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Vague Hopes, Active Aspirations and Equality

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The term human capital describes a set of skills, strengths and know-how that are valuable—both in the narrow sense of being “commercially valuable” (Lindsey, 2013), and the wider one of contributing to a flourishing, deliberate, purposeful life.

As Heckman (2014) puts it: “Skills are capacities to act [emphasis added]…They shape
expectations, constraints, and information” (p. 6).

The skills—capacities to act, in Heckman’s terms—making up an individual’s stock of human capital are typically divided into two sets:

  1. i) Cognitive skills: broadly, IQ-type abilities of abstraction, problem-solving and mental planning; and
  2. ii) Non-cognitive skills: including personality attributes, such as optimism or conscientiousness; character strengths, such as resilience, prudence or grit; and social skills, such as personal presence, manners and appearance. (There is growing unease about the use of the catch-all “non-cognitive” description, and a number of scholars now prefer to talk about character skills or character strengths.)

Skills and attributes supply the capacity to act. But they do not provide the reason to act. The springs of action are not attributes, but aspirations: ambitions, hopes, fears, desires, and expectations. Skills determine whether I can do something; aspirations determine whether I will.

There is an important distinction, however, between a strongly grounded aspiration, one towards which an individual is actively working and planning, and a general aspiration that has little palpable impact on a person’s conduct. I label these two kinds of aspiration active aspirations and vague hopes.