Sen’s The Idea of Justice (Introduction)

Hi All,
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.


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21 Responses to Sen’s The Idea of Justice (Introduction)

  1. Thanks, Colin, for starting this off. I wonder what people think about the distinction you mention between beginning with a “practical” interest, or with an “intellectual” interest. These are your terms, not Sen’s, apparently, although his distinction between “how would justice be advanced,” and “what would be perfectly just institutions” does cast the former as practical in a way the latter is not.

    It seems to me that wondering “how would justice be advanced” is not quite a practical interest. It’s a question, and it would be an intellectual accomplishment to provide a good and defensible answer. But a philosophy treatise about justice (such as Sen’s) is not, except incidentally and in rare cases, a way of making society more just. It is an intellectual exercise, answering, in the first instance, to an intellectual interest in a set of moral questions.

    Now, maybe this still seems like a more practical question than “what should we think?” This is alleged to be the question asked by those Sen is opposing, those doing “transcendental” theory, etc. But, if that’s right, what exactly is the question that’s being attributed to them? What should we think…about what?? The answer, it seems to me, is that they are asking, for example, what we should think about what justice requires. (The term Sen uses, “perfect justice,” has an undeserved rhetorical force, suggesting a utopian project. But the view that there is a threshold above which things are just and below which they are not–a view Sen evidently opposes–might set that threshold in a very attainable place.)

    Now, unless we don’t think that societies ought to try to be just, then this is a question about what should be done. “What should society do in order to be just?” is not the same as Sen’s preferred question, “What should society do in order to be more just?” But I don’t see that one is practical and the other intellectual.

    Sen says he “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) This “clarification” about how to “proceed to address questions” would be an intellectual achievement, not a practical one in any significant sense.

    Sen is not a tactician, so we won’t be getting that kind of “how to” advice. He promises certain kinds of rankings (or, mainly, a theory saying we should seek rankings rather than a threshold? We’ll see.). The practical question of how best to move up the ranking once we know it (knowing is an intellectual achievement) is presumably beyond his purview.

    I think you’re right to discern a subtle suggestion in Sen that he is speaking for the “doers” as against the mere “thinkers.” But I don’t see how that suggestion can be sustained. Sen’s book is a piece of political philosophy, and political philosophy isn’t political practice, unless everything is. And if, in some sense, everything is, then this includes the transcendental approaches to political philosophy as well. And the intellectual/practical divide would come to nothing.

  2. I to am a bit concerned about the intellectual/practical distinction as Colin presents it, but for reasons different from those given by David above. Let’s assume that the terms “intellectual” and “practical” reasonably capture the distinction between transcendental institutionalism and realization-focused views. (I hope I’m right that that’s how Colin intended it.) It seems to me that transcendental institutionalism is concerned with issues of justification. (Colin’s example: would parties in the original position choose the two principles of justice over the principle of utility?) By contrast, it seems that realization-focused views bypass that question. Again, consider Colin’s example: 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? This question, it seems to me, presupposes that we’ve got an argument justifying a principle of justice that ensures that individuals have some level of capability to function. So, it seems like the two approaches are not alternative approaches to the same set of questions, but rather different approaches designed to address different sets of questions.

  3. I’m also sceptical of the distinction between “transcendental institutionalism” and “realization-focused comparison.” The introduction begins with a description of two situations in which different considerations point in the same direction (Burke vs. Hastings, and the invasion of Iraq). In such situations, we need not decide which considerations are valid and what their relative importance is in order to get conclusions about what is to be done. In many other circumstances, however, we are pulled by different considerations in different directions – witness the example of the three children and the flute, where we see a conflict between different precepts of justice: distribution according to happiness, need and work. Such conflicts give rise to uncertainty and disagreement, and hence to political philosophy, as the attempt to think systematically about how to rank competing priorities. The fact that the original position does not identify unique principles is an argument against using that device as a way of ranking competing precepts, but it is not an argument against trying to find such a ranking, or trying to reduce the extent of reasoned disagreement on such a ranking, if the problems we face today do at times pit competing precepts against one another.

    Looking for first principles of institutional assessment is not the same thing as trying to design the actual institutions of a just society. What institutions are most just will depend to a significant extent on historical circumstances, and there will likely be more than one set of maximally just institutions, if there are ‘interaction effects’ between different institutional sectors (education, health, income, etc.). But we can still ask what are the first principles that ought to guide us in addressing the policy questions we face today.

    The kernel of truth in the charge that Rawls was trying to design the institutions of a perfectly just society is that he assumed general compliance with the rules of institutions known to be just. Yet this methodological focus was driven by a realistic assumption about human motivation; even at their best, human beings will not comply with the demands of justice (at least not the demands of distributive justice, understood to involve some idea of fair sharing), if they do not expect most others to do likewise. People don’t want to cheat or exploit, mostly (or wouldn’t, under good conditions), but they don’t want to be suckers either. As Rousseau pointed out, justice has to be reciprocal. This element of “ideal theory” in Rawls is driven by his goal of identifying principles of justice that are not only intuitively compelling but feasible, as the basis for a functioning social order.

    Obviously, I can’t wait to get to chapter 2!

  4. Thanks for the great introduction, Colin! I’m happy to see the reading group starting up.

    A quick thought in response to David. Sen argues that theories of ‘perfect justice’ are neither necessary nor sufficient to guide judgments of comparative justice (15). I think he also believes, though I don’t think he says it, that they are not all that *helpful* in guiding such a choice. But if all our practical decisions about justice are comparative, and if theories of perfect justice aren’t any use in addressing such practical questions, then it would seem to follow that theories of perfect justice are merely intellectual, in a way that comparative theories aren’t. You’re right to note that Sen’s theory is, of course, a theory about what we should think. But if Sen’s right, then his theory is also a theory that will give us useful guidance in what to do. And this is a feature that theories of perfect justice are supposed to lack.

