Sumak kawsay and the human development approach: a puzzle for nussbaum’s approach to political constitutions

Palmer, Eric (2018). 'Sumak kawsay and the Human Development Approach: a puzzle for Nussbaum’s approach to political constitutions' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


Sometimes the culture of a particular group, or the struggles of an alternative culture within a dominant group, allows some people to conceive of values that others would not have framed, might not clearly grasp, or might resist accepting. So the history of culture may be crucial to understanding how value is conceived, and the history of interactions among cultures may be crucial to the just formation and just assessment of common values.

            This may produce a concern for the Human Development Approach, and particularly, for Martha Nussbaum’s proposal concerning its application to the drafting of national constitutions. Nussbaum has argued that a list of ten central capabilities provides a promising starting point for national conversations directed towards the goal of framing rights within a constitution. Public discussion might unearth ideals that stand as alternatives to the candidates drawn from such a list, however. If philosophers’ lists and politicians’ interpretations of those lists take the lead in constitutional discussions, then that priority might dominate or preclude the contributions of the people’s voices, especially the voices of minorities within multicultural contexts.

            Ecuador’s national interpretation of the “Rights of the good way of living (buen vivir)”, which is articulated within its recently adopted Constitution, may present a relevant case. Ecuador’s Constitution also frames this conception of the good way of living as “sumak kawsay,” a Kichwa dialect term. But this ideal may not be compatible with liberal assumptions that underwrite the capability approach and may apply to buen vivir. The Kichwa concept of “right of nature” does not clearly fit with the assumption of liberal individualism, and Kichwa political activists have explicitly identified sumak kawsay as a genuine departure from individualism and liberal conceptions of individual rights. Nussbaum may have conceptions of buen vivir and deep ecology in mind in Creating Capabilities as she notes a “basic position” concerning “animal entitlements” to which she does not subscribe, in which “Individualism [of all living organisms] is dropped [and] the capabilities of systems (ecosystems in particular, but also species) count as ends in themselves.” (158) Nussbaum admits that she cannot yet make sense of the position and then she concludes “[t]hat animals can suffer not just pain but also injustice seems, however, secure.” (159) This is a fallback to individualism that the Kichwa activists would appear not to find satisfactory. So, I expect sumak kawsay simply does not fit within Nussbaum’s list.

            The expression “sumak kawsay” is indeed containedin Ecuador’s constitution; nevertheless, the understanding of the term by many of those engaged in drafting the document, including prominent capability theorists who were involved in the constitutional process, may have diverged greatly from the understanding maintained by people who had received the concept within its original cultural context. This suggests that the familiar language of development economics, of liberalism and of capabilities may cant collective understanding where such language frames discussion. I do not wish to suggest that the introduction of a list of central capabilities such as Nussbaum’s has in fact been deleterious to the drafting of Ecuador’s constitution, or to the introduction of "sumak kawsay" into its text: at this point, I propose this as a puzzle, not a problem. But philosophers, government officials and representatives whose cultural backgrounds are dissimilar to those of others within the nation may obscure alternatives by proposing a “thick, vague theory of the good” that leaves too narrow a space for public reason. At the least, such initial offering of language will produce much greater demands upon those who might hope to express very different views and values in diverse languages that draw less from the European tradition. If the public forum is not sufficiently open then there are hazards even in the proposal that we view Nussbaum’s list “as a stimulus for public debate in the construction, interpretation, and application of constitutional principles.” (Crocker 2008, 198)



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