Thursday, May 31, 2007

Sen Talk at Oxford

Last night Amartya Sen gave an excellent public lecture at the magnificent Sheldonian Theatre here in Oxford. His talk launched OPHI, Oxford’s Poverty and Human Development Initiative. Below I summarize the central arguments he advanced in his 60 minute talk.

Sen began the talk by recalling Edmund Burke’s judgment that Warren Hastings should be impeached. The example tells us something about justice. On the one hand, justice is the kind of thing it is impossible to be silent about. Yet justice is also difficult to speak about; it is hard to get judgments right.

Several theories of justice may yield the same conclusion (like Hastings should be impeached). In such cases any one of the potential supporting grounds will do. And this has implications for a theory of justice and how we make judgments concerning policies and institutions.

Sen called these cases—that is, cases when we arrive at the same conclusion via different grounds—circumscribed congruence.

He gave the example of Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. One could invoke numerous arguments against the decision:

(1) that more global agreement was needed
(2) the importance of being well informed on things like weapons of mass destruction…
(3) democracy… let the citizens decide this executive decision themselves
(4) will this bring about peace?

All of these arguments are relevant… but if can be shown that they all lead to the same conclusion then we do not have to establish which theory wins.

Sen then turned to the policy issues facing OPHI. And he began by discussing the most influential theory of justice- that of John Rawls. One could address poverty in a number of different ways:

(1) by invoking Rawls’s difference principle (max. the minimum)
(2) invoking utility
(3) Sen’s own argument (capabilities)

Sen himself did not believe that (2) should play a big role, in part because people adopt to deprivation, they cut down their desires, etc… However, Sen did not believe (2) should be shunned.

If the conclusions of these theories clash then we need to decide which one is right. But often they yield parallel results.

Sen talked about deprivation and “primary goods”. This focus on the means rather than the ends does not always do justice to those ends. In particular, to the fact that our ability to convert primary goods to ends my vary among people.

These debates should make use of other approaches (e.g. primary goods, utility)… maybe develop new approaches.

Sen then turned to the title of the talk: What Theory of Justice. He noted that he would not present any particular theory today, but he is working on a new book entitled Reasons of Justice. What we need is a broad, rather than narrow, theory of justice. The fact that there may be cases where the theory does not give us a “yes”/”no” answer may be an important part of the theory.

A complete theory may yield an incomplete ranking- it answers some cases, is silent on others. When the issue of priority has not be resolved a theory can still be helpful; it can bring new considerations to the fore.

Sen then emphasized the need for plurality by giving an example: 3 children are fighting over a flute, Who should get it?

The first child tells you he is the only one of the three that knows how to play it. The second child tells you he is poor and has no other toy of his own to play with. And the third tells you she has been working on the flute for months and then the others came along and claimed it.

For libertarians, egalitarians and utilitarians the answer in this case may seem obvious.

But all three claims have serious arguments in their favour.. none can be (to use Scanlon’s phrase) “reasonably rejected”.

Cases may arise where there is no conflict in examples like this (e.g. when the person who made the flute is also the poorest), in such cases this could lead to circumscribed congruence.

Sen then turned to Rawls. Rawls gives lexical priority to liberty (over other things). This makes sense when transgressions of liberty are very serious, but not when they are less serious. In the latter cases it is harder to defend Rawls’s stance. Hart make this objection to Rawls, and Rawls conceded some ground. We need a more responsive stance, one that does not impose lexical ordering.

Sen then turned to two important questions:

(1) What do we want from a theory? (e.g. comparative assessments on what makes society less unjust)

(2) What is the linkage between fairness and justice? (need for impartiality)

In addressing (1) Sen touched on issues in an article in the May 2006 issue of Journal of Philosophy

Sen outlined what he calls the “transcendental approach”, which searches for the perfectly just arrangement. This can be contrasted with the “comparative approach” which ranks social arrangements rather than focus on what is perfectly just. Sen believes these two approaches are distinct, and that we can do the latter without the former.

The focus on transcendental justice has had its problems, especially in global justice debates. Rawls and Nagel, for example, believe you need institutions and these don’t apply in global order so we end up with some minimal humanitarianism.

Sen then outlined the different ways neutrality has been invoked. For example, with John Rawls’s contract device. This version of “closed impartiality” only applies to members of a given society.

Sen concluded by emphasizing his departures from Rawls- that Sen gives different answers and tackles questions Rawls doesn’t ask. When it comes to global justice, we should adopt the comparative approach (and open impartiality). We need to make room for plurality and circumscribed congruence.

It was a real pleasure to get the opportunity to hear Sen’s talk. He is a profound and important thinker. One who effectively bridges the gap between theory and practice.