Alan Thomas ‘Critique and Utopia’: Amartya Sen’s Critique of Rawls’s ‘Transcendental Institutionalism’ Friday November 30 15:15

‘Critique and Utopia’: Amartya Sen’s Critique of Rawls’s ‘Transcendental Institutionalism’

15:15 – 16:00


Part of the workshop ‘Fairness and Norms’ that accompanies the 2013 Descartes Lectures



This paper evaluates Sen’s critique of Rawls in The Idea of Justice. It is argued that Sen and Rawls are simply at cross-purposes over the predicates “ideal” and “non- ideal”. Sen’s critique has two components: one diagnostic and one normative. The diagnostic component claims that a “transcendental institutionalist”, such as Rawls, assesses institutions to the exclusion of individual motive; furthermore, he does so from the standpoint of an ideal or “perfect” theory of justice. The normative component claims that the theorist of justice ought, rather, to compare two specific social states via the method of pair-wise comparison without the assumptions of “ideal theory”. The linchpin of the overall argument that connects the two components is this: assume that pair-wise comparisons can be made only if one presupposes the underlying ideal of that social state than which none other is better. This assumption would be analogous to a “chain fallacy”: the scope confusion involved in arguing from “every chain has an end” to “there is an end to all chains”. Sen attributes this fallacy to Rawls: the putative assumption that the method of pairwise comparison is a local instance of the application of the content of a “perfect” theory of justice. Any local and specific appeal to the “more just than” relation between two social states depends on the idea of the “identification of a possibly unavailable perfect situation that could not be transcended”. [Sen, 2009, p. 9] His conclusion is that dropping the goal of formulating a theory of “perfect” justice allows one to proceed with the method of pairwise comparison alone. The goals of Sen’s approach to justice are “enhancing” justice or “removing” injustice with no role for utopian speculation.

This paper demonstrates that Sen’s critique both rests on flawed assumptions and is normatively unacceptable in its own right (independently of issues about Rawls exegesis). Sen’s account reveals a mistake about the use of the terms “ideal” versus “nonideal” in Rawls’s own use. These terms refer to the assumption that a theory is implemented with full compliance or with less than full compliance; it is hard to see how comparisons of social states in terms of justice could dispense with this distinction. Rawls adds further distinctions: between non-compliance that is deliberate and voluntary or non-compliance that it the product of natural limitations or unfortunate circumstance. Nothing here implies that “ideal” is a predicate of the content of Rawls’s two principles; the word “perfect” is used for the relation between those principles and the institutional arrangements that express them. Sen has undoubtedly identified an issue here: Rawls takes it to be important to a theory of justice that it reflexively explain the possibility of its generating support for itself over time. There is a question as to whether these functional criteria are intrinsic, or extrinsic, to Rawls’s process of “construction”. If these criteria are intrinsic to the process, then G A Cohen complained that Rawls was tainting the content of justice. But, on the extrinsic reading that I favour, when one asks the question of whether the theory is feasible under ideal conditions (where full compliance is assumed) or non-ideal conditions (where it is not), this issue is wholly distinct from the truth or falsity of the principles of justice thus applied. Rawls’s functional criteria are not determinative for the truth of the two principles; one can agree with that point while not agreeing with Cohen that this leads to Platonism. So it is not appropriate for Sen freely to substitute, as he does, the word “perfect” for the word “ideal” in his characterization of the content of the two principles that make up justice as fairness.

This use of “perfect” instead of “ideal” maneuvers Rawls into a position where his view can be characterized by Sen as committed not to a transcendental account of justice, but to a transcendent one, specifically, a form of Platonism of justice of the kind explicitly endorsed by Rawls’s critic, Cohen. If “ideal theory” is not “perfect theory” then Sen’s putative methodological innovation can be explained as one aspect of what Rawls would call imperfect compliance theory. The method of pairwise comparison is not a method that Rawls cannot endorse. So it cannot be true that the contrast between “transcendental institutionalism” and “realization-focused comparison” is “quite momentous”. [Sen, 2011, p. 7] Furthermore, there are Rawlsian reasons to reject Sen’s alternative of working within non-ideal theory alone without the normative goal of formulating a realistically utopian view. A. John Simmons has argued that Sen’s restrictive comparativist methodology has untoward consequences in setting ourselves appropriate normative goals in the theory of justice. As Simmons notes, all of Rawls’s adjustments in non- ideal theory are with the overall and integrated goal of pursuing justice as a whole. I examine this problem in the specific case of the claim that we ought to retreat from welfare state capitalism and endorse a property-owning democracy instead. I contrast a Rawlsian view on that issue with one recently put forward by Ingrid Robeyns, where Robeyns puts Sen’s methodology to use. It is argued that Robeyns strategy illustrates the pitfalls of restricting oneself to comparativist claims alone in the theory of justice.

