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)

According to Sen, reasoning about justice should not be confined to a single state or community, but rather be global and cosmopolitan. Justice requires “open impartiality” (Chapters 5-9). Non-compatriots’ interests are relevant to justice, as are their perspectives; these may help correct our parochial biases. Our actions at the level of the state affect people outside its boundaries, so we should consider their interests before acting. For example, the US reaction to the global recession has far reaching consequences to the global and hence most local economies. Also, our values may have their basis in ignorance and exposure to people outside of our circle may give use more adequate information for assessing them. Sen cites Adam Smith’s discussion of infanticide here. (404)

Sen refers loosely to “global democracy”. Unlike many cosmopolitans, he doesn’t reject a global state outright, but rather points to its current infeasibility. He connects the rejection of cosmopolitan accounts of justice with Rawls and Nagel’s view that justice primarily concerns institutional arrangements. If global institutions are necessary for justice, this may support justice’s limited scope. Instead, Sen relies on his conception of democracy as public reasoning and the role of governmental bodies (e.g., the United Nations and its different bodies), citizens’ organizations, “many NGOs, and parts of the news media”. (409) Instead of working toward a global state, we should work to strengthen global public reason. (401-9)

Fourth, Sen’s theory of justice has its roots in social choice theory, not on the social contract. (Chapters 2-6, 9) His theory of justice “concentrates, as the discipline of social choice does, on making evaluative comparisons over distinct social realizations.” (410) This leads to a concern with comparative justice and a focus on actual outcomes, rather than “perfect justice” that primarily examines institutions. (410-2) Sen returns to the distinction between niti and nyaya and reiterates the importance of taking into account actual outcomes instead of concentrating on just institutions or principles. (413)

The role of philosophy in justice is to “play a part in bringing more discipline and greater reach to reflections on values and priorities as well as on the denials, subjugations and humiliations from which human beings suffer across the world.” (413)

Questions and thoughts:

1) Since this is the final chapter, I think it’s worth asking what Sen hoped to accomplish in The Idea of Justice. Is The Idea of Justice a culmination of Sen’s work in political philosophy the way Theory of Justice incorporates and refines the papers that led up to it or is it a summary where the reader must consult Sen’s references to journal publications to fully evaluate his considered views?
I’m inclined to think that The Idea of Justice is not a definitive statement of Sen’s views. (Blaine mentioned that chapter 1 is not really aimed at professional philosophers or political theorists; the same could be said of the book.) First, most of the chapters are far too short on detail and discussion of the literature to satisfy a philosophical audience. Second, most of the discussion is non-technical and accessible in its general outlines to a non-philosophical audience (as the mainly favorable reviews in the mainstream press suggest). Third, Sen gives many references to his journal publications, suggesting that they are relevant to evaluating his fully formed position.

2) If I am right here, then it’s worth asking about the value of Sen’s approach. Who ought a theory of justice to address? One possibility is that it ought to speak to political philosophers and theorists immersed in the most recent scholarly discussions. My impression is that most of the people who have participated in this reading group find Sen’s book unsatisfactory on this account.

Another possibility is that a theory of justice ought to be accessible to a wide range of academics, including economists, sociologists, law, geography, education etc. I suspect that it may be better received by people who aren’t immersed in philosophy, particularly economists. One reason is that if we follow Sen, we can largely bypass the philosophical literature on justice, a plus for people in other disciplines who work on the topic. A third is that the theory should seem relevant to academics in general, politicians, and the reflective public.

Obviously, different work can engage each of these three audiences, but I think we need to ask this question for two reasons. First, how do we fairly evaluate a work? For example, should we assess Sen’s book based on how well it engages recent philosophical literature on justice? Second, the choice of audience is central to political philosophy’s ends. Presumably, political philosophy should have some indirect influence on policy. If Sen had tried to satisfy his philosophical critics, his book would need to be at least twice as long and would have a much smaller audience.

3) Social choice perspective plays a central role in Sen’s theory. In fact, it may be fair to claim that his theory of justice treats political philosophy as a sophisticated branch of normative economics. I believe a fair assessment of Sen’s book would require delving into his work on rationality and social choice. Social choice theory grounds his pluralism and informs his basic “comparative” framework. Sen starts with individual preferences, but subjects them to standards of rationality and public reason and asks how they can be aggregated in a morally salient way. The result is that quite a bit of substantial political theorizing is outside of the hands of political philosophers and left to public reasoning (where political philosophers can weigh in but have no special authority).

Political philosophers have reason to worry on two fronts: economics and the general public have a greater role in determining the just society. Should they accept this?

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