What is Distinctive about Capability Approaches to Public Reason?

Drydyk, Jay (2016). 'What is Distinctive about Capability Approaches to Public Reason?' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.


abstract
I begin by considering what has been a pivotal question in the interpretation and development of the capability approach: Are capability concepts subject to the authority of public reason, or, on the other hand, are they introduced into public reason on independent philosophical authority? To answer this, I introduce a distinction between ‘public reason’ and ‘public reasoning’, whereby public reason is public reasoning as it ought to be, and public reasoning is actual advocacy that can be held to the standards of public reason. Then I argue that all capability concepts are subject to the authority of public reason, but not to every instance of public reasoning. In this I include not only the specification of valuable capabilities, but also the capability space itself, along with open impartiality and equal human dignity, which, as procedural norms to govern public reason, are justifiable through recursive arguments only. I argue that both Nussbaum and Sen can accept the authority of public reason in this thoroughgoing way, contrary to some interpretations of Nussbaum.
Then, to mark what is distinctive in capability contributions to our understanding of public reason and democratic deliberation, I will consider four questions raised in the review article on public reason by David Quong in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  I also consider a fifth question that Quong overlooked.
Why public reason? To its proponents, public reason is meant to be action-guiding. Why should it be? There is no particular answer that has been explored at length for the capability approach, which is therefore open to many lines of inquiry. The broad Kantian answer developed by Onora O’Neill is attractive, given the capability focus on freedom: reason is a cooperative venture of persons thinking for themselves, in this context thinking about their social impacts and relationships, including power and the exercise of power. The idea that relations and exercise of power (including but not limited to state power) should be accountable to public reason, and that power not so accountable is arbitrary and illegitimate, is also deeply consonant with the ways in which freedom is valued in capability thought.
Scope? In much of the literature it is assumed that the remit of public reason is to settle public rules or norms, including legislation and public policy. Perhaps due to its roots in the theory and practice of social and economic development, a capability approach to public reason is likely to insist that goals, strategies, and programs be included. One response is that public reason should focus more on the rules within which such public initiatives are formulated and implemented. This, however, will leave many important public questions unanswered. For instance, it is one thing to adopt principles of just war and another to decide whether or not to engage in a particular war. If these particular decisions are not subjected to public reason (and not just to application of previously accepted rules), we lose valuable experience as to whether our current conception of just war is adequate or faulty. Should environmental policy and programs aim to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees or 2? Since there is no specific rule that would lead us to either outcome rather than the other, this is not a choice between different rules.
Consensus or convergence?  As is well known, John Rawls insisted that public reason can reach agreement only from agreement, and therefore citizens in a well-ordered society must begin from purely political ideas. People’s actual ways of moral thinking may be introduced into public reasoning only provided that they are in due course replaced by purely political ideas that can be detached from such comprehensive moral doctrines. Nussbaum has not commented on this limitation, but Sen has argued strenuously against the ‘closed impartiality’ that it would entail. The capability approach may be well positioned to contribute to alternative ‘convergence’ approaches, showing how divergent normative premises can lead to shared conclusions.
Relation to justice?  In the Rawlsian approach public reason can lead us to know how to implement social justice if and only if we already have a shared conception of justice. The capability approach places greater weight on public reason, giving it epistemic priority over justice. That is, it is through public reason that we come to know about justice at all. Whether we want to know (or at least to have warranted choices) about comparative justice, or about ideally just social relations, or about thresholds for adequate justice, we have only public reason with which to seek that knowledge (or warranted choice). On the Rawlsian view, public reason is a handmaid to justice; on the capability view, public reason plays the more significant role of midwife.
Relation to democracy? The explosion of interest in deliberative democracy starting in the 1990s revived the broad notion (and criterion) of democracy as ‘government by discussion’, which Sen has embraced as governance by public reasoning – ‘democracy as public reason’. The capability approach supports explorations of how democratically our ‘democratic’ institutions perform and how governance could be made more democratic. This may once again show the influence of concerns with international development, which is easily stymied by institutions that are formally democratic but functionally quite undemocratic. Some capability theorists have suggested criteria by which to judge what is ‘more democratic’ whereas others, like David Crocker, have begun the more challenging work of specifying ways in which public reason can be realized in deliberative governance and participatory development.

scroll to top