Posted: March 18th, 2023
amartya Sen, a noted scholar in the world of philosophical discussions and interpretations, is presenting counter arguments to John Rawls’ approach to a theory of justice. In the process, Sen is also trying to cement his own approach to a theory of justice. He argues that asking, “What is a just society?” is wasteful and rather, serious thinkers should “concentrate on comparative questions of justice” (Sen, 236). The philosopher thus opens the door to a discussion of what should bright, thinking people expect and desire from a theory of justice, which is likely what Sen intended, beyond tooting his own philosophical horn. Sen begins his article by referencing what he finds difficult to accept within iconic philosopher Rawls’ view of justice.
The nuts and bolts of what Sen is arguing comes down to his departure from Rawls’ theory of justice, not only the “substantive contend of the Rawlsian theory of justice,” but also he takes issue with Rawls’ approach to “public reasoning” and the “reach and coverage of public participation” (Sen, 2006, p. 216). But moreover, the theory Sen invokes his approach, a comparative theory of justice, because it does not contain specific answers to the elusive question (which he mocks), “What is a just society?”
Reviewing / Analyzing Positions Taken in Sen’s Narrative
In the first place, once a student — who is essentially a lay person — reads through Sen’s article published in The Journal of Philosophy, the student realizes his everyday concept of justice — what he has learned at the university level, through the popular press, and perhaps through his own interaction with law enforcement and the courts — is being seriously challenged. The student might be hearing a voice in the back of his head saying, “Who really cares about a theory of justice as long as criminals, terrorists, and other wrongdoers are punished for the unjust things they have done to others?” But another voice inside the student’s head may be saying, “That’s why you’re in higher education, to step outside your comfort zone and see the world from a more intellectual perspective.” To be certain, portions of Sen’s narrative are not always easy to understand and digest, but his piece cries out to be approached and challenged — in the same way Sen is challenging Rawls’ approach to justice — and along the way it will be instructive and eye-opening to come into contact with deeper philosophical issues.
In the second place, it needs to be stated without any need for specific corroboration, that there is no — nor can there be — a totally just society anywhere in the world. There will always be some level of unfairness and injustice. So, given this, Sen is taking the position that since there is no perfect system of justice, a theory of justice should be adopted. This is a reasonable approach, and it is also reasonable for Sen to pick apart an existing theory of justice, in this case, Rawls’ theory. Clearly, Sen finds Rawls’ theory objectionable, because Rawls’ theory is produced from the position of a “fully just society” (217) — and this is called the “transcendental” approach. I agree with Sen because I believe the transcendental approach is a wrongheaded approach given the earlier points made in this paragraph.
Taking Positions on Sen’s Article
Moreover, Sen’s indifference to the transcendental approach is balanced by Sen’s approval of the comparative approach, and I can see the logic in this here in the year 2017, when the word “justice” is overused and often misunderstood in the U.S., and in some cases justice has become meaningless. Sen hits the nail on the head on page 217 when he uses the example of how many people are fortunate to have public health insurance — a political hot button issue in the United States. Even if a system were created where most Americans would have health insurance, there would be no “just society,” Sen continues, because hundreds of other “transgressions” would remain that are not remedied. Hence, Sen argues, the transcendental approach has serious flaws when creating a theory of justice.
Personally I think Sen is wasting time when, on pages 219-222, he seems to go to great lengths to either defend the transcendental approach, or at lease examine it closely. Is he just giving a bit of love to Rawls, perhaps a backhanded compliment, so he (Sen) doesn’t seem mean spirited in denouncing the transcendental approach by a well-respected philosopher? Using the analogy of trying to identify the “perfect picture” in the world (is it a Picasso, or a Dali?) — seems to have been presented as a way to point to the absurdity of embracing the transcendental approach; that is, believing that a theory of justice can grow from a place where perfect justice prevails. To wit, there is no perfect society, there is no perfect justice, and there likely will never be perfection in those contexts.
A waste of time or not (that’s just my opinion), readers who investigate philosophers and philosophy know that long-winded sentences and seemingly unending paragraphs are often employed to fully explain the positions and theories. On page 225 Sen explains what alert readers already know: “Different resolutions all have serious arguments in support of them,” and certainly portions of Rawls’ transcendental approach has merit. But no sooner does Sen seem to give some credit to Rawls — and this is one of the gems that I related to in this article — than Sen comes down hard on Rawls.
To wit, there is no “global state” on this planet where “global justice” is meted out. Sen references 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who claimed that there is a need for a “sovereign state” to fully apply the “principles of justice” (Sen, 226). Apparently Sen sees Hobbes’ views within Rawls’ narrative, because Sen quotes Rawls’ “second original position,” which, Sen asserts, ” . . . would take us rapidly forward in pursuit of some justice in a justice-less world.” That Rawlsian pursuit of justice, Sen continues, ” . . . remains stalled and stationary in the wintry morning of a world without a global state” (Sen, 227). “Wintry morning” is a brilliantly devised metaphor, which eloquently puts down the Rawls and Hobbes approaches to a theory of justice.
These positions in opposition to Rawls’ transcendental approach are Sen’s critical positions in relation to others, part of the instructions for this assignment. In the next section, readers are given a chance to experience Sen’s critical responses to philosopher Adam Smith’s Theory or Moral Sentiments.
Strengths and Weaknesses of Sen’s Theory
There are many powerful moments in this piece, including passages in which Sen gives credit to Rawls, the philosopher Sen has gently attacked page after page. On page 228, it is a strength of this article that Sen explains how Rawls has given energy to the idea of “A public framework of thought.” So, notwithstanding that Rawls is totally wrong about how to establish a workable theory of justice, Sen said Rawls’ framework of thought need not become “totally inoperative merely because the institutional demands of a perfectly just society have turned out to be infeasible” (Sen, 228).
Another strength Sen shows is to use others’ philosophical narrative, either in contrast to his own ideas, or as a way to juxtapose what Sen sees as justice — and how things are so very diverse and different in other ages and other places. In reference to Adam Smith’s point that in “sophisticated Athens,” in Ancient Greece, it was seen as just to “regard infanticide as perfectly acceptable social behavior” (Sen, 233). Even such ancient giants as Plato and Aristotle agreed that the practice of infanticide was just, because this uninterrupted practice was “thoroughly authorized” in the city state of Athens.
Sen’s narrative regarding Smith’s point — which to me is among the weaker points in the piece — is that there are “also many other practices” which are rationalized as showing societal justice, including women in Afghanistan being stoned to death for being unfaithful to their husbands, and some states in the U.S. eschewing capital punishment because it is cruel and unusual punishment. Those points are not really backed up by his comparative theory of justice.
A contemporary and reasonable approach to his narrative is found on page 237: “Will social change advance the cause of justice, or hinder it?” Look at the social change that has occurred in the American society since, for example, the Jim Crow era. Is justice being served when a white policeman shoots an unarmed African-American in the street, and someone with a smartphone videotapes (and releases to the media) a graphic, dramatic video of the incident? Is justice in play when the president of the U.S. bans Muslims from entering America, and claims Mexican immigrants are “rapists” and “killers”? When the whole world seems about to explode from cultural tensions, state-supported terrorism, racism and misogyny, and from the foibles and falsehoods of President Donald Trump, it seems a new, relevant theory of justice is needed.
Sen, A. (2006). What Do We Want from a Theory of Justice? The Journal of Philosophy, 103(5),
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