Monthly Archives: June 2010

Theoretical and Applied Ethics (new journal) seeks applicants for editorial board

I’ve received the announcement below through the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics’ listserv. I assume it’s no secret and think it might be of interest to Public Reason members:

Theoretical and Applied Ethics (Revised Announcement)

The editors of a new undergraduate peer-reviewed scholarly  journal, Theoretical and Applied Ethics, are seeking referees for its editorial board. Chris Herrera, associate professor of philosophy at Montclair State University will be general editor of this journal, and Alexandra Perry, lecturer in philosophy at Bergen Community College will be managing editor. T&AE will be geared towards undergraduates, and each paper accepted for publication will have been blind-reviewed by a team of referees, all of whom hold doctorates in their respective specialties. Professor Herrera’s overall goal is to provide an online journal for high-quality papers in areas such as Medical Ethics, Business Ethics, and Ethical Theory. Current plans are for the journal to be published three times each year, with a Fall, Spring, and Summer issue.  The journal’s board of editors will be comprised of faculty from various universities. Suitable applicants will hold a Ph.D. in philosophy, and have an AOS in ethics, philosophy of law, or social philosophy. Interested applicants should send an abbreviated version of their C.V.s, along with a brief letter of introduction to read more...

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Sen, “The Idea of Justice”, Chapter 18, “Justice and the World”

Sen returns to many of the themes of The Idea of Justice in the final chapter. He begins by noting that people respond to injustice with anger and indignation, but that justice requires reasoned scrutiny of these sentiments (Chapter 1). Public reasoning is central to justice, since “there is a clear connection between the objectivity of a judgment and its ability to withstand public scrutiny” (394; c.f., Chapter 5, 15-17). Decisions need to be seen as just not only for instrumental reasons, but because those that cannot be made public are likely unsound. (388-94)Justice involves the comparison of a plurality of impartial reasons which may conflict (Chapter 9). There is a tendency in moral and political thought to search for a single value that encompasses all others (e.g., pleasure), but reason doesn’t support this reduction. Happily, non-commensurability and incompleteness don’t inhibit our ability to reason objectively about justice. Though we may need to accept “an unresolvable diversity of views,” this is usually “a last resort”. (397, footnote) In many cases, we can identity shared partial rankings to guide our decisions even if our personal reasons behind these rankings are different. (394-401; c.f., Chapter 4) read more...

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Sen, “The Idea of Justice”, Chapter 17, “Human Rights and Global Imperatives”

In chapter 17, Sen outlines a theory of human rights. He acknowledges that many human rights activists have little patience for philosophical discussions on the nature (and indeed existence) of human rights. He also discusses Jeremy Bentham’s quip that the natural rights are “nonsense on stilts”. Sen insists that if “the idea of human rights … is to command reasoned and sustained loyalty” (356), we must address the skeptics and cynics.

Sen analyzes human rights in terms of their content and their justification (their “viability”) (358). With regard to their content, human rights are moral rights that protect important freedoms and entail social obligations that people promote these freedoms. First, Sen stresses that human rights are moral rights – “really strong ethical pronouncements as to what should be done”. (357) They are not legal rights, though they are often enshrined in legal documents and institutions. (363) Law plays a central role in guaranteeing human rights, but other activities such as education, public monitoring, debate, and protest are also crucial. Indeed, there are cases under which giving human rights legal status may be counterproductive. Fining or jailing men who deny their wives an effective voice in family decisions is probably not the best way to promote women’s equality. (365) read more...

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Sen, ‘The Idea of Justice’, Chapter 16, ‘The Practice of Democracy’

This chapter covers three empirical issues relating to democracy: 1) the connection between democracy (or public reasoning—Sen seems to use these terms interchangeably) and famine, 2) the connection between democracy and economic development and 3) the promotion of tolerance toward minorities. In what follows, I will first restate Sen’s account of democracy (given in the previous chapter), as this is relevant to his interpretation of the data he provides in chapter 16. Second, I will outline his discussions of each of the three topics he takes up, and, third, I will raise a few questions about the causal connections he proposes in the discussion of famine.


