Justice in a Plural World

There is much talk about justice in the media. It has become a very popular word. And rightly so. In today’s world justice is very important – be it in the area of politics, economy or, increasingly, ecology. But what exactly is justice? Whom do we owe justice? And who are the “we”? What is the source of justice? What are its consequences? Is there something like the often invoked global justice? And if yes, what is its foundation (or: do we need a global government?)? What do democracy or human rights mean for justice? All these questions have been answered in many different ways by many different thinkers throughout history. One of those thinkers – a contemporary one – is Amartya Sen. His is the theory of justice I would like to present here (as it is discussed in his The Idea of Justice).

The most influential theory of justice in our time was developed from the 1950’s on by John Rawls. No surprise then that Rawls’s theory is the starting point for Sen’s analysis. He develops much of his theory on the basis of comparisons with Rawls’s. However, he makes a significant departure from it in many respects.

The first main departure is the focus and the modus operandi chosen. While Rawls stands in the tradition of the Enlightenment philosophers like David Hume, Immanuel Kant or Jean-Jacques Rousseau who sought to identify a “transcendental”, perfectly just society, Sen concentrates on a comparative theory which seems to be a far more practical and pragmatic approach. In this respect he names Adam Smith and Mary Wollstonecraft among his historic influences. Furthermore, the classical theories of justice followed an institutional (or contractarian) approach, while the approach to be summarized here is a realization-focused one. But so far the nomenclature. What does all that mean?

The reason why Sen chose to develop a theory that is comparative and realization-focused is that Rawls’s and related theories (being the alternative) manifest serious deficiencies. First, as Sen shows, the identification of a transcendental, perfectly just society is neither necessary nor sufficient to make comparative assessments between actual states of the world. It may be a nice thing to know what “perfect justice” is – but it is of little practical use. Secondly, through the concentration on hypothetical contracts (and the emerging institutions) only, the classical approaches to justice suppress actual realizations – inter alia by assuming, as Rawls explicitly did, that people in a (institutionally) perfectly just society would always behave in such a way as to sustain justice. This is unrealistic. Instead, Sen proposes a more holistic view, including institutions, processes and realizations.

Another important characteristic of Sen’s approach to justice is his emphasis of (open) impartiality – a concept “borrowed” from Adam Smith, who, in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, proposed the introduction of what he called an “impartial spectator”. The idea, embraced by Sen, is to imagine what “impartial spectators” from far and near would contribute to the assessment of a particular (just or unjust) state of the affairs. It can be seen as an alternative to the Rawlsian idea of the “veil of ignorance” (why the latter is not satisfying, will be discussed in the following). In The Idea of Justice Smith’s concept is further developed: on the one hand, there is a call for arguments (for instance, of what is just and what is not) that, at least potentially, could stand reasonable scrutiny (a generalization of the impartial spectator principle). On the other hand, Sen moves beyond the imagined impartial spectator and emphasizes public reasoning (also across borders) as a constitutive aspect of his theory of justice. Through public discussion, other views “automatically” get attention.

This emphasis of public discussion, and the whole concept of open impartiality, as opposed to Rawls’s veil of ignorance, has the virtue of providing means for overcoming local parochialism. In Rawls’s theory of justice, a social contract is agreed upon by members of a particular polity while the members are behind an imagined veil of ignorance (i.e., they are free of vested interests). However, under this approach, the views of others from outside the polity are ignored. This has, according to Sen, two consequences: first, in the modern world actions of one society/people influence the fate of others. Thus the interests of the latter should get attention. Secondly, the exclusion of voices from outside bears the danger of falling prey to local parochialisms that, objectively seen, are not at all good or just. An allowance for voices from far as well as near helps to overcome these obstacles.

However, plurality of views (or reasons, as Sen puts it) means that situations are thinkable in which agreement on what exactly is “just” is not possible. There may be good reasons, all of them impartial and objective, to embrace many different strategies. This is what Sen calls the possibility of partial rankings (following the vocabulary of the social choice theory, which Sen draws a lot from) – we may, for example, agree that some phenomena are clearly unjust and should be removed (e.g., the suffering of poor people who could be lifted from poverty with acceptable means), but not be able to agree on, say, what the “just” tax system is. Furthermore, the criteria (or indicators) of justice are allowed to be many under this approach – these may be liberties, capabilities or others. It is wrong to seek one indicator of well-being or justice (these two have much in common), but it is also wrong to give one particular aspect a total dominance (as Rawls did with his lexicographic ranking where liberty trumped anything else in every case). There is room for ambiguity in Sen’s theory – as long as it cannot be removed through impartial scrutiny and reasoning.

This leads us to the next important point: the central role of democracy. Amartya Sen’s understanding of democracy follows the definition by, inter alia, another great economist and philosopher, John Stuart Mill: democracy as “government by discussion”. I already have mentioned the emphasis of public reasoning in Sen’s theory. Interpreting democracy as government by discussion (and not, as is often done, in terms of institutions like ballots) is crucial to understanding the reach of the theory of justice discussed here. Since there is so much plurality in the world, we must try to find ways of agreeing on how to live with each other (and justice is a very important aspect of a functioning global community). Democracy, thus understood, also shields us from falling prey to parochialism. Furthermore, this understanding of democracy has an important consequence: we can talk about “global justice” without thinking about a global state or government (which is impossible under the framework of many other theories of justice):

The point is often made, with evident plausibility, that, for the foreseeable future, it is really impossible to have a global state, and therefore a fortiori a global democratic state. This is indeed so, and yet if democracy is seen in terms of public reasoning, then the practice of global democracy need not be put in indefinite cold storage. [p. 408]

From global justice the way is not far to human rights – a universal concept with tremendous importance for every inquiry into what is just. Here, Sen points out to the obligation of the global community (on all its levels) to do its best to secure these basic rights to everyone without exception. It is a central point, since justice begins with the most basic freedoms people have. However, it is important to make the (Kantian) distinction between “perfect obligations” following from human rights (e.g., the obligation not to kill or torture other people) and the less decisive “imperfect obligations” which allow for case-scrutiny (e.g., the obligation to help other people when they are in danger of being tortured – as far as one is able to help).

All in all, Sen’s is not what we may expect from a theory of justice – it is not an all-inclusive, ultimate framework of a “grand theory”. It is rather a kind of a patchwork, a highly pragmatic approach. And this, I would argue, is the main virtue of Sen’s theory of justice. For a grand (or general) theory tends to hold only under “general” circumstances. Meanwhile, the world we live in is a highly plural one – culturally, ethically (consider, for example, the plurality of… theories of justice) or economically. Exceptions are the rule. In such a plural world there is a need for a theory of justice that gives room for these pluralities. Amartya Sen provides one – and it is not only well-suited, but also ethically cogent.

2 thoughts on “Justice in a Plural World

  1. An interesting subject, specifically that these days the word “justice” is frequently used by people of differing backgrounds, cultures and religions. From what you are writing it is clear that the “limits” of justice are not clearly defind and the concept itself means many things to many people. Finally, isn’t the concept of justice frequently used to cover our unjust (?) intentions?


  2. Finally, isn’t the concept of justice frequently used to cover our unjust (?) intentions?

    I don’t think so. In some cases it may be so, especially when politicians are the ones invoking justice. But mostly people really mean justice when they invoke it. The problem is that it is not always clear what they mean by that. This is not to say that we cannot agree on some principles of justice – I think, despite all the cultural, historical and other differences, we are able to reach agreement in some areas. But to achieve that, deliberation is needed, not just “populist” use of a not nearer defined, but well sounding word. This is what lacks often, and this is what Sen emphasises, as I understand him.


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