Academic journal article Brazilian Political Science Review

The Subject of Social Justice: A Defence of the Basic Structure of Society *

Academic journal article Brazilian Political Science Review

The Subject of Social Justice: A Defence of the Basic Structure of Society *

Article excerpt

In The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen (2009) presents an approach to justice that aims to make comparisons based on social realizations, setting the objective of elucidating how we should respond to questions related to improving justice and eliminating injustice. By making considerations of justice and comparisons between states of the world - or, as Sen (2009) puts it, between 'societies' - this approach focuses attention not only on political-social institutions but also on people's behaviour, as well as other potential influences affecting the degree of justice existing in a given society. Furthermore, this conception focused on realizations is concentrated on the behaviours of real individuals and institutions in a given society, rather than supposing possible idealizations (SEN, 2009, p. 07). Unlike other contemporary theories of justice that attempt to offer solutions to questions concerning the nature of perfect justice, the main subject of Sen's theoretical proposal (2009) is to eliminate evident injustices.

According to the author, there exist three core differences in his line of argument compared to existing theories of justice, particularly the theory developed by John Rawls (1999a). Firstly the approach to justice presented by Sen adopts a procedure of 'plural reasons', with the use of various different lines of argument to condemn situations of injustice, without the need for (the existence of) any agreement about the (single) reason for a dominant diagnosis of injustice. As a result a consensus about injustice can be reached on the basis of various distinct principles, given that "[the] arbitrary reduction of multiple and potentially conflicting principles to one solitary survivor, guillotining all the other evaluative criteria, is not, in fact, a prerequisite for getting useful and robust conclusions on what should be done" (SEN, 2009, p. 04).

Secondly, the theory formulated by Sen (2009) is intended to serve as the grounds for a reasoned argument in the practical domain by including ways of judging (and consequently reducing) existing injustices, thereby promoting justice. Differently to other contemporary theories of justice, this argument aims to enable the evaluation of specific social changes by ranking alternative 'social realizations', each capable of bringing about an incremental improvement in justice within a given society.

Meanwhile the third fundamental difference is Sen's argument (2009) that the presence of a remediable injustice may be connected to a large extent to behavioural transgressions rather than institutional defects. Justice would thus be fundamentally linked to how people live and not merely to the nature of the surrounding institutions. In the approach set out by Sen (2009) in The Idea of Justice, therefore, "it is argued that there are some crucial inadequacies in this overpowering concentration on institutions (where behaviour is assumed to be appropriately compliant), rather than on the lives that people are able to lead" (SEN, 2009, p. xi).

As we may already observe, these three differences - which the author himself looks to present and distinguish (see, for example, SEN 2011a, pp. 11-14, 39-57) - are strongly interconnected or even overlap, and generate as their primary outcome the elaboration of a theoretical formulation centred on people's real lives, on the realizations and accomplishments in comparisons of justice. As a consequence, there is a clear shift in terms of the central subject of social justice compared to the theory of justice formulated by Rawls (1999a) - a movement with implications for both the scope and the nature of the idea of social justice. For Sen (2009), the principles of justice need to be focused directly on the lives and freedoms of the people involved, conferring institutions an instrumental role in the pursuit of justice. According to the Indian theorist, when choosing between the justice involved in two situations, institutions should come into the reckoning in relation to the direct contribution made to the lives of people are able to lead, "facilitating our ability to scrutinize the values and priorities that we can consider" (SEN, 2009, p. …

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