  5. David,

    On p. 17 Sen describes the two different set of questions which transcendental and comparativists consider. The former are described as addressing “a question that may be of considerable intellectual interest, but which is of no direct relevance to the problem of choice that has to be faced.” And I suppose his example of the Picasso and Dali paintings are meant to illustrate this. Invoking the reasons for favoring the Mona Lisa don’t help us decide the practical issue of choosing between the two options on the table. Pondering why the Mona Lisa is the “ideal picture” is (perhaps we should say *purely*) intellectual interest. But deciding which picture to take home, the Picasso or Dali, is a practical concern (the answer to which will involve the exercise of one’s intellect, but one’s intellect is at the service of justice (rather than vice versa).

    You note:
    “What should society do in order to be just?” is not the same as Sen’s preferred question, “What should society do in order to be more just?” But I don’t see that one is practical and the other intellectual.

    Perhaps the following comment from Sen (p. 5) speaks to this:
    “The requirements of a theory of justice including bringing reason into play in the diagnosis of justice and injustice. Over hundreds of years, writers on justice in different parts of the world have attempted to provide the intellectual basis for moving from a general sense of injustice to particular reasoned diagnoses of injustice, and from there to the analyses of ways of advancing justice”.

    This comments suggests he would agree that developing a theory of justice is (as you noted) an intellectual project, but it is an intellectual project that aspires, and is shaped by, the practical imperative of diagnosing, and ultimately, redressing injustice. Whereas a theory of justice that is shaped by the kind of (pure) intellectual interest that underpins the project of determining if the Mona Lisa is in fact the “ideal picture” is an intellectual exercise that is not crafted to help us decide on which painting we should actually choose.

    But I agree it is difficult to discern how tenable this distinction is in the abstract. I think it is more plausible when one compares specific philosophers (which is why I think the contrast with luck egalitarianism is a useful one to note). But we’ll have to see how Sen himself fills this in with more detail when he considers some specific TI theories in the chapters to come.


  6. David Wiens says:

    Although I think there’s a distinction to be made in the transcendental vs. comparative neighbourhood, it seems to me that “arrangement-focus” vs. “realization-focus” is a misleading way to unpack this. Sen clearly means the comparative framework to be opposed to the transcendental institutionalist framework. But focusing on the realization of more just social states of affairs is not at all opposed to focusing on institutional arrangements. Indeed, given the causal importance of institutions — institutions figure prominently in many of the leading theories of political and economic development, for example — a theory focused on realization can’t help but focus on institutional arrangements; at least, it can’t help but do so if it aspires to deliver effective prescriptions. (I realize that Sen, in a footnote, says something to the effect of an arrangement-focus need not be opposed to a realization-focus, but this qualification seems not to inform the main text. Sorry I can’t be more precise here; I don’t have my book with me and I can’t remember the page number or the precise language of the footnote.)

    I think the important distinction between the two frameworks is one that Sen seems to leave underdeveloped. (The following distinction is gestured at by Colin and drawn a little more explicitly by Matt.) In particular, the important issue is whether we need to do ideal theory before we consider how to proceed under actual (nonideal) conditions. On the one hand, transcendental institutionalism presupposes that we must identify the principles of justice that regulate the ideally just society first and that these, in turn, guide our thinking about how to proceed under nonideal conditions. On the other hand, the comparative framework dispenses with ideal theory altogether and draws on comparative judgements of real world cases to determine how to proceed under nonideal conditions. (Cf. Sen’s comments on ideal theory being neither necessary nor sufficient for thinking about how to realize more just states of affairs.)

    My sympathies lie with the latter approach. It’s hard for me to see how, as Andrew put it above, ideal theory is capable of identifying “first principles that ought to guide us in addressing the policy questions we face today”. Rawls’s full compliance assumption, to which Andrew referred above, is a case in point in my view. It’s true that people generally defect if they expect widespread defection; people generally avoid the sucker’s payoff. This is precisely why assuming full compliance could never yield feasible principles, no matter how intuitively compelling they are. Full compliance is highly unlikely. Thus, principles that require full compliance to sustain their appeal and depend on it to be effectively just are unlikely to be so given actual conditions that are far from full compliance. Moreover, if we think that Lipsey and Lancaster’s comments regarding the “theory of the second best” are apt, we shouldn’t have much confidence that the principles yielded by ideal theory would be effectively just given slight deviations from the theory’s assumptions. Quite simply, we have little reason to think that the principles delivered by a model that looks very little like the actual world can give much guidance regarding what to do in the actual world.

    Given where my sympathies lie, I’m excited to see the case Sen presents for an alternative to the transcendental, “ideal theory first” approach.

  7. Cynthia,

    My sense is that both TI and comparativists are concerned with issues of justification, but what they are trying to justify (and what they take to constitute a defensible justification) is different.

    For TIs concerned with perfect justice it seems that a significant part of the justification for their project relies on intellectual interests that are analogous to appraisals of the Mona Lisa painting. Whereas for the comparativist, the primary concern is the practical interest of diagnosing and mitigating injustice.

    While I haven’t yet read beyond the Introduction, I suspect Sen believes that justification does explicitly come in to play for the comparativist. They want, for example, to justify why would should prefer certain courses of action over others. So the comparativist still needs to provide a justification for their conclusions. But judging from Sen’s comments on the feasibility of TI (p. 9), I suspect he is not interested in developing a justification for the ideal.

