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.

This seems to be the main insight of the chapter, and I hope Sen goes on to say more about it in his discussion of public reason in Part IV. But perhaps others already have some thoughts on this – especially on its application to his own attempt to change the way political philosophy is done.

2. The case of Wollstonecraft provides a richer example of someone facing this dual task than Sen indicates. For example she exploited conventional gender norms to contrast her manly defense of liberty with Burke’s womanly servility to authority. While this may have been effective in humiliating Burke, it also involved accepting views about gender, reason, emotion, and dependence that were deeply problematic in their own right. In the editor’s introduction to these essays, Sylvana Tomaselli discusses the way in which such views lead Wollstonecraft to take a disdainful view of her fellow women.

3. While Wollstonecraft would no doubt endorse the argument Sen attributes to her, he mischaracterizes her exchange with Burke. Her main line of argument is a reductio of Burke’s appeal to the accumulated wisdom of tradition. Rather than relying upon an assumed agreement from Burke, Wollstonecraft asserts her liberty principle as a deliverance of reason: “The birthright of man… is such a degree of liberty, civil and religious, as is compatible with the liberty of every other individual with whom he is united in a social compact…” (p. 7)

This is important for two reasons. First, this principle serves as the backbone of an argument which is clearly concerned with the shape of actual societies and the lives of people in them. This is so despite Wollstonecraft’s acknowledgment that it is merely “a fair idea that has never yet received a form in the various governments that have been established on our globe.” (p. 7) Here we have a normative ideal that figures into reasoning about real politics, even though its realization is not currently on the menu of available options.

Second, Burke’s argument from the wisdom of tradition is just as ‘objective’ as Wollstonecraft’s liberty principle. Yet, as her argument shows, they are irreconcilable. What place will each of these concerns have in Sen’s social choice function? What are the important matters of comparative justice that Wollstonecraft and Burke can usefully agree upon here?

4. I remain puzzled about Sen’s motives for replacing truth with a more deflationary account of objectivity. The cited article by Vivian Walsh, “Sen After Putnam” may be the place to look for an explanation. Does this matter for understanding the substance of Sen’s account of justice (e.g. is it related to Chris’s worry that his view might be ‘political in the wrong way’)?

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

  1. You raise some interesting points on a very brief (and somewhat sketchy) chapter, Derek. My apologies for not replying earlier.


    Burke’s argument from the wisdom of tradition is just as ‘objective’ as Wollstonecraft’s liberty principle. Yet, as her argument shows, they are irreconcilable. What place will each of these concerns have in Sen’s social choice function?

    In cases of such conflicts, I think that Sen would recommend employing Smith’s device of the ‘impartial spectator’ in order to adjudicate amongst competing, incompatible claims concerning justice (i.e., perhaps the impartial spectator helps determine which interests, values, views, etc., are to be incorporated into “Sen’s social choice function”?).

    More generally, I think that the impartial spectator device might provide a means for Sen to resist the charge (which Chris leveled in his comment on Ch 4, and with which I agreed) that his view is ‘political in the wrong way’.

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