How the humanities can facilitate our pursuit of the SDGs

Let me begin with some simple and obvious observations. Progress towards achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) requires collective action on a massive scale.

Engineers, scientists, economists, policy analysts, politicians, government bureaucrats, non-government organisations, activists and countless others must find ways to coordinate their activities and harness their knowledge to generate and implement feasible plans and projects that can advance sustainable development.

Pursuit of the development goals is also inherently political. Successful programmes for the elimination of poverty and hunger, the promotion of education, the reduction of inequalities, the achievement of peace, the advancement of economic growth and effective environmental stewardship depend on the support of governments throughout the world.

Government commitment to these programmes in turn depends on acceptance and support of them by citizens in different countries. Against this background, we can ask how the humanities can fruitfully contribute to this cooperative endeavour.

As a philosopher who studies justice and the nature of our moral obligations, I believe that the general orientation of the humanities to reflective and critical consideration of the human condition is vitally important to appreciating the moral importance and urgency of pursuing the development goals.

Humanists are well placed to offer insights into the achievements and failures of diverse human communities across the ages. Knowledge of our histories, cultures, literatures, ethical ideals and aspirations should surely inform our efforts to craft a just, peaceful and sustainable future for ourselves and future generations.

Nonetheless, a cautionary note is in order.

The value of the humanities in relation to the SDGs cannot be predicated on hubristic claims about the power of any academic discipline or field of study to propel the realisation of these goals.

Meaningful progress in this domain depends on people from varied academic and social backgrounds working in concert and finding ways to integrate their different perspectives and expertise in the search for and implementation of viable solutions to problems that have complex technical, scientific, social and ethical dimensions.

With that caveat in place, let me briefly sketch three roles the humanities can play in helping to facilitate successful pursuit of the development goals.

Dialogue and diversity

First, an education in the humanities enriches and complements education and training in other more technically oriented disciplines. At its best, an education in the humanities develops skills of critical analysis that are relevant to understanding the nature, history and epistemological foundations of inquiry in the sciences and social sciences.

An appreciation of the fallibility of scientific inquiry and an awareness of the sometimes morally regrettable ends to which expertise in the sciences and social sciences has been directed can foster sensitivity both to the hazards of a narrowly technocratic outlook and to the human values that research should ultimately serve.

There are many routes to achieving the different development goals and appropriately choosing between strategies requires mutual understanding and dialogue between people with different disciplinary backgrounds. The dialogical character of the humanities – in which debate and discussion of fundamental ideas concerning truth, beauty, wisdom and value plays a central role – helps prepare those who will be engaged in development work to engage in fruitful and necessary communication across disciplines.

Similarly, the humanities’ emphasis on close textual analysis and expressing ideas and arguments precisely enhances generic communication skills for those who specialise in technical fields.

In short, a good humanities education improves the writing, reading and reasoning skills of non-humanists. This is important because pursuit of the development goals depends both on effective communication between experts and effective communication between experts and the public, whose support for pursuit of the development goals is crucial.

Finally, an education in the humanities on the part of those in technical disciplines provides a valuable opportunity for social and intellectual interaction with people from various disciplinary and cultural backgrounds. This kind of encounter with diversity can help break down the silos that often obstruct much-needed interdisciplinary collaboration.

Democratic virtues

Secondly, the humanities play a crucial role in facilitating democratic citizenship of the sort that is needed to secure political receptivity to the pursuit of the development goals.

Contemporary conceptions of democracy often emphasise the importance of facilitating public debate and discussion that is informed, rational and mutually respectful. Ideally, democratic processes should include a robust space for substantive deliberation about policies in which citizens (and their representatives) can civilly exchange reasons with one another.

For this deliberative conception of democracy to be successful, citizens need to understand democratic processes and their democratic responsibilities. They need skills that help them understand potentially contentious issues and weigh evidence from different sources. They need to be able to articulate and thoughtfully consider reasons offered in the political realm. And they need to appreciate the democratic history and traditions (both good and bad) of their own community.

The humanities have an integral role in fostering these democratic virtues. Sustained examination of the literature, culture, languages and history of one’s own community and others can set the stage for informed political dialogue. In relation to the development goals specifically, it can provide needed insights into the social and political contexts that give rise to the problems that the goals seek to address and provides material for understanding the urgency of pursuing them.

The training in skills of critical thinking and the rigorous assessment of argument that lies at the heart of philosophy can also prepare citizens for fruitful democratic engagement.

Democratic support for pursuit of the development goals hangs, at least in part, on the successful articulation and acceptance of good moral and political arguments. By improving the reasoning and rhetorical skills of citizens, an education in the humanities helps prepare the field for advancement of the arguments for political support for pursuit of the development goals.

The bigger questions

My third and final claim has a different character. My previous points have focused on the instrumental value of the humanities in pursuit of the development goals with the assumption that the goals are themselves important and urgent.

Yet our concern is not only about successful pursuit of given goals but also about their value and importance. Why, for instance, is it important to reduce inequality or improve education? Why should we care about addressing climate change or the health of marine life? These are profound issues, and they press on us deep questions about what is valuable, what grounds our value commitments, and how we should respond to diverse values.

Consideration of these kinds of profound moral issues lies at the very heart of the humanities. Some of the oldest questions in philosophy, for instance, concern the nature of justice and why the pursuit of justice seems pre-eminently important.

The project of seeking illuminating and compelling answers to these and other profound questions animates a great deal of research in the humanities. Philosophers investigate the nature of morality, historians trace the different moral orders that have held sway in different times and different places, scholars of literature explore how human values are expressed and illuminated in books, poetry and other cultural products, and so on.

This commitment to probing our human values is salient to the pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals for at least two reasons. First, it is important to provide sound justifications for pursuit of the goals and to understand how the justifications for different goals interact. How, for instance, does a concern for poverty elimination align with the concern for climate action? Is pursuit of the goals always harmonious? If not, how should we address moral trade-offs that may arise?

The humanities play a key role in articulating the proper justification of the Sustainable Development Goals and we should always be ready to revise our views in the wake of good arguments. An education in the humanities equips us with conceptual and intellectual resources that help us meet this challenge.

This does not mean that the humanities can provide a simple and uncontroversial conception of justice that underlies the goals. Ensuring that the goals, judged either individually or collectively, have integrity is partly a matter of seeking to provide them with a good justificatory basis.

Moreover, consideration of the ethical justification for the development goals is crucial to identifying the motivational basis we have for pursuit of them. The impulse that we may have for pursuing some goals may be enlightened self-interest; for other goals, altruistic concern for other humans or for wildlife may be key. Understanding the motivational bases for the goals is relevant to the political task of securing commitment to them, especially in the face of the temptation many people may have to diminish their importance.

A collective enterprise

Of course, an education in the humanities will not magically yield a robust commitment to the ideals that animate the SDGs. But it can contribute to informed reflection on what matters and how we should respond to the project of sustainable development.

The proverb ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ makes the point that successful child rearing is a complex, collective enterprise that requires different people, occupying different social roles, with varied skills and knowledge, to work together towards the realisation of a valuable common end.

In a similar vein, realisation of the SDGs depends upon the integrated work of a community of bureaucrats, scholars, experts, activists and devoted citizens from different backgrounds. The humanities are not only part of that community, they also play a vital role in preparing people for participating constructively within it.

Dr Colin M Macleod is professor of philosophy and law at the University of Victoria, Canada, and executive editor of the Canadian Journal of Philosophy. This article was first published in the current edition of the ACU Review, a magazine published by the Association of Commonwealth Universities. The latest issue explores how university humanities contribute to the SDGs, featuring articles from academics around the world.