Human Development and Doing Good

Doing good is here thought of as advancing human well-being and development. We are able to do good through our individual and collective efforts to build up mutual trust and standards of cooperative behavior and put into practice what is known about human well-being. Human well-being can be advanced by

  • Expanding human abilities (what we are able to do individually and collectively)
  • Expanding human knowledge and awareness about well-being and how to advance it
  • Gaining competence in applying this knowledge

The Capability Approach to Human Development

Much of the work, given the name “The Capability Approach”, of laying out principles of human development and bringing attention to the philosophical thought of Adam Smith and Aristotle, was done by the Nobel Prize-winning development economist Amartya Sen. This approach was adopted by the United Nations Development Program and inspired the creation of the academic Human Development and Capability Association.

Sen has used the terms capabilities and freedoms to explain his key ideas, and others have used the terms choices and opportunities. Here are quotations from three different sources:

  1. Human Development Report 1990. Overview, p 1

“This Report is about people – and about how development enlarges their choices. It is about more than GNP growth, more than income and wealth and more than producing commodities and accumulating capital. A person’s access to income may be one of the choices, but it is not the sum total of human endeavour.

“Human development is a process of enlarging people’s choices. The most critical of these wide-ranging choices are to live a long and healthy life, to be educated and to have access to resources needed for a decent standard of living. Additional choices include political freedom, guaranteed human rights and personal self-respect. Development enables people to have these choices. No one can guarantee human happiness, and the choices people make are their own concern. But the process of development should at least create a conducive environment for people, individually and collectively, to develop their full potential and to have a reasonable chance of leading productive and creative lives in accord with their needs and interests.

“Human development thus concerns more than the formation of human capabilities, such as improved health or knowledge. It also concerns the use of these capabilities, be it for work, leisure or political and cultural activities. And if the scales of human development fail to balance the formation and use of human capabilities, much human potential will be frustrated.

“Human freedom is vital for human development. People must be free to exercise their choices in properly functioning markets, and they must have a decisive voice in shaping their political frameworks.

  1. Human Development Report 2010. Overview, p 2

“Human development is the expansion of people’s freedoms to live long, healthy and creative lives; to advance other goals they have reason to value; and to engage actively in shaping development equitably and sustainably on a shared planet. People are both the beneficiaries and the drivers of human development, as individuals and in groups.”

  1. Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen, 2000, pp xi-xii

“We live in a world of unprecedented opulence… The twentieth century has established democratic and participatory governments as the preeminent model of political organizations. Concepts of human rights and political liberty are now very much a part of the prevailing rhetoric…

“And yet we also live in a world with remarkable deprivation, destitution and oppression. There are many new problems as well as old ones, including persistence of poverty and unfulfilled elementary needs, occurrence of famines and widespread hunger, violation of elementary political freedoms as well as basic liberties, extensive neglect of the interests and agency of women, and worsening threats to our environment and to sustainability of our economic and social lives. Many of these deprivations can be observed, in one form or another, in rich countries as well as poor ones.

“Overcoming these problems is a central part of the exercise of development. We have to recognize… the role of freedoms of different kinds in countering the afflictions. Indeed, individual agency is, ultimately, central to addressing the deprivations. On the other hand, the freedom of agency that we individually have is inescapably qualified and constrained by the social, political and economic opportunities that are available to us. There is a deep complementarity between individual agency and social arrangements. It is important to give simultaneous recognition to the centrality of individual freedom and to the force of social influences on the extent and reach of individual freedom. To counter the problems we face, we must see individual freedom as a social commitment…”


This last quotation uses the word agency several times, meaning the power that each of us has to act, deal with, and confront the problems we face and to work to bring about desired changes. The term individual agency is used several times to refer to exertions of power or influence by individuals. The word agency can also refer to groups, organizations, or nations. It refers to abilities to acquire knowledge, to make observations, to form relationships, and to make and carry out plans. Agency is a key concept in thought about human development and also about doing good.

The concept of agency is closely related to the concepts of abilities and actions. As used here the word ability refers to an action or movement that a person or group (or even a biological organism) is able to do or a task that the person or group is able to perform. Abilities and actions are related to each other by the fact that our actions demonstrate our abilities and, sometimes, our inabilities – in either case, our proficiencies. An earlier attempt to put together ideas about “doing the most good” that centered on the concept of abilities is available on this website,

There are many resources available about the capability approach. It is presented in two well- written books, Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach by Martha Nussbaum, 2000, and Development as Freedom, by Amartya Sen, 2000. An excellent, recently written description is available online from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP), (see especially sections 2.1 – 2.6). A textbook on the subject is available online, An Introduction to the Human Development and Capability Approach, Edited by Severine Deneulin with Lila Shahani,

The Human Development and Capability Association has a website,, presenting research papers and describing conferences. There are 22 years worth of global human development reports and many regional and national reports available online at

The Environmental Context of Human Development

It needs to be borne in mind that human development takes place in a biological and geological context and within the physical universe.  Human well-being is dependent upon food supplies from plants and animals as well as clean air and water and an inhabitable climate.  Humanity is likewise dependent on a growing body of knowledge in the mathematical, physical, biological, and social sciences.

Human development is shaped by the growth of our knowledge and beliefs, our institutions, our cultures and our practices in how we live our lives.

Human Development at the Local Level

The Capability Approach outlined above has to do with policies for guiding the development of large populations, usually at the national, regional, and international levels.  Our efforts to “do good” need to also be concerned with the development of individuals, families, communities, and governmental agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as well as informal groups and networks.  Human development in all of these areas is already being addressed with varying degrees of success.  Among the subjects on which books have been written, university or other training is available and practitioners are finding employment are the following:

  • Child Development
  • Family Counseling
  • Parenting
  • Marriage Counseling
  • Community Development
  • Organization(al) Development
  • Behavior Modification
  • Prison Reform
  • Law Enforcement
  • Human Resources
  • Teaching
  • Health Care

Doing good at the local level involves understanding what is known about such subjects, piecing together and sharing knowledge of “best practices”, and learning from experience.

We need to be concerned also with our own development and with expanding our knowledge, skills, involvements and relationships.  Everyone needs to develop their abilities and find how best to be useful to others.  We all can help each other.

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