Sen’s ‘The Idea of Justice’ (Chapter 1, ‘Reason and Objectivity’)

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.

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4 Responses to Sen’s ‘The Idea of Justice’ (Chapter 1, ‘Reason and Objectivity’)

  1. Like Blain, I found that many of Sen’s depictions of Rawls seem slightly off. I was also struck funny by the ‘reasonable persons’ section though I could not have articulated my objection nearly as well as Blain.

    I do disagree, though, on the argument that Habermas and Rawls are essentially the same–which struck me as wrong. Like Blain, I’m not nearly comfortable enough with Habermas to feel comfortable adjudicating this matter. Still, from what I can tell of this short discussion, Sen seems to want to read Rawls as a purely procedural thinker whose belief in the process of public reason imports some universalized sense of the reasonable person (which is where he believes Habermas ends up). However, the far more feisty and conflictual picture of the overlapping consensus developed after Theory of Justice seems quite distinct from this. And similarly, I would imagine a Habermasian would take issue with this characterization. I look forward to the next chapter in the hopes that it may clarify some of this.

    One other issue that I found troubling in this chapter was the quite limited engagement it undertook with critics of Enlightenment. I have not read Jonathan Glover so I don’t know how fair it is to have him stand in for a wide range of Enlightenment critiques. I know that it’s all to easy to criticize someone for what they’ve failed to include but it is strange that if Sen sees it necessary to start out his book defending the Enlightenment that he spends so little time actually doing so.

    It seems to me that he thinks his knockdown argument in favor of reason is Akbar’s: that “even in disputing reason we would have to give reasons for that disputation” (39). But of course this presumes the desirability of disputation. What about the one who acts and refuses to give a reason? Such a person ‘contests reason’ by refusing to admit its existence or significance. This seems like a very real problem that needs to be engaged. The comparative political theory literature, in particular, is quite deep on this point.

    Similarly, I’m puzzled at his somewhat simplistic distinction between good and bad reason. He argues that the problems of reason are really just matters of the insufficient use of reason. In his view, “bad reasoning” is just evidence for the need to reason better (49). But what evidence does he present for this? Surely the critics of Enlightenment would not agree, or consider this a simple truism that needs no further defense. While I agree with Sen on this point, I wonder if this is a microcosm for what seems to be a larger objection about this book: the way that it simply steps over some very real and difficult questions of justification by treating them as so intuitively unproblematic that they may be passed over.

    I found this chapter strongest at the end, when Sen offered some examples of what he thinks this approach offers. In the discussion of famine, he calls on reason to help us to recognize the role that human agency can play in events that might seem arbitrary at first glance. This seems like a helpful way of talking about the relationship of reason and justice. Reason is the means by which we are capable of recognizing an event as entailing a sense of justice rather than pure chance.

  2. At the risk of preempting next week’s discussion, I want to add something about the idea that there could be multiple sets of (equally?) reasonable principles of justice, which Blain cites from p.45:

    “[T]he principles that survive such [informed scrutiny from different quarters] need not be a unique set… Indeed, any approach to justice, like Rawls’s, that proposes to follow up the choice of principles of justice by the rigidity of a unique institutional structure… and which proceeds to tell us, step by step, an as if history of the unfolding of justice, cannot easily accommodate the co-survival of competing principles that do not speak in one voice… I am arguing for the possibility that there may remain contrary positions that simultaenously survive and which cannot be subjected to some radical surgery that reduces them all into one tidy box of complete and well-fitted demands, which, in Rawls’s theory, take us to some unique institutional route to fulfill these requirements…”

