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.

In a piece in Economics and Philosophy (2001) Pettit mounted a thinly veiled “defense” of Sen’s capability approach, in reality aimed at converting capability theorists into full-blooded republicans. Pettit’s line, in brief, was that for freedom to do the work Sen wants it to do it needs to be “content-independent”: for me to be free it can’t be the case that I can chose X but not Y. But even more importantly it must be “context-independent”: for me to be free it can’t be the case that I can chose X in context A but not B. The problem of context-dependence is essentially that of the republican’s arch-villain: the Arbitrary Interferer who usurps your freedom through “alien control” (Pettit’s terminology). Pettit argues Sen’s notion of freedom only makes sense when we ensure that whoever brings about my preferences does so because they are my preferences (perhaps through a mechanism of “virtual control”), and so true freedom must ensure my independence from favorable context.

Sen disagrees and suggests that Pettit fails to appreciate the real distinction capability theory aims to capture, namely that between an agent who’s preferences (choices) are satisfied and an agent whose preferences (choices) are not satisfied. He gives us the following three scenarios to reflect on: imagine a disabled person A, who in requires assistance to get out of the house. There are three possibilities:

  1. No assistance is forthcoming – A can’t get out of the house;

  2. Assistance is forthcoming but only because someone is disposed in a certain way (say a friendly neighbor) – A can get out of the house as long as that person’s disposition doesn’t change;

  3. Assistance is available and controlled by A (e.g., a hired help) – A can get out of the house.

Sen now claims that Pettit holds A is only really free in scenario 3 and must equate scenarios 1 & 2, while capability theorists appreciate the important difference between 1 & 2. And this implies capability theorist should resist becoming republicans. Sen’s reply to Pettit seems to turn on two arguments, both of which I find troubling.

First, Sen suggests that Pettit (and fellow republicans) are incapable of appreciating the distinction between scenarios 1 and 2. But surely this is a rather narrow reading of republican political theory. For there is nothing to prevent Pettit & Co. to accept that a broader range of feasible options is part of what makes a life go well, without it necessarily contributing to freedom in the republican sense. In other words, it seems Pettit can easily admit the moral relevance of the distinction between scenarios 1 and 2 but simply maintain that it fails to render A free from domination (Sen does not dispute the latter point). Under such a broader reading, perhaps it would be acceptable to “replace” the republican idea of freedom with the perspective of freedom as capability, as Pettit proposes yet Sen resists (p. 306).

Second, Sen insists that freedom from dependence is all about how robust one’s freedom is, suggesting that it captures a dimension of freedom distinct from the range of free choices (p. 305). But this too seems a little odd. Can we really maintain that we have a free choice when it is by no means certain that this choice is genuinely available (e.g., because it depends on me having a favorable attitude towards you)? For instance, would we really think that me having a 5% probability I can opt for X means I am genuinely free to chose X? If the answer to this question is “no”, perhaps robustness is a much more integral part of freedom – in the way republicans suggest – than Sen allows. And in this case Sen’s beef with Pettit might again be more trivial than Sen’s rebuttal suggests.

In fact the example above is illustrative in a way Sen himself does not really appreciate. It seems obvious to me that Sen and Pettit would rank the scenarios above similarly, with 3 > 2 > 1. The discussion about what precisely counts as “freedom” vs. some other way in which one’s life goes well masks the fundamental agreement between them in terms of which is the preferred outcome. More interesting, perhaps, would be a scenario in which a policy maker had to chose between the following two strategies: A) devote resources to bring Sean from scenario 1 up to 2 or B) devote resources to bring Seamus from scenario 2 up to 3. While Sen would clearly opt for strategy A in this case, I am not certain Pettit would disagree. But equally we could imagine a variation of the story in which Sen might feel compelled to opt for strategy B rather than A simply because the gains in independence in this particular case would trump the potential gains in “pure” capability. And under such circumstances, presumably so would Pettit.

The upshot of all this seems to be that, once we appreciate that republican freedom is perhaps more complex and graduated (less “binary”) than Sen allows, his rebuttal against Pettit appears rather weak. Leaving aside the semantics of what part of agency or well-being genuinely represents “freedom”, when we ask ourselves what really matters for a person’s life to go well perhaps capability theorists and republicans are kissing cousins after all. On a more critical note, the points raised here also make clear that Sen’s strategy of continuously emphasizing plurality and complexity comes at a cost: the broader the perspective we employ to capture what matters to people, the harder it may become to figure out in a concrete, determinate manner how we should compare, rank and chose between competing values or dimensions. Capability theorists may have plenty to say about this – Sen certainly does at various points throughout the book – but I still feel rather uncomfortable with the way things are often left hanging in this chapter. But perhaps more light will be shed on this in the remaining chapters of the book.

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