Sustainability and Rationality: Individual and Collective Responsibility in the CA

Leßmann, Ortrud (2010). "Sustainability and Rationality: Individual and Collective Responsibility in the CA" Paper presented at the 7th annual conference of the HDCA, 21-23 September 2010, Amman, Jordan.

he definition of sustainability as given by the Brundtland commission reads as follows: “Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable – to make sure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (UN WCED 1987) It is still the most widely used definition and supports a broad view of the issue. Sustainable development according to the Brundtland commission is about extending to all “the opportunity to satisfy their aspirations for a better life”. The connection to the opportunity focused view of the Capability Approach (CA) is most obvious and it seems like a small change when Amartya Sen suggests changing the definition to read: meeting the “capabilities of people in the present without compromising the capabilities of people in the future”. This amounts roughly to replacing the term “needs” in the Brundtland definition with the term “capabilities”. Yet, Sen (2004, 2005) argues that sustaining freedoms goes beyond the original definition in some important ways. In particular, Sen claims to broaden the view of humanity by including the pursuit of interests other than one?s own living standard. As an “illustration” he refers to “our sense of responsibility towards the future of other species that are threatened with destruction” (Sen 2009). In either version the definition of sustainable development indicates only a general understanding of the term. The Brundtland definition gives rise to the question to which needs it refers. Sen?s definition leads to the question what is meant by capabilities. In the paper I outline first the basic concepts of the CA. I then proceed to look at the special challenge that arises from the social and global character of sustainable development. Anand and Sen (2000) write that “the obligation of sustainability cannot be left entirely to the market” and conclude that “the state should serve as a trustee for the interests of future generations”. Hence, they acknowledge that sustainable development entails an obligation which is not confined to individuals. Their solution to propose the state as a trustee, however, seems ad hoc and does not go well with the emphasis on public deliberation of the CA. It rather points to a tension between the alleged individualistic character of the CA (Stewart/Deneulin 2002, Robeyns 2005: 107–110, Alkire 2008: 34–41) and demands which go beyond the individual level like that of sustainable development. I will argue that the distinction between the goal of well-being and other goals that go beyond the individual living standard provides the basis in Sen?s CA for meeting the social and global character of sustainable development. When he speaks of “other goals” going beyond the individual living standard, Sen refers to the distinction between well-being and agency (Sen 1985). Well-being is linked to sympathy as the major motivation whereas agency is linked to commitment (Sen 1977, 1987). Thus, when we act because we care for others our behaviour is driven by self-interest while commitment is according to Sen “a clear departure from self-interested behaviour.” Clarifying the concepts Sen notes that agency roles related to fulfilling obligations “can quite possibly have a negative impact on the person?s well-being”. Further, he points out that well-being goals are specific whereas agency goals are not tied to one type of aim. Sustainability as a goal is not entirely driven by sympathy. As mentioned above Sen has used it as an illustration for goals that go beyond the pursuit of self-interest and alluded to sustainability as an obligation. Thus, it is an agency goal mainly driven by commitment. As an agency goal sustainability is but one of many aims. It is up to the individual to choose to act in accordance with this goal. Despite this diversity of people and their agency goals Sen holds first of all that human beings are to be seen as responsible agents and that, secondly, they derive their identity from being a part of various groups each sharing a commitment. Because each person belongs to more than one group Sen (1985, 1999b, 2006) speaks of plural identities among which a person can choose in any one situation. This is how Sen draws a link between social and personal identity. John Davis (2002, 2003, 2004) suggests to use collective intentionality analysis for understanding Sen?s concept since both look at distinct individuals who interact with one another and form a group with shared intentions. I will propose and investigate this route for reconciling the individualistic character of the CA with global moral demands such as sustainability. The core idea is that people have reasons to care for future generations and persons in other parts of the world. Sen?s project to “make room for a wider concept of human nature” aims at a broad understanding of rationality. On the individual level sustainable behaviour may not seem rational, yet, it can be said to be reasonable (Sen 2009).
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