Moshe Halbertal on Amartya Sen

Moshe Halbertal has a review in TNR of  The Idea of Justice By Amartya Sen (Harvard University Press) He summarizes Sen as claiming that there is no one principle of justice and that there is no overarching ethical principle, we deal with the situation at hand. In this, Sen is against Rawl’s grand egalitarian system. Halbertal thinks that if Sen means that no grand theory that we cannot decide between theories then he is incorrect. But if he means that there should be no grand overall theory then he has a point. Halbertal thinks Sen shows too much sympathy for the libertarian position. Halbertal showing his own sympathies frames Sen as a pluralist.

Once upon a time, not that long ago a book like this would have received book reviews from Rabbis like Walter Wurzburger. They would discuss where the ideas in the book fit into various halakhic thinkers and how to formulate a Jewish version. Now we have a orthodox halakhic libertarianism facing a liberal non-philosophic egalitarianism. People use the term “values” as a way of moving beyond halakhic formalism, but there needs to be the prior discussion consisting of: which ethics?

As I said before, we lost out by not producing in the 1990’s a Jewish reading of Rawls, Nozick, Sandel, and Waltzer.  I believe at this point, it would still be well received. In addition, it is a shame that after the culture wars, Halbertal has to defend academic discourse on ethics from the charge of relativism. Not long ago, the introductory course in ethics taught Kantian deontology, utilitarianism, intuitionism, and prudence in equal measure and instructed the students that you need to know all of them for reasoned discourse.

In his introduction to The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen asks the reader to imagine a scenario that will figure prominently throughout the book. Three children are arguing among themselves about which one of them should have a flute. The first child, Anne, is a trained musician who can make the best use of the flute. The second child, Bob, is the poorest of the three and owns no other toys or instruments. Clara, the third contender, happens to be the one who, with hard sustained labor, made the flute. Since philosophers try to reason about such distributive problems, each of the children can enlist support from a grand theory of justice that originated in what seems to be an impartial position in moral philosophy.

Utilitarians will opt for giving the flute to Anne, since their criteria for distribution is to give preference to the scheme that will maximize overall utility, thus granting the instrument to the individual who can derive the most pleasure out of it. Bob, the poorest child among the three, will be chosen by egalitarians, since the main concern of their distributive approach is to narrow social and economic gaps as much as possible. And libertarians, who emphasize rights-based ownership entitlements, will claim that Clara deserves the flute as the producer of the object, and that no other distributive concerns–egalitarian or utilitarian–can supersede her entitlement to what she naturally owns.

.Rawls himself defended an egalitarian position. According to Rawls, perfect equality should have been the rule, but rewarding capable people with differential income will create an incentive for them to raise the production of the sum total of goods, which in a system of fair distribution might end up benefiting the people who are at the bottom of the economic ladder.The ultimate merit of Rawls’s work did not lie only in his own theory, but in the extraordinarily broad discussion that it generated

G.A. Cohen’s in Rescuing Justice and Equality, which challenged Rawls from the left and advocated a stricter egalitarianism; and Robert Nozick’s sophisticated libertarian response in Anarchy, State, and Utopia; and Michael Walzer’s development, in Spheres of Justice, of a communitarian approach to the problem.

Sen rejects, as a matter of principle, the nature of Rawls’s project…According to Sen, a sustained and reasoned argument about justice should focus on a result-oriented comparative approach among different conditions, rather than on an attempt to formulate the philosophical conditions of a perfectly just society…. Injustices are altogether easier to identify than the conditions of perfect justice. And injustices can be identified on the basis of various and competing grand theories, which may overlap in such actual comparative judgments.

Grand theories become perverse when they postulate themselves as exclusive, when they wish to solve all the complex issues with one decisive and final principle.

The best way of making comparative judgments is by considering multiple points of view as they are refined by different theories, and weighing the diverse claims that they make.. Only when philosophy is deployed in this patient and pluralistic way can we apply it usefully to real people and real conditions….It is important to note also that Sen’s acceptance of the limited and relative force of each grand theory does not deteriorate into any kind of moral relativism. Pluralism is not relativism. Choosing between different approaches and policies is not an expression of taste or prejudice, a purely subjective effusion of passion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s