    So perhaps it might be useful to imagine *who* we envision a theory of justice being justified to. For the TI the audience is primarily like-minded philosophers that share an intellectual interest in figuring out what constitutes perfect justice. For the comparativist the audience is humanity, especially those currently suffering injustice. The example of the invasion of Iraq is perhaps an instructive one. We could concern ourselves with asking the question “What is the best justification for not invading Iraq?”. The problem with this line of inquiry is that it presumes that there must be one dominant reason for not invading (and we are going to exert most of our energies into the goal of trying to find that one dominant reason). But when there are in fact many distinct reasons for not invading our attention and energies can be focused elsewhere (as these many reasons converge on the conclusion that the invasion is a bad idea).

    And Sen believes justice is like this. As he states on p. 4- “Arbitrary reduction of multiple and potentially conflicting principles to one solitary survivor, guillotining all other evaluative criteria, is not, in fact, a prerequisite for getting useful and robust conclusions of *what should be done*”. Hence why I think his project is really about “what should be done” rather than “what should we think” (though the former really does entail a prescription about the latter; namely, don’t get distracted with concerns of perfect justice!).


  8. Matt Lister says:

    Colin- do you think the Mona Lisa example is really apt? I found it not close enough to what Rawls and other are doing to be very useful, and to signal a sort of misunderstand that reoccurs throughout the book. Rawls, of course (nor Cohen) give us a picture of an “ideal society” but rather rules for thinking about institutions. There are people who tried to give us pictures of an ideal society- utopian writers and the like. (Cohen might be doing something a bit like this in his “Why Not Socialism” book, but not just that). But that’s not at all what Rawls is doing.

    But the example Sen uses suggests that we have a finished model that we compare our current society to, and that’s just not at all what we get in Rawls. A better example would be if we were trying to decide between two pictures and someone presented their “principles of aesthetics” to use as a guide. Now, I think that aesthetic judgment is enough unlike questions of justice that such principles would be much less likely to help in the case of judging between painting (though they might well be useful in some cases). But that wouldn’t tell us at all if such principles were useful in deciding questions of justice. So the example Sen gives doesn’t really fit and, I think, is both misleading and signals a pretty serious confusion that runs through the whole book.

  9. If we are adopting principles in view of the expected effects of their regulating our behaviour, then we will want to know what level of compliance to expect. As I understand it, the theory of the second best as applied to this situation says that the principle that is best at one level of compliance need not be best and may even be worst at a lower level of compliance.

    If we are simply recognizing principles that formulate our fundamental convictions, the question is whether what is the right thing do depends on the extent to which other people are doing the right thing. In some cases, it won’t; my duty not to torture you is presumably not conditional on your being committed not to torturing me. (Even if the potential of moral disaster can justify torture, I can’t torture someone I know to be a torturer for a minor social benefit). In other cases, this conditionality may hold; my duty to share fairly with you may depend upon you being willing to share fairly with me.

    Apart from these issues surrounding strict compliance, I remain puzzled at the invocation to the overdetermined Iraq-war type cases as a critique of transcendental institutionalism. It may be that severe poverty is an overdetermined case, where we don’t need to answer questions of relative priorities amongst principles in order to decide what to do: the duty to aid, the duty to repair harm done in the past, the duty not to harm today – all these may point in the direction of alleviating severe poverty, even before we get to the question of whether there should be something like a global difference principle. In many other situations, however, different considerations point in different directions, forcing us to ask what comes first and what comes second. If we give reasons for our rankings in such cases, they will have some generality, and not simply be a matter of local, intuitive judgment.

  10. Peter Stone says:

    Isn’t there a real danger here of muddling together institutions and principles? Rawls, for example, offers a set of principles of justice (justice as fairness) plus a set of institutional recommendations to achieve those principles under ideal conditions. That’s the purpose of his 4-stage process of moving out from behind the veil of ignorance. It’s very plausible to me, for reasons related to the problem of the “second best” (mentioned earlier in this discussion), that the second-best institutions might be very different from the institutions appropriate for ideal conditions. But why should we believe that the second-best principles will be radically unlike justice as fairness? Indeed, if we think justice as fairness is right, shouldn’t we just ask how we can do the best we can at realizing it–i.e., try to get equal basic liberty, as well as fair equality of opportunity, then maximize in accordance to the difference principle? Why should that recommendation change if we are in nonideal conditions? Of course, that makes justice as fairness out to be a comparative theory, which is what Sen denies. But I don’t see why one cannot use Rawls for precisely the purposes that Sen articulates–trying to figure out how to relieve injustice in the here and now.

  11. I don’t find Sen’s appeal to the niti/nyaya distinction to be a compelling demonstration of the difference between ‘arrangement-focused’ and ‘realization-focused’ views of justice. While ‘nyaya’ can be used to mean ‘justice’ in contemporary Hindi (and therefore likely Sen’s native Bengali), I’m skeptical that it is used the way Sen proposes in classical Sanskrit (if it ever means ‘justice’ there, it’s within a legal context, referring to a court ruling). ‘Niti’ is more in line with ‘prudence,’ which doesn’t fit at all with Sen’s characterization of it as being rigidly deontic.

    On a related matter, it would be better to translate ‘matsyanyaya’ as ‘law of the fish’ rather than ‘justice of the fish,’ as it’s understood to be a law of nature which obtains when a) there is no sovereign, or b) the sovereign fails to uphold the law. The very problem with such a condition is that there is a lack of justice, but it’s accepted as a natural feature of situations where justice cannot obtain, such as that between a bigger fish and a smaller one.

  12. Alex Sager says:

    I find it difficult to pin down exactly what general approach to political philosophy Sen is opposing. I’m sympathetic to many of the things he says in the book, but am unclear to what extent Sen is putting forward a new approach to justice within the existing framework or whether he is attempting a paradigm shift.

