vyt, charlotte (2017). 'A reflection on Sen’s positional objectivity' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


My paper investigates Amartya Sen’s concept of positional objectivity by situating it in relation to Thomas Nagel’s understanding of objectivity and to Martha Nussbaum’s conception of empathy.

Sen’s social justice theory and capability approach is concerned with broadening the informational basis of normative evaluations whilst deliberately staying open-ended. To unveil the full potential of his approach, it is essential to maintain this openness and plurality which are both linked to human and structural diversities within society. Sen emphasizes on plural human freedoms, which makes it possible to examine real lives and to develop methodologies accordingly. The multidimensionality of it, however, also brings great challenges in its application. It is thus equally important to avoid relativism. In order to conciliate both these requirements, Sen’s concepts of positional objectivity and trans-positional objectivity (1992, 1993a) are particularly promising. Since the demands of objectivity require some kind of invariance, Sen makes a distinction between personal invariance and positional invariance. In this sense, the concept of interpersonal invariance can be extended by relativizing it to a position. This means that Sen constructs objectivity as being positionally related. It is important, on the one hand, because the positional view is essential in interpreting the kind of illusions that influence, alter or distort social understanding and the assessment of public affairs and on the other hand, because it builds more demanding kinds of objectivity. Where Rawls’ veil of ignorance, for example, would be unable to address shared prejudices or biases, Sen can include the voice of people who are not part of the focal group (but whose lives are nevertheless affected by it). He is able to incorporate the positional dependent observations, beliefs and actions that are central to an individual’s knowledge and practical reason.

I deepen this reflection by trying to understand its relation to Nagel’s ‘view from nowhere’. Nagel’s combination of the subjective and the objective leads him to ask a positional independence of objectivity. Both Sen and Nagel attempt to develop a relationship between agent-relativity and agent-neutrality, between the positional and the trans-positional. In Sen’s thought, however, trans-positional objectivity cannot be dissociated from positional views in general nor can it be arbitrarily attached to any chosen positional view. Sen searches a coherent relationship between the positional claims in order to form a trans-positional inference. A key entry into the eventual dialogue between Sen and Nagel and their comprehension of trans-positionality is to associate a certain conception of empathy to Sen’s understanding of it. Although Sen has a tendency to criticize empathy, by discerning it as providing a ‘moral burden’ as well as disclosing rather than establishing inter-subjectivity (1993b, 2006) I believe it can add to the debate by acknowledging the importance of exercising, as Nussbaum suggests, our ‘moral imagination’. Thus, developing the capacity to more fully put ourselves in another person’s situation and entering their viewpoint from within.


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