Human Rights: Sen’s Approach

by Quentin Wodon

Today is Human Rights Day. The international day was recognized by the United Nations General Assembly in 1950 to promote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and nations. This year the theme is “Human Rights 365”, with the idea that matters of human rights should concern us every day and that all individuals should be entitled to their rights everywhere and at all times.

But what exactly are human rights? A simple answer would be to say that these are rights recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other subsequent international legal instruments. But what does it mean, for example, to declare a human right to housing in a country where a larger share of the population may not have access to decent housing? What does it mean to declare a right to work when unemployment affects many? Are these human rights real or simply (but importantly) aspirational? Is there also a risk of inflation over time in the number of human rights being proclaimed? Do human rights matter at all?

These questions should matter for members of service clubs given that much of their work relates to issues that have been identified as pertaining to human rights.  But these are also difficult questions. I am personally sympathetic to the language of human rights (up to a point), and I do believe among others that extreme poverty and deprivation may lead to violations of human rights, as argued among others by Wresinski (see this post on this blog). But it is worth thinking a bit more about the nature of human rights, and on that question I find the position of Nobel Laureate Amartaya Sen sensible (see for example this paper).

Nobel Laureate Amartaya Sen

Sen is perhaps best known today for his work on functionings and capabilities even though he received his Economics Nobel Prize mostly for other work. According to Sen, social justice should aim to expand not basic primary goods (an expression from Rawls, who is discussed here on this blog) that people have access to such as income or wealth, but instead their capabilities – defined as their freedom to achieve valuable beings and doings (i.e., valuable functionings).

The two terms of functionings and capabilities are closely linked. Simply stated, functionings are valuable activities and states that make up people’s wellbeing and ability to function, and that would include an educated mind or being literate. Capabilities are substantive freedoms that people can pursue and enjoy, with each person’s capabilities set depending on their functionings. Capabilities refer to the possibility for people to use functionings to choose and lead lives that are fulfilling for them.

For example, poverty is traditionally defined as a lack of sufficient income or consumption in order to meet a person or household’s basic needs. Sen prefers to define poverty as capability deprivation. More generally, what a person can achieve depends on the specific characteristics and environment of that person, and not only on the resources (or primary goods) that the person has access to. The same amount of all-purpose resources can lead to very different capability sets for different individuals (think of people with a disability for example). Because what is to be valued is the ability of a person to choose different functionings in order to pursue her own path or life goals, it may be better (when feasible) to measure poverty or other forms of deprivation directly in terms of those capabilities than in terms of the resources at a person’s disposal.

Sen also discussed the concept of human rights, and its link to funtionings and capabilities. Sen is sympathetic to the discourse of human rights, but he suggests that they should be seen primarily as ethical demands, rather than legal commands. Human rights imply obligations, some perfect, some imperfect, on the part of societies as well as individuals, in order to ensure that human rights can be exercised by all. The specific contents of human rights, however, is a matter of discussion (or public reasoning) and the understanding of the requirements of a human rights approach may indeed differ between societies, even if the concept of human rights should not (in much the same way, various utilitarian theories may differ in terms of what utility consists in, and how it should be maximized, but these theories still share the utilitarian framework). Sen does not see contradictions between the human rights and capabilities approaches, because human rights can be invoked as ethical claims in order to facilitate the expansion of the capability set of the poor and others facing various forms of disadvantage.

Sen also provides interesting responses to two traditional critiques of the language of human rights: the institutionalization and feasibility critiques. The institutionalization critique refers to the need to have obligations that exactly correspond to each of the human rights, so that a corresponding duty on the part of an agent (which can include the state) can be identified for each right that is claimed. Sen deals with this objection by distinguishing perfect from imperfect obligations, and by noting that even for civil and political rights, the implementation of such rights also involves imperfect obligations. This is essentially pointing to the fact that an exact correspondence between rights and duties is not encountered even for rights that are considered as belonging to a set of fundamental liberties (think of basic civic and political rights such as the right to vote).

The feasibility critique, relates to the fact that the ability to implement specific economic, social and cultural rights in some societies remains limited, say for budgetary or administrative capacity reasons. This is what I was alluding to earlier. While it is true that implementation may be a challenge in many countries, when human rights are seen as aspirational, the aspiration that they represent and the call to action that they imply remain valid. At the same time, not all aspirations need to be recognized as human rights (the risk of an inflation of rights mentioned earlier), and claims to the status of human rights need to sustain public scrutiny and public reasoning before validation.

While not all may share Sen’s views on human rights, they do seem sensible and practical.