    Rawls is the principal target, but the danger is that many of Sen’s criticisms may only affect Rawls and those who follow a Rawlsian approach. Sen’s reference to transcendental theory is somewhat confusing. One question I have is its relationship to “ideal theory”. Are the two synonymous or are there types of ideal theory that are not transcendental (this would seem to be the case)? Does providing principles of justice for a particular institution such as the health care system or the family count as a transcendental theory for Sen? What about arguing for particular principles of justice that we think people should aspire to (e.g., reducing inequalities based on brute luck)?

    Later in the book (apologies for jumping ahead), Sen writes, “A theory of justice must have something to say about the choices that are actually on offer, and not just keep us engrossed in an imagined and implausible world of unbeatable magnificence.” (Sen 2009, p. 106) The difficulty here is that most political philosophers (rightly or wrongly), would claim that they are offering something of relevance to the choices on offer. (This something might simply be that none of the choices on offer are particularly just given the ideal put forward.)

    At least part of the answer must rest in Sen’s positive contribution. Here he uses a variety of tools for normative evaluation. The most important sources seem to be (in no particular order): 1) social choice theory; 2) Adam Smith’s impartial spectator; 3) Rawlsian public reason; 4) his own capabilities approach.

    Social choice theory involves ranking alternatives and fits in nicely with Sen’s comparative approach. But it is also used to clarify and criticize principles of justice (e.g., Sen’s liberal paradox). The impartial spectator may be used to rank alternatives, but it can also be used for insight into the principles of justice we ought to adopt. Something similar can be said for public reason. Finally, the capabilities approach in some hands (e.g., Nussbaum) provides a fairly specific response to the equality of what question. Sen himself, as far as I can tell, refuses to provide a definitive list of capabilities in his work.

    I suspect this reluctance is significant. One possibility that has occurred to me is that Sen rejects political philosophy/theory as having special authority for questions of justice. Perhaps Sen is calling for an approach to justice that is more modest in its aspirations and more open to the democratic contributions of citizens. The plurality of just societies (e.g., the flute example) gives democracy more weight and the need for comparative judgments requires help from areas outside of political philosophy. Political philosophy contributes to discussion about justice, but rather than functioning as a template, it offers tools for clarifying and justifying choices among alternatives.

  13. Matt,

    You ask: “do you think the Mona Lisa example is really apt?”

    I’m still of mixed minds on this. I was hoping for Sen to elaborate on it in more detail than the one paragraph he has in the middle of p. 16. So I hope he has a lot more to say about this example. As I noted above, I think the challenge will be making a general characterization that plausibly fits all the alternative theories of justice he wants to characterize as projects of perfect justice. Hence why Rawlsians will raise the kinds of concerns already expressed here.

    My own preference is to characterize this debate as one that occurs on a spectrum of “fact-sensitivity” (rather than being between TIs and comparativists). Rather than invoking the Mona Lisa example, I wonder if the following example helps (though I don’t want things to stray away from Sen, so I just note this example in passing rather than put it forth as something for us to debate here):

    Imagine you are asked to contemplate what would constitute a fair distribution of an abundant stock of resources between ten people who live on a deserted island. These ten individuals are equal in talents and abilities, and the stock of goods on this island is such that none of the basic needs of these ten individuals will go unfilled if they exert some minimal effort to satisfy those needs. So you begin to deliberate about what justice requires in this kind of scenario….

    Your deliberations might lead you to particular distributive principles (e.g. equality, desert, liberty, democracy) that you feel are appropriate in this kind of scenario. Maybe you believe the resources should be divided equally. Or perhaps you take the view that, given the people in this scenario are all equal in talents and abilities and there is an abundance of resources for them to use, a principle of desert is appropriate. Or you might argue that a principle of liberty would be just- “From each as they choose, to each as they are chosen” (Nozick, 1974, 160). Alternatively, you might feel that a democratic decision is appropriate; that the people on the island themselves should determine how their resources should be distributed. Whatever answer you arrive at in terms of what you believe a fair distribution requires in this scenario, the details of this imaginary example play an enormous role in shaping and guiding your deliberations.

    Consider now a second, more challenging, thought experiment. You are asked to consider what would constitute a fair distribution of resources on a second island; but this second island has a number of complexities that are absent in the first example. This second island does not consist of ten people, but rather millions of people. This Island is an “open” society, some Islanders permanently leave the Island and new people are always arriving. The economy of this Island is diverse and the prosperity of the Islanders is greatly influenced by their trade with others Islands. The people who inhabit the Island are very unequal in terms of their abilities and talents. Some people are healthy adults, others are young children, some are elderly grandparents, others have disease or a disability, etc. Furthermore, the island’s resources are not so abundant that each person can just take what they want to satisfy their basic needs. This island is subject to periodic droughts, periodic attacks (or threats of attack) from hostile invaders, crime, etc. So some rationing of resources is required to sustain the population over time and to protect the islanders. Some of these scarce resources must be diverted to the effort to protect the island (e.g. to feed a strong army, build a fortress, etc.) or saved for consumption during the drought season. Fundamental disagreement also permeates the island. People disagree not only about collective goals (e.g. Should certain provisions be rationed but not others? Should the army be conscripted or voluntary?) and individual aims (e.g. What is the good life? What values should we instill in our children?), but about the means by which such aims could best be achieved. So you begin to deliberate about what justice requires in this kind of scenario.

    Between these two Island examples are many intermediate positions. An island example that presumes society is closed and consists of only healthy, productive members but yet acknowledges facts such as limited altruism and moderate scarcity. Etc. And we now have to decide which of these examples we are going to invest our energies in in terms of deliberating about in the hopes of developing a theory of justice.

