"Sen, Rawls - and Sisyphus".

Indian Journal of Human Development 5 (2011), 197-210 - Symposium on Amartya Sen's The Idea of Justice.

In The Idea of Justice, Sen argues, against the social contract tradition and Rawls in particular, that political theory should change focus from the question "What is a just society?" to the question "How can the justice of the present state of affairs be improved?". His main objections are that Rawlsian theory is incapable of establishing unanimous agreement on one set of principles of justice, and that such agreement is neither necessary nor sufficient for arriving at an agreement on proposals for improving the justice of current states of affairs. This paper defends Rawlsian theory. It argues that Sen’s objections have force only if his alternative, comparative methodology is able to circumvent fundamental disagreement, and shows, by means of an internal argument, that it is not able to do so. The upshot of the paper is that the search for agreement on principles of justice in political theory may be, to some extent, like the task of Sisyphus, who has to roll a rock up a hill, for all eternity, only to see it roll down again – but that this is not a reason for particular concern. It concludes with some suggestions as to how Rawls-inspired political theory can nevertheless aim at making proposals of more immediate political relevance.

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