Tag Archives: John Rawls

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.

Most important Post-WWII thought and Judaism

As you read the list, which ones influenced Judiasm and which did not? Kuhn has not been used to discuss change, we usually still find the 19th century views of Hegel or von Savigny. From the comments here and elsewhere, we desperately needed a Jewish follower of Rawls in 1990. Most people did not need Post-modernism or literary criticism, but they did need an updated, beyond Dewey, rational approach which Rawls would have provided. Dworkin is used by Halbertal- people here are still jumping to Robert Cover for the role of ethics in halakhah, when what they really need is Dworkin. Wittgenstein is part of the Orthodox intellectual’s toolkit but no substantive engagement. MacIntyre is converted into virtue drush. There is still time for Searle’s Speech Acts or Taylor’s ever-changing self to find a Jewish voice. Feyerabend is too much to hope for. Nevertheless, I am forever amazed when rabbis who pride themselves that they are contemporary philosophers who quote Dewey or James as their last significant thinker.

The Most Cited Books in Post-WWII Anglophone Philosophy According to Google Scholar (in parentheses:  total number of on-line articles and books citing the book in question):

1.  Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (37,197)

2.  John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (26,768)

3.  Ronald Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously (7,892)

4.  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (7,169)

5.  Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (6,579)

6.  Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (6,356)

6.  John Rawls, Political Liberalism (6,352)

8.  Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (6,246)

8.  H.L.A. Hart, The Concept of Law (6,212)

10.  Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (5,616)

11.  John Searle, Speech Acts (5,387)

12. Jerry Fodor, Modularity of Mind (5,050)

13.  Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained (4,810)

14. Saul Kripke, Naming and Necessity (4,535)

14. W.V.O. Quine, Word and Object (4,565)

Runners-up:   Paul Feyerabend, Against Method (4,420); Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (4,011); Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (3,233); Jerry Fodor, The Language of Thought (3,292); Carl Hempel, Aspects of Scientific Explanation (3,137); David Chalmers, The Conscious Mind (3,065), Daniel Dennett, The Intentional Stance (2,985); Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons (2,972).

Justice or Rawls Lives

Michael Sandel has his Harvard University course on Justice  online. It has recording of the lectures, reading lists, and discussion material. (It comes on with a loud audio soundtrack)

Good article about the course – including how he came to teach it and about his critics.

Good line in article – “Campus legend has it that Sandel provided the physical inspiration for Mr. Burns, the villainous nuclear-plant owner on The Simpsons, for which many Harvard graduates have written.”

Amartya Sen, the Noble prize winner in economics, has a similar book out and here is an article about it.

Suppose three children—Anne, Bob, and Carla—quarrel over a flute. Anne says it’s hers because she’s the only one who knows how to play it. Bob counters that he’s the poorest and has no toys, so the flute would at least give him something to play with. Carla reminds Anne and Bob that she built the darn thing, and no sooner did she finish it than the other two started trying to take it away.

When Rawls declared justice “the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought,” and began his painstaking probe of the conditions of just institutions, he re-established a modern tradition dating back to Hobbes: using social-contract theory to articulate ideal forms of social justice, sometimes in quasi-syllogistic form. But there was also a longstanding, skeptical, antisystematic tradition in justice theory. One of the suspenseful aspects of Sen’s book is how its author, personally close to Rawls (who died in 2002) but more expansive and historical in regard to justice, walks a difficult line between the analytic foundationalism Rawls and Nozick practiced and the sensitivity to real-world justice in people’s lives that Sen and Martha Nussbaum argue for and describe as the “capabilities” conception of justice.

Solomon wrote in A Passion for Justice that justice is “a complex set of passions to be cultivated, not an abstract set of principles to be formulated. … Justice begins with compassion and caring, not principles or opinions, but it also involves, right from the start, such ‘negative’ emotions as envy, jealousy, indignation, anger, and resentment, a keen sense of having been personally cheated or neglected, and the desire to get even.” In time, suggested Solomon, “the sense of justice emerges as a generalization and, eventually, a rationalization of a personal sense of injustice.”

Update – Jewish Texts for Social Justice from American Jewish World Service. Let me know what you find in the various categories. Is it all pragmatic? Is there any overall theory? I see that Levinas, Heschel, Soloveitchik are used interchangeably in small snippets.