, Volume 15, Issue 1, pp 7-21
Date: 08 Oct 2011

The Aim of a Theory of Justice

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Amartya Sen argues that for the advancement of justice identification of ‘perfect’ justice is neither necessary nor sufficient. He replaces ‘perfect’ justice with comparative justice. Comparative justice limits itself to comparing social states with respect to degrees of justice. Sen’s central thesis is that identifying ‘perfect’ justice and comparing imperfect social states are ‘analytically disjoined’. This essay refutes Sen’s thesis by demonstrating that to be able to make adequate comparisons we need to identify and integrate criteria of comparison. This is precisely the aim of a theory of justice (such as John Rawls’s theory): identifying, integrating and ordering relevant principles of justice. The same integrated criteria that determine ‘perfect’ justice are needed to be able to adequately compare imperfect social states. Sen’s alternative approach, which is based on social choice theory, is incapable of avoiding contrary, indeterminate or incoherent directives where plural principles of justice conflict.

The paper is a result of research conducted at the Erasmus University Rotterdam for the project ‘The Transition from Ideal to Nonideal Theories of Justice’ (head: Ingrid Robeyns). The research was financed by a grant of the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO). I thank Anca Gheaus, Ingrid Robeyns, Anders Schinkel and two anonymous referees for their constructive comments.