    I assume those partial to Sen’s approach will opt for examples that resemble the world as it actually is. Whereas those mostly concerned with perfect justice will tend to view factors like non-compliance, globalization, national debt, disease, disagreement, etc. as distractions from (if not violations of) perfect justice.

    I was intrigued by Alex’s final comment that perhaps “Sen rejects political philosophy/theory as having special authority for questions of justice. Perhaps Sen is calling for an approach to justice that is more modest in its aspirations and more open to the democratic contributions of citizens”. Those are sentiments I actually share. So I am curious to see if Sen ends up taking such a view.


  14. Thanks for your great commentary Colin, and for volunteering to start things off. Thanks as well to everyone participating in the group.

    I’d like to note two general concerns that I have with what Sen says in this chapter, as I think that they are concerns that will persist throughout the entire book (although I’m only about one-third finished myself).

    1. My first concern has to do with Sen’s claim that the ‘transcendental institutionalism’ approach to thinking about justice and the ‘realization-focused comparison’ approach are somehow two wholly distinct approaches to thinking about justice (“The distance between the two approaches … is quite momentous,” p. 7). While I think that different kinds of questions might be asked about justice (as per Cynthia Stark’s comment), I find it difficult to think of any political philosopher who was – or is – purely a ‘transcendental institutionalist’ or a ‘realization-focused comparativist.’

    Consider Sen’s breakdown of the great Enlightenment political philosophers into these two teams, with the social contract folks in the ‘TI’ team and the utilitarians (and the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, and Marx, et al.) in the ‘RFC’ team. I think that this breakdown simply does not hold up to scrutiny.

    For instance, as far as I can tell, utilitarians like Bentham and Mill were engaged in broadly the same project as Rawls (although their conclusions, obviously, were quite different). They were trying to identify a principle of justice (in this case, the principle of utility – leaving aside certain complications with Mill’s views) that should guide our thinking about how to organize our social institutions. Mill argued that the principle of utility, in turn, justifies the ‘harm principle’ as a criterion for legitimate coercive law. What exactly makes the utilitarian approach ‘comparative’ but Rawls’s not?

    With respect to Rawls, it seems that he engages in ‘comparative evaluation’ when it comes to alternative political systems. Part IV of Justice as Fairness, for instance, involves a comparison of five different kinds of social systems (laissez-faire capitalism, welfare-state capitalism, state socialism, property-owning democracy, and liberal democratic socialism). Granted, Rawls’s discussion is conducted at a relatively high level of abstraction, but it is a comparative evaluation, and one that seems (to me at least) to refer quite clearly to societies in the ‘actual world.’

    Or how is Marx a purely ‘comparative’ thinker? How are we to understand statements like: “Let us finally imagine, for a change, an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common”? It seems that Marx has quite a few things to say about what a ‘perfectly just’ (or, perhaps more accurately, a society that has ‘transcended/surpassed’ justice) would look like.

    I could go on, but I hope that my general point is clear, namely, that I find Sen’s division of political philosophers into these two camps implausible. And I find this division implausible because I don’t think that he is identifying two wholly distinct ways of thinking about justice.

    2. My second concern is that I can’t help but suspect that Sen is constructing a ‘straw man’ in his description of the ‘transcendental institutionalism’ approach, and it’s focus on ‘perfect justice.’ His description of this approach does not really seem to match up with anything that any political philosopher (to my knowledge) in fact says.

    Consider Hobbes and Locke. Neither of these social contract philosophers, as far as I can tell, was trying to describe what a ‘perfectly just’ society looks like. Rather, Hobbes (roughly) was presenting an account of legitimate political authority, arguing that it is always rational for us to obey political authority, short of that political authority violating our ‘right of nature.’ And Locke (again, roughly) was also identifying conditions of legitimate political authority – respect for natural rights and consent – not describing what ‘perfect justice’ consisted in.

    With respect to Rawls, it simply is incorrect to claim that Rawls is trying to describe what a ‘perfectly just’ society looks like. Rather, as Matt Lister and Peter Stone have aptly pointed out in their comments above, Rawls is trying to identify principles of justice to guide our thinking about what institutions to adopt (or how to reform existing institutions), as well as an account of how those principles would be realized under certain ideal conditions (full compliance, closed society, etc.). Consequently, I don’t think that the “problem of the second best” is a problem for Rawls’s principles of justice any more than it is a problem for, say, the principle of utility.

    More generally, I do not think that Rawls (or anyone sympathetic to a similar approach to thinking about justice) would deny that sometimes – perhaps even most of the time – judgements about justice and injustice can be made without reference to ultimate principles (some notion of what ‘perfect justice’ looks like, etc.). That is, I can’t think of anyone who advocates what Sen calls the ‘TI’ approach, who also thinks that an account of ‘perfect justice’ is both necessary and sufficient for any judgement about justice. Consequently, I find what Sen says about the abolition of slavery in the U.S. at the bottom of page 21 and the top of page 22 utterly baffling. With respect to Rawls, for instance, the injustice of slavery is one of the starting points (considered convictions) for constructing a theory of justice. Rawls himself doesn’t think that we need to know what ‘justice as fairness’ is in order to condemn as unjust the practice of slavery; rather, ‘justice as fairness’ is built up from our conviction that slavery is unjust (along with other considered convictions).


  15. A number of people have already articulated my general reaction, so I won’t belabor the point by repeating things. Suffice to say that I agree with those above who have noted that Sen’s depiction of ‘transcendental institutionalism’ seems confused at best and misleading at worst. I also share Blain’s confusion about his grouping of those who fall within the TI approach. What about Hobbes implies a singular focus on a ‘perfectly just society’? I hope that Sen expands on this point later because I find it perplexing not only that he could make such an argument but even more that he seems to treat it as such an obvious point that it needs no proving.

