Nussbaum’s list Notes for October 31

Main points

Every view we have talked about so far concerns subjective well-being. That means that they all take it for granted that what makes a person’s life go well turns on facts about what that person wants, chooses, or feels.** Note: three different things.

Nussbaum is opposed to all subjective accounts of well-being. Her list is of the “functionings” that are necessary for a person to live a good life, where ‘functionings’ means ‘things a person does’ or ‘activities’.†† Note qualification below.

I was most interested in how Nussbaum’s list would diverge from one derived from a subjective account of well-being. Professor Brown insisted that the list makes a lot of sense and that subjective accounts of well-being have a massive flaw. You all engaged in a very sophisticated discussion of relativism, among other topics.

All in all, it was our busiest day yet. Well done! I learned a lot.

Is the list controversial?

In one sense, I don’t think it is. Pretty much everything on the list, with the possible exception of number ten, strikes me as a good candidate for a necessary element of a good life for a member of our species. Those are things that all sane people value.

Any controversy will come in how the list is used. But with controversy comes objections. This is a point that Alex, Michael S., and I all tried to make in our own ways.

I’ll start with me. I asked whether the objective list diverges substantially from a subjective account of well-being. Everyone wants to live, after all. And if play is really essential to well-being, it will presumably be essential for happiness which is one of the things that subjective well-being is said to consist in. So theories of subjective well-being will come up with pretty much the same list of “functionings” as Nussbaum did.

Where’s the difference? As Alex said, it’s at the margin, that is, when we have to choose between one of the functions on the list and something else. Miners have to choose between their health and earning enough to feed their families. Michael’s samurai had to choose between continued life and intense shame. In both cases, a good on the list (health, life) was sacrificed for something else.

Possible replies

Nussbaum could say three things in reply.

First, she could say this shows there is something wrong with the societies in which those choices had to be made. Why should anyone have to take an unsafe job and why should children rely on the availability of safe work to have enough to eat? Isn’t there something wrong with a society in which some people’s lives are valued only in relation to other’s?

Second, she could say that her list is not, strictly speaking, a list of valuable functionings. It is a list of capabilities to function. People are free to choose not to exercise their capabilities, but a society should guarantee that they at least have the choice.‡‡ There’s the qualification.

Third, she could say that the choices to forgo goods on her list are the products of adaptive desires and so should not be given much weight in our evaluations. I’ll discuss that presently.

It seems to me that a lot depends on how the list is used. Nussbaum uses it to demarcate a social minimum. That seems fine to me; if this isn’t the minimum (#10 excepted), what is? But it would be another story if the list were used to compare different lives above a plausible minimum. To return to Menzel, why can’t people choose to spend less in order to protect their health against various threats if they prefer to spend it on something else? And if that’s the way they would choose, why can’t we presume that choice in making decisions about policies where it’s impossible to rely on literal choices?


This is the major argument for an objective as opposed to a subjective account of well-being. As Professor Brown put it, you can convince people of anything! The psychology experiments we read maintained that people can adapt to losing the use of their legs or their eyes. Their subjective well-being will be about the same as it was before their loss.

But does that mean that they aren’t worse off? No one seriously thinks that (do they?). If that’s what you think (and you do, don’t you?), then you think a person’s well-being does not depend on what that person thinks, chooses, or feels. So you’re with Nussbaum. You think some things are objectively good for people; they’re good (or bad) for them regardless of what they think.

Jenn’s point

“Ah”, I hear Jenn saying, “that’s all well and good. But Nussbaum is only supporting the capacity to function. It’s people’s ability to choose to act in ways that make them (objectively) well-off that she’s advocating here, not acting in ways that make them well-off. When Nussbaum leaves it up to individual choice, she may avoid one objection, but she undercuts her main objection to subjective accounts of utility. As long as the relevant functionings, activities, call-em-what-you-wills have to be chosen, good old adaptive preferences will hit Nussbaum just as hard as they hit the subjectivist theories of well-being.”

So, if you’re Nussbaum, how do you get out of that? I think you have to identify something wrong with the way that people’s preferences and desires were formed and then discount the bad desires. For instance, there seems to be something dodgy about a girl’s accepting less food than boys get if she has been taught that girls are worth less than boys. Both boys and girls will be equally satisfied, using subjective measures of well-being, but they aren’t equally fed. More to the point, they don’t genuinely have the capacity for functioning properly. They have been brainwashed into wanting less food than they need. But a brainwashed person doesn’t have the capacity to make choices for herself.

What’s a bad adaptive desire?

Now things are tricky here. How do we distinguish between ill-formed adaptive desires and those that are merely different from what we think they should be? It would help if we had an independent measure.

We’ve been near this point before. Remember Williams? He tried to show how integrity or the “desire to be identified with what one is doing, to be able to realise purposes of one’s own, and not to be the instrument of another’s will” leads to an egalitarian project.§§ Williams, “The Idea of Equality” p. 234 The project involved undermining hierarchies that depend on false beliefs by spreading the truth. People might prefer the monarchy to a republic because they believe that some people are born better and that the better should rule. Spreading the truth, that monarchs are just as dumb as the rest of us, will change that preference and undercut monarchy. That was Williams’s idea.

For Williams, there are some facts that can be used to show that there is something amiss with adaptive desires. If the desires depend on believing something false, like “the King was born with superior intellect and character”, then there is something wrong with them.

Nussbaum needs something like that in order to identify the bad cases of adaptive desires.

Could it be the list itself? Anyone who doesn’t want what’s on the list must have been manipulated in an illegitimate way? I don’t think that follows. I also don’t think that this is what Nussbaum would say. She presents the list as being derived from ethical principles that are broadly acceptable for political purposes.

But how do we draw controversial conclusions from it if that’s so? Suppose my group says that adequate nutrition isn’t necessary for the human good because we think it’s only important for boys, not all human beings. Does that mean that the ethical principle enjoining adequate nutrition for all human beings falls out of the category of principles that are broadly acceptable for political purposes?

It’s about the children ¶¶ Added at 10 am November 2; cleaned up at 6:30 pm.

I should add one important point in Nussbaum’s favor. We can distinguish between external and internal limits to one’s capacities to function. External limits are those that are outside of your mind, internal ones are inside your mind. That’s crude, but it will do.

Many of the incapacities that Nussbaum is taking aim at are internal. She is particularly interested in the case of children whose upbrining leaves them incapable of functioning in some of the ways on the list. In these cases, the people who are affected are incapable of making a choice one way or the other. We have to give them the internal capacities to make the choice.

Does that give Nussbaum a way of answering Jenn’s objection?

This page was written by Eleanor Brown and Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, and Well-Being, PPE 160, Fall 2007.
Freedom, Markets, and Well-Being