Tag Archives: Sen

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 12, ‘Capabilities and Resources’

Chapter 12, Capabilities and Resources, begins with the well-known contrasts between capabilities (as what opportunities people actually have) and resourcist views. Sen then outlines four kinds of contingencies that figure importantly into the conversion of resources into the lives people can actually lead. These are: personal “heterogeneities,” differences in the physical environment, differences in the social climate, and differences in relational perspectives. Variations in the social climate refer to social structural differences—for example, the availability of publicly funded health care. Differences in “relational perspectives” refer to difference in social norms that may affect the need for resource expenditure to achieve desired goals; for example, in one society, the clothes required to command social respect may be far more expensive than in another. These types of contingencies may be interconnected; an example would be how a physical environment in which there is a great deal of snow interacts with mobility impairments in affecting how people can get around in society.Sen places particular emphasis on the interrelationship between disability and the opportunities provided by resources. He cites familiar data about the interrelationship between disability and poverty, and notes that much disability is preventable (e.g. disabilities that result from preventable infectious diseases such as polio or measles) and that this is a particularly important matter for social justice. Overall, Sen emphasizes both the conceptual and the normative importance of disability for theorizing about justice.

The remainder of the chapter is devoted to criticizing Rawlsian primary goods and Dworkinian hypothetical insurance markets. Sen commends Rawls for paying attention to “special needs,” but contends that the Rawlsian structure mistakenly downplays human difference. Pace Rawls, human variations in conversion capacities should not be seen as derivative matters for attention at the legislative stage. Rather, in Sen’s view they are ubiquitous to how social structures should be organized and analyzed. Sen recognizes that the capabilities approach will not be able to give a complete or even a linear ordering of social states, but contends that it directs us to make the important comparisons about justice.

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Sen, ‘The Idea of Justice’ (Chapter 9, ‘Plurality of Impartial Reasons’)

This chapter continues in the vein of the preceding ones by using Rawls as a foil in order to lay out some general concepts that presumably will be developed in the second half of the book.  Accordingly, many of my concerns end up being somewhat duplicative with those raised in earlier comments: namely, that Sen has failed (so far) to really lay out a plan for thinking through justice in a rigorous fashion and that he has a strangely shallow reading of Rawls.Sen begins the chapter by referencing the arguments in chapter 8 about the possibility for rational reasons to take forms that different from the model of purely egoistic actors.  Given that there was no comment on that chapter people might like to take up those questions though I doubt many will find his claims there to be particularly controversial.

The goal of this chapter seems to be the need to reconcile the plurality of impartial reasons (the fact that two people might makes completely opposite choices, without either being irrational) with the need to desire to articulate some standard of objectivity.  In situations where multiple decisions may be rational, how may we still make judgments about what course of action is just? In Rawlsian terms, he is interested here in what it would be reasonable to ask of people, not just what they might rationally choose for themselves.  This is an important effort, and something that has been sorely missing from the book so far.  Unfortunately, I don’t think this chapter really takes us very far down that road.

I am skeptical for two reasons. First, I find the distinction between contractualism and contractarianism to be far less clear than he asserts.  To the extent that the two are dissimilar, I don’t see the value added by Scanlon’s approach that can’t be found elsewhere.  Second, even if we were to accept that significant differences exist between Rawls and Scanlon they seem to be more a matter of the sphere of emphasis.  Scanlon’s approach appears designed to produce judgments about what it would be just to morally ask of someone, while Rawls is more concerned with the question of how to build a politically viable and normatively acceptable basic structure.  Clearly, it is difficult if not impossible to fully detach moral and political philosophy but it would also be a mistake to treat them as synonymous.

On the first point, I find Sen’s characterization of the parties who have standing in the original position to be slightly off.  To me, this reflects a larger problem with the book, that Sen insists on treating the original position literally rather than accepting Rawls’ insistence that it should be understood only a device of representation.  If the original position is understood as a means of thinking through what sorts of exclusions or impositions we ought to be willing to allow, then I find it hard to distinguish this from contractualism.  Yes, it retains a commitment to “advantage-based reasoning” but it does so by insisting that justification must operate under the burden of ignorance about particular position.  To lump this in with other theories guided by a sense of rational advantage doesn’t seem all that helpful.  It is accurate, but not particularly illuminating.

At this point, I will admit to knowing very little about Scanlon’s work, so my statements here are based on Sen’s reading.  I’d welcome comments from those who are more familiar with contractualism, who might be able to elaborate on distinctions that are not clear to me in Sen’s text.  That said, Sen’s efforts to distinguish Scanlon’s approach promise more than they deliver.  To the extent that he does establish are differences, I find it difficult to see how they generate much purchase.

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Sen Reading Group Schedule Note

Dear Public Reasoners,

As some of you may have noticed already, the comment for chapter 8 has not been posted yet.  I regret that I did not notice this myself until today (I have been preoccupied with some unexpected difficulties over the past month, which have made my visits to this blog rather sporadic).

In addition, the commentator for chapter 12 has had to withdraw from the group.  Please contact me if you are interested in stepping in and commenting on chapter 12 (which is scheduled to be posted on May 17).

My own view is that we should continue on schedule despite these developments.  Consequently, if possible, the comment on chapter 9 should be posted on Monday (April  26).  If the comment on chapter 8 is posted later, that should be fine.


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Sen, ‘The Idea of Justice’ (Chapter 5, Impartiality and Objectivity)

In this chapter, Sen weaves together three different lines of thought: Wollstonecraft’s critique of Burke, impartiality as a minimalist basis for evaluative objectivity, and the role of convention in the relations among facts and values.

1. Sen identifies two features of objectivity. First, our evaluative language must give us the ability to communicate our beliefs to one another, and second, those beliefs must involve commitment to sufficiently overlapping standards to allow us to debate their correctness. But, as Wittgenstein learned from Gramsci and Sraffa, the common ground required for such communication and engagement is always dependent upon linguistic and social conventions.

Out of this intersection of objectivity and convention, Sen identifies a “dual task” for social reformers. They must communicate using language, imagery, and rules grounded in existing social practice and values. But within those confines, they must find the critical distance needed to advocate change.

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