The Contributions and Dangers of Philosophers in Human Development

Byskov, Moreten Fibieger; Crocker, David; Drydyk, Jay; Keleher, Lori (2014). 'The Contributions and Dangers of Philosophers in Human Development' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

The Contributions and Dangers of Philosophers in Human Development


This panel consists for four papers that explore the role of philosophers in the field of human development. David Crocker and Lori Keleher each take the topic head on by considering both the types of contributions philosophers can and should make to the field of human development, and the limitations and dangers of philosophy in development. Jay Drydyk discusses the role of philosophers in public reason. Moreten Fibieger Byskov continues to explore the role of philosophers in public reason in the selection of relevant capabilities.


David Crocker's paper 'Philosophy in Development Theory-Practice: Some Contributions and Dangers' returns to the idea of 'development theory-practice,' which he set forth in earlier writings, and takes up again the contributions and risks of philosophy. Perhaps paradoxically, the contributions that philosophy can make to the (human) development enterprise are more important than he originally thought but also more limited and more dangerous.


Due to the increasing hegemony of economics and development economics, it is important that philosophers call attention to the limitations of 'thinking like an economist,' especially the exclusive emphasis on (big) data and excessive attention to the causal analysis and narrow cost-benefit assessments of success and failure. Going beyond past causes, present interventions, and future consequences, philosophy challenges us to formulate better alternatives to what was, is, and might be. What should be the ends and means of (good) development, the processes by which these matters should be decided and by whom? What is obligatory, permissible, and impermissible in efforts to bring about better development? Although philosophy can and should make these sorts of contributions, there is a pervasive danger in thinking that only professional teachers and scholars of philosophy can do philosophy. The skills of conceptual clarification, criticism, argument, and envisaging of alternatives to the status quo are not skills possessed only by professional philosophers but are capabilities that can and should be widely shared by citizens. The chief danger of philosophy in development is the hubris that assumes that critique of the present will guarantee improvement, that envisaging an inspiring future is all that is needed to bring it about. As citizens, philosophers can and should criticize and propose. As philosophers, citizens can and should deliberate, decide, and act to change the world. Doing philosophy is a kind of action but it is not by itself action sufficient to overcome deprivations and asymmetries of power.


Lori Keleher's paper 'Life Examined: The Contributions and Limitations of Philosophers at work in Human Development' considers the role that philosophers qua philosophers can, should, and should not play in the field of human development. After a critical analysis of the literature on the role of philosophers in development (Singer, Nussbaum, Crocker, etc.), she argue 1) that there are some tasks best suited to philosophers, for example, conceptual analysis, framing and re-framing of questions, generating and interpreting philosophical theories (e.g., theories of justice); 2) that some tasks that are acceptable, but not necessary for philosophers, for example, engaging in field work can inform philosophical work, but is not a necessary experience for a philosopher; and finally 3) that there are important limits to the contributions philosophers (qua philosophers) can make to development, for example, the measurement and collection of important empirical data, although philosophy (e.g., feminist epistemology and philosophy of science) can helpfully inform methodology. After arguing for the place of philosophers within the field of human development, Keleher then briefly argues for the place of human development issues within philosophy.  In other words, she argues that engaging human development issues is a legitimate practice for professional philosophers. 


Jay Drydyk's paper 'Philosophers as Midwives to Public Reason – And to Counter-hegemonic Politics' approaches the role of the philosopher indirectly, and in several steps, by asking first what role public reason plays in development, and then asking what role philosophers can and should play in public reason.  He organizes his discussion in for questions: 1) What is public reason? 2) What role should public reason play in development? 3) What can philosophers do for public reason? 4) Who needs midwives? This presentation will highlight implications of the capability approach on four issues: (a) the nature and proper function of public reason; (b) the constructive value of public reason; (c) the relevance to capability inequalities to identifying unjust power inequalities; and (d) potential CA contributions to counter-hegemonic movements.


Moreten Fibieger Byskov's paper 'Democracy over Philosophy: A response to Claassen,' extends the theme of philosophy at work in public reason.  The paper defends a democratic, rather than philosophical, approach to the selection of relevant capabilities against the criticism raised against it by Rutger Claassen. It will be argued that the role of the philosopher within human development is primarily to be an enabler and mediator of democratic public deliberation.


Two of the central questions within the literature on the capability approach has been, first, which are the relevant capabilities for human development and, second, how to determine the first question. How these two questions are answered has divided capability theorists into two camps which, following Claassen, we may label as the democratic position and the philosophical position: On the one hand, there are those who maintain that relevant capabilities should be decided upon by the public themselves in a democratic procedure of public deliberation. The most prominent proponents of the democratic position are Sen, Crocker, and Alkire. On the other hand, there are those who believe it is a philosophical issue. They hold that the public cannot be entirely trusted with the task of deciding which capabilities should be promoted by policy. The philosophical position is most prominently associated with Martha Nussbaum. Claassen has forcefully argued that the democratic position is epistemologically dependent on philosophical reasoning in order to secure a just procedure of deliberation. For this reason we should prefer the philosophical approach to reasoning about capabilities. In this paper I provide a response to Claassen and argue that there are good reasons to take the democratic position. 

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