Amartya Sen’s recent book The Idea of Justice is a rich and wide-ranging book, that covers a broad range of issues related to social justice, public reasoning, rationality, human agency, well-being, equality, freedoms, democracy and related concerns. Sen formulates a strong critique of contemporary theorising on justice, and proposes an alternative that focuses more on identifying injustices rather than talking about (perfect) justice, and strongly stresses the importance of deliberation and public debate when addressing questions of injustice.
However, in my discussion here I will limit myself to one major claim that Amartya Sen makes in this book, namely that transcendental theories of justice are redundant (This relates especially to the preface, introduction, and chapter 4 of the book; anyone interested in academic discussions of the other chapters should pop over to Public Reason, which hosts a reading group going through the book one chapter a week). But as said, I will only focus on the ‘Redundancy Claim’, and will argue that it is mistaken, since for justice-enhancing actions we need both transcendental and non-transcendental theorising of justice. Nevertheless I endorse an implication that follows from the Redundancy Claim, namely that theorists of justice should shift their priorities from transcendental theorizing towards thinking about justice-enhancing change. I will argue that this ‘Priorities Claim’ not only follows from the (mistaken) Redundancy Claim, but also from another (correct) claim which Sen advances in The Idea of Justice about the current practice of political philosophy. I will conclude that the Redundancy Claim does need to be rejected, but that this is not a big loss, since what is really important is the Priorities Claim, which is vindicated.
How does Sen understand transcendental theories of justice? Transcendental theories of justice are theories that describe a perfectly just situation: no further justice-improvements are possible. Transcendental theory
“concentrates its attention on what it identifies as perfect justice, rather than on relative comparisons of justice and injustice. It tries only to identify social characteristics that cannot be transcended in terms of justice, and its focus is thus not on comparing feasible societies, all of which may fall short of the ideals of perfection. The inquiry is aimed at identifying the nature of ‘the just’, rather than finding some criteria for an alternative being ‘less unjust’ than another.” (p. 5-6).
Sen argues that transcendental theories are redundant if our aim is to actually make choices that advance justice: “If a theory of justice is to guide reasoned choice of policies, strategies or institutions, then the identification of fully just social arrangements is neither necessary nor sufficient.” (p. 15). Call this the Redundancy Claim. I agree with one part of the Redundancy Claim, namely that transcendental theory is not sufficient for guidance, and will therefore only focus on the claim that it is not necessary. This latter part of the Redundancy Claim I believe to be mistaken.
In part, Sen argues that a number of basic injustices don’t need transcendental theory in order for us to agree that they concern gross injustices (xi-xii). Examples could be corruption in politics, power abuse by economic actors, exploitative bonded labour, child soldiers or sex slaves. All theories of justice would agree that these are blatant cases of injustice, and that we don’t need a transcendental theory of justice to spell that out. Yet we cannot extrapolate from this particular subset of injustices (i.e. manifest and clearly remediable cases of injustice) to the entire set of injustices. My belief is that the usefulness of transcendental theory is limited and currently severely over-prioritised (and in this I strongly agree with Sen), but that we are throwing away the baby with the bathwater if we think we can entirely do without. I will offer three arguments against the general validity of the Redundancy Claim.
The first argument in defence of transcendental theory is that many cases of injustice are very complex, and therefore much more difficult to compare than cases of basic injustice. Take the comparison between two types of welfare states, A and B. In A, there is little security, many jobs with exploitative working conditions, comparatively low taxation on labour earnings, and a large sector of low-waged workers with little social protection. In B, there is high taxation on labour earnings, a decent minimum wage and a range of income-replacements such as unemployment benefits. As a consequence, in B there are very few working poor, yet many employment opportunities for low-skilled workers that exist in A do not exist in B. The number of long-term unemployed is significantly higher in B than in A. Put schematically, B has more jobless people, whereas A has more poor people, and the poor in A are worse off than the poor in B. Is welfare state A more just than B, or the other way around? I don’t think there is an easy answer to this question, since it depends, among other things, on the question what one believes to be worse: being financially poor or being trapped in unemployment. And actual political discussions about such issues do refer to transcendental principles of justice, such as for example an account of equality of opportunity, and/or an underlying notion of quality of life. It may be easy for us to say which of these two welfare states we would prefer to live in, but that is another matter. So my first argument for why I believe that transcendental theory is necessary, is that judgments about the comparison of complex cases of injustice implicitly or explicitly do refer to transcendental principles of justice. Not just in academic work, but also in real-life public discussions.
