This is the first post to kick off the reading group on Sen’s new book The Idea of Justice. I want to thank Blain for organizing this and I look forward to participating in it.
I have to admit it is with much anticipation that I begin to read Sen’s book. A few years ago I heard him give this talk which outlined the basics of the arguments he advances in the book. His project struck me as one that I (as a critic of ideal theory) would be very sympathetic with and I hope this book can helpfully advance the methodological debates the discipline is now engaged in. So I have high hopes for this book and look forward to reading it together with the group.
OK, so down to the business at hand. Keeping Blain’s advice about word count (I’m a bit over, sorry!) in mind, I thought I would begin by drawing attention to a crucial passage in the Preface, and then link that with a few of the central issues that follow in the Introduction itself (issues which will, I suspect, play an important role in the overall argument of the book).
In the Preface Sen explicitly states that the theory of justice he seeks to advance “aims to clarify how we can proceed to address questions of enhancing justice and removing injustice, rather than to offer resolutions of questions about the nature of perfect justice” (ix).
The issue of what we want a theory of justice to deliver is arguably one of the most interesting, and hotly debated, topics in the field today. Some obvious examples that immediately come to my mind are David Schmidtz’s analogy between theories and maps in The Elements of Justice, Elizabeth Anderson’s critique of luck egalitarianism, and G.A. Cohen’s Rescuing Justice and Equality where he distinguishes principles of regulation from principles of justice and maintains that the latter are “fact-free”.
The contrast between Cohen’s position and Sen’s is very stark and worth considering. The vision of political philosophy Sen is invoking, at least in this early chapter of The Idea of Justice, is one primarily concerned with the question “How should be done?”. Whereas for Cohen the primary concern of the philosopher is: “what we should think, even when what we should think makes no practical difference”. I myself come down on the side of Sen on this issue. Those partial to Cohen’s approach might maintain that we ought to privilege deliberating about perfect justice for it is only once we comprehend the ideal that we can properly undertake the practical task of trying to realize justice in the “real world”. Sen notes that he will address this kind of challenge in Chapter 4, so I look forward to seeing how he addresses that concern.
In the Introduction Sen elaborates on these two approaches to justice (the social contract framework and comparativist framework). The two traditions are characterized as two distinct strands of Enlightenment thought. The first tradition, led by contractarians like Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Kant, concentrates on identifying the just institutional arrangements for a society (what Sen calls “transcendental institutionalism” (TI)). This approach informs mainstream contemporary political philosophy and is most evident in the (at least earlier) work of John Rawls. TI concentrates on perfect justice and the institutions that would be realized in that perfectly just society.
The second tradition, represented by such diverse thinkers as Adam Smith, Condorcet, Bentham, Wollstonecraft, Marx and Mill, is presented as the “realization-focused comparison” approach. Unlike TI’s “arrangement-focused” approach to justice, the realization-focused approach prioritizes the social realization of advancing justice and removing injustice in real societies with their existing institutions.
One of the problems Sen highlights with TI is the redundancy of the search for a transcendental solution. He provides the example of deciding which is the best picture between a Picasso and a Dali. Suppose someone comes along and tells us that your decision could be made easier if you only realized that the Mona Lisa was the “ideal picture”. Would this transcendental insight really help you decide between the Piacasso and the Dali? Sen claims it would not. His reasons for claiming this are not fully explained, he briefly addresses it in a paragraph on p. 16. I think it might be interesting to discuss this example in greater detail. Perhaps we can do that in the comments section.
Hopefully Sen will return to this point in greater detail in future chapters, and provide some specific examples of actual TI accounts of justice that fail to help us address comparative judgements. I myself think there are plenty of examples that support Sen’s point (and I have tried to make a similar case against them in my recent book, though I think the problem is that we have been too obsessed with deriving the principles of justice). Perhaps the greatest challenge in making a general critique of diverse normative theories of justice is that it is difficult to sustain that critique without overlooking all the subtle nuances that advocates of such theories typically make. I suspect the defenders of Nozick and Rawls, for example, will be more than happy to point out that the normative prescriptions of their theory can help us redress injustice in the real world. For Nozickians, justice requires us to fulfil the requirements of the entitlement theory of justice. So for libertarians, justice would be served in the real world if we instituted a minimal government that did not infringe on the right to self-ownership. And Rawlsians can point to violations of the difference principle and fair equality of opportunity as injustices that should be redressed. As I noted above, the real challenge I think Sen has to meet, to fend off the proponents of TI, is to show why you cannot just begin with TI and then move to a realization-focused approach once you have your transcendental account in hand.
As Sen notes on p. 9, the starting point of a theory of justice is crucial. If the starting point is motivated by concerns of *intellectual* interest- e.g. would parties in the original position choose the two principles of justice over the principle of utility?- versus concerns of *practical* interest – e.g. what capabilities do people in the real world today have, and what kinds of factors (e.g. risks of infectious disease) influence and limit these capabilities- then the conclusions of one’s theory of justice will be very different. Luck egalitarians, for example, have ended up endorsing conclusions like “Justice requires us to support able-bodied surfers who are unwilling to work” (Van Parijs) and “Compensation is owed to those who are incurably bored by inexpensive hobbies and can only get fulfilling recreation from expensive diversions” (Cohen). So one’s starting point is crucial. There are an endless number of questions we could spend our time pondering and trying to answer. We must be selective and prioritize some questions over others. And our take on that selection process will be determined by the view we take on what we want from a theory of justice in the first place (e.g. an account of practical reason).
I anticipate that Sen’s project will ruffle a few philosophers’ feathers (especially Cohenians, but also Rawlsians as they will probably consider themselves as pretty “realization-focused” when compared to the Cohenians!) in that it will be interpreted as a provocation to a turf war and one that many academics will resent as it places philosophy at the service of humanity (something we debated here on this blog a while back). The project Sen is asking us to undertake is one that requires us to (a) develop an understanding of the plight of the vulnerable in the world today, (b) be interdisciplinary and global in our thinking about justice, and (c) balance (a) and (b) with the demand for a philosophical theory that is both lucid and rigorous. It will be interesting to see how his project is received by political philosophers.
I agree with Sen that a theory of justice ought to, first and foremost, serve as a basis for practical reasoning. At various stages in the Preface and Introduction Sen invokes historical figures that were engaged in the project of abolishing the injustices of their day- like the Parisians who stormed the Bastille, Gandhi and Martin Luther King. And Sen believes that political philosophers should also be involved in this project. Unfortunately a discussion of what would enhance justice in general is regarded as ‘loose talk’ by TIs who claim “we need a sovereign state to apply the principles of justice through the choice of a perfect set of institutions” (25). Sen’s target here is Nagel, but there is a vast literature on global justice and I suspect it will be difficult to characterize a significant range of those theories under the description of TI. But we will see how that pans out in future chapters (especially 17 and 18).
So this introductory chapter provides an overview of the topics that will follow in greater detail. As such I thought it prudent to offer a few general reflections of the overall approach Sen is asking us to consider. I think it is an interesting and important one. I am eager to see how Sen develops his arguments. He invokes some novel sources (like the classical Sanskrit distinction between niti and nyaya), frames his project as a version of a comparativist Enlightenment project that invokes social choice theory and the capabilities approach he is well known for advancing, and aspires to deliver a practical normative theory that can help us focus on the injustices that exist in the world today. It is an ambitious and exciting project. And I can’t think of anyone better qualified to undertake such a project than Sen.