    Set aside the claim that Rawls identified a unique institutional route to the fulfillment of his principles of justice; I don’t think Rawls did that, but if he did, I agree that it is implausible that there should be only one possible institutional realization of the principles of justice that is best for all social contexts e.g. levels of development. The interesting claim, as Blain points out, is that beyond this diversity of institutional realizations of a given set of principles, there could be multiple sets of principles that survive scrutiny. Construed in one sense this claim is highly plausible, and again I don’t think Rawls (or at least the later Rawls) denied it. Deliberation amongst reasonable people here and now will not lead to convergence of reasonable opinion on any one set of principles, at least not if the principles are specified in any detail, and at least not in the short to medium term. Construed in another sense, however, the claim is counter-intuitive, at least to me. Is Sen saying that there are multiple sets of principles that are in fact and truly equally well justified, despite having different implications for given empirical circumstances? Ought we then to be indifferent between these principles, and the different policy implications they have? I look forward to learning more about this lack of uniqueness as the book progresses (I am not managing to read much ahead).

  3. Derek Bowman says:


    My inclination was not to read too much into the remark about the value of reason on p. 40. For one thing, this chapter mainly seems designed to address a different kind of audience (which, I suspect, is why there has been less discussion this week) – skeptics of the use of reason. The Kantians are already on board, so he’s not trying to convince them here. Moreover, the key point he makes in this passage is one that – I think – most Kantians should be comfortable with: that even “the most rigorous of searches, in ethics or in any other discipline, could still fail.” (p. 40)

    Now that I’ve taken a second look at the rest of that section, however, things are a bit more puzzling. He uses analogies with science and with a stopped watch to illustrate that sometimes bad procedures will produce correct answers while good procedures can produce incorrect ones. His answer to this is:

    The case for reasoned scrutiny lies not in any sure-fire way of getting things exactly right (no such way may exist), but on being as objective as we reasonably can. What lies behind the case for relying on reasoning in making ethical judgments are, I would argue, also the demands of objectivity, and they call for a particular discipline of reasoning.” (p. 40)

    So if we’re going to be objective, we must use reason, but why ought we to be objective? I thought the answer was that it was the best way of making sure our judgments are right, but Sen seems to deliberately avoid saying that. Why does objectivity, understood in this Putnam-influenced way, matter? Does Sen address this (perhaps by way of his brief description of the role of objectivity in Rawls and Habermas)?

  4. Charles, while Habermas and Rawls differ on many things (Habermas’s view is a ‘comprehensive’ doctrine, whereas Rawls’s is not, etc.), I understood Sen to be saying that they both are committed to the same underlying account of objectivity, understood (roughly) as the ability of a claim to survive critical challenges to it from a diversity of quarters. If that is what Sen meant, then I think that it makes sense to regard Habermas and Rawls as essentially on the same page. (I have to confess, though, that I found his remarks on this matter to be somewhat vague.)

    Andrew, I agree that Sen may be overstating the case in favour or pluralism with respect to principles of justice. This is why I found his ‘flute example’ from the Introduction somewhat irritating. Surely it can’t be the case that utilitarianism, egalitarianism, and liberarianism are equally justified? I can acknowledge, for instance, that a rational and reasonable person might right now endorse libertarianism (‘some of my best friends are libertarians’), yet nonetheless think that it simply is not the correct view, or, at the very least, far less justified than, say, egalitarianism. And surely one role for political philosophy is to help us to evaluate the different arguments that people make in favour of different conceptions of justice? At the very least, political philosophy should be able to help us whittle down the range of viable options. And I think that this is Rawls’s own view – while unanimity on a single conception of justice is not on the cards, the range of reasonable conceptions of justice is somewhat restricted (they must include three features, namely, a list of basic rights and liberties, a ‘special priority’ for those rights and liberties, and the provision of necessary means for all citizens to make effective use of their basic rights and liberties). So while Rawls acknowledges that unanimity on a single conception of justice is not likely to be achieved, even in a ‘well-ordered society,’ it nonetheless is the case that he seems to think that philosophy has shown that certain views (e.g., libertarianism and classical utilitarianism) suffer from decisive flaws relative to any reasonable liberal view. I’m not sure why Sen would think that such arguments concerning the relative strength of different conceptions of justice are not worth taking seriously.

    Derek, I agree that this chapter is not really aimed at professional philosophers and political theorists. And I also share your puzzlement.

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