The second argument against the Redundancy Claim is that transcendental principles of justice are needed to assess claims which deny an injustice. Transcendental principles of justice specify a number of conditions that have to be met before we consider a certain state of affairs as perfectly just. For example, in liberal societies which explicitly espouse equal rights for men and women, and which have been through many decades of feminist change, many citizens believe that gender justice is fully realised. In order to assess such a claim of perfect gender justice (or, put differently, the absence of any aspect of gender injustice), one needs principles that tell us when a society is gender just. These principles are transcendental principles of justice (even though they are only transcendental in one domain, namely gender relations). The only way to argue for a claim of an injustice that is on a large scale denied to exist, is by spelling out and defending clear principles of transcendental justice (in general, or in a particular domain), and showing that these principles are not met. Again, social activists make ample use of such transcendental principles of justice and of this kind of public reasoning.
The third argument for the non-redundancy of transcendental theories stems from the nature of the non-transcendental theorising of justice, which is the theorising that guides our justice-enhancing actions and policies. Non-transcendental theorising of justice entails but is not limited to the comparative approach to justice, which Sen champions in The Idea of Justice. For example, non-transcendental theorising of justice also includes theorising on how to weigh different principles of justice, or theorising on what to do if in the long run we can achieve a more just state, but whereby this requires sacrificing one generation for the sake of the following generations.
I believe that non-transcendental theory of justice requires transcendental theory. Non- transcendental theories of justice give us a chain of changes that are needed in order to reach the most just social state among all feasible social states. We need to have a complete ‘navigation map’, a clear vision of how to go from where we are to where we want to be. We need an entire path of justice-enhancing actions, not just a comparison between two states, that the approach of comparative justice offers us. The reason is that otherwise we may choose for an injustice-reducing action that may benefit us in the short run, but may lead us to a suboptimal situation (from the point of view of justice) in the long run, due to the path-dependency of our actions.
Suppose that we can represent the degree of justice of a certain situation with a cardinal number, on a scale where 100 represents the fully just social state. The initial social state A has a justice-value of 50. From A we can move to either B or S, with B corresponding to a justice value of 70 and S of 55. If we are in A, and only compare B and S, then the conclusion is easy: we have to take action so that we end up in social state B. But our possibilities for further action are not independent of this first choice. Suppose that in the best case scenario we can move from B to C, with C having a justice value of 80. From S, however, we will be able to move to T where we can realize a justice value of 95. We cannot move from B to T. It then becomes clear that in order to make a reasoned decision between B and S, we need to know the ‘paths of change’ that B and S are on, and those paths are directing us towards an ideal, that is, a transcendental theory. Clearly the comparative approach is an important element of this more complete story of how to decide what to do – and that more complete story does need a vision of the ultimate goal, that is, a transcendental theory of justice. Thus, I conclude that transcendental theory is in non-basic cases necessary for justice-enhancing change, and that therefore the Redundancy Claim is mistaken.
Note that my arguments against the general validity of the Redundancy Claim do not require that there needs to be an agreement on the transcendental principles of justice, or that these principles are completely spelled out in each and every detail. If there is no agreement, then each disagreeing party will need its own transcendental principles in order to make up their own minds about which injustice-reducing actions to defend. Similarly, completeness is not required for transcendental theories to be useful; in fact, many transcendental principles of justice are plural and often somewhat vague and thus require further interpretation before they can be put into practice. But even if a transcendental account of justice is incompletely, or even if it consists of a plurality of principles which need to be weighed by public reasoning or by intuition, it does give us a set of standards or ideals against which to judge different possible paths of social change. The ‘navigation maps’ which we require to guide reasoned choice of policies, strategies and institutions for questions of non-blatant injustices must include a specification of our ultimate goal, that is, transcendental theory of justice.
