We live in a world of unambiguous and alarming injustices. The World Bank estimated that in 2005 about 1.4 billion people in the developing world (one in four) were living on less than $1.25 a day. We all acknowledge the existence of an unfortunately considerable number of people in society suffering from a wide range of disadvantages – and the injustice that this situation represents. Nonetheless, contemporary philosophers struggle to define a plain set of justice principles that should govern the ideal institutions.
In a recent comment in The Guardian, Amartya Sen discusses an alternative and more pragmatic approach to theories of justice. As an economist and philosopher working within the premises of this alternative approach, Sen highlights the impossibility of finding a unique and defined set of justice principles. He believes that the right way to proceed when dealing with justice is kind of backward: from reasoned agreements about injustices we should try to correct them towards a closer to the ideal fair society.
Sen distinguishes two different ways philosophers have come up with to deal with justice. Firstly, there is the contractarian approach, a long tradition in moral philosophy employed by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and more recently by Ronald Dworkin and John Rawls. The Contractarian approach maintains that theories of justice consist of general principles that should serve as the basis of ideal social institutions.
Secondly, there is the Social choice theory approach, which we can already find in the works of Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, but that has been recently formally developed by Kenneth Arrow. The Social choice theory approach is more flexible and allows for a plurality of principles – therefore being able to rely on reasoned agreements about the patent unfairness of particular situations.
This comment reminded me of another attempt recently made by philosophers to focus on obvious injustices in order to pragmatically tackle contemporary social problems. The philosophers are Jonathan Wolff and Avner De-Shalit, and the attempt was made in the book called Disadvantage.
Simon Keller, University of Melbourne
Philosophy Compass 4/1 (2009)