Ideas of Justice

Ideas of Justice

The Idea of Justice
by Amartya Sen
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009, 496 pp., $29.95

Rescuing Justice and Equality
by G.A. Cohen
Harvard University Press, 2008, 448pp., $47.50

Contemporary political philosophy starts from John Rawls’s theory of justice. Amartya Sen’s book is dedicated to Rawls’s memory (he died in 2002). G.A. Cohen believes “that at most two books in the history of Western political thought have a claim to be regarded as greater than A Theory of Justice: Plato’s Republic and Hobbes’s Leviathan.” He asserts, in Hegelian terms, that “Rawls grasped his age, or more precisely one large reality of his age, in thought. In his work, the politics of liberal (in the American sense) democracy, and social (in the European sense) democracy rises to consciousness of itself.” Sen and Cohen agree that Rawls’s theory of justice holds a central place in the social theory of democratic capitalism, and each sets out to criticize and surpass its worldview.

Rawls’s theory of justice aims to reconcile a fundamental contradiction within capitalist democracies—a contradiction between two ideals. The first, embodied in the idea of democracy and universal rights under the law, is that individuals should count as equals. The second, embodied in the norms and practices of market societies, is that individuals should be free to pursue their own interests in competition with others. In broader terms, as Cohen explains, the chief contradiction that capitalism displays is between equality and utility. “Its rhetoric endorses both, but its reality sacrifices equality to utility: it relies on injustice to produce human happiness.”

Rawls’s first principle of justice, “Each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties which is compatible with a similar scheme of basic liberties for all,” gives effect to the ideal of equality, seen as equal freedom. His second principle of justice takes account of the inequalities to which freedom in market situations gives rise. “Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions. First, they must be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they must be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.” To give effect to this “difference principle,” Rawls imagines an “original position” in which all individuals together decide on the distribution of resources in society—and none of them know where in the social hierarchy they would stand in the future. Decisions would be taken unanimously. Thus, any inequalities that were agreed upon would not only (by definition) be in the interest of those who finished up worst-off, but would have been agreed to by them.

One can see why Cohen describes Rawls’s theory of justice “as having grasped one large reality of hi...