Monday, November 01, 2010

Samuel Freeman reviews Sen's "The Idea of Justice"

In "The New York Review of Books" (October 14, 2010), Professor Samuel Freeman reviews Amartya Sen's "The Idea of Justice" (Harvard University Press, 2009):

"A New Theory of Justice"
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"Sen is mainly concerned with adressing existing injustices. He considers Rawls's ideal theory irrelevant for his purpose: for addressing injustices in the real world, it is neither necessary nor sufficient to know what a perfectly just society is. (....) To address real-world issues, we should assess and rank in order actual, realizable states of affairs from an impartial point of view, and then choose the best alternatives according to the degree that they embody justice and other important social values. Sen says that a precondition for reliability of our choices is that we engage in public reasoning with other impartial individuals.(....)

To contend that there is no need for ideal theory suggests that we should be satisfied with the alternatives currently on offer and haven't any reason to think about long-term or extensive reforms. The Whigs had no need of John Locke's radical social contract doctrine to justify the English Revolution of 1688. But Locke's main ideas - the people are sovereign; government originates in their content; government's power is fiduciary and exercisable only for the common good; citizens have inalienable rights justifying a right of resistance when violaled - supplied the conceptual frame for our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and subsequently for many others. Whether ideal principles of justice are necessary depends upon one's aims and long-term perspective.

Even in the short term, ideal principles are often called upon to motivate people toward political reform. Consider the galvanizing effects of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. The aspirations King appealed to were grounded in political ideals and ideal principles and could not have been conveyed by focusing on practicable alternatives offered up by the status quo."

Samuel Freeman is Professor of Philosophy and Law at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of "Justice and the Social Contract. Essays on Rawlsian Political Philosophy" (Oxford University Press, 2006) and "Rawls" (Routledge, 2007). He is the editor of John Rawls's "Collected Papers" (Harvard University Press, 1999).

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