The Idea of Freedom

boy-1226964_1280“Amartya Sen is the person I most admire in post-war social science”, said Professor Stuart Corbridge, Durham’s new Vice-Chancellor. Evidently relishing the opportunity to escape the burdens of office and speak freely as a scholar, the VC was delivering part of a tag-team lecture together with myself and Dr Augusto Zampini-Davies, a theological advisor to CAFOD, and Dr Séverine Deneulin, a specialist on international development at the University of Bath. Our theme was “The Idea of Freedom: reading Amartya Sen from a Catholic perspective” and the four contributions fitted together rather well.

Professor Corbridge and I set the scene in terms of the general context of Sen’s work within welfare economics and his seminal contribution to the so-called “capability approach”, in which personal freedom is both the means and the end of development. We then heard a really lucid exposition by our two colleagues of the similarities and differences between Catholic Social Thought (CST) and the Capability Approach.

For Augusto Zampini-Davies, while there are some areas of tension, there is much common ground. I was struck by his comment that in Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, Laudato Si, we find that the main principles of CST – the common good, the universal destination of goods, subsidiarity, participation and solidarity – are to be understood as tools, what matters more is seeing ‘the signs of the times’ as they are, just as for Sen the Capability Approach provides a language for addressing social reality. There are three particular areas where CST can draw upon Sen’s approach: the need to hear the cry of the women, on whom global poverty weighs most heavily; a concrete perspective on the economic meaning of development beyond money income; and the understanding of a process of participation and dialogue.

Séverine Deneulin posed the reverse question: how can the Capability Approach draw on CST? She in turn identified three main areas: a more relational anthropology, beyond ethical individualism; a more realistic account of human weakness, including the manner in which individual freedom can produce structures of sin, which can only be redeemed through conversion at the level of community; and a stronger motivation, in the awareness of our common origin and mutual belonging, for exercising the personal responsibility to use our freedom to work towards greater justice.

I sensed that I was witnessing the formation of a new synthesis and that this collaborative lecture was outlining a truly fruitful way forward, both for academic research and the Church.

Audio of the full lecture together with the slides can be found here, and the slides are here: Sen final with all speakers.

Dr Mark Hayes holds the St Hilda Chair in Catholic Social Thought and Practice.MGH

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