I went along last night to see the launch of Open Left, the new project James Purnell will be leading at DEMOS. Some brief observations. I was struck by how consistent Purnell’s occasional forays into political philosophy have been. He has a reputation as a schemer; the “smooth assassin” as the Guardian put it when he resigned after June’s election. But he is also one of a handful of Labour ministers who make a habit of dabbling in political philosophy. (this small group includes Liam Byrne, who last week hosted Etzioni at the Treasury, both Milibands, and David Lammy. Its also not a group without ambitions; the perception of some philosophical depth helps politicians looks credible.)
Three years ago I sat in a mostly empty room in the House of Commons listening to Purnell give a lecture on the “aspiration society.” That lecture was pretty much the same message as last night.
A few years back he said:
Will equality of opportunity do? It’s a radical concept, and fits with many of our instincts. But it is too loose to guide policy or to generate public support. This is for two reasons – first, everyone can say they believe in equality of opportunity. The driest member of the No Turning Back Group can fly this standard, and just say that those who are poor failed to take the opportunities that were given to them. But second, and perhaps more fundamentally, equality of opportunity is hard to operationalise. How does an individual know if they have equality of opportunity? What does that even mean? Equality of opportunity is hard to measure in a society; it’s almost impossible to judge whether it’s been realised for a particular individual. That’s where Amartya Sen’s ideas about capability, and indeed those of Joseph Raz on autonomy, come in. They provide us with a richer concept of equality, and one that is a better call to action.
Last night it was much the same, as was the Guardian article published yesterday. But what then does this capabilities approach mean in practice? Philosophically, Sen’s capability theory was meant to perform a quick u-turn to get philosophical liberalism out of a dead-end dilemna in which egalitarian and liberal theories of justice were seen to be in…