April 12, 2013 Workshop on Free Market Fairness, Tilburg University

A one day workshop at Tilburg University on the themes arising from John Tomasi’s book, Free Market Fairness, Princeton University Press, 2012. Professor Tomasi will give the keynote address after a discussion of the main theses of his book by political philosophers from the Netherlands, the UK, the USA and Switzerland.

Academics and postgraduate researchers are welcome to attend: there will be a registration fee of 40 euros that covers lunch and beverages over the course of the day. (If you do not require either beverages or meals – there are catering venues on campus – and you are a student or staff member of a university in the Netherlands, attendance is free.)

If you plan to attend please e-mail a.thomas [at]

Venue: The Ruth First Room

09:30 – 10:00 Alan Thomas (Tilburg) ‘Rawls and Tomasi on Robust Economic Liberty’.

10:00 – 1o:15 Discussion of paper 1

10:15 – 10:45 Waheed Hussain (Wharton School, U Penn)  ‘Self-Authorship and Recognition in a Market Democracy’.

10:45 – 11:00 Discussion of paper 2

11:00 – 11:15 Coffee break

11:15 – 11:45 Ryan Muldoon (U. Penn) tbc.

11:45 – 12:00 Discussion of paper 3

12:00 – 12:30 Ingrid Robeyns, (Rotterdam) tbc.

12:30 – 12:45 Discussion of paper 3

12:45 – 14:00 Lunch at Tilbury Restaurant (on campus)

14:00 – 14:30   Martin O’Neill (York) ‘Justification, Reciprocity and Maximin: Saving Justice from Neoclassical Liberalism’.

14:30 – 14:45 Discussion of paper 4

14:45 – 15:15 Lisa Herzog, (Goethe University, Frankfurt) ‘Preaching to the Lockean Choir? Human Motivation and the Feasibility of Economic Utopias’.

15:15 – 15:30 Discussion of paper 5

15:30 – 15:45 Coffee Break

15:45 – 16:15 Thad Williamson (Jepson School of Leadership Studies)  ‘Exploitation of labor, positional goods, and political economy: three challenges to/for Free Market Fairness’

16:15 – 16:30  Discussion of paper 6

16:30 – 17:30 Keynote Lecture, John Tomasi (Brown University)

17:30 – 18:00 Round Table Discussion: The Market Democratic Research Programme

19:00 Conference Dinner, Meesters Restaurant

Ethics Research Group: Sander Voerman Tuesday October 23 15:00 – 17:00

‘Moral Disagreement and Human Psychology’

Room Dante Building 119

Intuitively, moral discourse involves moral disagreements: situations such that when A says “doing X is right under circumstances C,” B can contradict A by saying “X is not right under C.” This implies that there is a certain kind of objectivity to moral judgment, but what kind? According to Michael Smith, A gets his judgment right if and only if all conceptually possible agents get it right when approving of X under C and wrong when disapproving of X under C, regardless of how their contingent psychological attitudes might differ from those of A. By contrast, what I call “relationalist” accounts analyze the truth conditions of a moral judgment in terms of such contingent attitudes of the agent making the judgment. Smith argues that such accounts fail to account for the objectivity required to explain moral disagreements. In this paper I defend relationalism against Smith. On the account I have developed elsewhere, the truth conditions of moral judgments involve opaque volitional attitudes of an agent that this agent herself can be mistaken about. Thus, A and B might both have such attitudes in support of doing X under C, which A is getting right and B wrong. I argue that this explains their disagreement if A and B assume, as part of the conversational implicature of their judgments, that their opaque attitudes are the same. I examine two types of reasons for making such an assumption. The first is when species-wide attitudes are involved as a matter of common human psychology. This makes moral judgments just as objective as judgments about human physiology such as “the heart is located in the left side of the body.” I speculate why certain basic moral values might be shared in this species-wide sense. The second type of reason applies in situations where A and B share a cultural background that may be constitutive of the attitudes at stake. This implies that the attitudes will not be shared cross- culturally, which may seem to imply an unattractive cultural relativism. However, I will argue that relativism is usually understood in a transparent sense, and that my opaque relationalism is a much more plausible alternative. Furthermore, I will argue that the absence of shared attitudes may even be plausible in certain intra-cultural cases. Thus, if we must choose between saving m loved ones or n strangers, with m<n, the vaguely determinable m/n ratio at which one should start saving the strangers might not even be shared intraculturally, let alone species-wide.