The continuing development of preferences over what preferences to have

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The title of this blog is Amartya Sen's view of rational behaviour.  I was reminded of it – and the text at the foot of the post, which Stephen Gough and I wrote in 2007 [1. 4], as I took part in the first meeting on Monday of the NUS's Sustainability Direction and Oversight Board, which I am privileged to be a member of.  At the Board, there was much talk of behaviour change and (good) habit formation around sustainability.

Behaviour change and (good) habit are things that NUS emphasises in its work with student unions, with much of it informed by the notion that ruptures in social continuity (such as going to university for the first time) are good times to disrupt old (ie, bad) habits and establish new (ie, good) ones.  That might also work the other way round, of course, … .

However, I do not think that humanity will be saved from itself by the encouragement of habit breaking and making and behaviour changing alone, especially if it continues to valorise (as it tends to do) the individual and personal over the social and concerted.  Good habits are fine (essential, even), but they can become a problem when the context or circumstances change.  Then, you need new habits and behaviours. So having the (cap)ability to look at and decide those habits and behaviours to have is the important thing here.  Actual habits and behaviours come out through this process, and thinking critically about your habits and behaviours should, itself, become something of a habit.

Here's what Steve and I wrote [1] in 2007 ...

In the clearly liberal conception of a university, the institution, and the individuals they educate, should be at the cutting edge of society’s creative response to unfolding future circumstances.  This clearly is not achieved by making them the uncritical repositories of present conventional wisdom — whether in relation to higher education or sustainable development.  A key current question is: ‘what can education do for sustainable development?’  But, a complementary one is: ‘what can sustainable development do for education?’ which leads to important questions such as: ‘what is a university, a school or college now for?’  One model of the social role of education is in accord with Amartya Sen’s account of rational behaviour as the continuing development of preferences over what preferences to have, and of development as the capability, the substantive freedom to choose a life one has reason to value [2. 3].  Thus, the whole of the formal education system should be promoting such rationality and freedom, as these qualities are firmly associated with the tolerance of a plurality of values that we shall need.  How best we might do this is one of the many aspects of the research agenda in this field that deserve particular attention.

We concluded our 2007 book on higher education and sustainable development [4] with this thought:

Universities value knowledge, and for that reason they demand clarity about what is known, and how.  Universities also value the pursuit of knowledge and must, therefore, insist on its present and on-going incompleteness — in the face of those who, for whatever reason, wish to extrapolate to final, general truths.  Sustainable development touches on all aspects of our intellectual lives, and will require us to husband what we know, eschew glib certainties, and confront the future with an open, learning orientation.  To this extent, there is an identity of interest between higher education and sustainable development.

This seems even more pertinent than when it was first written, even if we are not much further on in knowing what it might mean on the ground.


1. Scott WAH & Gough SR (2010) Sustainability, Learning and Capability: exploring questions of balance.  Sustainability 2(12) 3735-3746

2. Sen AK (1999) Development as Freedom; Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK

3. Sen AK (2002) Rationality and Freedom; Belknap/Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, USA

4. Gough SR & Scott WAH (2007) Sustainable Development and Higher Education: Paradox and Possibility; Routledge: London, UK

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates


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