Sen views democracy as not merely the presence of elections and ballots, but as “government by discussion,” which includes “political participation, dialogue and public interaction (326).” He believes that an unrestrained media is especially important to the functioning of democratic societies, for a number of reasons, one of which plays a central role in his discussion of famines: a free press, Sen tells us, contributes to human security by giving a voice to the vulnerable and disadvantaged and by subjecting the government to criticism. (More on this

Democracy and Famine

In 1982, in an article in The New York Review of Books, Sen made the observation that “no major famine has ever occurred in a functioning democracy with regular elections, opposition parties, basic freedom of speech and a relatively free media (even when the country is very poor and in a seriously adverse food situation) (342).” Further, while India was under autocratic British rule, famines were regular occurrences; once India achieved democratic self-rule famines ceased. (Apparently, Sen’s observation about democracy and absence of famine was initially met with a fair amount of skepticism. Now it is widely accepted.) Sen infers from the observed correlation that democracy prevents famine. He offers two reasons in support of this inference. First, democratic governments are accountable to their citizens and subject to uncensored criticism from the media. So, in order to maintain power, democratic governments have a strong incentive to eradicate famines. (Indeed Sen argues later in the chapter that the famine case is really an instance of a broader phenomenon whereby democracy advances human security by giving political incentive to rulers to respond to vulnerable citizens.) Second, because of the informational role of the free press, democratic governments are likely to know about the plight of citizens and therefore about the need for amelioration. By contrast, authoritarian regimes, which suppress public discussion, may be simply uninformed about the severity or extent of a famine and fail to provide assistance for that reason.

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Sen, ‘The Idea of Justice’, Chapter 15, ‘Democracy as Public Reason’

In chapter 15 of The Idea of Justice, “Democracy as Public Reason,” Sen defends the idea that democracy is a universal value. Can democracy flourish outside the west? One reason for thinking it can’t is that it (supposedly) has never done so before. To answer this charge, Sen distinguishes between the “institutional structure of the contemporary practice of democracy,” which is “largely the product of European and American experience over the last few centuries” (pp. 322-323), and the political ideals that underlie it. By the former, Sen seems to have in mind the institutions of electoral conflict (competitive elections, secret ballots, political parties, etc.). But these institutions, Sen argues, are simply the latest effort to institutionalize certain fundamental ideals, ideals of “political participation, dialogue and public interaction” (p. 326). These ideals, Sen suggests, are well-nigh universal in their appeal. But once one sees that the institutions are of use primarily as means to the realization of deeper ideals, then one has reason to avoid running the former and the latter together. In particular, one should not assume that because a certain type of institutional structure is up and running (i.e., there are elections, the votes are counted properly, the loser concedes power to the winner) that a satisfactory level of democracy has been achieved. This has been done by many comparativists, such as Sam Huntington. To do this is to focus (once again) on niti to the exclusion of nyaya.

Sen believes that an overly-institutional focus on democracy has caused particular trouble at the global level. John Rawls and Thomas Nagel may be right that there are no democratic global institutions–indeed, no institutions at all comparable to states. But this need not mean that there is no way to realize democratic ideals such as public discussion internationally. There already exist tentative practices of global deliberation, and they are worthy of support and encouragement, whatever the proper scope and limits of international institutions.

Of course, globalized public deliberation is only conceivable if the ideal of public dialogue has universal appeal. Sen believes that this ideal does have deep roots all around the world, including in areas that have little experience with popular elections. Of course, Sen also suggests that the divide between western and nonwestern experiences with democratic institutions is not as clearcut as the democracy-is-a-western-value story would have it. India was inspired by ancient Greece to experiment with formal democratic institutions (at least on a local level) long before the barbarian tribes of northern Europe. But societies have undeniably assigned value to public reason–the ideal underlying these institutions–for a very long time, and virtually everywhere. Sen illustrates this point using the Indian experience. He also discusses the Middle East in this context.

