary Labor

Market Concern                     Core Functioning


                           Security                                  Lives free from anxiety over the decline or loss of income


                           Beauty                                    Lives in an aesthetically rich human and natural environment


                           Leisure                                   Devotes ample time to enjoyment of friends and amusements


Work                                      Derives social esteem and personal self-expression through employment




       Taken together, these ten functionings offer a vastly richer understanding of standard of living than does the focus on income or consumption expenditure. Together they extend Smith’s linen shirt example to a relatively comprehensive set of functionings that, if not universally valid, have widespread cross-cultural validity.

       How, then, does this analysis compare to Nussbaum’s analysis, and is it vulnerable to some of the same objections I raised when discussing her approach? First, of course, it should be clear that these are not competing analyses. Nussbaum is operating within the capabilities/functionings orientation to explicate what it is to live a good life. Within the same tradition, I have focused much more sharply on the economic realm, seeking to explicate a different concept: standard of living. Living a good life and having a high standard of living are not the same thing, and how they might be related remains to be clarified.

       Second, there are some parallels and some important differences between the two approaches. Nussbaum has focused on capabilities, and I have focused on functionings. Because she has only articulated capabilities, Nussbaum’s analysis cannot be sufficient for having a good life. Nor does she claim that it is. She claims, rather, that each capability is necessary for the good life. This I disputed. With respect to my analysis, I would maintain that these ten functionings, collectively, are sufficient. To live in this way is to live at a high economic standard. I do not, however, maintain that to live at a high economic standard it is necessary to function in each of these ten ways. I do, however, make a claim almost as strong: to live at a high economic standard (that is, to have a high standard of living) it is necessary that one function in almost all of these ways; one could not forgo more than one or two and still be living well, economically speaking.

       In considering Nussbaum, I argued that she faces a problem with respect to specifying thresholds of capability. The minor problem is that she did not specify thresholds, and, thus, it could be maintained that everyone (whether their life is good or not) has to some degree most of the valued capabilities. In my analysis, the differences between high, medium, and low standards of living are captured in the way the functionings are characterized. In the specific instance, I have explicated what it is to live at a high economic standard. But by systematically recasting the level of functioning, for instance, by replacing “hosts with pride” with “hosts without shame,” one could characterize a more moderate standard of economic life. And, presumably, Nussbaum could supplement her analysis so as to provide thresholds of capability that would allow her to distinguish between what is necessary for a very good life, a moderately good life, a minimally decent life, and so forth.

       The real problem Nussbaum faces is that if she specifies thresholds, which she must, she will find that what is far below what is necessary in one vision of the good life may prove excessive in another vision. This, I argued, leads to a dilemma. Either Nussbaum accommodates a wide range of visions by keeping thresholds low, thus, from the point of view of each vision, missing its essence; or she excludes many such alternatives and faces the significant burden of showing that such exclusion is not a matter of arbitrary preference.

       The analysis of standard of living does not get into these difficulties because what is being explicated is a more limited economic concept. Thus, it is quite possible, and indeed true, that in some conceptions of the good life, there might be disdain for living at a high economic standard, and, thus, these various functionings might not be a part of certain conceptions of the good life at all. However, it does not follow that the meaning of the concept standard of living, or high economic standard, would vary. A Trotskyite, for example, might have taken the stance that to live well economically is incompatible with living as a revolutionary in solidarity with the proletariat.

       Similarly, there are multiple conceptions of the good life that would view it as involving life at a high (or at least a decent) economic standard plus something extra and more important that gives it its distinctive quality. Thus, it might be that D. H. Lawrence and Cotton Mather would both agree that the good life is not essentially economic, would disagree violently about the role of sexuality and piety in the good life, and yet would largely agree about the role of a moderately high economic standard.

       The point, then, is that by limiting our focus to what it is to live well “economically speaking,” it is possible to articulate a concept whose meaning is relatively stable across alternative visions of the good life, even though the place of economic well-being within the good life may vary.19



Policy Guidance and a Functionings Analysis of Standard of Living


The functionings analysis of standard of living offers a new direction when it comes to measuring standard of living, comparing levels at different times or in different cultures, and investigating causal factors responsible for growth or decline in standard of living. Unlike expenditure levels, these ten items cannot be collapsed into a single number. But we could, for instance, compare the percentage of people at a given time or in a given society that have these levels of functionings (either one by one or all of them) and then consider how those percentage levels correspond to income levels.

