Human development must account for moral sentiments

Flavio Comim explores why we have to pay more attention to Martha Nussbaum’s work in thinking about human development.

The ISC is featuring contributions from the global science community on Rethinking Human Development. This is a joint project with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

How could we rethink our conceptual understanding of human development, considering the contemporary context?

There are two key theoretical points to consider when rethinking the concept of human development. One is related to Amartya Sen, the other to Martha Nussbaum. Both points are grounded on my diagnostic that human development, in its current formulation, captures too little of Sen’s ‘Capability and social choice’ approach, and incredibly, ignores Nussbaum’s ‘Capabilities and political emotions’ framework. I dispute the claims, by some scholars, that human development is based on the ‘Capability’ approach. Rather, I believe that it is a direct application of the ‘Basic Needs’ approach, later expressed in a capability language.

But, let me be clearer. If human development wants to be true to Amartya Sen’s thought, then, it should consider it in all its extensions. My view is that his main approach is not the ‘Capability’ approach, but what can be called Sen’s ‘Social Choice’ approach. Indeed, this seems evident in one of his latest books, Collective Choice and Social Welfare, published in 2017 (an expanded edition of a book he wrote in 1970), which shows how capabilities are related to informational pluralism in his broader framework and tackle wider issues of critical scrutiny, partial and meta-rankings, etc. It seems natural that if we wish to rethink our conceptual understanding of human development, we should fully take into account Sen’s ‘Social Choice’ approach. This is, in fact, a significant opportunity for refreshing and reinvigorating human development.  

But this might not be enough. One of the greatest injustices perpetrated by Human Development Reports (HDRs) is how they have ignored the work carried out by Martha Nussbaum over the past 30 years. I do not blame the HDR Office here but the work of some capability scholars who have stereotyped Nussbaum’s work as if it were only about capability lists. Rather, she talks about gender discrimination, women’s empowerment, disability, animal rights, immigration, aging, inequality, poverty, the workplace, children, play, education, parks, family finances and a wide range of topics that are central to human development. Her work is much more centred on ethics and ‘micro categories’, when we compare it to Sen’s work, which seems to offer a more ‘macro’ investigation of issues such as health and education. More importantly, she invites us to think about the importance of love and compassion for human development. Taken together, Sen’s ‘Social Choice’ approach and Nussbaum’s ‘Capabilities and Political Emotions’ framework can stimulate a rebirth of human development thought.

Could you clarify what are, in your view, Nussbaum’s key contributions to a rethinking of human development?

Human development is still a subject dominated by macro analytical categories that more often than not apply mostly to entire countries. We are talking here about public spending, life expectancy, income per capita, education enrolment, among many others. But in real life, human development is not merely about what governments do but about people’s lived experiences and attitudes. For instance, there is no point in governments enacting anti-discrimination laws if their citizens are not willing to comply with them. The beauty of Nussbaum’s work lies in tackling fragilities in human nature that can only be fully appreciated from an ethical perspective. Although Sen is fond of regularly referring to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, it is Nussbaum who provides the ethical elements that can be used to examine humanity’s struggles for autonomy and love.

Can we talk about human development without taking into account people’s moral psychology? It is doubtful. But so far that is what human development has done. Opening the doors of human development to Nussbaum’s work is a first step in the direction of contextualizing development as part of humanity’s struggle for meaning. Furthermore, Nussbaum’s work can provide a bridge between Aristotelian and Kantian constructs that inhabit HDRs. Finally, I would like to mention that her work invites us to think about political issues that are extremely relevant for contemporary times (of pandemics and the exacerbation of inequalities).

What are the key challenges to human-centric development in the world today?

The world is much more unequal today than it was when the first HDR was published. Wealthy corporations and rich people are ‘out of control’: no one seems to monitor their earnings, and tax evasion as well as tax avoidance have weakened societies’ power to improve the quality of life of their citizens. As much as the theme of inequality is always present in human development discussions, the issue of power related to inequality has not been fully addressed. It is essential to talk about how humans are using natural resources and how democracy has been challenged by kleptocratic and plutocratic regimes.

The fact is that human-centric development is not human-centric enough. If we could open the Pandora’s Box of power, democracy and politics we would be able to understand not only how different societies think (or not) about the common good, but how they affect the way that humanity relates to nature and its multiple forms of life. We cannot think outside the human-centric development box without exploring this first, because what humans do to ecosystems is nothing but a consequence of what they do to themselves. The 2007/08 HDR on Climate Change showed how the impacts of climate change on the poor are much more severe because of their vulnerability and lack of resilience. This lack of resilience arises from the simple fact that the non-poor do not seem to care much about the poor.

