Some notes on ‘The Idea of Justice’

1 Dec

Doing some reading of Sen’s ‘The Idea of Justice’, and thought I’d take some notes for later perusal:

Sen is talking about Rawls’s original position:

– no knowledge of personal identity, attributes or endowments.

– representatives choose, under these conditions, the rules for the fair running of society.

He doesn’t go into details, but from what I can remember two fundamental rules emerge:

1. Liberty and freedom of opportunity is given a huge priority. 

2. The institutions of society must be structured so that those worst off in society are as well off as they could be, out of all possible alternative setup of institutions. 

Nice quote from Rawls: ‘…I want to say that one conception of justice is more reasonable than another, or justifiable with respect to it, if rational persons in the initial situation would choose those principles over those of the other for the role of justice. Conceptions of justice are to be ranked by their acceptability to persons so circumstanced’. (Page 55, in Sen).

Sen’s overview of his critique of Rawls’s two principles that emerge from the OP:

– ‘I have to express considerable scepticism about Rawls’s highly specific claim about the unique choice, in the original position, of one particular set of principles for just institutions, needed for a fully just society. There are genuinely plural, and sometimes conflicting, general concerns that bear on our understanding of justice…Many of them share features of being unbiased and dispassionate, and represent maxims that their proponents can ‘will to be a universal law’. Indeed, plurality of unbiased principles can, I would argue, reflect the fact that impartiality can take many different forms and have quite distinct manifestations. For example, in the illustration with the competing claims of three children over a flute, considered in the Introduction, underlying each child’s claim there is a general theory of how to treat people in an unbiased and impartial way, focusing, respectively, on effective use and utility, economic equity and distributional fairness, and the entitlement to the fruits of one’s unaided efforts’. (This is all from Sen, 56-7).

An immediate objection springs to mind: how can we say that the general theory of ‘entitlement to the fruits of one’s unaided efforts’ is an unbiased and impartial theory? Seems obvious that this is exactly the kind of theory that Rawls’s original position shows IS in fact biased, in that we don’t have full control over the productiveness of our labour efforts!


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