Thursday, November 12, 2009

Transcendence precedes comparison...and other arguments to watch out for

It's been a heady week for reading here in Falstaff-land, what with me feverishly alternating between the new Amartya Sen and Alison Bechdel's glorious, glorious Essential Dykes to Watch Out For [1].

Anyway, I'm only a third of the way through the Sen, but I figure if I wait till the end before I blog about it, then I'll end up needing to write a 5,000 word essay and given that I no longer do long posts (or hadn't you noticed) I may as well jot down my thoughts as I go along. What follows may seem a little cryptic if you haven't read the book. Then again, if you're a regular reader of this blog, you probably like cryptic.

So at one point in the book Sen is making a comparison between what he calls the transcendental view of justice (what is a just system?) and the comparative view of justice (which of two given systems is more just?), his agenda being to champion the comparative view over the more well-established transcendental view. Sen argues that the two views have little to do with each other, and that, consequently, the general preoccupation with transcendental theories is not particularly useful to solving real world problems of justice. In particular, that a description of what constitutes a truly just society (the transcendental question) is neither necessary nor sufficient to enable a comparison between two available alternative societies (the comparative question).

In making this argument, Sen spends a lot of time showing why a description of an ideally just society is not sufficient to make a comparison between two alternate societies - a point on which I'm in total agreement. The problem being, of course, that comparing two less-than-perfect options requires us to make a judgment on which option is more imperfect (or less perfect, but I don't dislike double negatives), and knowledge of what perfection looks like alone does not tell us how to make that judgment.

When it comes to arguing that an answer to the transcendental question is not necessary for an answer to the comparative question, however, Sen essentially hand-waves his way through, arguing that there's no reason why we need to discuss what a third best alternative might be in order to compare the two alternatives in hand. It seems to me, though, that this is only partly true. While we may not, strictly speaking, require a clear description of the best possible alternative to undertake a comparison between two less-than-ideal alternatives, we do need some agreed upon dimensions or criteria on which we shall evaluate these alternatives, and it's not clear to me how we would arrive at these criteria without first attempting to answer the transcendental question. Every comparison involves some kind of measurement, however imprecise; and every measurement involves some kind of theory, however imperfect. Of course, defining the dimensions or criteria of justice is not, strictly speaking, the same thing as describing what a perfectly just society would look like, but the distinction strikes me as trivial, and it could be argued that with something as inherently complex as justice visualizing a perfectly just society may, in fact, be the best way to isolate and identify the relevant dimensions. In short, while a complete answer to the transcendental question may not be essential to an evaluation of the relative justice of two available alternatives, the process of asking and trying to answer the transcendental question would seem to be a necessary prerequisite of any meaningful comparative exercise. In that sense, then, transcendentalism does seem to be necessary for comparison.

It's possible, of course, that Sen has an answer to this problem and I just haven't got to it yet (as I said, I'm only on Chapter 6). Still, it'll be interesting to see where he comes out on it. Stay tuned.

[1] It's not just that I like being eclectic. It's also that spending two hours chuckling my way through a book called Dykes to Watch Out For while my students sat and dutifully worked their way though their finals seemed a little too outrageous. After all, it's a business school. We're supposed to be dyed-in-the-Brooks-Brothers suits conformists, not same-sex loving subversives.

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