Dworkin on Sen

Thomas Gregersen quotes Ronald Dworkin on Amartya Sen:

It is not helpful, in the world of real politics, only to call for due consideration of a large variety of factors that everyone concedes relevant without also offering some overall scheme to suggest how these different factors should be weighted in a practical decision about a controversial issue. (via)

Sen’s argument in the theoretical chapter of Ideas of Justice (the one he recommends that most people skip) is that the a priori weighting of various schemes of liberty or distributive justice cannot supply as much assistance in parsing an individual nation-state’s political institutions as empirical evidence and local contingencies. Consider the role of women’s literacy in fertility rate reductions, or free and fair elections in food provision. You can’t generate such a robust foundation for institutional priorities from the original position. Thus when Dworkin chastises Sen that the capabilities approach is frustratingly vague in its refusal to generate priorities for our judgments, it seems tone-deaf to me. This vagueness is not a failing in the theory: it is a failing in the world, where “the right thing to do” is not always transparent or amenable to armchair analysis.

That said, I think most of Sen’s criticisms of Rawls fail for the same reason: they overemphasize the role of a priori political thinking, in this case, the role of the two principles of justice in generating policies and institutional design. Most of the charges of abstraction levied against and among political philosophers discount the role of reflective equilibrium in formulating and correcting our judgments, and to my disappointment, Amartya Sen is no exception. Like so many of Rawls’ critics, Sen willfully underestimates the constitutional, legislative, and deliberative moments in Rawls’ political theory. These are the moments when the veil of ignorance falls away and we begin to take advantage of cases, examples, and evidence, using the two broad principles of justice as our guides.

I call this a willful underestimation, because I have never seen an answer to this question: what fact about the world should cause you to discount the interests of the least-advantaged or to prefer a less extensive scheme of mutually-compatible liberties to a more-extensive scheme? The critics’ arguments always amount to an attack on the way that Rawls imagined that these principles would play out in a particular society, generally by naming some least-advantaged group for which Rawls failed to account. Yet this is not a criticism of the principles, it is a reflexively rational use of the principles!

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