The main point of this chapter is to defend a conception of objectivity in our normative thinking about justice. Against critics of the ‘Enlightenment tradition,’ Sen defends the idea that we should understand reason as the “ultimate arbitrator of ethical beliefs.” This is not because “reasoned scrutiny” can provide us with “any sure-fire way of getting things exactly right,” but rather because ethical thinking requires us to be “as objective as we reasonably can,” and reason is our only reliable way of doing this (p. 39). This role for reason is compatible, Sen points out, with recognizing the dangers of ‘overselling reason,’ or in being overconfident in the conclusions of our own reasoning. Sen also makes the point that our emotions pose no threat to, and should not be understood as hostile towards, our capacity for reason, despite the fact that historically many Enlightenment thinkers may have ignored or downplayed the cognitive role of the emotions (here Sen mentions, unsurprisingly, Smith and Hume as important exceptions). Nonetheless, “the need for reasoned scrutiny of psychological attitudes does not disappear even after the power of emotions is recognized” (p. 50). These general claims all strike me as correct and not especially controversial.
Sen also sketches some of the main elements of his account of ‘ethical objectivity’ in this chapter. One element is Adam Smith’s device of the ‘impartial spectator.’ Another is Rawlsian public reason. Public reason provides a ‘public framework of thought’ by means of which arguments can be made in a transparent and mutually justifiable way. Despite the differences amongst the different accounts of ethical objectivity mentioned in this chapter, Sen notes that “there is an essential similarity in their respective approaches to objectivity to the extent that objectivity is linked…by each of them to the ability to survive challenges from informed scrutiny coming from diverse quarters.” Despite appropriating Rawlsian public reason to his account of ethical objectivity, though, Sen asserts that “the principles that survive such scrutiny need not be a unique set,” (p.45) and that this marks a significant difference between his position and Rawls’s. (I don’t think that this is a fair interpretation of Rawls’s position in his later writings, but will postpone this discussion until next week.)
One potentially controversial claim is Sen’s assertion that Rawls’s and Habermas’s respective approaches to public justification ultimately do not differ much. “If people are capable of being reasonable in taking note of other people’s points of view and in welcoming information,” Sen writes, “then the gap between the two approaches would tend to be not necessarily momentous” (p. 43). I think that Sen is correct here (at least I think I do – I found his discussion in this section at times to be somewhat opaque), but then I haven’t read Habermas in years. I’d be curious to know what anyone better informed of Habermas’s criticisms of Rawls thinks.
Sen makes another comment that some readers of a Kantian persuasion might find debateable. He states: “Since reasoned support can hardly be in itself a value-giving quality, we have to ask: why, precisely, is reasoned support so critical?” (Pp. 39-40.) I suspect that some Kantians (especially those influenced by Korsgaard’s interpretation of Kant’s theory of value) would disagree. (Although the comment by Sen is so brief, perhaps I am reading too much into it?)
I found Sen’s comment on Rawls’s idea of ‘reasonable persons’ on the bottom of page 43 somewhat puzzling. After noting his overall sympathy with the idea of Rawlsian public reason, he writes: “I will not make a big distinction between those whom Rawls categorizes as ‘reasonable persons’ and other human beings… I have tried to argue elsewhere that, by and large, all of us are capable of being reasonable” (p. 43). He then goes on to remark that his own view is instead similar to Rawls’s idea of ‘free and equal citizens,’ according to which all persons have ‘two moral powers’ (a capacity for a sense of justice, and a capacity to form, revise, and pursue a conception of the good).
Sen does not seem to appreciate that Rawls’s idea of ‘reasonable persons’ is a very specific one in political liberalism, and one related directly to the idea of citizens as ‘free and equal.’ The first feature of reasonable persons is that they acknowledge the ‘fact of reasonable pluralism’ (i.e., they manifest a “willingness to recognize the burdens of judgement and to accept their consequences for the use of public reason in directing the legitimate exercise of political power” [PL, p. 54]). The second feature of reasonable persons is that they hold the ‘criterion of reciprocity’ to be a prescriptive norm for the public political relations of citizens (“reasonable persons are ready to propose, or to acknowledge when proposed by others, the principles needed to specify what can be seen by all as fair terms of cooperation” [JaF, pp. 6-7]). Finally, reasonable persons honour these principles, even at some cost to their own interests. These features of reasonable persons correspond to citizens’ capacity for a sense of justice, just as the rationality of persons corresponds to citizens’ capacity for a conception of the good. So the idea of ‘free and equal citizens’ with ‘two moral powers’ is not wholly distinct from the idea of persons understood as ‘rational and reasonable’ in Rawlsian political liberalism. Moreover, I see nothing in Rawls’s conception of ‘reasonable persons’ that rules out the possibility that ‘all of us’ are capable of being ‘reasonable’ in the relevant sense.
This is obviously a relatively minor criticism. However, I think that Sen’s comments here are indicative of a problem that becomes more marked in the next chapter, namely, an apparent failure on the part of Sen to address adequately key features of Rawlsian political liberalism. This problem is well illustrated, I think, by the very label ‘transcendental institutionalism.’ I’ll have more to say about this next week.