Reasoning without the Public? Motives for Sustainable Human Development and Resulting Challenges

Seckler, Matthias; Volkert, Jürgen; Krumm, Raimund (2014). 'Reasoning without the Public? Motives for Sustainable Human Development and Resulting Challenges' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

The goals of this paper are to theoretically and empirically analyze contributions and limitations of self-interested motives versus commitments for effective Sustainable Human Development (SHD) and to discuss the resulting consequences for political institutions, SHD governance and strategies. The paper's underlying aim can be perceived as a critical assessment of today's importance, feasibility, challenges and limitations of bottom-up and deliberative development for SHD as established by Amartya Sen and other Capability Approach (CA) researchers.

Our analysis builds on the research project 'Fair Sustainable Development on the Basis of the Capability Approach (GeNECA)' on behalf of the Federal German Federal Ministry of Education and Research's research framework 'Economics for Sustainability'.

The CA emphasizes the critical dependence of SHD on the constructive agency of people engaged in fostering SHD. Like development in general, SHD is a kind of empowerment process. Today, SHD governance is shaped by societies, governments and transnational corporations. We argue that for this SHD governance to become effective in a sustainable people-centered way, people's SHD-related motivations and agency as well as resulting challenges are decisive.

Mainstream economics and Public Choice literature see self-interest including inter-individual interdependencies (e.g. sympathy) as the major motivational assumption. Sen has highlighted its similarity with well-being-oriented motivations in the CA. Potentials and, to a lesser extent, limitations of this narrow perspective for SHD governance and strategies have been discussed in the Public Choice literature. We review these findings which also apply to CA analyses of SHD, insofar as the latter assume well-being-oriented motivations.

CA researchers emphasize that the motivational foundations of agency may also go beyond well-being and can be driven by commitments to SHD engagement that are not based on narrow self-interest or sympathy. We discuss the high relevance of these further motivations for sufficiently comprehensive SHD strategies and governance outcomes. Our quantitative results show that commitments for SHD are not only a theoretical CA assumption but an empirical fact in Germany, particularly in environmental and other SHD-oriented civil society groups. However, commitments may be confronted with diverse obstacles that obstruct the former's SHD impact. Therefore, again based on the narrower Public Choice assumptions and resulting critique, we analyze challenges and obstacles that commitment-dependent SHD strategies may face. Furthermore, we empirically verify how relevant these challenges are for SHD commitments.[1]

Moreover, we analyze contributions to political SHD processes and the relative strength of individual SHD commitments compared to conflicting self-interested well-being motives highlighted in the Public Choice literature. Even when individual SHD commitments lead to action its impacts may be dominated or overridden by self-interests of more powerful social actors, like political groups or corporations. Therefore, we briefly address the importance of collective agency and the need for the CA to extend its perception of agency to an empowerment and outcome-oriented concept.

We proceed step by step by theoretically analyzing and empirically verifying potentials of self-interest- and commitment-driven motivations with respect to their potentials and challenges for fostering SHD. To achieve this, we use a recent representative quantitative database for Germany: we build on the 2012 Socio-Economic Panel Innovation Sample (SOEP-IS). It includes an actor-oriented CA focus that allows analyzing SHD-relevant agency motivations and restrictions and covers ca. 1,000 households and 2,000 interviewees who are representative for the total population in Germany.

The CA emphasizes the central role of public reasoning for successfully approaching SHD while our findings highlight major challenges. For instance, on the one hand, citizens in Germany attach a very high value to the well-being of future generations. On the other hand, two out of three respondents call for restricting public reasoning in the political arena when future generations' well-being is at stake. Also, two thirds of all respondents prefer other persons to explicitly represent future generations in legislation processes. This may be due to self-perceived limitations of public reasoning: citizens in Germany do attach a relatively low value to political participation, although this is a prerequisite for public reasoning. The majority in Germany sees self-interest as the major motivation of voters as well as of governments which results in a perceived risk of neglect of future generations by democratic decisions.

We take these and other findings as a point of departure for a discussion on the feasibility of public reasoning in SHD strategies. We argue that in theory the CA's call for public reasoning is convincing; however, in practice, the CA should investigate more how relevant its motivational assumptions are, how their real world relevance may be strengthened and what to do when they are definitely not given. We conclude that this is also necessary to assess the feasibility of a democracy that Sen has coined as 'government by (a broad) discussion'.

[1] Among the motivational SHD challenges that we will theoretically discuss and empirically verify are the SHD-relevant lacks of: SHD priority, information, perceived agency, confidence in own contributions, those of other social actors and perceived social justice to mention just a few.

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