Thursday, 9 June 2016

Critique of Amartya Sen’s Theory of Justice, by Douglas J. Den Uyl and Douglas B. Rasmussen

Douglas J. Den Uyl and Douglas B. Rasmussen have written a critique of Amartya Sen’s book The Idea of Justice. The critique, "Why Justice? Which Justice? Impartiality or Objectivity?" has been published in The Independent Review.

Den Uyl and Rasmussen begin by pointing out that while Amartya Sen is known as an economist, he writes mostly on political and social philosophy. They state:

And although it may be news to some that a Nobel Laureate in economics is dealing with a basic issue of philosophy, it is no surprise to those who have followed the vast array of articles and books that Sen has produced over the years. He has dealt with questions of justice, inequality, and freedom for a long time. 

In the course of their 20-page critique, the authors provide an analysis and rebuttal of the major ideas that Amartya Sen has proposed in his book.

On Sen’s attempt to justify impersonalism, Den Uyl and Rasmussen have this to say:

One way to try to get around these concerns is to emphasize that Sen focuses primarily on justice in an interpersonal sense and to claim that interpersonal justice requires impersonal justice. In this regard, Sen follows John Rawls, who states in A Theory of Justice that “we think of the original position as the point of view from which noumenal selves see the world” (1971, 225). But does commitment to interpersonal living (even in a most open-ended and universal sense) require that one take on the viewpoint of a noumenal self or adopt ethical impersonalism? To say the least, it is highly unlikely that human beings are noumenal selves, and it seems that the goods and personal projects of individual human beings differ in real and legitimate ways. Hence, individuality matters with respect to morals and also in regard to making comparative judgments of justice that are supposed to apply to every human being. Regardless of how inconvenient individuality may be, political philosophers may not simply disregard it. Indeed, among political philosophers’ desiderata is an accommodation of both individualism’s moral propriety and human life’s profoundly social character. Thus, it is by no means clear how helpful Sen’s disregard of the individuality of persons and their lives is as an argumentative ploy.

They go on to state:

But this account simply does not work, and it smacks of a conformism that is antithetical to the very character of human flourishing. Certainly, to think of human flourishing without thinking of whose flourishing it is is not to think falsely, but to think that human flourishing can exist, or provide guidance for conduct, without being the flourishing of some individual or other is to think falsely. Moreover, it is false to regard the individual as simply a place-holder that instantiates the human good or various combinations of human capabilities. Such thinking turns human flourishing into an abstraction and denies it reality, and it forbids the very individuality of persons from entering into an account of human flourishing or playing a role in the judgments of practical reason. Indeed, to hold such a conception is to hold no conception of human flourishing at all.

Sen’s attempt to explain an ethical or political belief’s objectivity in terms of its ability to pass the scrutiny of the public-reasoning process does not suffice because although impartiality understood in an ordinary way is not controversial, it helps very little in providing a basis for determining what to select in making comparative judgments of justice. Moreover, if impartiality is understood in an impersonalist sense, it is unjustified and conflicts with the individualistic and personal features of human flourishing. We have, of course, an alternative way to understand the objectivity of an ethical or political belief: the realistic—and, for us, ultimately naturalistic—account of ethical objectivity that we champion. Such an approach to ethical objectivity is explicitly tethered to specific metaphysical and epistemological positions. Sen has chosen the particular route of public reasoning to account for ethical objectivity because he also has tethered himself to deep philosophical commitments.

Overall, the critique has many good ideas and it is worth reading.

It is also noteworthy that in the new book by Den Uyl and Rasmussen, The Perfectionist Turn: From Metanorms to Metaethics, the criticism of Amartya Sen has been expanded and integrated with the criticism of John Rawls, Martha Craven Nussbaum and others.


Douglas B. Rasmussen is a professor of philosophy at St. John’s University.
Douglas J. Den Uyl is vice president of educational programs and a senior fellow at the Liberty Fund.

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