Enhancing Practical Reason as an Architectonic Capability: Theoretical lessons from a case study in India

Leyens, Stephane (2014). 'Enhancing Practical Reason as an Architectonic Capability: Theoretical lessons from a case study in India' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

In this paper I discuss why practical reason is a central capability and how it can be enhanced within a development project. From this discussion I draw some theoretical lessons on the issue of capabilities trade off. My argument proceeds in four steps. First, I argue that Martha Nussbaum (2011:39) is right to consider that the capability of practical reason has an architectonic role to play in human development and I explain why. Second, I propose a specific conception of practical reasoning and a method to enhance practical reason capability within development projects. Third, I briefly present the practical reason dimension of an action-research conducted in India and underline some difficulties to enhance this central capability. And finally, I discuss some theoretical conclusions drawn from this case study.

(1) Practical reason is a linchpin capability in the sense that practical reasoning is a necessary cognitive skill to structure a person or community's set of capabilities. First, it is by the exercise of practical reason, considered as the ability 'to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one's life' (Nussbaum, 2011:34), that one can determine if one has reason to value a given functioning: practical reason guarantees the rationality of valued functionings and therefore selects the entitled capabilities a development program should improve. Second, when two or more capabilities are in conflict (e.g. bodily integrity vs. social affiliation), practical reason allows to balance, or to trade off, these competing capabilities. Third, once one agrees about a given capability (e.g. bodily integrity), one has still to specify, by practical reasoning, the actings and beings that concretely, and contextually, correspond to the given capability.

(2) In order to play adequately its role, I argue that practical reasoning must consist in the ability to critically 'ask and give reasons' (Brandom, 1994) for holding a value judgment. Valuing a functioning (e.g. education of one's children) implies being committed, on the one hand, to the reasons (e.g. offering children a better future) that entitle one to value the functioning and, on the other hand, to the consequences of such valuation (e.g. losing labour force and income). Making explicit the reasons and consequences of holding a value judgment allows one to confront one's valued functioning to rational criticism. Various field research methods can be used as tools for asking and giving reasons, among which: at a personal level, oral history and at a community level, Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA). Both methods were used in an action-research I directed in India – in what follows I discuss the PRA approach.

(3) The action-research aimed at improving the quality of life of a Dalit (untouchable) community in two multi-caste villages in rural Tamil Nadu. With my Indian partner, we conducted PRA sessions (Social Mapping, Trend Analysis, Venn Diagram, etc.) in order to reveal valued functioning, resources and conversion factors and to submit them to practical reasoning. The sessions revealed that the functioning 'political awareness' was rationally valued (in the sense given above) and in need of improvement. It was then decided to implement a development action to improve the corresponding capability. To this end, a youth street-theatre troop was set up and trained to create and perform plays about Dalit rights and Dalit militancy. Unfortunately it appeared quickly that, though the villagers had expressed rational commitment to the 'political awareness' functioning and to its priority, it was overlooked in favour of other functionings.

(4) Though many factors can explain this matter of fact, I discuss it in relation to the capabilities trade off issue that is of huge importance in human development project.

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