       A functionings analysis can be expected to reveal that differences or changes in the standard of living often do not correspond to changes in real income levels. To the extent that this is so, it will offer a way of measuring what might be termed “the standard-of-living efficiency of income” for different societies or a given society at different times. This yardstick would be a measure of the extent to which changes in income convert into changes in the standard of living. Potentially, radically different standards of living are possible at the same level of per capita income and with the same pattern of income distribution. It is one of the virtues of disaggregating standard of living that inquiry into these relationships is made possible.20

       An appropriate and vital concern for any society is how the standard of living of all of its members can be raised. As suggested above, when we understand standard of living in terms of income levels, it is a near logical truth that equitable economic growth brings about a general rise in the standard of living.21 But once we understand standard of living in terms of the ten types of functionings detailed above, we are faced with ten complex empirical questions, each of which asks about income growth and rising levels of human functionings. Such questions include:


  • When everyone’s income level rises, what is the impact on the general ability of people to quickly transport themselves to the central loci of personal life?
  • When everyone’s income level rises, what is the impact on the extent to which people are wearing clothing that supports pride in self?
  • When everyone’s income level rises, what is the impact on a sufficiency of leisure?
  • When everyone’s income level rises, what is the impact on the extent to which people have meaningful work?


       Consider these questions for a moment. They have no easy answers. Each requires independent and extensive research. It is quite possible that there will be a tight relationship between general income growth and improved functioning, but there may be no relationship or there may be a negative relationship. The answer may depend not only on the specific component of standard of living being considered but also on the specific historical period and society in question.

       Here, of course, we are not asking about a single individual. For a single individual, income growth can, in many instances, result in greater levels of functioning. But what works for a given individual may not work for all of us collectively. When we all stand on tiptoe, not only does no one see the parade any better, but we all end up less comfortable.22

       At this point, I think we can safely venture that no one knows the answers to these questions. This situation in itself is interesting. What it means is that with respect to the most fundamental of reasons for pursuing equitable economic growth, no one, neither economists nor noneconomists, is currently in a position to say with authority whether or not economic growth is the key to increasing the general level of economic well-being.

       While it is clearly outside the purview of this essay to attempt to answer these questions, it is striking how weak the intuitive link between income growth and improved functionings appears to be. To a significant extent, these collective improvement problems appear to be growth resistant. For instance, functionings that are tied to pride or shame, such as appearing in public without shame, hosting with pride, or deriving social esteem through employment, all seem vulnerable to what John Kenneth Galbraith called the “squirrel wheel” phenomenon. We may run faster but not make any progress—the standards for income and expenditures that promote pride, avoid shame, and engender esteem may rise in pace with growth in the income level.

       In the search for “effective schooling,” so long as this is understood as schooling that enables the child to succeed in the socioeconomic competition, there may be a similar problem. If broadly shared income growth does not increase the number of winners (as may happen if success is understood in relative terms), then here too there is little or no progress.

       With respect to functionings such as devotes ample time to enjoyment of friends or gets around relatively quickly among the central foci of everyday life or hosts with pride in a dwelling a reasonable distance from work or lives free from anxiety over the decline or loss of income or lives in an aesthetically rich human and natural environment, a case can be made that economic growth has lowered rather than raised these dimensions of standard of living. Surely, if we were to measure standards of living in each of these dimensions, we would not expect consistently to find that those in rich countries live better than those in poor countries.

       The value of the functionings analysis should be apparent. It opens the door to new questions and to possibly surprising answers. It demonstrates the importance, as Aristotle maintained, of clarifying what we mean by a better life before we embrace public policies in our collective pursuit of it.

       In reflecting on the policy dimension we are brought to the question that Nussbaum emphasized: What is the appropriate role of the state? Nussbaum views the role of government vis-a-vis the good life as merely to enable good functioning. After that, it is up to responsible adults to choose whether or not to function in these ways. She opposes using the government to shape people’s desires or employing tire law to prod or (if necessary) force people to function in desirable ways.