    Indeed, Hobbes seems to provide an important lens through which this whole dichotomy can be troubled. Cynthia makes a variation on this point by arguing persuasively that the people Sen groups together under TI are primarily concerned with the idea of justification. I think a big part of the problem comes from the slippage that occurs between this idea of ‘perfection’ and the far broader notion of ‘idealist’ thinking. To me, the idealists are focused less on a perfect notion of justice and more on the ability to articulate a defensible idea of justice – one that is capable of self-justifying its existence. For Hobbes, that takes place in the will of the sovereign. For Locke it’s majoritarianism. And of course Kant is the definitive thinker in this respect – to the extent that he focuses very little on institutions per se precisely because he is so devoted to the prior question of how we can judge judgment.

    As a number of people have noted, this is why the Iraq example doesn’t ring true. It was a problem of competing concepts of the good. For each of us who would find any one of Sen’s arguments against the war persuasive there likely stood another who will sign onto a utilitarian argument about WMDs or a human rights argument about spreading democracy. The problem with Iraq was not a wide range of philosophers who could have decided to oppose the war if they could only settle on a reason – it was that the cacophony of objections were overwhelmed by the material force of (dare I say it) unreasonable arguments.

    On the question of the Mona Lisa example, I strongly agree with Matt Lister who criticizes the attempt to make an argument about justice using an example of aesthetics. That said, I think Sen does raise an interesting question that I look forward to talking over as we continue: is there any essential sense in which we can detach the idea of judgment from aesthetics? He seems to think so, and yet he also seems to disagree with the manner in which Rawls, for example, attempts to cross that divide.

    This is where I found Colin’s #7 a bit confusing. You re-affirm this idea that we don’t need to settle on one reason for opposing the war when many legitimate ones exist. But, how can we have any sense of what counts as legitimate? Intuition? Pure reason? A basic sense of what seems right? Or a recognition that a lot of people concur on a position? If we don’t know then why does any position seem more legitimate than another? Why, for example, couldn’t the commitment that ‘war is always good’ be a legitimate evaluative criteria?

    I don’t think Sen has given us his answer yet, but he’s dropped enough hints that make me wonder if the supposed distinction he’s drawing will end up being a lot less antagonistic than it might seem on first glance. For example, in the Preface he says that we can’t and shouldn’t abandon reason. Instead he seems to think we should cultivate a reflexive reason which will posit truths but remain willing and open to the possibility that its depiction of unreason might be wrong or at least incomplete (xviii). He also quickly notes the Rawlsian move toward an idea of reflective equilibrium is another way of characterizing this self-subjection of values (8).

    Which makes me wonder where the disagreement really lies? If Sen also believes that we must enter into politics with clear commitments about basic issues of justice and injustice – but then be willing to subject those assumptions to the scrutiny of public reason – I find it hard to support the theoretical division between this book and the people he labels transcendental-institutionals. If Sen also wants us to use reason to check our intuition it seems like he will want to use the tools that the TI folks are offering.

    Sen even hints at this, suggesting that Rawls’ later work moves toward removing the transcendental component (something which Rawls himself states rather forcefully in the introduction to Political Liberalism), though he says that Rawls the man never made this leap even if his work might suggest it (12). I’m certainly curious to see Sen develop these ideas more in the upcoming chapters.

    So to me, rather than establishing some sort of clean theoretical distinction, it seems far easier to make a practical (back to that word again) argument about the way that people influenced by Rawls have failed to translate their theoretical insights on legitimacy into meaningful material change. So far, this book strikes me as a corrective to the sort of navel-gazing that High Theory is often subject to, not a claim that all such theoretical approaches are intrinsically impractical.

  16. David Wiens says:

    Thus far, a prominent charge against the TI/comparativist distinction has been that TI is just a straw man. (I think Sen is mistaken to associate a focus on realization exclusively with the comparativist framework; hence, I decline to use the RFC shorthand.) None of Sen’s putative TI theorists were ever interested in identifying perfectly just institutional arrangements. Instead, they were interested in identifying, as Blain put it, “principles of justice to guide our thinking about what institutions to adopt (or how to reform existing institutions)”. Thus, transcendental institutionalists and comparativists are not all that different, since both are interested in identifying principles to guide our thinking about which institutions to adopt.

    I think this line of thinking reflects a misunderstanding of what Sen is up to, but it’s a natural misunderstanding because Sen is insufficiently clear on this score. The above line of thinking tries to hang the distinction between TI and comparativists on a difference of objectives — identifying perfectly just institutions vs. identifying feasible improvements in social conditions (or something like that). But, in line with my earlier comments, I think the real distinction hangs on a difference of means for achieving the same objective, viz., identifying principles to guide our thinking about which institutional arrangements to adopt in our (nonideal) world. (I think Sen’s criticisms of TI provide support for reading the distinction this way, but not clearly so.)

    Comparativists go about identifying principles of justice by examining and reflecting on our comparative judgements of actual or feasibly possible social conditions. We identify our principles by seeing what works in practice, by examining which principles bring about which social outcomes under which sets of conditions. TI (at least of the Rawlsian sort) goes about identifying the principles of justice by examining the institutional arrangements that would be taken to be just under certain ideal conditions. We are then encouraged to take those principles that would regulate these institutions as offering guidance for our thinking about which institutional arrangements to adopt under nonideal conditions.

    Given this, I think it’s a straightforward matter to see why “problem of second best” type worries apply to principles derived using the TI method and not those derived by comparativists. The problem of second best claims that principles identified as best in a model that assumes ideal conditions may not be best in a model that assumes conditions that deviate even slightly from the ideal. TI uses a model that assumes certain ideal conditions to derive principles of justice. The objection (which I take to be implicit in some of Sen’s comments) is that we have no good reason to think that principles identified in this way can provide any guidance for our thinking about which institutional arrangements to adopt under conditions that deviate from the assumptions of the model. The principles derived by comparativists avoid this charge because they aren’t derived from a model that assumes ideal conditions. Instead, they’re derived by examining the world as it is and making judgements about what works in that world and what doesn’t.

