Co-founding Capabilities: Religious traditions and the public sphere

Daughton, Amy Louise (2014). 'Co-founding Capabilities: Religious traditions and the public sphere' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

Amartya Sen's The Idea of Justice begins with the image of human persons as intuitively capable of recognising injustice when we see it.  This optimistic vision of human nature offers strong echoes of the 'capable person' that lay at the heart of the ethical and political theory of the great French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur.  

Séverine Deneulin has already offered an important perspective on the way that Ricoeur's concept of recognition allows for a thickening of the capability approach, a way of moving from the general approach to the policy-specific in the face of the needs of development. 

It is also an element of 'recognition' in Ricoeur's political philosophy that this paper will bring to bear through the concept of the public space into which capability theory and Sen, in particular, speaks.  Crucially, this model of 'co-founding' identifies Sen's methodology not as pragmatism or cultural sensitivity, but part of the process of democratic legitimisation.

Briefly, neither Sen nor Ricoeur present their anthropology as expressible only through a monolithic or paradigmatic theory.  The method employed by Sen in particular is, by contrast, a deliberately plural approach, grounded in religious and other narratives of multiple traditions.  In this way, Sen creates a concept of capability fed by the scriptural narratives and anthropology that shape diverse traditions of theology, as well as the crucial and critical insights of development theory.  This allows for a kind of interface between theological projects and what one might name as the 'secular inventiveness' (Juan Luis Segundo) of economics.  Theologians and philosophers can commit to Sen's project, and indeed, enrich it.

This can be seen in many ways as a practical working out of Ricoeur's social phenomenology of interdependence.  Ricoeur builds on the idea of the capable human person whose actions are inextricably entangled in the symbolic orders of cultural memory.  This order of symbols is what replenishes and enables the self-understanding of individuals and communities.  That this level of cultural memory is intersubjective and plural is crucial.  

A structural image of this kind of argumentation is provided by the sociological work of Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot, who advocate for the images of movement between different symbolic cities to express different modes of valuing.  It is the encounter between these ways of reasoning and judging that Ricoeur identifies as the work of public discourse.  Most radically, he suggests that in that dialogical encounter with each others' symbols and values, we are continually offered the opportunity to create new visions of reality.  This is the crucial horizon for Sen's project - not a pragmatic minimum sufficiency, but a project of cooperation that can constitute cultural transformation. 

Sen's use of plural narratives evokes precisely this transformation of our co-operative capabilities. The Good Samaritan parable for example offers a new horizon of global proximity.  Its inclusion in an ongoing critical study renders us capable of thinking in new ways, energising our wish to co-found the political discourse together. This is no passive co-existence, but a recognition of diverse religious traditions 'in their capability of being cofounders and contributors' (Maureen Junker-Kenny).

At the same time, it was the argument of Ricoeur (in one of his last public engagements before his death in 2005) that capability could only be used as a concept for a normative social theory if 'the notion of capability itself is held as the expression of some normative motivation not confined to empirical description' (emphasis mine).  

So on one level, engagement with these narratives can be seen as the 'active effort' of 'practical wisdom [carrying] out its assigned task to concretize the moral norm' (Maureen Junker-Kenny).  At the same time, they also offer the energy to pursue this task together: the Samaritan parable offers a new social imaginary of how we might live, even while recognising cultural sources of tension.  It is through this dialogical model that the political task of capability theory can be recognized as authoritative.

What Ricoeur's framework of thought offers is requiring development theorists to take seriously the shared symbolic order in which our thinking about justice is entangled.  Such an approach does not lose practicality, getting lost in 'transcendental institutionalism' (Sen) - rather that symbolic order is enriched; it is intersubjective moral experience brought to articulation in a legitimately co-founded discourse. 

Ultimately therefore this paper presents Ricoeur's philosophical theory of public discourse as not only strengthening but advocating for Sen's own methodology of religious narrative as a crucial mode of reasoning as well as energetically formative of capability.  

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