Enriching sen’s idea of positional objectivity through a reflection on testimonial injustices and adaptive preferences.

Vyt, Charlotte (2018). 'Enriching Sen’s idea of positional objectivity through a reflection on testimonial injustices and adaptive preferences.' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


In this paper, I would like to develop further upon Amartya Sen’s idea of positional objectivity by challenging it with insights linked to testimonial injustices and adaptive preferences. Both of these forms of injustice are linked to the act of theorizing and conceptualizing a person’s position according to me. They are, as such, inevitably bound to be addressed in an adequate theorization of positional objectivity. Furthermore, I believe that positional objectivity, as a concept, can only be upheld if it can adequately situate itself somewhere between both forms of injustice.

Sen’s social justice theory (2009) is concerned with broadening the informational basis of normative evaluations whilst deliberately staying open-ended. His idea of positional objectivity upholds these concerns adequately. However, as a concept, it remains very open-ended and prone to diverse interpretations. Sen makes an initial distinction between personal invariance and positional invariance, only to further extend the concept of interpersonal invariance by relativizing it to a position. Henceforth, objectivity is position-related, making it possible to incorporate positionally dependent observations, beliefs and actions that are central to an individual’s knowledge and practical reason. And ultimately essential to forming a better picture of the injustices and oppressions he/she faces.

The central question I want to ask concerns the ‘data’ that informs positional objectivity. I believe this ‘data’ to be inevitably bound to testimonies individuals formulate about their experiences, perceptions and preferences. This brings me to discuss the particular injustices linked to these testimonies as well as their interpretations by the ones listening to them. According to Miranda Fricker (2007), testimonial injustice, which involves both speaker and hearer, derives from the judgment of the hearer that wrongs the speaker in his/her capacity as a knower. Testimonial injustice is said to be ‘systematic’ when it connects, via a common prejudice, to other types of injustice in several dimensions of social activity (economic, educational, political, etc.). It prevents speakers from successfully inserting knowledge into the public domain. Let alone, considering this knowledge as valuable ‘data’ in informing positional objectivities. Fricker believes the ‘responsible’ hearer needs to develop a critical openness and exercise a parallel sensitivity to the epistemic saliences through ‘doxastic responsibility’ (p. 67). The dominant way of thinking about testimonial injustice assumes that the injustice results from the hearer ignoring the speaker’s claim. This obscures the fact that it is not solely about ignoring, but also about silencing. People’s expressive capacities are, nonetheless, often tied to a repertoire of readily available concepts. However, as José Medina (2012) suggests, oppressed subjects often find ways of expressing their experiences even before such repertoires become available. A particular form of paternalist injustice is at work when these are not taken into account in the overall position of the subject because the position then only reflects what the hearer can subsume under his/her own categories.

But what if the knowledge the speaker inserts in the public domain is heard, but conditioned and seriously limited by the oppressions he/she lives? Or what if his/her testimony is not acknowledged precisely in light of these limitations? People become accustomed to their circumstances and even come to prefer them according to Serene Khader (2011). These preferences are conceptualized as ‘adaptive preferences’ and institutions that wish to improve the lives of oppressed people aim at transforming them. Khader discusses these preferences through what she calls a ‘deliberative perfectionist approach’ which she considers not to impede on the agency nor the autonomy of the subject, being sufficiently culturally sensitive and ultimately designed to bring light to the subject’s deeply held desires for flourishing. This requires, Khader argues, the one who intervenes to use a ‘vague and minimal’ understanding of what flourishing is – which can, later on, be redefined and applied in light of the particular contextual sensitivities. Khader’s interpretation of adaptive preferences is particularly interesting because she redefines them in such a way that the oppressed subjects can be seen as agents making responsible choices within the confined limits of the options available to them. Defined as such, they are testimonies and enlighten the subject’s context. Albeit in a negative way but they shouldn’t be dismissed on the basis of that.

Succinctly, I argue that both testimonial injustice and adaptive preferences deeply situate and contextualize the subject and, as such, should be considered to inform his/her positional objectivity. They are injustices linked to the expression and sharing of the more general injustice. Therefore, they are an integral part of the lived oppression and need to be acknowledged as such.

Key words: Social justice – positional objectivity – testimonial injustice – adaptive preferences.

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