Agency and democracy in development ethics

Riddle, Karie Cross (2018). 'Agency and Democracy in Development Ethics' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


This panel, submitted by the Ethics and Development Thematic Group, is designed to promote the publication of the Spring 2018 Cambridge University Press volume entitled Agency and Democracy in Development Ethics: Essays in Honor of David Crocker.

Panelists will present their contributions to this volume (edited by participating panelists Stacy Kosko and Lori Keleher), and David Crocker will close out the panel with his responses to their work, as well as his broader reflections on philosophical questions such as critical and responsible agency, perfectionist liberalism, and deliberative democracy. He also offers fruitful suggestions for future research in development ethics. Thus, in his presentation, Crocker serves as both panelist and discussant.

The panel begins with a presentation by Lori Keleher, one of the editors of the volume, about why development needs philosophy. Given that the rest of the panel is highly philosophical, Keleher’s piece defends the approach of the panel (and the edited volume) while also laying out some of the issues at stake in philosophical argumentation about development, including questions about the ethical ends and means of authentic human development. Given that authentic development requires careful, ethical reflection upon concrete problems, philosophy is integral to the enterprise, as David Crocker’s career has demonstrated.

Next, we will hear from co-authors Serene Khader and Stacy Kosko (another editor of the volume), who explore the assumptions and values that might be smuggled into the Capability Approach (CA) via Amartya Sen’s phrase, having “reason to value.” Perfectly illustrating Keleher’s assertion that philosophy matters a great deal to how authentic development might be carried out, the authors argue that development practice requires judgments, based on normative commitments, about what sorts of things do and do not enhance people’s lives. Classifying these value judgments as perfectionist content, they argue that the popular understanding of the CA, as pluralist respect for freedom and agency, is untenable once we fully examine its normative foundations.

Panelist Colleen Murphy picks up on this method of close examination of normative foundations to explore the connections and tensions between development and transitional justice. Thinking alongside Crocker, Khader, and Kosko about questions of agency and adding the topic of deliberative democracy, Murphy considers ways in which the expansion of individuals’ freedom may sometimes work at cross-purposes to the goal of dealing with past wrongdoings, following periods of repression or violent conflict.

Finally, David Crocker will respond to these arguments with a close examination of different concepts of agency, promoting a conception that is both critical and responsible. He will add that liberal, deliberative, and representative democracy serves as both a universal value and an essential development goal for the CA.

Together, the panelists paint two compelling pictures of great importance for anyone studying the CA. First, on a meta-level, their work argues for and illustrates the contributions of philosophy to the understanding and practice of human capabilities. Second, they substantively make the case for taking a stand upon some normative values, in favor of perfectionist over procedural approaches.

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