This Seeming Brow of Justice | The Nation


This Seeming Brow of Justice

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In a somewhat technocratic mode, Sen treats the options presented in public debate as given in advance, as if coming up with a menu of options did not require inspiration. But even if Sen is right that transcendent schemes can play no direct role in adjudicating between local alternatives, it seems obvious that they have an important effect in helping to precipitate those alternatives. Much more important, utopias have always galvanized people to advocate even piecemeal reform in the unjust circumstances of the world as it is. Sen wants to reach the conclusion that the "hiatus" between his "relational approach" to justice and the "transcendental approach" is "quite comprehensive," but he completely ignores the value of the transcendent as providing a fund of ideas and motivation. It is key to both the theoretical elaboration of and the practical quest for even proximate reforms.

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Samuel Moyn
Samuel Moyn is professor of law and history at Harvard University. His most recent book is Human Rights and the...

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Thus, even if Sen is right that a fetish for a "complete" blueprint of social justice is a distraction, it does not necessarily follow that confining inquiry into justice into a discussion of proximate options is the sole alternative. One of the attractions of his approach, of course, is that it provides a warrant for dropping scholastic controversy so that rival schools can converge in alleviating "manifest injustice." But even such consensually supported goals have to be defined; even a world without slavery, to take Sen's favorite example, had to be imagined, and the energy for its achievement summoned and mobilized.

It's also worth stressing that Sen's approach works best when the injustice at issue is a geographically local or chronologically episodic one. The sad devastation of a hurricane or even a widespread horror like human trafficking call for interventions that, no matter how difficult, are confined to the outrage at hand. Of course, such upheavals can end up revealing structural wrongs the public had preferred not to see--as in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. All the same, responding to a fundamentally systemic injustice like global poverty is inseparable from a more controversial positive agenda, in theory and practice; in modern times it has typically been a positive agenda of collective freedom. The main reason is that the campaign for social justice, especially on a global scale, intrudes too profoundly into the fundamentals of existing social arrangements not to make the most basic questions of justice pressing, and the rivalry of what one might call comparatively transcendent schemes hugely relevant. In Sen's thought, his famous proposal--further developed here--to make self-realization in all its multifaceted forms, or "capabilities," the metric of justice could not but prompt an open-ended campaign for improvement far beyond assuaging the crying shame of manifest deprivation.

In this regard, Sen has just as interesting, if not as vexed, a relationship to modern social movements as Sandel. Large-scale mobilizations are arguably at the heart of what both imagine justice to involve, but they are not as well integrated into the theories as Sen 
and Sandel think. Sen acknowledges that indignation, not just argument, matters in imagining justice, though he concludes that such emotion is relevant only insofar as it can be translated into a comparison of available reforms. Just as Sandel praises the moral and even religious basis of campaigns for slave emancipation and civil rights, Sen cites them as examples of movements that abolished glaring evils. Sen has notably kind words for the alternative globalization movements of recent history. It is very doubtful, however, that such movements have worked by confining their claims to proximate fixes alone instead of by imagining distant utopias. The reverse is true, both throughout modern history and in recent times, as the slogan of alternative globalization--"another world is possible"--suggests. It is better to think of local comparison and grandiose ambition not as mutually exclusive, as strict alternatives, but as mutually necessary.

Like Sandel, finally, Sen is so wary of the definition of justice as social freedom that he fails even to acknowledge it, despite its modern standing and appeal. Sen repeatedly indicts Rawls's absolute preference for the value of personal liberty over "economic or social equity"--it is "extremist" and "overkill," he says--but only to emphasize a moderate version of it rather than to dispense with the dichotomy between liberty and society. Sen's dichotomy is a version of Sandel's: collective life is a means for the advancement of personal capacity and freedom, and no more.

For all their legitimate striving for participation in the eternal concerns of Plato and the Bible (and Akbar), Sandel and Sen are writing for a world in which academic philosophy has clearly taken on board the liberal victory over communism in the cold war and allowed it to shape the terms of the debate. (If there are figures in academic political philosophy who are exceptions, like the recently deceased G.A. Cohen, they are ones that prove the rule.) Whether or not the marginalization of justice as collective freedom is defensible, the striking fact is that for Sandel and Sen it just goes without saying.

If liberalism deserved to win its battle to the death with communism, the resulting constraints on liberal political thought are nevertheless not easily justifiable. The consensus is all the more striking since philosophy is intended to be more than a creature of its moment: it is not supposed to restate temporary biases as universal truths. While critical of the promulgation of "sterile utopia" in his field, Sandel acknowledges the risk that philosophy could degenerate into an apology for its time and place: "a self-consistent skein of prejudice," as he puts it. That risk will strike you as rather serious after reading these books, if you think the viability of an account of justice as collective freedom was not exclusive to communism and therefore did not expire with it. There have been, after all, democratic approaches to collective emancipation and social freedom, notably in the Anglo-American age of progressive reform, as well as around the world.

At the same time, the end of the cold war has forced liberal philosophy to reckon with phenomena it has not been particularly well suited to incorporate, in the variety of its revisions of and departures from Rawlsian thinking: most of all, the claims of diverse cultures and the deepening of scandalous economic inequality on a global scale. These phenomena are novel only for contemporary liberalism, not for other philosophical traditions or in the lives of ordinary people. Sandel and Sen have tried to adapt to these circumstances by plotting a different theoretical course, but it is one beset by a great tension. They esteem social movements as the most vital tribunes of justice but fail to honor the aspiration to collective freedom that has so often animated them.

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