At this stage of the American presidential contest, we’ve become locked in debate over the fairly abstract question of whether or not Americans are “better off” now than they were when Barack Obama took office in early 2009. At his party’s convention, Republican nominee Mitt Romney made clear where he stands:
This president can ask us to be patient. This president can tell us it was someone else’s fault. This president can tell us that the next four years he’ll get it right. But this president cannot tell us that YOU are better off today than when he took office. America has been patient. Americans have supported this president in good faith. But today, the time has come to turn the page.
The following week many of the speakers at the Democratic National Convention offered direct rebuttals of Romney’s claim, which by then had become the central talking point for him and his surrogates. With no settled criteria for actually debating such a vaguely defined bit of sloganeering, this question is likely to remain front and center as we approach November 6th.
Leaving aside the disappointingly solipsistic suggestion that a citizen should judge their country’s course based only on his or her own well-being, though, we actually DO have a well-established and widely-embraced rubric by which to measure the fullness and quality of human lives. It’s just that we’re more accustomed to applying it in developing nations than in places like the United States. Indeed, having recognized the deficiencies of using Gross Domestic Product to gauge a developing country’s progress, Martha Nussbaum, Amartya Sen, and others pioneered an alternative, commonly known as the Capabilities Approach.
Nussbaum presented the basics of the Capabilities Approach in Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach, which we published last year. In the book she explains the need for a system to measure the degree to which a given government supports or impedes development across the various areas of human life in which people move and act. She outlines a threshold level of ten Central Capabilities required for a life worthy of human dignity. We offer them below, as presented by Nussbaum in the book, and encourage you to consider them in light of this roiling debate over whether or not Americans are now “better off” than they were four years ago.
Or, even more directly, take what you know of the country’s two major presidential candidates, and use this list to imagine the development of an American’s capabilities under the next administration. Even with what little specifics either candidate has actually offered, and regardless of whom you’re inclined to support, there are very clear ways in which this election will affect the ability of Americans to pursue dignified and at least minimally flourishing lives across nearly every one of these ten Central Capabilities:
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. Being able to have good health, including reproductive health; to be adequately nourished; to have adequate shelter.
3. Bodily integrity. Being able to move freely from place to place; to be secure against violent assault, including sexual assault and domestic violence; having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction.
4. Senses, imagination, and thought. Being able to use the senses, to imagine, think, and reason—and to do these things in a “truly human” way, 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 works 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. Being able to have pleasurable experiences and to avoid nonbeneficial pain.
5. Emotions. Being able to have attachments to things and people 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. Not having one’s emotional development blighted by fear and anxiety. (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 life. (This entails protection for the liberty of conscience and religious observance.)
7. Affiliation. (A) Being able to live with and toward 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. (Protecting this capability means protecting institutions that constitute and nourish such forms of affiliation, and also protecting the freedom of assembly and political speech.) (B) Having the social bases of self-respect and nonhumiliation; being able to be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others. This entails provisions of nondiscrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, caste, religion, national origin.
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. Control over one’s environment. (A) Political. Being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one’s life; having the right of political participation, protections of free speech and association. (B) Material. Being able to hold property (both land and movable goods), and having property rights on an equal basis with others; having the right to seek employment on an equal basis with others; having the freedom from unwarranted search and seizure. In work, being able to work as a human being, exercising practical reason and entering into meaningful relationships of mutual recognition with other workers.