Custom Search
Dear Readers,
Please Give Comments, Like and Send in Facebook, Subscribe this via RSS or E mail. Become a follower of this site through Google Friend Connect or Google reader or Blogger.... Feel free to email me at for anything...

What is it like to be a human being ?


What is it like to be a human being?

Almost half a century ago, the philosopher Thomas Nagel published a famous paper called “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” The question I want to ask is: what is it like to be a human being? As it happens, Tom Nagel’s insightful paper in The Philosophical Review was also really about human beings, and only marginally about bats. Among other points, Nagel expressed deep scepticism about the temptation of observational scientists to identify the experience of being a bat—or similarly, a human being—with the associated physical phenomena in the brain and elsewhere in the body that are within easy reach of outside inspection. The sense of being a bat or a human can hardly be seen as just having certain twitches in the brain and of the body. The complexity of the former cannot be resolved by the easier tractability of the latter (tempting though it may be to do just that). 

The cutting edge of the human development approach is also based on a distinction— but of a rather different kind from Nagel’s basic epistemological contrast. The approach that Mahbub ul Haq pioneered through the series of Human Development Reports which began in 1990 is that between, on the one hand, the difficult problem of assessing the richness of human lives, including the freedoms that human beings have reason to value, and on the other, the much easier exercise of keeping track of incomes and other external resources that persons—or nations—happen to have. Gross domestic product (GDP) is much easier to see and measure than the quality of human life that people have. But human well-being and freedom, and their connection with fairness and justice in the world, cannot be reduced simply to the measurement of GDP and its growth rate, as many people are tempted to do. 

The intrinsic complexity of human development is important to acknowledge, partly because we should not be side-tracked into changing the question: that was the central point that moved Mahbub ul Haq’s bold initiative to supplement—and to some extent supplant—GDP. But along with that came a more difficult point, which is also an inescapable part of what has come to be called “the human development approach.” We may, for the sake of convenience, use many simple indicators of human development, such as the HDI, based on only three variables with a very simple rule for weighting them—but the quest cannot end there. We should not spurn workable and useful shortcuts—the HDI may tell us a lot more about human quality of life than does the GDP—but nor should we be entirely satisfied with the immediate gain captured in these shortcuts in a world of continuous practice. Assessing the quality of life is a much more complex exercise than what can be captured through only one number, no matter how judicious is the selection of variables to be included, and the choice of the procedure of weighting. 

The recognition of complexity has other important implications as well. The crucial role of public reasoning, which the present Human Development Report particularly emphasizes, arises partly from the recognition of this complexity. Only the wearer may know where the shoe pinches, but pinch avoiding arrangements cannot be effectively undertaken without giving voice to the people and giving them extensive opportunities for public discussion. The importance of various elements in evaluating well-being and freedom of people can be adequately appreciated and assessed only through persistent dialogue among the population, with an impact on the making of public policy. The political significance of such initiatives as the so-called Arab Spring, and mass movements elsewhere in the world, is matched by the epistemic importance of people expressing themselves, in dialogue with others, on what ails their lives and what injustices they want to remove. There is much to discuss—with each other and with the public servants that make policy. 

The dialogic responsibilities, when properly appreciated across the lines of governance, must also include representing the interest of the people who are not here to express their concerns in their own voice. Human development cannot be indifferent to future generations just because they are not here—yet. But human beings do have the capacity to think about others, and their lives, and the art of responsible and accountable politics is to broaden dialogues from narrowly self-centred concerns to the broader social understanding of the importance of the needs and freedoms of people in the future as well as today. This is not a matter of simply including those concerns within one single indicator—for example, by overcrowding the already heavily loaded HDI (which stands, in any case, only for current wellbeing and freedom)—but it certainly is a matter of making sure that the discussions of human development include those other concerns. The Human Development Reports can continue to contribute to this broadening through explication as well as presenting tables of relevant information. 

The human development approach is a major advance in the difficult exercise of understanding the successes and deprivations of human lives, and in appreciating the importance of reflection and dialogue, and through that advancing fairness and justice in the world. We may be much like bats in not being readily accessible to the measuring rod of the impatient observational scientist, but we are also capable of thinking and talking about the many-sided nature of our lives and those of others—today and tomorrow— in ways that may not be readily available to bats. Being a human being is both like being a bat and very unlike it. 

By : Amartya Sen ;  Source : Human Development Report 2013


Post a Comment


©2009 Development for You | Template Blue by TNB