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January 17, 2010

Human values, not GDPs, should drive policy, Nussbaum says

Philosophy and law professor Martha Nussbaum challenged conventional methods of determining a country's quality of life in a speech Thursday, calling for a less statistics-driven approach.

Most organizations focus on a country's GDP, or gross daily profit, when analyzing quality of life, Nussbaum said to the Gleacher Center audience.

"A crude number isn't good enough," she said. Average GDPs mask the distribution of wealth, she said, and does not account for lower class individuals. Therefore, public policies should use a more humanistic method, called a "capabilties approach."

According to Nussbaum, this method has an interdisciplinary character that centers on what each human is capable of. She cited a list of 10 central human capabilities, including practical reason, affiliation, and fair play. Forming public policy with respect to these capabilities is better than the GDP approach because “it’s focusing on people, Nussbaum said. “The idea is one about empowerment,”

The capabilities approach aims at developing each human’s abilities and not letting them go to waste, though Nussbaum conceded it is a “partial moral conception” and not a full account of human life.

For the past several years Nussbaum has been working in India to promote human rights, especially women’s rights. She helped found the Human Development and Capability Association in 2003 with economist Amartya Sen.