There can be no single conception of human development

Marc Fleurbaey proposes to define human development with a diversity of values in mind.

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).

In your view, what does human development fundamentally include?

Drawing up a list of the components of human development (which I think is synonymous with human flourishing) is easy and difficult at the same time. People generally hesitate about the least material aspects, such as the quality of social relations, status and recognition, intellectual and spiritual development, and mental health.

What insights can your work lend to the concept of human development?

I have been very intrigued by the question of taking into account people’s own perspectives on their lives. The question of drawing up a list of the components of human development is closely related to that of weighting the various components. A component that is excluded from the list is one that receives a null weight. I am not sympathetic to the view that human preferences are too frail and malleable to serve as a guide to the valuation of the quality of life. Admittedly, preferences are very imperfect, but without relying on human values there is no way to figure out whether health or social inclusion or freedom of thought is more important.

In Sen’s approach to taking account of human values, there is the idea that this must be a collective deliberation done at the community level, and that this deliberation about the value of different capabilities must lead to a consensus within the community. I don’t think such a consensus is needed. There can be multiple reasonable value systems, and people embracing these different value systems can live peacefully together. Materialistic people can coexist with more spiritually oriented people, for instance. There is no need to impose the idea that health or education should have the same weight for everyone.

So, in my work on fairness, my co-authors and I have shown that it is possible to define measures of human development and of societal development that take account of the diversity of values within the community.

What key dimensions of human development are often ignored in academic research and policy-making and planning?

I think that the quality of social relations is generally ignored, which is odd because human beings are ultra-social and completely depend on the support of others in multiple ways. People are shaped by their social settings, and yet we tend to focus on more individualistic achievements in production, market success, health and education. If we measured the flourishing and the breakdown of social relations at various levels accurately and in real time, many crises (such as the ‘deaths of despair’ in the US) could be avoided.

To what extent do existing indices such as the Human Development Index, the Multidimensional Poverty Index or the Happiness and Wellbeing indices provide an accurate measure of human development? 

They all provide useful information but only partial information. It is important to be aware of their limitations and to keep searching for additional information. In the list you provide, you invoke indices that are on two extreme ends of the objective–subjective spectrum. But interestingly, they all characteristically fail to record what is really important to people, and do not attribute proper weight to the various aspects of people’s lives. This criticism may seem unfair to the subjective well-being indicators, because presumably people’s perspectives are embedded in such indicators. But, in fact, these indicators mix how people assess their situation with how they come up with a number when answering a happiness question. The former is very important, but the latter is essentially noise. This noise makes these subjective data hard to compare across people.

In light of your approach to human development, what are the major current and emerging challenges facing development?

Pursuing a line already mentioned, it seems to me that we do not manage the growth of people appropriately because we focus too much on their personal assets and ignore their vulnerability and dependence on the support of others (not just in interpersonal relations, but also in organizational settings, such as the workplace). In particular, we rely too much on systems of selection that treat people as endowed differently, systems that try to ensure the best emerge so they can reap the rewards. This undermines and destroys many people. We need to invest in systems that make the most of everyone’s potential, through mechanisms in which the better equipped share their know-how and assets with the less advantaged, so that everyone can reach their full potential and contribute to the collective’s success. In a nutshell, our current institutions and way of thinking in terms of selection is generating a huge waste of human potential.

How would you assess current knowledge on the interlinkages between development challenges and other issues such as inequality, poverty or climate change? What is the level of integration between the different research fields, and in between policy sectors?

The research is getting more integrated than policy, it seems. For instance, I have followed the growth of research on climate policy in relation to inequalities and poverty, and this is becoming a vibrant topic. In contrast, policy-makers need movements like the ‘yellow vests’ in France to understand that one cannot pursue climate change mitigation in an ambitious way without looking at the distributive consequences and without preparing a policy package in which environmental and social issues are addressed jointly.

What are the major challenges in building a concept of human development that is useful for decision-makers and stakeholders?

We should abandon the ambition of building a unique conception that will convince everyone. We must live with a diversity of values and conceptions of justice and of the good life in our societies, and build data and synthetic indicators that respond to these diverse perspectives. Recognizing that human development means different things for different schools of thought, and for different people (not just different generations, or social groups, but down to the individual level), is important to allow public debates and policy-making processes to be inclusive. It can be disenfranchising to try to impose a particular view of human development. We should keep it plural.

In your view, can the concept of human development provide academics, policy-makers and activists with a shared framework for strategic thinking towards sustainable development?

In a sense, it is actually crucial. Think of the debate about degrowth, which comes from concerns about the unavoidable destruction of the planet if we continue on the current growth system. Human development is what we should be striving for, as opposed to material development, production development or economic development. Decoupling human development from material destruction may be hard, but there is no reason to abandon the goal of allowing people (and we should not forget other species) to thrive as much as possible. Refocusing our efforts and policies on life (human and non-human development), away from the traditional focus on ‘stuff’ – objects and destructive consumption – is our only hope of keeping the fascinating adventure of life on this planet going.


Marc Fleurbaey is a CNRS researcher and Professor at Paris School of Economics and Ecole Normale Supérieure. He is a former Robert E. Kuenne Professor in Economics and Humanistic Studies, Professor of Public Affairs at the University Center for Human Values, Princeton University. He has held various teaching and research positions in France, and visiting positions at the London School of Economics, the Centre for Operations Research and Econometrics and the University of Oxford. He is a former editor of the journal Economics and Philosophy and is the coordinating editor of Social Choice and Welfare.

Cover image: by Franck V. on Unsplash

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