Amartya Sen’s Redundancy and Priority Claims in The Idea of Justice

by Ingrid Robeyns on April 29, 2010

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.



mpowell 04.29.10 at 8:15 pm

The argument that transcendental theory is not very important is quite an odd one in the context of the United States political environment. There is a significant political movement backed in part by the philosophical principle that excessive taxation is equivalent to theft. It seems that if there is such disagreement over transcendental theory that the direction we should be going is unclear, I think there is more work to be done. But maybe it is only on the persuading side of things.


Geoffrey 04.29.10 at 10:57 pm

Or, mpowell, it may well be that a transcendental theory of justice, burdened as they always are, with endless cycles of debate over first principles, actually interfere with getting down to brass tacks, as it were, and dealing with specific cases of injustice, rather than sitting around mulling over whether this or that polity is more or less just.Precisely because, as the first alleged example offered to prove the necessity of some transcendental theory of justice, the question of which society is more just begs so many questions, based upon principles and definitions which themselves are matters of dispute without any serious resolution possible, attempting to address them is not a transcendental issue, but rather a practical, political one. Libertarians and economic conservatives would certainly deem country A as being more just precisely because the cost in higher poverty rates is balanced by the opportunities for economic and social advancement and offering a larger pool of potential workers long-term employment. Social democrats would, of necessity, see these same costs as in and of themselves unjust, the subject of needed political change.

Not having read Sen yet, I find the argument presented above, to say the very least, indicative of a certain failure to understand that the need to address injustice as it exists is not a philosophical issue, but fundamentally a political, that is to say practical, issue. Whether or not this or that party of group in a given society has a coherent transcendental theory of justice, or vision of a truly just society is irrelevant precisely because of the incommensurability of various theories. The implementation of policies in pursuit of rival first principles is at the heart of any political project; the pursuit of justice – economic, social, civic, legal – is certainly the stated goal of any political party. What those words mean, how they are represented in the real world is the source of political discontent and debate.


soru 04.30.10 at 12:39 am

In order to assess such a claim of perfect gender justice

Surely any such claim can be assessed perfectly adequately by posing the question ‘is it the real world we are talking about?’


John Quiggin 04.30.10 at 12:39 am

This seems to be related to the more directly political issues I’ve been wondering about in my last few posts. I’ve been taking the view that we should be paying more attention to transcendent (or at least long-term, visionary) goals as a way of motivating our pursuit of incremental improvements. But I agree that this is essentially a matter of priorities, rather than logical necessities.


Justin W. 04.30.10 at 1:32 am

Hi Ingrid. To whom is the Priorities Claim supposed to apply? Is it just political philosophers who “really care about justice”? Or is it all political philosophers? Or all philosophers who really care about justice, whether their current specialization is in political philosophy or not? Or anyone, including non-philosophers, who really cares about justice and who could do applied philosophy if properly trained?

I ask these questions because it seems like there are many “transcendental” type political philosophers who would be not particularly good (for various reasons) at doing the kind of applied work the Priorities Claim recommends. So it seems we should not apply the Priorities Claim to them.

You might reply that at least some of these people could learn to do that kind of work well, and since the achievement of justice is important, they should. The worry about this latter claim is that it applies very broadly; there are many people–most of them probably not currently professional philosophers–who could learn to do that kind of work well. Does the Priorities Claim apply to them, too? I take it that you want to answer this question with a “No,” so as to avoid the Priorities Claim from being too demanding–that is, to keep it from asking mathematicians, business executives, novelists, etc., to switch their careers to applied philosophy.

But what is the basis for saying that political philosophers not doing applied work (but could) are subject to the Priorities Claim while other people who are not political philosophers and not doing applied work (but could) are not subject to the Priorities Claim? I know this sounds like a stupid question, with an obvious answer. That obvious answer is something along the lines of “the first group are already political philosophers, and it is not a big deal for them to shift their priorities slightly, especially if they really care about justice.” But I doubt that this obvious answer will be satisfactory to anyone who went into political philosophy because what they liked were the “transcendental” problems.

An additional question is why the Priorities Claim tells those subject to it to do applied philosophy. It may be true not just of “transcendental” political philosophy but also of applied political philosophy that, in regards to the promotion of justice, it “may… not be the best use of our scarce time.” Maybe we should all be out there more, helping each other out, joining volunteer organizations, contributing to NGOs, lobbying our governments, etc. Maybe the Priorities Claim should tell us to go into politics, or to become wealthy so as to be able to have more of a say.

