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Glen Newey on Amartya Sen’s ‘The Idea of Justice’
Posted on Apr 1, 2010
By Glen Newey
Suppose that more than one property goes to deciding if an arrangement is just. As Sen says, one arrangement may do better on one count, and another on another, so one may not know which is more just, all things considered. The idea that we cannot fully rank different arrangements relies either on scepticism about relative weightings, or on the claim that the different goods are incommensurable, that is to say, cannot both be measured on a single scale of value. Sen is a bit rude about incommensurability: he dismisses as ‘feeble’ the idea, often voiced by value-pluralists, that one might confront incommensurability in having to choose, say, between a Hazel Blears speech and a poke in the eye. So presumably Sen favours scepticism. But scepticism seems not to do the job: then one can’t say that, in deciding justice here and now, one needs a knowledge of ideal justice.
Sen’s implicit argument might be put this way. Justice is a practical matter. Feasibility is salient in practical matters: in thinking about what to do, the realisation that some action is practically impossible closes off that branch of the deliberative tree. So any mooted principles of justice that fly in the face of feasibility are not principles of justice at all; they are rather, in the pejorative sense, utopian, since they wish away practical constraints which will be with us not simply in the world as it is, but in any world one could sanely hope to reach. To take the most obvious example, distributive justice assumes, as Hume noted, relative scarcity: if everybody had as much as anyone could desire, the question of justice wouldn’t arise. If so, the problem of justice can be solved by imagining scarcity away. Naturally, that looks like a cheat. But imagining away non-compliance, lack of co-ordination, sub-prime motivation – and disagreement about justice itself – also seems like a cheat. Sen’s overriding point is that these worries can be put off by asking what it is best to do in the here and now, given what can be done.
Sen, then, calls for nyaya over niti. Unsurprisingly, his work on capabilities, developed with his sometime collaborator Martha Nussbaum, resurfaces in this connection. The original rationale, plausibly enough, lay in concern that the resource-based approach to distributive justice largely ignored the net impact which getting a particular handout has on its recipient’s life. One should look at capabilities net of resource inputs, rather than worrying only about who gets what. Take, for example, a disabled person on a high salary: using earnings to measure wellbeing overlooks the functional limitations that the disability imposes on him. This case seems straightforward. But generalising it to yield a basis for distributive justice is far from simple.
What is a capability? Sen’s earlier work on this bore the firm imprint, via Nussbaum, of Aristotle, who takes certain achieved capabilities as the mark of human flourishing. The Metaphysics distinguishes a dunamis, or capacity, from an achieved capability, or entelechia. Aristotle says the relation of entelechia to dunamis is like that between someone now using her capacity to see, and a normally sighted person whose eyes are shut. Sen sees capabilities as dunameis. For him, what matters is not just what someone actually does, but what they could do. But ‘could’ comes in different strengths: is adunamis more like an ability which, though currently dormant, could be exercised presently, like my ability to drive; or more like a potential, which could be realised only with a lot of pump-priming, like my tragically undeveloped potential to speak Finnish? As far as resource allocation goes, it presumably makes sense to create abilities rather than unrealised potentialities, as the latter can only benefit their possessor if they are converted into abilities that can be exercised securely, as Jo Wolff and Avner de-Shalit underline in their book Disadvantage. They use Sen’s example of wild honey gatherers in West Bengal, who run a significant risk of being eaten by tigers. Those who gather do so from economic necessity, and the fact that they are capable of gathering the honey may not offer much consolation. They are disadvantaged by having to seek their income at risk of death.
So it seems that it is secure abilities which the capabilities approach should treat as the currency of justice. This still leaves some big questions. While education sometimes inculcates generic abilities like numeracy and literacy, often it has more specific capacities in view, such as bagpipe tuition. Then there are capacities that the state probably won’t fund at all, like that for flea-training. Not everyone will get help from the state to develop her preferred capacities. The state has to take a view about what kinds of life are better, in violation of modern liberals’ belief in neutrality, according to which the state should take no position about the nature of the good life.
Then there is the fact that for some people, lack of function is a desideratum. They include not just mystic fasters and voluntary amputees, but also the millions of normals who run to fat or submit themselves to a blitz of drugs, drink and junk TV. On each of these counts, Sen’s best bet is the basically Aristotelian position that there are generic capacities which the good human life displays, and the state can try to instil these through education, even though it can’t guarantee that people won’t succumb to akrasia and cretinise themselves.
Sen could be accused of echoing conservatives who treat theory with impatience, and assert the primacy of practice. Occasionally, indeed, conservatives adopt a pragmatist bone-headedness – stolidity and want of imagination – as a pose. But this pose need not be all that pragmatism amounts to. Insofar as conservatism is not simply the flag of convenience in which an otherwise naked status quo wraps itself, it makes extant practices the launch pad for future action, as conservative thinkers like Michael Oakeshott argue. That will mean, indeed require, asking how far those practices need shaking up. But doing so leaves open all the options that are open. If it says otherwise, conservatism isn’t just pretending to be bone-headed.
The Idea of Justice valuably adjusts justice theory’s preoccupation with principles and institutional design. Orthodox theorists will not like the focus on practice-dependency. It leaves space for the charge – which might be worn as a badge of honour – that the account of justice is imperfectly theorised, or that talk of justice makes sense only where the practices already exist. It also invites the objection that practice has eclipsed principle entirely, and that there is nothing but a glut of localised norms – what Martin Hollis used to call ‘liberalism for liberals, cannibalism for cannibals’. How far one feels bothered by this is no doubt a personal matter. The slope at whose bottom the pit of moral relativism froths has never wanted for lubrication by op-ed journalists and academics. But, as often, relativism is beside the point. Even if beliefs about justice were globally uniform, there would still be a question about whether practice should take its bearings from an ideal set of principles.
What price justice? It is worth remembering that, like injustice, it does have a price. As Sen implies, the price is not usefully paid in the specie of eternity, an idea behind some psychopathically meliorist projects of modern times. There is always a political question about whether and why to take an interest in something – even the justitia whose fiat has been joy-ridden by philosophers on behalf of an absconded deity.
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