II. Policymaking and the Public Sphere

Learning to Collaborate in Development Policy

Earlier in my career, when I was trying to transition from a postdoctoral researcher to a tenure-track position, I applied for a position in Applied Ethics. In the interview, I described my work with development agencies as an instance of applied ethics. I talked about working with UNICEF on training project managers to use a social norms framework to measure, evaluate, and intervene on complex social challenges in the development context. I talked about working with the Guatemalan Ministry of Education to improve indigenous girls’ access to school. To my surprise, the philosopher interviewing me said that this was “too applied.” At the time I was more than a little frustrated. After all, had I not relied heavily on work in ethics and social philosophy to develop approaches that were consistent with respecting vulnerable people’s autonomy and rights? I thought the interviewer’s response was emblematic of an overly narrow conception of what applied ethics could be. But I now think that this was the correct response. What I’ve done in this space is not really applied ethics, at least not in the sense of the subdiscipline as it exists in philosophy. Applied ethics is largely for the consumption of other philosophers. What I’ve done in this space is not really for philosophers at all. Instead, it is aimed at improving conditions in the real world, rather than advancing a view in an academic debate. It is, I think, really doing field philosophy. It does not by itself generate new philosophy, but it hopefully makes philosophy more useful to everyone else, and the practice of it can help spur more philosophical work.

I became interested in development policy because, for a social and political philosopher, there are many fascinating issues: distributional worries, institutional arrangements, rights protection, sustainable growth, expertise, paternalism, and a host of other concerns. It’s a philosophically rich area, full of challenges that are interestingly different from common issues that arise in the traditional philosophical literature. Development policy is also extraordinarily difficult. That is, not only is there the challenge of determining what justice demands in rather complex situations, there is also the second challenge of finding a way of instantiating what justice demands. Even well-intentioned, well-trained professionals in well-financed organizations can fail to achieve policy goals. Most importantly, communities within the development context want to improve their lives along a number of dimensions and, despite their best efforts, often remain stuck in bad situations, even with outside assistance. It can be a situation where people may know where they want to go, but still are unable to get there.

This stands in stark contrast to much of mainstream political philosophy. Political philosophers in the Anglo-American tradition have most typically worked within ideal theory, which describes a system where the institutions work as intended, individuals comply with the requirements of justice and the laws that are in accordance with them, and people are motivated to do so out of a sense of justice. Rawls in particular saw his work in ideal theory as specifying a “realistic utopia”—something that is achievable by people like us, though reality almost always falls short of these ideals.

This kind of work has led to important insights, and it helps philosophers home in on what they take the demands of justice to be. However, in my own work I have found that ideal theory frequently rests on assumptions that reduce its ability to speak to situations I’m interested in addressing. For instance, full compliance has often been held up as the crucial assumption of ideal theory, but this assumption rarely holds in the non-ideal world. I have been increasingly interested in challenging even more basic assumptions: that institutions do what they are designed to do, that informal norms and formal institutions are in alignment, that law has the reach that we assume, and that individuals have the rich autonomy that helps normatively ground the liberal project. Of course, I am not alone in this. This focus on ideal theory is beginning to change— increasingly we have seen philosophers developing an interest in people like us rather than idealized agents. Non-ideal theory can explicitly take these factors into account.

Many of these assumptions are perfectly natural when we are considering how a more just version of Canada or Britain or the United States might look. All three have a significant history of stable, though imperfect, institutions, a broad respect for the rule of law, and governing bodies that largely have the capacity to execute their plans. Citizens of these countries are also broadly well off by global standards and have access to resources that aid them in their development. Ideal theory just treats these conditions as given and imagines what society would be like if we had an even better set of institutions, or a more moral populace.

However, developing nations are not just less-rich versions of Canada—they often lack robust formal institutions, they frequently have weak capacity to reach their citizens, and individual freedoms are frequently so restricted that personal autonomy is limited. Poverty itself can restrict a person’s capacity for making choices when each decision that must be made directly affects the ability to survive.1 For these reasons, development policy presents a host of important but overlooked problems for political philosophy. Even if our goal is to understand justice in the well-ordered society, it can be helpful to have a deeper appreciation of the standard assumptions that help shape that society. A developing nation may well know what kind of country it would like to be—it is just that the gulf between the present and the ideal is so wide that the ideal does not do much to help orient efforts to improve the status quo.

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