Sen, ‘The Idea of Justice’, Chapter 10, ‘Realization, Consequences and Agency’

In this chapter Sen explains in more detail the idea of a “realization-focused” approach to justice.  As discussed in earlier posts, Sen’s book is organized around a contrast between “transcendental institutionalism” and “realization-focused comparison” (p.7).  Earlier chapters dealt with the transcendental – comparative contrast.  This chapter explores the rule – realization contrast.  I will begin by reviewing what the Introduction (Ch.1) had to say about this issue.  Sen’s general point was that justice must be concerned with the lives people end up leading, the experiences and development of capacities that these lives involve, not just the institutions and rules within which people make choices.  He also made two more specific points about this realization-focused approach, one about liberty, the other about responsibility and agency, both of which can be framed as responses to objections.  

One natural objection to the focus on realized human capacities is that if just institutions are in place, then whatever happens as a result of the decisions people make within this framework (consistent with the preservation of this framework over time) is neither just nor unjust, since it is the product of voluntary choice under fair conditions.  According to this line of reasoning, any attempt to correct realization-outcomes given a just background structure would involve disrespect for people as autonomous agents.  I think Sen’s response to this objection would be that his focus on realization includes the freedom to choose, as a significant component of well-being (pp.18-19), and so doesn’t involve forcing people to flourish.

A second objection would be that the focus on outcomes ignores the important distinction between what happens and what one does.  The focus on outcomes assumes that the only relationship one can have to a value is to promote its maximal realization (by whatever actions lead to this result) rather than to honour or respect the value in one’s own conduct (e.g. by a commitment not to perform at least some morally objectionable actions no matter their expected result).  I think Sen’s response to this objection would be to assert that a focus on realizations permits assigning signficance to the processes through which states of affairs come about.  His realization-based approach considers the “comprehensive outcome,” not simply the “culmination outcome” (pp.22, 215-217).  As an example, Sen cites the real moral difference between people dying of starvation due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control and people being intentionally starved (p.23).  However, we can acknowledge the moral difference between me starving people and nature starving people while still taking a consequentialist view of morality.  Since the intentional starvation of others is so horrible, one could argue that we should do whatever we can to prevent its occurrence, even if – invent your own outlandish seminar scenario here – we have to starve some people in order to prevent a third party from starving many more people.  Sen would I think respond that a realization-focused approach can assign disvalue to the individual’s doing something bad (for each individual but only for that individual), over and above the disvalue of the bad thing happening.  

Chapter 10 uses Arjuna’s debate with Krishna to develop this idea of a comprehensive or inclusive realization-focused approach to justice.  Arjuna the great warrior is about to fight a major battle.  His cause is just, because his brother is legitimate heir to the throne, but their cousins the Kauravas have usurped the throne.  Arjuna’s duty, conventionally understood, is to lead his side to victory, as his adviser Krishna argues.  Yet Arjuna expresses doubts, because (a) a great many people will die, many of them guilty of nothing more than agreeing to support their friends and kin, and (b) Arjuna will himself have to kill members of his extended kin group, for some of whom he has real affection.  Sen emphasizes three aspects of Arjuna’s thinking.  First, he does not focus only on the suitability of his actions based on past events and existing rules or norms; he also considers what will actually happen to the world (p.212).  However, second, Arjuna is not concerned only with what happens but also with what he himself does (pp.213-4).  Third, in assessing what he himself does, the special relationships he has with specific others matter (pp.214).  Arjuna’s mode of reasoning is thus a good example of the sophisticated, inclusive, “informationally rich” (pp.216-7) consequentialism Sen is advocating.  Sen dislikes the label “consequentialist” (pp.217-8), but seems prepared to tolerate its use in a suitably general sense, as the notes on p.217 and p.210 suggest.  The p.17 note accepts Pettit’s definition of consequentialism, so long as the “consequences” of a decision are taken to include “agencies, processes, [and] relations”.  The p.210 note uses “consequentialism” as part of the definition of utilitarianism as welfarist, sum-ranking consequentialism.  Sen claims that some of the “deontological dilemmas” (p.219) generally presented to discredit narrow consequentialist reasoning (the “colourful counterexamples” from p.217) do not arise for a realization-focused approach that takes a broad view of the consequences that follow from a decision.  A broad view would include “the nature of the agencies involved, the processes used, and the relationships of people” (219).

I have one main concern about this chapter.  It seems to me that Sen’s defense of sophisticated or inclusive consequentialism succeeds only by watering down the distinctiveness of the view.  The claim that we should adopt a realization-focused approach to justice initially seems to be a significant thesis, since it appears to rule out some deontological views.  Yet the defense of the realization-focused approach against deontological objections involves expanding the notion of a “consequence” so that deontological intuitions can be formulated in terms of consequence-based modes of reasoning (e.g. by assigning extra disvalue to my torturing someone that is not for you a similar disvalue).  This move simply relocates the debate between consequentialists and deontologists.  Instead of disagreeing about the form moral reasoning should take, the two sides disagree about the extent to which the function to be maximized must or may include agent-relative components.  I’m not sure it illuminates the debate to cast it as a dispute about whether value functions should have this indexical aspect (or as a question about the exact weight to be assigned to the indexical aspect of value functions).  I can see how standard deontological views can be rendered in this way, so as to be consistent with an account of rational action as choosing the option that maximizes the value of the expected consequences.  The problem is that this broad definition of outcomes would make even the most rule-obsessed view count as a realization-focused theory.  On this account, there would be no purely institutional or rule-focused approaches to justice, but simply realization-focused approaches that place heavier weights, on “agencies, processes [and] relations.”  Presumably Sen wants to argue for an approach to justice that is realization-focused in the more specific sense of placing less weight on processes, etc., but this chapter does not provide an argument for such an approach.  No doubt the rest of the book will speak to this question.  What I suppose I would have liked to see in this chapter is an explanation of why it is preferable to understand the debate between deontology and consequentialism as a dispute about the weighting of the indexical elements of value functions, as opposed to a debate about the form moral reasoning should take.

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