Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Human Well-Being: A New Approach Based on Overall and Ordinary Functionings

Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Human Well-Being: A New Approach Based on Overall and Ordinary Functionings

Article excerpt


This paper develops a concept of human well-being that integrates economic and noneconomic aspects of life. Philosophers, humanistic psychologists, and religious traditions have been very helpful in pointing out the true noneconomic potential of human life. Our new approach to well-being, the overall/ordinary approach includes these higher aspects of human life. In addition to the ordinary adult human functionings, basically the functionings Sen mentions, the new approach includes a group of higher human functionings which are called overall human functioning. To adequately assess a person's or a society's well-being, it is necessary to consider both people's ordinary (or lower) functionings and their overall (or higher) functionings. Raising societal well-being requires capital formation, particularly investment in personal and social capital.

Keywords: human well-being, functionings, welfare, happiness, humanistic philosophy and psychology, personal capital, social capital, human nature, religion

Sen ... believes that it is the responsibility of government to promote the overall good of society, and that it is the job of the economist to produce an operational definition of that good and to identify the policies that will best promote it.

(Sugden 1993: 1948)


There is no shortage of ideas about the nature of human well-being. The ideas on what well-being is range from the material, for example, consumption of goods and services, to the spiritual, for example, enlightenment or union with God. The problem is that the notion of well-being incorporated into mainstream economics is severely limited; it does not adequately reflect even many of the good ideas concerning the economic aspect of well-being. And, important philosophic and religious ideas of what constitutes the essence of a good quality life are not considered at all. Therefore, this paper proposes to develop a concept of human well-being usable by economists and others, a concept that integrates the economic and noneconomic aspects of life in order to satisfy the important objections to the mainstream economic approach. The well-being concept developed here is a synthesis utilizing the ideas of many others along with the relatively new concept of social capital and the newer concept of personal capital. Thi s concept of well-being will be considered successful if it makes sense in light of 1) research findings on well-being, 2) wise thinking regarding well-being, and 3) our intuitive sense of what well-being means for us. Is a person's well-being the highest when he or she is wealthy?, virtuous?, self-actualized? or enlightened? What factors should be added to or deleted from this list?

To begin, it is important, first, to review the mainstream economic approach and objections to it, consider economic alternatives to the mainstream approach, and then proceed to the great variety of noneconomic ideas on well-being. Based on this foundation, the construction of a revised concept of well-being begins. Then the implications of the new concept are explored.


The mainstream economic approach to well-being, which is a version of utilitarianism, has been labeled welfarism (Sen and Williams 1982: 3). According to welfarism, people's well-being comes from the satisfaction or utility they get from consuming what they prefer. It follows that the more of these preferred goods and services are produced and consumed the higher will be people's well-being. Further, materially productive societies that produce large numbers of goods and services will be judged to have higher well-being than societies with lower production per capita. It is important to note that another version of utilitarianism (historically an earlier version) emphasizes that utility refers to the mental states people experience from the consumption of goods and services (Crocker 1992: 599-601). …

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