    To be clear, the charge here isn’t anything like the “ideal theory is normatively useless charge” that has been made in the literature recently. I think TI can be useful for, as Andrew put it above, “formulating our fundamental convictions”. Instead, the charge is that TI is unable to provide guidance for thinking about which institutional arrangements to adopt in our nonideal world. I think this is the charge Sen is leveling against TI, although he does a poor job of communicating this.

  17. David writes: “Comparativists go about identifying principles of justice by examining and reflecting on our comparative judgements of actual or feasibly possible social conditions.” Fair enough, but I find it difficult to see how a ‘purely comparativist’ approach can provide any (deep) justification for our comparative judgements (not that I’m attributing such an exclusive view to David). In her comment above, Cynthia notes that the ‘realization-focused’ approach bypasses questions of justification. Colin, in his reply, suggests that ‘comparativists’ are also concerned with justification. “They want … to justify why [we] would should prefer certain courses of action over others,” Colin writes, “So the comparativist still needs to provide a justification for their conclusions.” This does not really get to the heart of the matter, though, since explaining that course of action X is better (more just, alleviates injustice to a greater extent, etc.) than course of action Y presupposes a criterion or set of criteria already in place, i.e., an account of what justice is (or requires, etc.). This is the point made forcefully by Charles in his comment. I might judge X to be superior to Y on grounds of utility, but what if utilitarianism is the wrong account of justice? (And, as a consequence, in bringing about X I end up making society more unjust?) It will be interesting to see whether – and if so, how – Sen addresses the question of the justification or the bases for his comparisons later in the book. (A worry I have is that he may think that simply positing a Berlin-style ‘value pluralism’ evades the need for justification. Of course it doesn’t!)

    As for the general question of ‘ideal theory’ (assuming that this is what Sen has in mind when he refers to ‘transcendental institutionalism’), I think that it is generally misleading to characterize theories as either purely ‘ideal’ or ‘non-ideal’ in nature. I don’t think that Rawls’s theory, for instance, is ‘purely’ ideal in nature. Although he did not write on ‘non-ideal’ matters as much as many of us perhaps would have liked, Rawls seemed to think that his account of justice had some pretty straightforward implications for existing political societies. Indeed, the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on corporate spending reminded me of the following passage from Political Liberalism: “Public deliberation must be made possible, recognized as a basic feature of democracy, and set free from the curse of money. Otherwise politics is dominated by corporate and other organized interests who through large contributions to campaigns distort if not preclude public discussion and deliberation” (p. 449). More generally, I still don’t see why the ‘problem of second best’ is a decisive worry for people sympathetic to the Rawlsian approach, assuming that appropriate care is taken when attempting to employ Rawls’s principles when thinking about non-ideal circumstances (as Peter explained in his post), a difficulty with respect to which I believe Rawls was sensitive.

    Further on the topic of ideal theory, I broadly agree with Colin that it is more helpful to think of a ‘spectrum’ or ‘continuum’ of ‘idealization’ and/or ‘abstraction’ along which we can place different theories of, or approaches to, thinking about justice. Insofar as we are engaging in normative political theory, it seems that some degree of ‘ideal theory’ is going to be present in our thinking. The question is how much – and the answer to that question likely will depend on what our target or aim consists in.

    If we think that normative political theory should produce ‘proposals’ that are achievable now (in the short-term, for existing societies), as Sen seems to think (and Colin), then our theories are going to involve relatively few idealizations/abstractions from existing social conditions. On the other hand, if we think that an aim of normative political theory should be something like determining where societies like ours should be heading ‘over the long-run,’ then something like Rawls’s ideal theory might be called for, even if such an approach does not always yield proposals that are achievable now. And if we think that an aim of normative political theory is to determine what ideals or values are of ultimate importance, then perhaps something like Cohen’s approach is called for.

    Importantly, and against Sen, I don’t think that these approaches are mutually exclusive. Moreover, while I think that engaging exclusively in ‘Rawlsian’ ideal theory (or ‘Cohenian’ ideal theory) alone will not help us in addressing many of the policy and institutional issues that confront us now, I worry that adopting a purely ‘comparativist’ or ‘short-term’ (‘less ideal’) approach to justice will also be insufficient in many cases. That is, it may be that policies that are achievable now, and seem to address current injustices, in fact lead us further away from achieving overall justice as a society (or even a just world). In short, I don’t think that we need to pick one approach exclusively when thinking about justice; we need different approaches, of different levels of abstraction/idealization, in order to answer different questions. And, hopefully, the different approaches will all cohere with each other!

  18. Hi David,
    I do not really understand how your response above is meant to show that the critics of Sen here are missing the mark.

    You give two examples of how the “comparativists” identifies principles of justice: 1) “We identify our principles by seeing what works in practice,” and 2) “by examining which principles bring about which social outcomes under which sets of conditions.” But 1) simply narrows the set of realizable principles available (i.e. based on empirical assessment) and 2) only appears to be about describing the outcomes of adopting principles within the ‘set of the realizable.’ Those who are sceptical to what Sen is arguing seem to be making the point that you still need normative grounds on which to choose principles among the realizable set.

