Religious ontology and the capability approach: towards a genuinely inclusive dialogue on justice and development

Pool, Fernande (2018). 'Religious ontology and the capability approach: Towards a genuinely inclusive dialogue on justice and development' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


In an increasingly globalized and urbanized world, we are confronted with the challenges of inequality, marginalization, and radical diversity including a variety of claims to what constitutes the good life and human dignity, key themes of the capability approach.  Moreover, urban migration may lead to increasing social fragmentation, which in turn leads to higher levels of anxiety about wellbeing, which are reproduced rather than solved by too individualistic approaches to wellbeing.

In Latin America, some grassroots movements and social theorists confront the challenge of inequality and diversity, as well as other discontents of modernity and the utilitarian development paradigm, with a call for alternatives to development, or so-called post-development frameworks, of which the Latin American indigenous view of wellbeing buen vivir is the most well-known and influential. Such alternatives may however proof difficult to operationalize (for instance, in one nation there may be conflicting notions of buen vivir, as well as other priorities) and risk legitimizing other, culturally embedded forms of oppression and inequality by falling into cultural relativism (Artaraz & Calestani, Suma Qamaña, 2014). Other, less radical theorists suggest that relation wellbeing as an approach should replace approaches anchored in individualist ontologies, including the capability approach (White, Relation Wellbeing, 2017).

The proposed paper argues that instead of creating post-development alternatives with its associated risks or rejecting the capability approach in favor of a relational approach to wellbeing, there is ample opportunity to adapt the capability approach to radically diverse conceptualizations of humanity and wellbeing. Following Robeyns’ (Wellbeing, Freedom and Social Justice, 2017) distinction between the very broad capability approach and a variety of capability theories and applications, I focus here on the capability approach as applied in Martha Nussbaum’s partial theory of justice (Women and Human Development, 2000; Creating Capabilities, 2011) because this theory is most fitting to the context under discussion.

Drawing on two years ethnographic fieldwork, I demonstrate that Muslims in West Bengal, India, in a village I call Joygram, foster a dynamic concept of the human as emerging from divine submission and constant interactions within social networks. As such, it is radically different from the concept of the human as a sovereign agent, in a ‘state of nature’, with inalienable rights, that underlies most liberal theorizing, including most theories and applications of the capability approach. Nevertheless, I demonstrate that the capability approach can operate within this alternative relational framework, without having to adapt its basic premises. To this end, I follow the modular explanation of the capability approach of Robeyns (2017). Robeyns argues that capability theories can operate on the basis of different ontological theories (i.e. views on human nature) as long as these views do not conflict with the compulsory, non-optional core of all capability theories. I maintain that the Joygrami ontology does not in principle conflict with the core of the capability approach and is sufficiently dynamic and flexible to allow for public deliberation concerning the individual capabilities and how to ensure them. Moreover, I show that there is a considerable overlap between key elements of Nussbaum’s theory of justice, and Joygrami folktheory of justice, and both resonate with Aristotelian virtue ethics (Nussbaum, Human Functioning and Social Justice, 1992). Central is the local concept of gyan, practical reasoning, or phronesis, that is the faculty of moral judgment and as such at the core of all capabilities. I demonstrate the compatibility of Joygrami ontology and the capability theory of justice as developed by Nussbaum with a case-study of Islamic mission schools. These are educational institutions organized by the Muslim community and premised upon the local relational ontology, and demonstrably more conducive to the achievement of central capabilities than governmental schools.

The argument that the Joygrami ontology allows for the operationalization of a capability theory of justice is a significant contribution to the scholarship on religion and development (Deneulin and Bano, Religion in Development, 2009) and the scholarship that explores the compatibility between indigenous worldviews and the capability approach (Watene and Drydyk, Theorizing Justice, 2016). Religion is often not a narrow, static set of ideas, that can be an obstacle to, instrumental to or a driver of development. Instead, religion often merges with local and cultural notions of being and sociality in overarching moral frameworks, such as the South Asian dharma. Thus, religious (and nonreligious) indigenous worldviews can form ethical frameworks at par with secular liberal ethical frameworks, which are equally ideological constructions. When (freedom of) religion is not reduced to one among other capabilities; instead viewed as potentially a meta-ontological framework, there is the possibility of genuinely equal dialogue between religious and secular stakeholders in the process of development and justice.

I conclude with the suggestion that attention for relational ontologies such as that of Joygrami Muslims, and genuinely equal dialogue between religious and secular stakeholders could significantly strengthen capabilities theories applied in non-Western contexts, but also in Western contexts. A relational approach to wellbeing does not have to replace the capability approach, but can be incorporated in particular capability theories, strengthening the approach’s ability to improve social justice and quality of life in all its valued aspects, adequately address modern anxieties, considering local and cultural differences, and meanwhile reducing the risk of cultural backlash against global modernization and its associated discontents.

Particularly in radically diverse urban settings it is crucial to develop genuinely inclusive dialogue and development practice, by allowing people to strive for the same capabilities and functionings from a variety of ontological positions. Moreover, this would be easier to operationalize than, for instance, a dialogue between conflicting interpretations of buen vivir, or on the basis of a shared notion of relational wellbeing but lacking a well-developed theory such as the core guiding principles of the capabilities approach.   

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