P.S. You kind of poisoned the well a bit with the last sentence of your post (perhaps unintentionally).


jdw 04.30.10 at 1:50 am

John Quiggin @ 4: And those posts of yours triggered some interesting comments. Hopefully a way can be found to continue that. For instance, I’d be interested in seeing you try and summarize in some way what’s been said there…


Chris Bertram 04.30.10 at 6:44 am

There seems quite a lot wrong here to me …..

* The suggestion that political philosophers are overly concerned with “transcendental justice” seems to depend on a characterizaton of what most of them are doing which is hard to accept. Rawls and Rawlsians, for example, seem to me to be very practically oriented, albeit at a high level of abstraction (but abstraction is on a different axis to practicability). Unless the suggestion of the priority claim is that they should give up political philosophy in favour of policy studies. Of course, if they were to do that, I think we’d rapidly find ourselves pushed back in a more abstract direction as people sought justification for the values embodied in those policies.

* Because I think the characterization false (and, in Sen’s hands self-serving in a bad way since it seems transparently motivated by a desire to distinguish himself from the pack) I also think some of the claims about prestige are also false. Do Samuel Freeman, Joshua Cohen, Allen Buchanan enjoy lower prestige than some other political philosophers who are doing something much more “trancendental” than they are? No. (Of course, the claim would be better cast in terms of people who do the type of thing they are doing, rather than in terms of cherry picked prestigious people.)

* The idea that incentives should be switched in favour of work with a policy payoff seems really really misguided in a world where that is already happening to the nth degree. (See, e.g. the “impact” criterion in British funding decisions in the humanities.)


JoB 04.30.10 at 7:53 am

I think Chris B. makes a very compelling case indeed.


Ingrid Robeyns 04.30.10 at 8:15 am

Justin, I’ll take back that last sentence – you are right that I should not have added that one. You ask the pertinent question to whom the priorities claim applies. I think it applies to a collectivity, namely to all scholars who have ‘justice’ as their subject. These are primarily philosophers, but could also be others. The claim would definitely NOT be that each and everyone should prioritise the nontranscendental, but rather that in terms of the total output, and the status attached, more weight should be put on the nontranscendental.

Chris, I seem not to have been able to get my point across. First, note that I did not write that I agree with Sen’s characterisation of Rawls as a transcendental theorist. I just report on how Sen classifies Rawls, which is a different thing. Second, there is a whole terrain in between Rawlsian theory with all its assumptions and idealisations and characteristics and ‘policy studies’ as they are right now. I deliberately and consciously write “philosophically-sound justice-enhancing” policy studies, which is, both in my opinion and in my experience, *very* different from the kind of policy studies that are currently valued by policy makers, and probably by those who are talking about ‘impact’ in the British case. And not all nontranscendental theory has a policy payoff, in fact much nontranscendental theory has no policy payoff but rather a “nonpolicy societal” pay off. There are many unjust policies, social institutions, social norms and traditions, that may need to be changed or abolished, which will go against the goals and interests of policy makers. But I admit that I should have stated this more clearly.


James Kroeger 04.30.10 at 12:20 pm

Amartya Sen:

“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.”

Well, let’s take a look at a theory of justice (mine) that can be used to evaluate different policies/strategies/institutions: My claim is that a society/nation/tribe can be said to be ideally just if all of the members of that society/nation/tribe always behave morally.

An action [or decision not to act] is moral if every member of the tribe would be better off if every one of them were to behave in exactly the same way. If every member of a tribe behaved only in moral ways, and they always chose not to behave in immoral ways (everyone would be worse of if everyone behaved the same way), then all individuals and sub-groups within the tribe would enjoy all of the rights that they are rightfully, and morally entitled to.

If all of a tribe’s members behaved morally at all times, then the resulting social organization would necessarily [by definition] experience the ideal of justice. This is because everyone would be behaving only in ways that made them all better off. No individual or sub-group would experience a benefit obtained at the expense of other members of the group [if they did, then the actions that brought about the benefit could not be considered moral. Prudential, perhaps, but not moral.].

So if my theory of justice is sound, is it not correct to say that it is both necessary and sufficient to provide a guide when choosing among various policies, strategies, or institutions?


chris 04.30.10 at 2:50 pm

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.

