Sen and Sensibility - RSA

Sen and Sensibility


Some of my friends think it amusing that I ask readers to help me write articles and speeches. The implication is that it is either cheeky or feeble minded, or perhaps a bit of both. I don’t care a jot. Last week, for example, the contributions I received ahead of my speech on public scrutiny gave me useful material and helped me feel more confident that my core argument held water. So today I am at it again.

This evening I have the great honour of chairing an event with a man who certainly ranks among the world’s leading public intellectuals, Amartya Sen. The event is being co-hosted by the RSA and the charity BookPower of which the Professor is a patron.  Our distinguished guest won’t be making a speech but will be in conversation with me for 30-40 minutes and then with the audience of what is, unsurprisingly, an over-subscribed event.     

So I have been mulling over what questions to ask, and in particularly whether I have the nerve to focus the questions around my own argument for 21st century enlightenment. My worries about this as a strategy were not assuaged when RSA colleagues suggested this was like interviewing Ronaldo and starting with the question;

‘I can do twenty five keepy-uppies – what do you think of that, Christiano?’

Here are the six question areas I have planned:

For those here who have not had the benefit of reading your work or hearing you speak, could you outline the core features of your capabilities approach to the idea of justice.

In unveiling our new strapline 21CE, I suggested that it might be useful to return to some core enlightenment values and explore how those values might be renewed or developed in light of today’s knowledge and tomorrow’s challenges. The first was the value of autonomy. In relation to this I suggested we needed to urge a more self aware and socially embedded idea of autonomy against the narrow possessive individualism with which we often associated the idea of freedom. I am interested in your view of how we should think of autonomy.

In relation to universalism I suggested that as well as exploring – as you have done so brilliantly – the content of universalism – we should examine the sentiment that drives the impulse toward universalism – namely empathy. What is it that enhances or diminishes human empathy and how is inter personal and inter communal empathy related to empathy for the other or global scale empathy?  

In relation to humanism – that our affairs should be organised to maximise human welfare - I argued that this throws up inherently ethical questions and that we need to make it easier to explore the ethical dilemmas of deciding what kind of progress we want. Given your own work on exploring alternatives ways of measuring progress to GDP I was interested…….

Running through the argument we have made for 21CE is an interest in the insights provided by behavioural sciences ranging from neuroscience to social psychology or behavioural economies, I wonder how important you think these insights into human nature are to our understanding of justice and its foundations

A thoughtful criticism of the 21CE thesis made by a number of people was this it focussed exclusively on the Enlightenment as an historical episode in the history of the West and not as the more spiritual concept that it is taken to mean in the East. Given that one of the fascinations of your writing is this bringing together of Western and Eastern philosophical traditions do you think it is useful to compare and contrast these different ideas of enlightenment?

Well, then dear readers. What do you think? Is it impudent to talk to the great man about the RSA’s strapline? Are these good questions, and if they are not what would be?

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