Monthly Archives: March 2010

Sen, ‘The Idea of Justice’ (Chapter 5, Impartiality and Objectivity)

In this chapter, Sen weaves together three different lines of thought: Wollstonecraft’s critique of Burke, impartiality as a minimalist basis for evaluative objectivity, and the role of convention in the relations among facts and values.

1. Sen identifies two features of objectivity. First, our evaluative language must give us the ability to communicate our beliefs to one another, and second, those beliefs must involve commitment to sufficiently overlapping standards to allow us to debate their correctness. But, as Wittgenstein learned from Gramsci and Sraffa, the common ground required for such communication and engagement is always dependent upon linguistic and social conventions.

Out of this intersection of objectivity and convention, Sen identifies a “dual task” for social reformers. They must communicate using language, imagery, and rules grounded in existing social practice and values. But within those confines, they must find the critical distance needed to advocate change.

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Sen, ‘The Idea of Justice’ (Chapter 4, Voice and Social Choice)

This chapter tells us more about Sen’s understanding of the ‘transcendental’/comparative distinction. I’m not going to cover all (or even most) of the points he raises in this chapter. Instead, I want to raise a question that builds on a few comments about justification from the discussion of the Introduction (e.g., Cynthia #2, Colin #5/7, Charles #15, David W. #16, Blain #17, Aaron #18). Here is my question: Is Sen’s theory of justice ‘political in the wrong way’? I’m going to suggest that (i) Sen seems to be saying ‘yes’, (ii) he ought to say ‘no’, and (iii) if he says ‘no’, the difference between his approach and ‘transcendental’ ones is greatly diminished (or perhaps removed).

What does Rawls mean by ‘political in the wrong way’? In Part V of the Restatement, he says that political liberalism seeks a kind of consensus that is different from ‘consensus politics’. The latter aims to identify a particular policy that can gain sufficient political support in a particular time and place, without seeking agreement concerning the justification of the policy (and allowing the balance of power between various groups to influence the decision). For example, one might hope to reach agreement on the ‘diagnosis’ that X is unjust, without first (or ever) identifying why X is unjust.

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CFP: Democracy and Legitimacy: Dealing with Extremism

CEU Budapest: 22-23 July 2010 | CFP: 30 April 2010

Please submit a 400 words abstract, suitable for blind review to molesA [at] or to MiklosiZ [at] before the 30 April 2010. The conference is fee of charge, but participants will need to provide for their own travel costs.

Twenty years after the fall of Communism we witness an important rise in support for right wing political parties across Europe. In the last European elections the vote shifted to the right dramatically. Worryingly, far right political parties have fared well recently in the UK, Bulgaria, Italy, Austria, the Netherlands and Hungary. All of these countries have representatives from far right wing parties in the European Parliament. Many analysts suggest that people are turning to the far right groups as a reaction to (what they perceive as) shortcomings in democratic regimes.

In the face of these developments several questions arise: what resources does democracy have to resist far right parties? And more generally how should liberal democracy respond to illiberal groups? In many cases, these groups challenge the limits of free speech, making necessary to reflect once again on to what extent and why even “hate speech” ought to be protected against legal restrictions. On a related note, some governments have reacted against some groups by restricting the scope of free association or by interfering with the entry policies of some groups. Are there any limits to private association?

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Symposium on David Estlund’s Democratic Authority

I am delighted to announce that the journal Representation has just published a symposium on David Estlund’s book, Democratic Authority. The symposium – which includes papers by Ben Saunders, Andrew Lister, myself, and a reply from David Estlund – grew out of the reading group that was initially hosted here at Public Reason in the early part of 2008.

I should also add, as an associate editor of Representation, that this symposium is part of a broader effort to encourage more political theorists and philosophers to publish in the journal. We are aiming to create a journal which publishes both empirical and theoretical work on representation and democracy, so if you work in these areas, please consider us as a venue.


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Sen’s ‘The Idea of Justice’ (Chapter 2, ‘Rawls and Beyond’)

As its title suggests, this chapter is a critical discussion of Rawls’s political philosophy.  However, the chapter is not Sen’s only critical treatment of Rawls’s ideas in the book: some criticisms noted in the ‘Introduction’ are not developed here but elsewhere, and some criticisms mentioned here are developed further later in the book.  Moreover, the chapter is not entirely critical: Sen begins by recounting his long friendship with Rawls, and about halfway through the chapter Sen identifies seven ‘positive lessons’ from Rawls’s political philosophy.  Nonetheless, the bulk of the chapter is critical of Rawls’s views.

The following three criticisms especially struck me as I was reading the chapter:

  1. Sen’s claim that if Rawls acknowledges that unanimity on a conception of justice cannot be achieved, then it follows that Rawls’s entire theory of justice is ‘devastated.’
  2. Sen’s claim that Rawls simply assumes that citizens will “spontaneously do what they agreed to do in the original position” (61).
  3. Sen’s worry that ‘parochial beliefs’ might adversely affect the selection of principles of justice by the parties within the original position.

I found all three criticisms unconvincing.


Sen restates his pluralism with respect to conceptions of justice: “There are genuinely plural, and sometimes conflicting, general concerns that bear on our understanding of justice” (56-7).  Consequently, he does not think that rational agents invariably will converge on a unique set of principles of justice within the original position.  Sen goes on to note that Rawls, in his later writings, acknowledges that alternative conceptions of justice might be selected by the parties in the original position.

(The picture is actually more complicated than Sen presents.  Not only does Rawls acknowledge that the original position device does not necessitate the selection of the two principles of justice as fairness, given the many different considerations to which the parties might appeal in their deliberations [JF, 133-4], he also claims that the original position device itself is only one way to satisfy the ‘criterion of reciprocity,’ and that other liberal theories might employ different justificatory strategies for arriving at principles of justice that satisfy the criterion of reciprocity [PL, xlviii-xlix].)

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Workshop on ‘Toleration and Respect’ – Manchester Metropolitan University

Workshops in Political Theory, Seventh Annual Conference
Manchester Metropolitan University, 1-3 September 2010


Emanuela Ceva (Institute for Advanced Study, University of Pavia)
Sune Laegaard (Roskilde University)
Federico Zuolo (Institute for Advanced Study, University of Pavia)

Discussions of the ideas of toleration and respect have animated vivid and ongoing debates in political and moral philosophy during the last decades. The formulations given to the idea of toleration have come to range from the negative appeal to non-interference to the positive recognition of difference. In a similar vein, the idea of respect has been object of some serious reformulation building on the works of neo-Kantians up to the most recent applications to issues of cultural diversity and religious liberty. However, the sophistication of the dicussions revolving around each of the two ideas has not been accompanied by a clarification of their reciprocal conceptual and normative relations, thus leading, in fact, to a blurring of the lines between them.

On this backdrop, the workshop will offer an occasion to engage in debates leading to a more systematic exploration of the intricate relations, conceptual and practical, between the two ideas. In particular, papers could address one (or more) of the following issues:

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