I disagree. It is sufficient to identify *any* hypothetical state of affairs that would be more just than the present one, and show that it would be more just than the present one. The exemplar need not be maximally just itself, only more just than the present state. (Of course if the present state *is* maximally just then no such exemplar can be found, and vice versa.)

IMO, this shows that the comparator is doing all the work.

Also — what if some maximally just societies don’t operate by “clear principles”? Societies are full of gray areas and the failure of clear principles to deal adequately with them is infamous. Maybe the desire for clarity of principles is just the tyranny of the discontinuous mind in another form and the right way to be more just is to take into account all the messy circumstances.

Reality doesn’t operate by soundbites, and so if there is a moral reality, it needn’t do so either.

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.

I find this idea suspect. (It’s interesting that we’re both applying mathematics to this question, but in different ways; I’m thinking in terms of a partial-order comparator and reachable societies as a graph, and you’re hypothesizing a real-valued function right away.) But even granting it, your conclusion still doesn’t follow: if there are restrictions on which societies can be changed into which other societies and you know what they are, then you can compare the endpoints directly before setting out down one path or the other. (This doesn’t solve the question of whether the fact that the path leads to T justifies what’s going to be suffered by the people who have to live in S in the meantime — but neither does a transcendent theory. Tradeoffs of present vs. future justice are another problem altogether.)

If you don’t know where the paths lead then a theory of a perfect society wouldn’t help you choose which (if any) path leads to one. Worse, if a perfect society isn’t actually achievable down *any* path, then knowing about it does you no good at all — you have to choose among possible societies and knowing that they’re all imperfect in different ways is no help.

Basically, if you have a comparator, then you can easily identify a perfect society if you find or conceive of one: it’s the one that is at least as just as all the alternatives. If you don’t have a comparator, then knowing that a bunch of societies are all imperfect doesn’t help you choose between them, and any step that doesn’t jump immediately to perfection effectively can’t be evaluated. Scalarization of course implies a comparator, but it seems to me to be an unnecessarily hard problem.

I suspect that I may have just recapitulated Sen, more or less, but if so, then ISTM that your arguments aren’t really getting at his point.


Geoffrey 04.30.10 at 7:48 pm

Chris @ #7 – “The idea that incentives should be switched in favour of work with a policy payoff seems really really misguided in a world where that is already happening to the nth degree. (See, e.g. the “impact” criterion in British funding decisions in the humanities.)”

OK, so which incentives should a political philosopher consider? For example, conservative politicians, basing their claims on the priority of economic opportunity in a competitive environment, including one with relatively low tax rates and a limited commercial regulatory environment, passed a series of laws in the 1980’s and 1990’s and early 2000’s in the United States Congress to create such an environment, with the promised payoff being higher-than-average economic growth, rising incomes and general wealth, decreased unemployment, and ultimately higher public revenues to fund various limited public projects conservative politicians can support. The theory behind this, of course, is that a just, moral society is one with the widest scope of economic possibility with no structural unemployment due to a large public sector limiting private sector employment and the incentive not to work due to a relatively strong social safety net.

The result was the near-collapse not only of the financial sector of the economy, but the on-going economic slump in an environment in which there is little available money for support of those left jobless and little hope that the employment picture, with stunted demand, improving any time soon.

Regardless of the soundness of the claims, or the tempting nature of the claims that lie behind these policies, it seems to me that there is no defending these claims as having any intellectual merit whatsoever. Precisely because, by putting the theory in to practice and finding it wanting, it is, I would say, disproved.

So, which priority should any public intellectual have? If an argument sounds good, seems to rest upon a generally accepted idea, not so much of a “perfect” society, but certainly a “just” society, yet in practice, it leads only to economic and social disaster, no matter how many really gifted, smart people support it, it is no less wrong.

