Monthly Archives: April 2010

Res Publica: postgraduate essay prize 2010

Postgraduate Essay Prize, 2010

Res Publica: A Journal of Moral, Legal and Social Philosophy

For the sixth year running, Res Publica (the journal of the Association for Legal and Social Philosophy) will be awarding a prize for the best paper submitted by a current postgraduate student in 2010.  This may be in any area falling within the journal’s aims and scope, described below.  Entries should conform to the normal requirements for submissions – please see the website address below for details.

All entries must be received by 1 October 2010, with the winner to be announced in January 2011.  The winner will receive £100 and a year’s subscription to the journal.  The winning essay will be published in Volume 17 (2011).


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Sen, ‘The Idea of Justice’ (Chapter 9, ‘Plurality of Impartial Reasons’)

This chapter continues in the vein of the preceding ones by using Rawls as a foil in order to lay out some general concepts that presumably will be developed in the second half of the book.  Accordingly, many of my concerns end up being somewhat duplicative with those raised in earlier comments: namely, that Sen has failed (so far) to really lay out a plan for thinking through justice in a rigorous fashion and that he has a strangely shallow reading of Rawls.Sen begins the chapter by referencing the arguments in chapter 8 about the possibility for rational reasons to take forms that different from the model of purely egoistic actors.  Given that there was no comment on that chapter people might like to take up those questions though I doubt many will find his claims there to be particularly controversial.

The goal of this chapter seems to be the need to reconcile the plurality of impartial reasons (the fact that two people might makes completely opposite choices, without either being irrational) with the need to desire to articulate some standard of objectivity.  In situations where multiple decisions may be rational, how may we still make judgments about what course of action is just? In Rawlsian terms, he is interested here in what it would be reasonable to ask of people, not just what they might rationally choose for themselves.  This is an important effort, and something that has been sorely missing from the book so far.  Unfortunately, I don’t think this chapter really takes us very far down that road.

I am skeptical for two reasons. First, I find the distinction between contractualism and contractarianism to be far less clear than he asserts.  To the extent that the two are dissimilar, I don’t see the value added by Scanlon’s approach that can’t be found elsewhere.  Second, even if we were to accept that significant differences exist between Rawls and Scanlon they seem to be more a matter of the sphere of emphasis.  Scanlon’s approach appears designed to produce judgments about what it would be just to morally ask of someone, while Rawls is more concerned with the question of how to build a politically viable and normatively acceptable basic structure.  Clearly, it is difficult if not impossible to fully detach moral and political philosophy but it would also be a mistake to treat them as synonymous.

On the first point, I find Sen’s characterization of the parties who have standing in the original position to be slightly off.  To me, this reflects a larger problem with the book, that Sen insists on treating the original position literally rather than accepting Rawls’ insistence that it should be understood only a device of representation.  If the original position is understood as a means of thinking through what sorts of exclusions or impositions we ought to be willing to allow, then I find it hard to distinguish this from contractualism.  Yes, it retains a commitment to “advantage-based reasoning” but it does so by insisting that justification must operate under the burden of ignorance about particular position.  To lump this in with other theories guided by a sense of rational advantage doesn’t seem all that helpful.  It is accurate, but not particularly illuminating.

At this point, I will admit to knowing very little about Scanlon’s work, so my statements here are based on Sen’s reading.  I’d welcome comments from those who are more familiar with contractualism, who might be able to elaborate on distinctions that are not clear to me in Sen’s text.  That said, Sen’s efforts to distinguish Scanlon’s approach promise more than they deliver.  To the extent that he does establish are differences, I find it difficult to see how they generate much purchase.

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Frankfurt conference on International Political Theory

German political theorists and IR-specialists are hosting a three-day-conference on International Political Theory in Frankfurt/Main from June 10-12, 2010. While most papers and the bulk of the discussion will be in German, there will be one English language panel on June 11, 4.30 – 8 p.m.:

4:30 – 5:30 Chris Brown, London School of Economics and Political Science: The Normative Foundations of a Post-Western World

5:30 – 6:30 Leif Wenar, King’s College, London: Clean Trade in Natural Resources

6:45 – 7:45 Terry Nardin, National University of Singapore: What is the ‘Political’ in International Political Theory?


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Sen Reading Group Schedule Note

Dear Public Reasoners,

As some of you may have noticed already, the comment for chapter 8 has not been posted yet.  I regret that I did not notice this myself until today (I have been preoccupied with some unexpected difficulties over the past month, which have made my visits to this blog rather sporadic).

In addition, the commentator for chapter 12 has had to withdraw from the group.  Please contact me if you are interested in stepping in and commenting on chapter 12 (which is scheduled to be posted on May 17).

My own view is that we should continue on schedule despite these developments.  Consequently, if possible, the comment on chapter 9 should be posted on Monday (April  26).  If the comment on chapter 8 is posted later, that should be fine.


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Sen, The Idea of Justice (Chapter 7, “Position, Relevance, and Illusion”)

In this chapter, which is the first of four in the “Forms of Reasoning” section, Sen develops what might be called, for lack of a better term, an ethical epistemology. That is, he aims for a middle way between the objectivity of what he calls “transcendental institutionalism” and which Nagel pilloried as requiring “the view from nowhere” and the subjectivism of normative judgment that (as Hume writes) “resides in the mind” and which is therefore thought to reduce to forms of cultural relativism about which philosophers can say little of interest. Of course, democratic theorists have likewise sought a third way through deliberation and intersubjectivity, but what Sen has in mind here is rather more abstract–it is a form of moral reasoning rather than a political procedure–and is related to the “open impartiality” discussed in ch. 6. Here, I shall attempt to unpack the role that positionality might play in developing a comparative rather than transcendental theory of justice.

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Political Essays

Here are two questions that strike me as worth thinking about.

Say you wanted to teach a liberal arts-style freshman seminar that introduced students to the idea of reflecting on politics and society, but you didn’t want to turn it into yet another Applied Ethics or Introduction to Political Philosophy class that crammed in all the essential philosophical problems and texts: Capital Punishment, the Duty to Obey the Law, Abortion, Euthanasia, etc., on the one hand, and Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Marx, Mill, etc., on the other. Instead, you’d much rather just use plain old essays — well-crafted, accessible, insightful, evocative, memorable essays — written by people who may or may not be academics or part of the academic tradition.

The kind of essay I’m thinking of would be one that didn’t so much need to be explained as experienced, that presents a viewpoint that seizes your imagination in some way, rather than an argument or conceptual apparatus that needs to be taken apart, dusted a little by a qualified technician, and then put back together in sound working order. These would be essays that have a force that can’t really be conveyed to someone who has not read them, and that become part of the background framework of your way of thinking about the political and social world and the stuff in it that matters. They would ideally be long enough to be a substantial read, worth assigning as a text, but not too long to be a task that requires the threat of academic sanctions to be completed. Above all, they must not be difficult to read or boring to think about. They should be the sort of thing people mean when they talk about the art of the essay.

Posted in Posts, Problems, Teaching | 13 Comments