Towards Being an Impartial Spectator. Narrative ethics as a method to reveal objective illusions.

Leyens, Stephane (1); S., Senthalir (2); Vyt, Charlotte (1) (2016). 'Towards Being an Impartial Spectator. Narrative ethics as a method to reveal objective illusions.' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

In this paper, we discuss the methodology to be used in a field investigation we will conduct in South India on Dalit empowerment. This methodology aims at revealing what Sen, following Marx, calls “objective illusions”, that is, judgements that are positionally objective but erroneous (Sen, 1993, 2010). Our hypothesis is that such objective illusions bias the work of non-dalit associations advocating Dalits’ empowerment and should be revealed, thought over, and dismissed.
Our discussion focuses on the notions of “positional objectivity”, “objective illusion” and “impartial spectator”. The “impartial spectator” is a stance that permits to acknowledge the “positional objectivity” (i.e. everyone in a given position have the same judgement) while broadening the rationality underpinning a situated system of beliefs or values and avoiding “objective illusion” (i.e. positionally objective but erroneous judgment). The question we ultimately address is: how can we tackle the problem of “objective illusion” and enhance the conditions of the “impartial spectator” ?
We proceed as follows. First, we describe briefly the context and the purpose of our field investigation (1). Second, we explain why we hold that the object of our investigation is a case of objective illusion (2). Third, we qualify the nature of this illusion, which is a different case than the ones discussed by Sen (3). Fourth, we propose a participatory methodology based on “narrative ethics”, which is related to the “impartial spectator” stance (4).
(1) Our empirical research will study the conceptions of human flourishing (and social justice) held by caste, or non-dalit, associations advocating for Dalits’ emancipation and empowerment in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry (e.g. Nadar Sangam). It has been showed (Hardgrave, 1969, 1993) that there is a significant discrepancy between the expressed ideal conception of human flourishing underpinning those associations’ philosophy and the concrete actions and activities they implement and support: while the ideal conception is explicitly in line with basic capabilities (Alkire, 2002, ch. 5), some actions that those associations develop can be in contradiction with the same capabilities. Our aim is to reflect with the caste associations on such discrepancy and on the reasons for them. By making explicit the rationale of the associations’ actions, we expect to contribute to reduce the gap between ideal and practice.
(2) To develop such reflection, our main hypothesis is that the perception the associations have of their actions as satisfying their ideal of human flourishing is a case of “objective illusion”. This means, following Sen, that their perceptions are positionally objective (i.e. anyone in the same position would have the same perception) but are erroneous (i.e. contrary to what their actions’ perceptions are, their actions are not satisfying the criteria of their ideal of human flourishing). This is mainly due to the fact that caste discriminations is being much entrenched in social reality.
(3) This type of “objective illusion” is of a different nature than the one discussed by Sen (1993, 2010). In Sen’s cases (e.g. health auto-perception), the erroneous perception (the illusion) is revealed through a comparison to objective external data (e.g. public health data). In our case, the perception of an action as fulfilling the criteria of human flourishing is not erroneous in view of an external objective conception of human flourishing, but in view of the subject’s expressed ideal conception of human flourishing: the illusion is due to an internal cognitive incoherence or discrepancy. This allows us not to impose a universal objective conception of human flourishing but to have recourse to a participatory approach (Leyens, 2015).
(4) Our participatory methodology draws on narrative ethics as it has been developed and used in bioethics (Lothe & Hawthorn, 2013). Its rationale is twofold (Leyens, 2007, ch. 2). First we will ask caste activists to state the explicit and official philosophy of their association in regards to Dalits social status. This will give us the ideal conception of  human flourishing. Second we will ask them to narrate cases that they judge successful in implementing their conception of human flourishing. We will then track down the incoherencies and discrepancies between explicit ideal conception, on the one hand, and concrete action judged successful (in regards to human flourishing), on the other hand. For this, we will use a “principle of charity” (Davidson, 1963): when such incoherence appears, we will discuss their reasons to judge it successful while not matching their ideal conception. This will make explicit the till then implicit objective illusion regarding the implementation of Dalits’ empowerment and will enable non-dalit associations to broaden their set of reasons for action.
In this sense, our narrative ethics methodology is to be related to an “impartial spectator” stance.

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