       But this dichotomy is too stark, as least if we are focused not on The Good Life writ large but on those functionings that—by and large—constitute what it is to live at a high economic standard. Here, there are many discrete smaller choices, some where it makes sense to use the law only to encourage, some where we might want to go beyond education and enablement to give a prod, and some where we do want to compel.

       The reason, I believe, is similar to one I pointed out previously: across a substantial range of alternative visions of the good life, it is possible to have agreement on the meaning of economic well-being and, to a lesser degree, its general relationship to the good life. Thus, without doing violence to the autonomy of the individual in working out his or her conception of the good life, it is possible to have the state more forcefully involved in bringing about those actual functionings that constitute living at a high (or decent) standard of living.

       I will conclude with examples of “functioning-promoting” as distinct from merely “functioning-enabling” policies that are within the American consensus of the appropriate role of the state in promoting a higher standard of living. This in itself does not prove that those who challenge this consensus, for instance libertarians, are wrong. But it does serve to identify what is actually involved in maintaining that the state should only enable good functionings and not go further and prod or compel them.

       There would be considerable controversy about using the law to prod people to save because it is part of the virtue of frugality. Nonetheless, we do have mandatory Social Security. And while this “extraction” of income by the state can be justified in terms of preventing people from becoming a burden to others, there is substantial recognition that people may need to be forced in this way to provide for their own security. Moreover, even those who view Social Security as unduly paternalistic often enough support tax code provisions that encourage people to contribute to individual retirement accounts (IRAs) and 401 (k) plans.

       Similarly, with respect to functionings in the area of health, the concern of the state is not merely with enabling people to be healthy but with their actually being healthy. True, the reason for this concern lies to a considerable degree in a concern that others might either be infected or burdened, but to some extent it lies in a concern with good functioning itself. Thus, when a decision was made to put fluoride in the water, the state was seeing to it that nonuse of fluoride would no longer be a live option.23 Here, going beyond enabling good functioning (say by making fluoride pills available) was justifiable as an imposition not of the majority view of the good life but, rather, of the majority view of the causal relationship between fluoride and health functionings about which all share a common appraisal.

       This illustrates two things. First, that the legitimacy that we accord to the state’s prodding (or forcing) of a given behavior (such as saving) depends strongly on the reason for which the state is acting. And second, it illustrates that there is a line we draw between prodding in order to bring about functions that are constitutive of living at a high economic standard (such as living without anxiety over loss of income) and proddings that are designed to actualize a specific, but not shared, view of the good life.

       Within this economic realm, there are also situations in which we might act to force individuals toward good functioning because when each makes his own choice the results come out in ways that collectively we judge to be inferior. Consider the decision over how many hours to work (and thus how much leisure to take). For any individual to choose more leisure and less income means a decline in his relative income standard. Left to resolution through individual choices, we have a pattern of life with too much work for good living (a lower standard of living). Thus, collectively (and democratically) we have passed legislation that prohibits consenting adults from entering into certain kinds of exchanges (for example, more than forty hours of work per week at standard pay). As a result, I would argue, we are all better off.

       We might also ask, What does it mean for the state to “enable good functioning” if we are dealing with squirrel wheel problems? If the efforts of each to achieve good functioning work to thwart any collective progress toward good functioning, then perhaps a stronger role for the state is warranted. I myself would not be adverse to some kind of restraint that serves to limit what we spend on cars and houses. We have luxury taxes on yachts; perhaps we should have progressive property taxes on houses so as to prevent rapid escalation in “standards of decency” that keep us running after more affluent homes.24

       Thus, I would argue that wisdom, at least with respect to attaining higher levels of economic functioning, lies not in adopting some general view about whether government should only promote capabilities or whether it should compel functionings. One can reasonably use police power to enforce an eight-hour day and taxing powers to prod people to give to charity (for a variety of reasons) and yet fully resist any temptation to force or even encourage people to read Henry James, though it would be good for them.





I want to thank David A. Crocker for some consistent prodding and valuable comments on earlier drafts of this paper.


