by PJ Capistrano, LUCID scholar

“The philosopher is always socially situated, and if the society is divided by oppressions, she either reinforces or struggles against them.” – Iris Marion Young

A farmer leader in Central Mindanao points to the extent of corn cultivation in his community which covers all areas, even the steepest slopes. Photo from Andres Ignacio/ESSC

To the person unfamiliar with philosophy, the inclusion of a philosopher in a study entitled “Land Use Change in the Uplands, Impacts and Drivers” may seem a bit misplaced. The stereotype of the philosopher comfortably ensconced in an armchair still persists, and philosophy is (with good reason) mostly associated with lofty theories abstracted from the realities of the world.

If we return however to the beginnings of philosophy—whether in the west with philosophers like Socrates, or in the east with Confucius or Sun Tzu, philosophers have always been concerned with the concrete realities human life and society, including questions of justice. Socrates bothered his fellow Athenians with questions about justice and what a truly human/humane life consists of, and Confucius endeavored to articulate what made human beings truly benevolent to others (ren). For these ancient philosophers, questioning the nature of reality and metaphysical contemplation went hand-in-hand with a concern for the lives that human beings lead, and the examination of the quality of those lives.

Returning then to the study, a philosopher can play a role in understanding the impacts and drivers of land use change in the uplands of Bukidnon—an area that in just a couple of decades has become one of the largest producers of genetically-modified corn in the country. The introduction of genetically-modified corn to Philippine agriculture was promoted as an economic boon for small farmers, allowing them to produce higher yields of corn to supply the increasing demands of a global market, and freeing farmers from the grinding tedium and poverty of subsistence farming.

However, what lies under the touted economic benefits of genetically-modified corn? The assumption is that the increased yield will lead to increased income for small farmers, and increased income leads to a better quality of life—at least, this is how the layman sees the workings of the economy.

But has this new crop really freed farmers from poverty and improved their quality of life? Has engaging the demands of the global market truly been liberating for the small farmers of Bukidnon? What can their experiences tell us about the nature of our social and economic institutions, and better inform our understanding of a society that allows people to live their lives to the fullest?

In the final decade of the 20th Century, political philosophers and development economists (often working separately from each other) began calling into question the long-held assumption that the key to a just society is ensuring equitable distribution of wealth and resources. These disparate voices converged on the critical observation that, despite their differences, most modern philosophical theories of justice—whether from the utilitarian tradition or the liberal one, have been focused on defining justice as access to material resources, and have simply defined injustice as the negation or deprivation of justice. This has led to theories of justice that are detemporalized and distanced from the concrete realities of the world (Young 1990).

Instead of a theory of justice formulated separately from concrete realities, and imposed on reality ‘from above’, these philosophers and economists advocated beginning from concrete reality—the real experiences of people in concrete contexts. Some even questioned the possibility of having any complete, systematic theory of justice that did not begin from the concrete experiences of people.

Following in the footsteps of these critiques, my own work as a philosopher seeks to understand the concrete realities experienced by corn farmers in a specific locality, to articulate their concerns and values, and see these concrete experiences, concerns, and values can help us gain a better understanding of justice and injustice, enriching and informing our philosophical understanding of the concrete reality, not only of justice, but also of injustice.

Socrates and the Corn Farmers
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