So far I have advanced three arguments for why I believe that the Redundancy Claim is not generally valid. Yet suppose the redundancy claim were correct: what would have been its implications? A weak implication would be that theorists of justice devote too much attention and energy to transcendental theory, since it is neither necessary nor sufficient for our ultimate goal, which is to reduce injustices. A stronger implication would be that theorists of justice should stop all transcendental theorising, since it does not contribute anything towards that goal or any other valuable goal. I don’t think Sen would endorse the strong implication, given how importance he judges John Rawls’s theory of justice, which he classifies as a transcendental theory. I read Sen’s work, both in The Idea of Justice and other work, as supporting the weak implication.
Sen’s concern is that theories of justice should ultimately be ‘practical’. Sen describes the aim of the theory of justice as “to clarify how we can proceed to address questions of enhancing justice and removing injustice, rather than to offer resolutions of questions about the nature of perfect injustice” (p. ix). Not all philosophers espouse this view: some believe that proper role of political philosophy is not to answer the question what to do, but rather to seek the truth, whether or not the truth makes any difference to what we should do.
Of course, the truth-seeking and the practical need not be mutually exclusive. Indeed, the practical approach to justice needs to be based on true knowledge about the world and about justice, since otherwise the guidance that the philosopher harvests from her reasoning may be misleading. Yet we don’t necessarily need to know the full truth, and all possible details of the truth: at some point the added value to practice of further truth-seeking knowledge becomes infinitesimally small, and may therefore not be the best use of our scarce time.
There is a growing feeling among philosophers that the status incentives in the (Anglo-American) academic system are biased in favour of those seeking further details regarding the truth of justice, even if the added practical value has become tiny, and despite the fact that enormous amounts of work need to be done in non-transcendental theory. If we really care about justice, and not merely enjoy the intellectual stimulation that political philosophy offers, we should be doing something about it, for example by collaborating with policy scholars in figuring out how to design philosophically-sound justice-enhancing policies. Yet that kind of ‘applied’ or ‘interdisciplinary’ work, which is often muddy and requires special skills that not all philosophy educational programs offer, doesn’t enjoy high status in Anglo-American political philosophy. Are we having our priorities right?
Sen argues in The Idea of Justice that mainstream theorists of justice have their priorities wrong:
“Importance must be attached to the starting point, in particular the selection of some question to be answered (for example, ‘how would justice be advanced?’), rather than others (for example, ‘what would be perfectly just institutions?’). … Given the present balance of emphases in contemporary political philosophy, this will require a radical change in the formulation of the theory of justice” (9).
Let me call the argument that we need to shift the nature of contemporary theorizing about justice away from the transcendental truth-seeking, towards the practical, the Priorities Claim.
As argued above, the Priorities Claim is a weak implication of the Redundancy Claim, and this may perhaps explain Sen’s insistence of the Redundancy Claim; it is in any case consistent with the Redundancy claim, since it follows from it. As I tried to show, I believe that the Redundancy Claim is mistaken. However, the Priorities Claim also follows from another argument, to wit, Sen’s general argument about the present dominant practice of contemporary (Anglo-American) theorists of justice. In fact, I believe that many philosophers working on specific cases of justice, such as global justice, gender justice, or environmental justice, reject the Redundancy Claim but endorse the Priorities Claim. That particular position acknowledges that transcendental theory does have a role to play, but that its role should be much more limited than is currently the case. If the Redundancy Claim is mistaken but the Priorities Claim is correct, then I believe that nothing important is lost, and that the claim that is really important is vindicated. Yet I predict that arguing for the Priorities Claim will encounter strong resistance, given the deeply vested personal and institutional interests that are at stake.