    You say,

    I think it’s a straightforward matter to see why “problem of second best” type worries apply to principles derived using the TI method and not those derived by comparativists.… The objection (which I take to be implicit in some of Sen’s comments) is that we have no good reason to think that principles identified in this way can provide any guidance for our thinking about which institutional arrangements to adopt under conditions that deviate from the assumptions of the model. The principles derived by comparativists avoid this charge because they aren’t derived from a model that assumes ideal conditions. Instead, they’re derived by examining the world as it is and making judgements about what works in that world and what doesn’t.

    However if all the comparativist is doing is making empirical judgements about what works and what does not and descriptive accounts about the empirical outcomes of adopting realizable principles then it seems that it is the copmarativist that has no basis on which to make second-best normative judgements and the ideal theorists that have at least some normative account that they can apply to the second-best ‘set of the realizable.’

  19. Looking over the discussion so far, I’ve been trying to get clear about what are the main questions we disagree about, in relation to Sen’s criticism of the transcendental or ‘perfect justice first’ approach. I agree with Blain that we need different approaches for answering different kinds of questions, but there still seem to be some significant disagreements, which I try to distinguish below. (What have I missed?)

    One issue (suggested by Colin’s #13) is whether we think about justice for simple, unrealistic cases first (e.g. single closed society) in the hope that solving these less complicated cases will make it easier to then go on the more general, real life case, or instead start with the complex, general case right away. Of course we don’t have to do only one or the other, but time spent on one is time not spent on the other, and the worry might be that we never do solve the simple case, so that unlike physics, say, political philosophy never makes it back from its simplified world to the real world.

    A second issue is how much we think the moral principles that apply to less ideal situations (e.g. less justice, less compliance) differ from principles that apply to more ideal situations, and whether we need to have figured out our principles for the more ideal situations before we determine how to act in less ideal situations (as per David’s #6 description).

    A third issue concerns the extent to which the effects of rules we adopt to regulate our behaviour vary depending on the extent of compliance with these rules. David’s defense of the second-best objection at #16 is relevant here, though I’m wondering if Peter from #10 will respond, based on the distinction between rules and principles [but perhaps Aaron has just done so at #18?]

    A fourth issue is to what extent we allow feasibility considerations to determine what we take to be valid principles of justice. We have been discussing the fact that the effects of institutional rules depend on the level of compliance we can expect, but the level of compliance will also be affected by the nature of the institutions people grew up under. Rawls thought that people growing up under institutions animated by his two principles were more likely to develop a supporting sense of justice than people growing up under institutions governed by the principle of utility. And he argued that other things equal, the stability that such support engenders spoke in favour of his principles. Yet others will claim that it is not helpful to think of feasibility in terms of the relative stability of societies with shared public principles of justice, given that we will never all agree on principles of justice, and that in any case, we should not confuse the question of what is truly just with the question of what is the feasible set to choose from at the present moment.

  20. Derek Bowman says:

    Hi, all. Sorry to be coming so late with such a long comment. No doubt there will be occasion to revisit many of these points in discussing future chapters.

    1. Sen’s flute example cuts against his own ‘comparative’ approach too. What useful comparative judgments are there that Anne, Bob, and Carla can agree upon despite their reasoned disagreement?

    2. Hobbes is an especially problematic case for Sen. If there is a transcendental element in Hobbes, it is the anti-utopia of the state of nature. But even this yields determinate comparative judgments: Anything is better than the state of nature, so as long as the established order isn’t trying to kill you follow its rules and maintain that order at all costs.

    3. I agree that Sen’s division cannot be the ideal/non-ideal theory distinction, since there is no such single dichotomy. But I’ll go further and suggest that the complexity of Sen’s transcendental/comparative divide shows that methodological disputes about ‘ideal/non-ideal’ theory cannot even be represented by a single continuum. There is, at least, a comparative/non-comparative divide as well as a kind of perfection/concessive continuum.

    4. In addition, we can employ a complete/partial divide. Sen says the abolition of slavery is a comparative matter, since it doesn’t suffice for perfect justice. One could think of it this way. But most abolitionists, I suspect, would be better understood as saying instead: No matter what, slavery is unjust and so must be eliminated. This presents an absolute, non-comparative standard even though it doesn’t yet amount to picture of perfect justice. Indeed, Sen himself seems to implicitly appeal to such a non-comparative threshold in this sort of case, under the label “manifest injustice” (p. 21 and elsewhere).

    5. I disagree with Colin about the divide between Sen and G.A. Cohen. Terminological squabbling aside, both seem to agree that there are distinct projects, one more theoretical, the other more practical. They each prefer a different member of the pair but acknowledge that the other is worthwhile. Colin suggests a way of sharpening this difference by pointing out that we have limited time and intellectual resources, so we must prioritize. But how far does that go? Does it mean that, as philosophers, we ought to be political philosophers? Does it mean that, as citizens or moral agents, we ought to be political activists instead of theorists?

  21. Robert Jubb says:

    First, apologies for the lateness of this comment, and second, apologies for adding to what’s already a quite detailed discussion. One thing which doesn’t seem to have been picked up on yet is the way in which Sen seems to think that transcendental institutionalists are not just uninterested in improvements in justice in the here-and-now, but uninterested in how people actually behave. For example, he says on page 7 that “a radical contrast” between the two broad classes of theory he’s interested in is that the one he favours “concentrate[s] on the actual behaviour of people, rather than presuming compliance by all with ideal behaviour”. If this is meant to characterize Hobbes it seems to me clearly false, and is certainly debatable as a characterization of Rousseau and I think also Rawls. The arguments from finality and publicity in Rawls, for example, seem to suggest that one of the points against theories of justice other than his own is that they would be incapable of generating their own support, indicating an attention to the pathologies of living under injustice that Sen seems to deny him. Rousseau’s concerns in the Second Discourse are certainly of that sort, and he seems worried about the possibility that the society of Social Contract will not be able to sustain itself in a way that might relate to those concerns.

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