Monday, May 16, 2011
Should we view human flourishing in terms of psychology, capablility or opportunity?
The concept of opportunity proposed by Robert Sugden, also an economist, rests on ‘an understanding of persons as responsible rather than rational agents’. According to this view individuals may sometimes act foolishly but nevertheless accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions. The term ‘opportunity as mutual advantage’ expresses the idea that ‘one person’s opportunities cannot be specified independently of other people’s desires’. The freedom of some other person to seek out and take advantage of opportunities for mutual benefit encompasses his or her freedom to seek out and take advantage of opportunities to benefit you and me. Sugden implies that if everyone has opportunity in this sense, then you and I should see ourselves to be part of an economic system that is full of people who can expect to be rewarded for finding ways to benefit us (‘Opportunity as mutual advantage’, Economics and Philosophy (26)).
If we are considering the well-being of relatives and friends we might consider that opportunity, capability and psychology are all relevant to our assessment. For example, we might be able to think of people who have high levels of psychological well-being even though they have relatively low capability in some respects because we consider that they have not made good use of the opportunities available to them. We might be able to think of others who are unhappy even though they have high levels of capability and have had superior opportunities in life.
However, from a public policy perspective, what business does the government have in trying to improve the capability or psychological well-being of a person if this interferes with his or her status as a responsible agent? We might think that the capability and psychological well-being of such people would be improved if they drank less alcohol or gambled less, for example, but as far as I can see we have no right to prevent them from spending their income as they choose.
The situation becomes rather different if the government is offering some kind of benefit that is intended to improve the capability or well-being of some group. In that situation, it seems to me that the donors (taxpayers) have every right to attach conditions to the proposed benefit and the intended beneficiaries have every right to refuse to accept it if they don’t like the conditions attached.
Some might suggest that the alternatives to accepting a benefit with strong conditions attached could sometimes be so unpalatable that the conditions amount to coercion. I don’t accept that economic incentives ever force people to do anything. Nevertheless, if a person chooses to die rather than accept the conditions attached to a benefit, the question arises of whether this should be viewed as the choice of a responsible agent. Paternalistic intervention may be warranted to protect people who are not of sound mind as well as children.
However, there are also difficult issues involved in considering government proposals to improve the psychological health of children. The recent Australian Government Budget proposes a health and well-being check for 3 year old children on the grounds that ‘around 15.4 per cent of all children and adolescents (those aged up to seventeen years) have a mental disorder’. Internationally renowned experts are apparently telling the government that ‘there is a growing body of evidence showing that you can identify kids with (or at risk of) conduct disorders or poor development very early – from three years old’. The government claims: ‘Intervening early means building strong and resilient children, and avoiding behavioural or mental health issues that can persist for the rest of a person’s life’.
Should I be concerned about this proposal? Perhaps it just offers parents better opportunities to ensure that children get services necessary for their psychological wellbeing. On the other hand, it could be the thin end of a large wedge leading to greater use of pharmaceutical products to control behaviour of children and greater government intervention in family life. I wish I could be more confident that the proposed intervention will actually build strong and resilient children.
On reflection, the paragraph beginning 'Some might suggest that the alternatives to accepting a benefit ... ' doesn't adequately capture the ideas I would like to express. In my view, although welfare systems should be directed to a large extent toward helping people to help themselves, communities should have an over-riding commitment to meeting basic needs of people who have no other means of support.