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.
In contrast, Rawls’s view is political not because it bypasses the question of justification, but because it deals with that question in a political way. On (my interpretation of) Rawls, he holds that a theory of justice must be based on a moral analysis of the problem that the theory is meant to solve. In Rawls’s case, the problem he addresses is how to reconcile individual freedom with the social necessity of using a coercive overarching authority to impose a cooperative scheme that yields unequal benefits and burdens. This, plus further considerations, gives us a moral analysis of ‘the political relationship’, which then leads to a conception of society (as a system of fair social cooperation) that is supposed to allow us to respond to the identified problem. (The coercion and inequality inherent in the political relationship can be reconciled with our freedom provided that the terms of social cooperation are fair.) Finally, that idea of society allows us to ‘work up’ a set of ‘political’ values that are appropriate for justifying the use of state authority, which enables us to answer why X is unjust.
With that in mind, in order to object to Rawls, one can either (a) argue that his understanding of the fundamental problem of political philosophy and/or his resulting conception of justice is mistaken, or (b) argue it is a mistake to think that a theory of justice needs to be based on a moral analysis of the problem(s) to which the theory is meant to respond.
Now, I think there are several plausible ways of pursing (a)-type challenges to Rawls. For example, one might question whether being a ‘fully cooperating participant’ in a system of social cooperation is a necessary condition for membership in the corresponding ‘justificatory community’ (to use Cohen’s phrase). However, it seems to me that Sen is proposing to pursue a (b)-type challenge. He wants to ‘diagnose’ particular instances of injustice in a way that allows for ‘plural grounding’ on the basis of multiple, conflicting ‘evaluative criteria’. Let’s consider how social choice theory is supposed to enable that.
I think (and I should note that I am not a social choice expert) that his point (6) on page 109 is the most important for the above discussion. It seems to me that the distinctive power of social choice theory is entirely clarificatory. It can do three things:
(i) Given a fixed set of individual rankings and priorities (‘inputs’), and given a fixed set of axioms meant to capture formal rational and/or moral requirements, social choice theory can identify the extent of agreement on what should be done (‘social conclusions’). In so doing, social choice theory can discover previously unrecognized areas of agreement.
(ii) Given a fixed social conclusion and a fixed set of axioms, social choice theory can identify how much disagreement in terms of inputs is compatible with agreement on the specified social conclusion.
(iii) Given a fixed social conclusion and a fixed set of inputs, social choice theory can identify which sets of axioms are compatible with agreement on the specified social conclusion.
Now, Sen’s view seems to (to me) be this: IF we improve the quality of the inputs (through [a] promoting public reasoning to encourage people to scrutinize their own rankings and priorities, [b] using informationally rich inputs – such as capabilities, and [c] battling parochialism by incorporating ‘enlightenment’ perspectives), THEN we can do (i) above to show that people’s actual rankings and priorities are compatible with more agreement about what is an instance of injustice than we intuitively assume, WITHOUT needing to engage in futile debates about why something that we agree is unjust is unjust. That is what Sen seems to be suggesting, and it fits the description of Rawls’s phrase ‘political in the wrong way’.
From a practical perspective, if this is treated as a recommendation of how to actually bring about social change, and if we assume that it is empirically plausible as such, then I have no problem with it. Indeed, it would quite exciting if Sen brings about more public reasoning and popular discussion of justice on a global level and then combines that with analytical efforts to discover hidden areas of agreements, followed by political campaigning to act on the findings.
However, from a philosophical perspective, I don’t think the view I’m attributing to Sen would achieve the ‘bypassing’ that it apparently sets out to do. As a result, I think Sen’s theory, despite appearances so far, is not ‘political in the wrong way’. Further, I think his view is not non-‘transcendental’. Consider the following questions:
Whose inputs matter? (Why does justice require us to take everyone’s rankings and priorities into consideration? Who is ‘everyone’? What counts as an ‘enlightened’ perspective? Why?)
Which kinds of inputs matter? (E.g., Should we ignore ‘external preferences’? If so, why? Why are individual rankings and priorities that survive reasoned scrutiny better than ones that do not? Are they more morally defensible? If so, according to what moral values, ideals or principles? Why are those moral values, ideals and principle significant for justice?)
How should the inputs be weighted? (If more people agree on one ranking than another, should the two rankings be weighted equally or according to the number of supporters? Why?)
Should the axioms aim to capture only rationality, or also some moral demands, like reasonableness? Why/why not?
Questions like these must be answered in order to defend the general claim that the outcome of a social choice procedure has anything to do with justice, as well as the particular claim that a particular social choice procedure has incorporated the best interpretations of inputs (page 108). And I think that all of those questions force us to address questions that are ‘transcendental’ (according to the way Sen uses the term). The questions above force us to explain what the connection is between agreement, justification and political legitimacy. They force us to ask what it is about instances of injustices that make them unjust. But if social choice theory needs to ask those kinds of questions in order to defend its favoured justice-generating social choice procedure, then it isn’t different in kind from ‘transcendental’ approaches.
That being said, Sen’s approach may still be significantly different from Rawls’s approach for (a)-type reasons. What I hope is that Sen does explicitly address questions like those listed above (I haven’t finished the book yet).
Sorry for going long,