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.

The chapter begins with some relatively uncontroversial claims: 1) that our perception depends upon our position; and 2) that perception in turn influences our “beliefs, understanding, and decisions” and constrains our practical reason. “Positional objectivity” involves the shared perception of some phenomenon when viewed from the same position, as when the sun and moon look similar in size when viewed from the earth, no matter who compares them.  The flip side of “positional dependence” is that the same person can view a single phenomenon from a variety of positions and make an equally wide variety of observations. So far, so good.

Following Nagel, Sen takes issue with the “classical conception of objectivity” as requiring “position independence,” or some sort of view that transcends positionality. Sen acknowledges that the classical conception has some merit in preventing the mistaken judgments that sometimes result from position-dependent observation, as in the conclusion that the moon and sun are in fact equally large. But he wants to advance an alternative understanding of objectivity in “person-invariant but position-relative observations and observability,” which are (contra Nagel and the classical conception) views “from a delineated somewhere.” Insofar as position affects perception, Sen’s claim remains on uncontroversial ground. But insofar as it influences normative judgment, it becomes more tendentious. In what follows, I shall try to flesh out and then critically examine the implications for ethics and justice theory that Sen seeks to draw from this analysis of positional objectivity.

Sen suggests that one could justify special obligations of parents for their children from some analysis of “the positional relevance of parenthood,” but this use of proximity is categorically different from the largely epistemic role that position played in his earlier discussion. Unless such special duties are grounded in some unique observations that parents are able to make regarding their own children, and which are necessary for delivering proper care, I don’t see how the insights gleaned prior to this discussion support parents taking “an asymmetric interest in the lives” of their own children, especially when (as Sen acknowledges) this partiality is sometimes inappropriate. To claim that the “positional closeness” of family members or fellow citizens yields some observations about them that may be unavailable from other positions is one thing, but to infer some justification of ethical parochialism is quite another. To be fair, Sen only says here that one’s position may be “relevant” to moral evaluation, deferring the heavy lifting to ch. 10, but the move from position-dependence in observation to its use in normative judgment is hard to follow. Role responsibility contains a positional element and is tenably used to justify special obligations toward one’s own children, but articulating an account of justice as responsibility does not seem to be Sen’s project here. Rather, he appears to be building a foundation and application for open impartiality, which his several examples illustrate.

Injustice, Sen claims, can be obscured behind positionally-dependent observation and understanding, creating the false beliefs of Marxian “objective illusion” that could potentially be dispelled and corrected through “transpositional scrutiny.” But what is “objective” about the false beliefs that reinforce the sorts of injustices that Sen describes? They are, he suggests, positionally objective in that any person in some position may view some state of affairs as similarly not unjust, but its injustice is revealed by viewing the same phenonemon from other positions. Open impartiality might therefore provide a sort of remedy to positionally-obscured injustice insofar as diagnoses of injustice are transpositional in the relevant sense, requiring the corroboration in judgment of some differently-situated Smithian disinterested spectator. Here, transpositionality is presumably distinct from the position independence of the classical conception, though it is not made clear in this chapter how it might be so.

His first example concerns the relationship between mortality rates and perceptions of morbidity in two Indian states. The relatively educated residents of Kerala have relatively low mortality rates but relatively high rates of self-assessed morbidity, while for the relatively uneducated residents of Bihar the opposite is true. Sen offers a sensible causal explanation for this: that the better-educated residents of Kerala are much more aware of potential health threats and have thus demanded more public health facilities to minimize them, while those in Bihar do not and have not. But what is the take-home lesson here? The health inequity between residents of these two states could plausibly be described as unjust, but that curiously does not appear to be Sen’s point. Neither does he seem to pursue the causal angle–that position-based perception of morbidity may affect objective health outcomes. Rather, he aptly suggests that low morbidity is an objective illusion that perpetuates injustice in health outcomes, and that there are implications for the presentation of comparative health statistics, but such conclusions are underwhelming. Any theory of justice should be able to come to these same conclusions.

His second example likewise concerns variation in rates of education among group members that consequently make positionally-dependent assessments of their own health that obscure what from outside appears to be a clear injustice. Here, women in India have higher mortality rates than do men, but have the same or lower rates of self-perceived morbidity. As above, I find Sen’s point to be difficult to ascertain. The injustice of sex or gender bias in health is a point that is easily made, as is the “women’s deprivation in education” that accounts for the disparity between mortality and morbidity. He notes that as women’s “positionally confined perception of good and bad health” has diminished in India, so also has the sex bias in mortality, but again this conclusion seems underwhelming from the perspective of developing an ethical epistemology. Of course we should rely upon position independent mortality rates rather than position dependent perceptions of morbidity in assessing the injustice of health outcomes, and of course the deprivations in education that makes members of some groups unaware of their further deprivations are unjust. Most would agree that we must improve “the informational basis of evaluations” when it comes to diagnoses of injustice, so what is Sen claiming here that theories of “transcendental institutionalism” could not also fully endorse?

Sen’s answer is a familiar one: he claims that we cannot move from positional views to position-independent ones because of epistemic constraints that prevent our making many sorts of observations from nowhere. He writes: “Our very understanding of the external world is so moored in our experiences and thinking that the possibility of going entirely beyond them may be rather limited.” Transcendental approaches seek an elusive and perhaps (though he doesn’t quite claim this) impossible position independence, while his favored “comparative” approaches remain “moored” in the positions that actual people occupy in the world. Similar points have been made before, often in critique of ethical universalism and/or on behalf of communitarian relativism, so what conceptual work does Sen intend it to do on behalf of his account of justice?

The chapter ends with a critique of ethical parochialism that draws on the “good Samaritan” story about (or so Sen claims) the relevance of neighborly obligations. As Sen notes, the conventional understanding of neighborhoods are physical and positional: my neighbors are those who reside near me (geographic proximity) and perhaps belong to the same groups and share in the same culture as I do (social proximity). In the story, the Samaritan finds himself in the position to help the wounded Israelite, and thus enters a “new ‘neighborhood'” whereby he is obliged to come to his aid. Presumably against those ethical cosmopolitans that seek to extend justice beyond national borders through an updating of the Humean circumstance of justice, Sen writes: “We are increasingly linked not only by our mutual economic, social, and political relations, but also by vaguely shared but far-reaching concerns about injustice and inhumanity that challenge our world, and the violence and terrorism that threaten it.”

As something of an ethical cosmopolitan myself, I found myself vaguely agreeing with Sen in his claim that “no theory of justice today can ignore the whole world expect our own country,” but I was left wondering how his account of justice is distinct from the transcendental institutionalism that he dismisses. If he means to say that our obligations to our metaphorical neighbors only arise once we come to their aid rather than on the basis of our capacity to do so–as he (perhaps mistakenly?) suggests is the lesson of the Samaritan story–then he merely begs the question of the origin and nature of our neighborly obligations. If transpositionality amounts to the transcendence of one’s own position(s) and can be accomplished by any one person, then Sen’s theory appears to be identical to the approaches that he dismisses. If it requires multiple persons in democratic conversation, then its form of moral reasoning resembles intersubjectivity rather than some form of genuine objectivity. And if we’re linked by “vaguely shared” concerns about injustice, I wonder how these normative judgments come to be shared among persons inhabiting different positions without some transcendence of those positions, as well as about the constraints on our moral reasoning that follow from this possibly irreducible vagueness.

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