  1. Martha C. Nussbaum, “The Good as Discipline, the Good as Freedom” in Ethics of Consumption (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1998), 312-13.
  2. This list reproduces Nussbaum’s in “The Good as Discipline,” 319-20.
  3. Nussbaum, “The Good as Discipline,” 320; my emphasis.
  4. Nussbaum, “The Good as Discipline,” 321.
  5. Nussbaum, “The Good as Discipline,” 321.
  6. Nussbaum, “The Good as Discipline,” 321.
  7. If it is true that not all of the correlate functionings are necessary, one might wonder if any specific ones are. To this Nussbaum does not give an answer.
  8. If her position is that these correlate functionings really are necessary, but the state should not intervene, then the account is vulnerable to the examples I present below, though they would need to be recast in functionings language.
  9. David A. Crocker takes the position on this and the above issues not that their lives cannot be said to be good, but that they are “less good” than they would be if they had these and other freedoms. Obviously, this is sometimes true, but as a general claim I do not find it convincing.
  10. I have previously maintained that no set of capabilities could be sufficient for the good life since it is possible that they would all remain mere potential. Here I assume that some or all of Nussbaum’s valuable capabilities are actualized. I am asking if this is enough.
  11. Nussbaum, “The Good as Discipline” 320.
  12. In “Aristotelian Social Democracy,” in Liberalism and the Good, ed. R. Bruce Douglass, Gerald M. Mara, and Henry S. Richardson (New York: Routledge, 1990), 203-52, Nussbaum calls attention to Aristotle’s view that some forms of labor are incompatible with “good human functioning” because they harm the worker, leaving him unable to adequately undertake other functionings. However, an awareness of this potentially negative role that work can play is quite different from viewing meaningful work as a central part of the good life.
  13. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (New York: Modern Library, 1937 [1776]), 821-22, quoted in Amartya Sen, “The Living Standard,” in Ethics of Consumption (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1998), 292.
  14. Smith, Wealth of Nations, 822.
  15. In capabilities language, having a high standard of living would involve having clothing such that one can appear in public without shame. I stress actually appearing without shame (assuming that the person appears at all). Having the clothes so that one can appear without shame is only a step removed from having the money to buy such clothes so that one can appear without shame. Unless one actually buys the clothes and wears them, and thus appears without shame, one is not living at a high standard, despite the potential to live so.
  16. In The Standard of Living (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), Sen changes his position to include functionings as well as capabilities in evaluating the living standard. (See the 1987 postscript to Sen’s essay in Ethics of Consumption (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1998), 298).
  17. Sen, “The Living Standard,” in Ethics of Consumption (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1998), 295.
  18. Sen, “The Living Standard,” 295.
  19. A similar point can be made about the relationship between economic well-being and well-being per se. It should not be thought that economic well-being is necessarily a part of well-being. If, for instance, the self is thought of as primarily spiritual, then much of what happens in the economic domain is largely irrelevant.
  20. One of the reasons that focusing on the more narrowly economic “standard of living” offers more payoff than focusing on “the good human life” or “human well-being” is the greater consensus that exists when we focus on the narrowly economic. Thus, I would argue, when it comes to what people either want money for, or what they are seeking when they sell their labor, there is far more commonality among human beings than there is when it comes to how they understand a fuller notion of the good life.
  21. I say “near” logical truth, for it remains possible that during some period (for example, a war) all of the economic growth would be channeled into increased government production and thus would not affect consumption levels.
  22. Fred C. Hirsch may have been the first to use this image in his Social Limits to Growth (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976).
  23. Those who wish to maintain a sharp line between acceptable and nonacceptable motives for state actions could respond that the good functioning that befell those who did not want to ingest fluoride was only a collateral benefit of a public health measure favored by the majority, but not appropriately its intended purpose.
  24. In The Affluent Society (Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside Press, 1958), Galbraith took the position that almost all private spending has reached the point at which on the margin it brings no real increase in the standard of living. Thus, he argued for preventing private spending (using taxes) to increase public spending in areas where collective improvement in the standard of living is possible (such as parks or public safety).

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.