Wonder, capability determination, and epistemic inclusion

Bendik-Keymer, Jeremy (2018). 'Wonder, Capability Determination, and Epistemic Inclusion' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


Keywords:  Wonder, adaptive preference, capability determination, multi-stable oppression, meta-capability



On some interpretations of capability theory, which capabilities are basic to human development should be worked-out between people, not deduced from an objective idea of human dignity.  For instance, in the Rawlsian-inspired side of Martha Nussbaum’s capability theory, the list of basic human capabilities is to be worked out iteratively through collective reflection on the model of a globally-ongoing, Rawlsian reflective equilibrium among the people of the world.  This process is aspirational and ongoing.  But it is different from another source of justification of capability lists, Nussbaum’s Aristotelian moment – sometimes called her “perfectionism” – in which capabilities are deduced from the idea of what human striving needs in order to be possible.  The interpersonal approach to capability specification and legitimation –which we might call “deliberatively democratic” – has the obvious advantage of making capability determination a socially constructed project whose authority depends on the collective will of a society’s people.

            The problem arises, however, that personal and interpersonal reflection and deliberation are inhibited by obvious and subtle forms of oppression.  If A is unable to speak freely due to years of abuse, then any collective discussion including A will paradoxically continue A’s erasure.  More subtly, if B adapts their preferences strongly due to years of deprivation caused by their family, community, or society; then B may not imagine that they would do well with a certain capability – say, to be able to develop their mind – and so may never advocate for it.  Or, to take another example, if C has adapted to a world where economic insecurity is ideologically rationalized and effectively maintained in political economic life, then C may not consider advancing the need for basic economic security as a condition on being able to flourish freely, and yet in a different world where C were exposed to economic security, C might clearly think it an important capability: to live free from fear of one’s own welfare.  All in all, the possibility of oppression rooted into and shaping daily expectations haunts the deliberatively democratic process of capability specification and legitimation.

            In this talk, I work through a way of understanding capability determination that gives us space to unwork oppression without being perfectionistic or paternalistic about it.  I first consider Rosa Terlazzo’s criticism of Martha Nussbaum’s work on adaptive preference formation and the capabilities in order to wrest free a non-paternalistic and non-perfectionistic understanding of capability determination.  Taking up the problem of oppression I have just sketched, I then take up Kristie Dotson’s idea of an “open consolidation process” around “multi-stable oppression.”  In a constructive addition to Dotson’s idea, I propose that an as-yet-underappreciated source of Nussbaum’s thought can be helpful for addressing the problem of oppression in democratically deliberative capability determination:  Nussbaum’s politics of wonder.  The operation of wonder, I believe, is a useful – if not needed – element in reflective and collective deliberation in order to counteract oppressive or bad adaptive preference formation and the possibility of unintentionally involving oppression in capability determination. 

Drawing on previously published work on Nussbaum’s politics of wonder, I consider how wonder simultaneously draws on a person’s reasonableness and gives it space to consider alternatives in the case, especially, where someone’s assumptions are stuck in a rut without one knowing it.  Then, in the last part of the talk, I turn to the work of social practice art, specifically Chloë Bass’s, to explore how wonder can be constructed as an operation and to illustrate how it can plausibly help keep participants in it free of paternalism while giving them room to reconsider their lives and values.  This allows me to illustrate somewhat more concretely how the operation of wonder might fit open consolidation processes in conditions of multi-stable oppression that aim at capability determination for a given polity.  The application of social practice art to official political processes at the level of the polity remains for another study.

A final note is worth making here.  When I speak of “capability determination,” I am speaking at first of the process by which a given social order (an institution or a society, although the scales and complexities are vastly and minutely different) comes to decide, even if tentatively for a time, what is needed in order for people in that order to be able to live flourishing human lives together.  But as the paper goes on, taking up Terlazzo’s criticism of Nussbaum’s work on capabilities, I move to speaking of “capability determination” as a given social order’s ability to determine capabilities for themselves.  You might even call it, drawing on Breena Holland’s work while modifying it, a “meta-capability” – the capability to figure out one’s own, and one’s society’s, valued capabilities together.

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