12th Pavia Graduate Conference in Political Philosophy – Abstract/Benli

Ali Emre Benli

Problem of Authority: Theorizing Justice and Policy Guidance

In the contemporary literature on theorizing justice, different methods correspond to different understandings of how theorizing justice can guide public policy by comparing different social states. A recent discussion which this paper focuses on is Amartya Sen’s criticism of the Rawlsian method of theorizing justice which has been the dominant tradition in political theory since the publication of “A Theory of Justice” (1999). In the article “What do we want from a theory of justice?” (2006) and the following book “The Idea of Justice” (2009) Sen controversially calls for a radical divorce from the Rawlsian tradition claiming that it is unable to guide action in the face of pressing problems of injustice. The problem with the Rawlsian tradition, Sen argues, lies with its method which depend on transcendental theorizing of justice. Sen makes two distinct claims regarding transcendental theorizing. First, he claims that ideal theorizing of justice which aims to identify the perfectly just social state is neither sufficient nor necessary in advancing justice. Second, he claims that an agreement on ideal theories cannot be achieved in most cases. Therefore, it is unfeasible. The two claims combined, Sen claims that we need to abandon the Rawlsian tradition. As an alternative, he offers ‘comparative theorizing’, which aims to make comparisons between two unjust social states independent of ideal theorizing. Sen’s argument is not enough to ground the radical divorce which he calls for. For, it remains to be shown that the comparative approach is ultimately preferable to the transcendental approach. In this paper, I offer at least one good reason why we should prefer the former over the latter. I claim that the Rawlsian tradition in theorizing principles for advancing justice is authoritarian, that is authoritative for the wrong reasons. In turn, I show that non-ideal theorizing that implements ideal principles of justice in actual circumstances is an unjustified imposition of a particular set of beliefs on every question of policy. As an alternative, I show that comparative theorizing that constructs principles for each policy question independently is less authoritarian.