Another key challenge relates to implementation. Human Development Reports are very normative. When I worked for UNDP Brazil, I was responsible for conveying Human Development Index updates and HDR key messages to the media. Sometimes I would feel as if I were a priest bringing the good news of salvation (or warning against the doom). But, the tough issues, which are issues of implementation, would often be bypassed. I understand that HDRs are not detailed, but by avoiding concrete implementation issues, they end up ignoring the tough realities that need to be faced. Perhaps there is something that should be more worrying in my remarks. It might well be the case that human development talks in theory about bottom-up, participatory policies but that in practice is driven by the (top-down) assumption that once national governments are convinced by the main messages in its reports, everything else will follow. In my own development practice, I have seen how UNDP often focuses its energy in engaging with governments and key stakeholders on the assumption that governments have the power and resources to effectively implement recommended policies. Nevertheless, this view often ignores ordinary people’s power to make things happen. An alternative model of implementation in which HDRs addressed ordinary people and not governments could be much more effective.

The impact of the human development approach has been limited and economic growth and macroeconomic stability continue to dominate thinking. What can be done to more successfully influence policy and decision-making?

I would like to answer this question with two personal short stories. When I left my university job to work as a senior economist in Brazil, my work there was to coordinate a human development report. I remember when my Country Chair came to my office and said, ‘Please prepare five themes for next week that you think are interesting for the report and then we can choose one.’ I had the biggest crisis in my life during that week because I thought that this was not what I was supposed to be doing there. The topics for a national HDR were not supposed to come from a UNDP employee but from ordinary people. After considerable struggle and help from my colleagues, we managed to organize a network of national public consultations to define the theme of the report, that turned out to be a major participatory exercise called Brazil Point-By-Point. We heard the voices of over half a million people. This helped us to understand the issues people were concerned with, and informed a more mature human development perspective that ended up having a lot of uptake and influence in the country in the years that followed. In short, I would say that in order to influence policy and decision-making more, human development should tackle the issue of participation much more seriously than it normally does.

A second personal experience that shows ways to enhance impact emerged when Brazil was preparing its contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I was not working for UNDP anymore, but was asked by former colleagues to speak to UNDP officials in charge of organizing a national consultation about the SDGs. After explaining what we did for the Brazil Point-By-Point initiative, I heard a lot of appreciation, but I was then told that the consultation planned for the SDGs in Brazil did not have sufficient time and resources to organize a proper consultation. Instead, the official said that he was going to organize a nice breakfast meeting for government officials and key stakeholders. Business as usual.

The distance between these two different approaches is enormous. We need to ensure that topics put forward under the human development banner emerge out of people’s own realities. It is of utmost importance to represent this diversity and generate strategies that help people address the problems they have. If everything depends on national governments, governments may not have the same interests as people nor the resources and means to do certain things. To me, the biggest revolution we need is to engage with civil society. Human development, championed by UNDP, carries the flag of integrity and impartiality. As such, it is extremely well positioned to promote dialogue, cooperation, and a ‘more vulgar’ approach to policy-making (as Mahbuh ul Haq would use this term).

Redesigning implementation methods and communication approaches will go a long way in making human development more influential and more impactful. It is not merely about publicizing one’s work (as is the case of brilliant songs about the SDGs). Good communication is not simply about speaking in more accessible terms. It is about listening. There is still much progress to be made on actually listening and engaging with ordinary people and assisting them in their daily struggles.

What should be the definition of human-centric development today? What type of formulation would you put forward that captures the need for real engagement with citizens?

The history, not of human development, but of development paradigms as a whole, as illustrated by Gilbert Rist and so many others, has been a catalogue of failures, partially because policy-makers have not paid enough attention to implementation issues and to ordinary people’s moral psychology and sentiments. Quite often, human development policies engage first with governments and key stakeholders, as I mentioned before, without considering the practical contexts in which these policies should be applied. For instance, HDRs can talk about inequality but in very hierarchical societies where people struggle for recognition (in Honneth’s sense), it might well be that elites position themselves against these policies because they might eliminate their main source of ‘distinction’ (in Bourdieu’s sense).

Working for the poor entails convincing the non-poor to care about the poor. But they will not do that if human development does not think about implementation and the design of mechanisms that might be conducive to desired changes.

To me, a comprehensive definition of human development has to take into account people’s moral sentiments, and we have to talk about the types of societies that encourage people to love each other (not in a romantic way) or not. Martha Nussbaum’s 1990 book Love’s Knowledge and her more recent book from 2013, Political Emotions: Why Love Matters to Justice, argues that love is an important pillar for just societies. The more I think about her proposition, the more I agree with her. I might even dare to say that human development is about love. If you are a rich person but you don’t love the poor, you will not bother about the quality of public services and the provision of public goods that are mostly used by the poor. If you are a white person and you do not love other people because they are black, you will not care about people being unfairly treated because of their skin colour. If you are a man and you do not love human beings qua human beings because they are also women, you might think that it is natural that women do not receive fair payment for the same job they do. And so on, for many other development issues. There is no human development without love.


Flavio Comim is Associate Professor of Economics and Ethics at IQS School of Management, Universitat Ramon Llull in Barcelona, Spain and Affiliated Lecturer in Human Development and Ecosystems at the University of Cambridge, UK. He coordinated two national HDRs, for UNDP Brazil and UNDP Panama and worked as a consultant for several UN agencies such as UNESCO, UNEP, ILO and FAO.

Cover image: by Dan Gordon on Flickr

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