This is not to say that political philosophy is irrelevant. On the contrary. It is only to argue that a priority has to be given to practical policy considerations precisely because to do otherwise is to be engaged in game-playing. While it might be possible, once we get down in to the policy weeds, to wonder whether or not a particular policy has any relation to issues of producing a just society (and I can certainly see where the kind of thing you mention can be a frustrating issue), it seems to me that if we insist that we all are on the same page about what constitutes a “just” society before actually doing something to create such a society, we won’t get anywhere. The health care debate on the left in the United States is a great example of this. In the end, while many on the left insisted a better bill was necessary precisely to form a more just social safety net, the really existing bill, as passed, is already paying off in terms of offering a more just, more equitable system of health care delivery. Left-wing resistance to the bill – those who called for it to be opposed – would have sided with the forces of reaction and the health insurance companies to deny this expansion of the social safety net due to the priority of theory over practical policy.


cripes 05.01.10 at 9:37 pm

Geoffrey posits a conflict of interests that certainly is a meme propagated by reaganomicists and crackpot libertarians: “Libertarians and economic conservatives would certainly deem country A as being more just precisely because the cost in higher poverty rates is balanced by the opportunities for economic and social advancement and offering a larger pool of potential workers long-term employment.”

But it just isn’t so.

Social/class mobility is markedly higher in Western European countries than the United States. And unemployment? Well, even if German unemployment is “officially” higher: 1) the DOL has been cooking the numbers since the 1980’s, current unemployment under previous calculations would be about 20%, and, 2) unemployment there brings two years income support, retraining, family benefits, and the prospect of decent wages even for non-college trades people. Sounds terrible don’t it?

Maybe practical justice has something to do with:

greater good for the greatest number
minimizing exploitation
preserving individual rights and privacy
baseline quality of life and opportunity somewhere above the dungeon

just suggesting.


Tim Wilkinson 05.02.10 at 2:11 pm

The redundancy claim seems to involve an intuitionistic moral-sense epistemology: you can see that possible situation X would be more just than situation Y. Can you, without considering abstract features of the two?

The very term ‘transcendental’ seems to confirm this: given that we can rank any pair of possible states, the transcendental theory tries to work out whatthe underlying reality must be. That’s not right at all. Any judgement of relative justice involves abstraction: if one of the comparators is non-actual, that is obviously the case, since possibilities are for our purposes obviously abstractions. But even in comparing two situations for ‘relative justice’, one is adjudging one to be better in some sense than the other. And that involves abstracting from the irrelevant features of the situation and concentrating on certain dimensions along which improvements can be made.

Unless intuitionism is correct in a strong, metaphysical sense, so that there just is no further fact which can be appealed to to explain, justify, elucidate the nature of the observed injustice (and if that’s the case, deliberation, argument and presumably disagreement are all impossible), then it is worth doing the activity Sen inflates into a grandiose-sounding ‘transcendental’ philosophy. Ranking two situations along a justice dimension is useless (unless one can be magically substituted for the other) if you don’t identify what ordinary, causal (non-evaluative?) features need to be changed in order to increase the ‘degree’ of justice.

Justice is itself an abstract ideal. A secular ontology of natural/moral/normative rights, for example, sees them as the (positive) rights people should have. The question of which aspects of actuality are to be held constant in deciding the ideal of what should be is a good one. The answer is not ‘everything’: that would mean actuality is always entirely just. It is also not ‘nothing’: that would sever any connection with reality and practical concerns. The answer is something like ‘everything that can’t or shouldn’t be changed’ – the specification of abstract ideal situations, which provide the ultimate standard of justice, will be premised on ‘deep facts’ about human nature, the good, the conditions of justice, etc., but not on superficial, alterable facts. And opinions about which facts these are will of course differ and have to be thrashed out.

As Ingrid points out, a long-term path to greater justice may not be compatible with every step increasing justice. Without some idea of what justice (‘perfect justice?’) amounts to, it’s not going to be possible to address this issue. One should always moderate one’s plans, but never one’s ideals, according to what is immediately achievable. Such achievability constraints as are appropriate are already built in to ideals like justice, by way of the deep facts that inform and give sense to them.

Not only path-dependence needs to be taken account of though. The simplified principles involved in pretending there is no ‘transcendental philosophy’ being done are likely to be akin to ‘ceteris paribus’ laws – i.e. not much use in real conditions. You have to consider all the relevant aspects of the situation and join them up in order to get to the best way forward.

Of course all this is very difficult and will no doubt be done imperfectly, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tried at all. It may be necessary to depart from ideals in a variety of senses and for a variety of reasons, but don’t pretend that this means there is no ideal.

Geoffrey: “Libertarians and economic conservatives would certainly deem country A as being more just precisely because the cost in higher poverty rates is balanced by the opportunities for economic and social advancement and offering a larger pool of potential workers long-term employment.”

And there was me thinking that Libertarians regard justice as all about property rights, and not any particular consequence of their enforcement.

Comments on this entry are closed.