Sen concludes the chapter with a few words about the role of the media in a democratic society. (The transition to this topic is a bit abrupt.) Obviously, to the extent that the idea of public reason underlies and democratic practice, the media matters quite a lot. Sen argues that a well-functioning free press 1) enables the free expression of ideas, which is intrinsically valuable; 2) spreads information and subjects it to critical scrutiny; 3) protects the weak by subjecting the strong to the gaze of the public eye; 4) facilitates the formation of common values by the public; and 5) contributes to the pursuit of justice (though this last contribution is not clearly specified).

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Sen, ‘The Idea of Justice’, Chapter 14, ‘Equality and Liberty’

Let me first start by apologizing for the late delivery of this comment, which unfortunately messed up Blain Neufeld’s carefully drafted schedule. Apologies to Blain and readers for this.

In Chapter 14, Sen elaborates on the relationship between equality and liberty (or freedom) in relation to the capability approach. A number of issues covered in this chapter have become classics in the literature, and will likely be familiar to readers. But Sen also spends some time discussing the distinction between his approach and that of Philip Pettit – an issue that raises some interesting questions I would like to reflect on in this comment. But let me first briefly review the main points covered in this chapter of The Idea of Justice.

Sen begins the discussion in this chapter by rehearsing the idea (famously expressed in his Tanner Lectures) that all plausible theories of justice have some place for equality, reflecting the fundamental insight that, at some basic level, people must be seen (and treated) as equals. The real question to be answered, Sen concludes, is that of the precise metric of equality underlying competing theories. Sen’s own answer to the “equality of what” debate, as readers know, is to advance capability as the appropriate metric of advantage. However, Sen also insists that an egalitarian perspective informed by the capability approach is not committed to strict equality of capability. He gives us several reasons to resist this strong form of capability egalitarianism, affirming the “multiple dimensions in which equality matters” (p. 297). One important point is that capability only affects what Sen calls the opportunity aspect of freedom and is incapable (pun unintended) to fully capture its process aspect. For Sen capability-based considerations are a crucial but not comprehensive part of a general theory of justice.

In the remainder of the chapter Sen shifts his attention to liberty or freedom, in which he wants to bring home the point that freedom too should be considered a complex and multi-dimensional (or plural) value. Sen suggests personal liberty should be given a good deal of priority, because “it touches our lives at a very basic level” (p. 299), but equally cautions against the extreme view of giving freedom absolute priority (such that it would trump any other concern, no matter how important or urgent). But now the question arises how we should conceive of this freedom that takes priority among the long list of factors that affect how well our lives go. Here Sen makes three distinct points, each of which are controversial and allow for considerable disagreement:

  1. When freedom is viewed as “effective preference” we should appreciate the importance of the distinction between direct control, indirect control and luck, for the simple reason that there are many ways in which I may get what I want without having a direct say in how I get it. For Sen the mere fact that I have a preference satisfied implies a type of freedom that matters to how well my life is going (“a freedom of some importance”, p. 304).

  2. Relatedly, the plural conception of freedom admits of several ways in which freedom is threatened or impeded: through a lack of capability, through genuine interventions, or through a lack of independence (making one’s preference satisfaction “favor-dependent” in one formulation). Sen spends a whole section arguing about the precise relationship between Pettit’s republicanism and his own capability approach, a point to which I return below.

  3. Finally, the proper understanding of freedom (individual or collective) must take account of the outcomes of actions in addition to whether they are properly deemed to be free. This insight relates to Sen’s “impossibility of the Paretian liberal”, a theorem that has spawned a cottage industry of technical literature – a topic I’m happy to leave to more qualified readers.

In the remainder of my comment I want to say a few words on what I personally believe is the more interesting contribution of this chapter, the discussion between Sen and Pettit.

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