Philosophical Approaches to Poverty, Inequality and the Idea of Wellbeing

Master's Thesis, 2017

48 Pages, Grade: 8


Table of Contents


Chapter One. Ideas of Justice in a Liberal Framework
1.1 Explaining Rawls
1.2 Sen's Criticism of Rawls
1.3 Sen's Critique toward Ideal Theory

Chapter Two. Measuring Poverty, Inequality and Wellbeing in a Liberal Framework
2.1 Principles of Justice; First Principle
2.2 Principles of Justice; Problems arising from the Second Principle about Inequality and
2.3 The Difference Principle
2.4 The Primary Good Index and The Capability Approach
2.5 Valuing freedom
2.6 Evaluating Poverty and Well- Being in the Capitalist Economic System

Chapter Three. Capitalism, Freedom, and Democracy
3.1 Sen and Rawls on Capitalism
3.2 Final Thoughts on Capitalism
3.3 Final Remarks on Sen's and Rawls' approaches in relation to Capitalism



In a capitalistic society, relative poverty derives from inequality, which in turn is created by capitalism(Wachtel, 1972). Since the 1970s, according to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (herein referred to as the ‘OCED’), within almost every country of the OECD there has been a significant increase in income inequality(OECD, 2013). Only France, Greece and Spain moved towards greater income equality, while in the remaining 27 countries the inequality of income was higher and continuously growing during the last thirty years(OECD, 2013; pg. 15).

The OECD report claims that this phenomenon of the increasing levels of inequality has never been as significant as in the last 20 years(OECD, 2013; pg. 16). This trend is confirmed by the Human Development Report because according to the statistics the average of inequality increase have been around 2 Gini points in just two years(OECD, 2013; pg. 30).

The increase of income has not been growing uniformly but in almost every country within the OCED, the increase in inequality has been correlated with the occurrence of the 2007/8 global financial crisis. Whilst the average wage has stagnated, inequality has risen in favor of the richest portion of the population( OECD, 2013; pg. 19). Inequality has been rising sharply in advanced economies and, after the great recession in the 2007/8 crisis, this problem as come under greater scrutiny. People in poverty also have low income, and thus little savings. In a capitalist system, little savings lead to a small capacity of economic, educational and social investment, and consequently, small investments lead to low productivity and low incomes.(Watkins, 2006; pg. 240).

There are many definitions of poverty in a legal and philosophical sense, coming from many different institutions such as the UN, EU, individual countries and from many different philosophers. In the following work, I will suggest that we should analyze poverty and broaden the meaning together with the way of measuring it, especially adopting Amartya Sen's approach. For the moment, when discussing poverty, I will refer to the definition given by A Dictionary of Sociology (2009), in which “poverty is a state in which resources, usually material but sometimes cultural, are lacking” (Scott and Marshall, 2009). Provisionally, I am using this definition of poverty to refer to those situations whereby the income of the person is low, the educational and personal opportunities are drastically reduced and a situation of deprivation is dominant. I will use this broad definition of poverty instead of picking a specific one because I think it is comprehensive enough to set up our discussion. This definition will be provisory but it describes quite specifically the situation of the people I am going to analyze, who are people in the condition of relative poverty. In my thesis, relative and not absolute poverty will be analyzed. It is important to notice that in developed countries poverty is a relative concept because the condition of poverty can soundly be analyzed in relation to one specific country at a time. Indeed, we cannot do any sound comparison between, for instance, the incomes that the poorest 10% of the population of the United Kingdom have in relation to the American people.

The concept of poverty has to be related to the standard of living of the persons which will be relative to the other people within a specific country. Hopefully, analyzing the situation of relative poverty in developed countries should bring prompts to inspire the direction that the government of developing countries are taking in relation to the problem of absolute poverty. I aim at suggesting that my analysis of relative poverty shall be taken into account not only for social and economic policies but also when dealing with issues about absolute poverty because the quality of people's life has to be determined with broader terms when speaking about developed countries; indeed, as I will show in the course of the thesis, because having a full-time job can still be related to a deprived situation for the human being, and even though the deprivation of the persons can be more or less severe regarding relative and absolute poverty, the level of suffering of the human being is still very high and therefore it requires attention and more sensitivity.

Poverty and inequality are deeply interconnected and they can be broadly defined as the functioning and the outcome of the same system(Wachtel, 1972): the economic system based on capitalism. Poverty is functional for the capitalist system because it serves as “lubricants, greasing the joints of an otherwise creaky social system”(Wachtel, 1972; pg. 17). Poverty plays a functional part within this system as it is about the increased value of the real income of people that fall shortly above the line of the non-poor, and it works as an illusion of a given state of affairs. Also, the level of poverty allows the non-poor to buy commodities at lower prices and from this point of view, we are all served by the existence of poverty.(Wachtel, 1972) Moreover, the second function regards the general conditions created by poverty because it ensures that the “dirty work” (Wachtel, 1972) will be done, such as dangerous, precarious, underpaid and undignified jobs. Poverty allows for the formation of a labor force, people who need to work whatever the physical and metaphorical costs are. The third function of poverty can be described regarding ideological dominance, and therefore refers to the ideological hegemony necessary to maintain the power of the ruling class. In fact, the poor are easily identified as the criminals and deviants simply in order to support established, ‘conventional’ societal norms. To promote the desirability of hard and dirty work, the dominant class need to defend those models in support of their systems; they have to find people that can be accused of being lazy, promiscuous, dishonest in order to do so. But the poor are used to psychologically weaken and motivate the non-poor of the working class, because the non-poor will be willing to do everything to avoid falling to the bottom(Wachtel, 1972).

Harsh inequalities create and reinforce the conditions for poverty in developed countries. Whilst there have been studies on poverty reduction, surprisingly policies to address inequalities have gained less attention(Watkins, 2006; pg. 20). Inequality matters for many different reasons. Addressing the problem of inequality is important from a democratic point of view because the poor face the threat of being ideologically and politically dominated by the wealthiest part of the population. Also, from an economic point of view, the great income inequality is the cause of the waste of human resources and potential because people are without a job or they are relegated to do low-paid and low- skilled jobs(OECD, 2013; pg. 45).

Moreover, the problem of inequality of income is a significant issue for the fairness of society because it is the cause of a lack of possibilities and outcomes for individuals from a political and social perspective. In a society where the cost of university, of services, health and housing are very high, inequalities in income do not create the conditions for having access to a fair equality of opportunities. However, it is worth highlighting that inequalities are not wrong per sè because people are different and some are more talented than others; some work harder than others and therefore should have more income. However, a good society should not allow the existence of extreme inequality, and should give to every individual the same capabilities. Societies where the gap between rich and poor is high have less meritocracy and therefore less development because the opportunities are available for the richest and not for the more talented. Also, the societies where meritocracy is low create conditions of distrust among citizens and toward the government itself. The sentiment of distrust is reflected in the commitment people feel about being moral and good citizens. Unequal society can lead to a high level of corruption and therefore to a collapse of the society itself, because the most important elements of the society have been affected. Willingness to cooperate, mutual respect, compassion and trust, are all fundamental features for a society that functions well.

In this work, I aim to show how philosophy and political economy can contribute to stopping the existential condition of extreme poverty and inequality. I will therefore analyze and compare two important authors, John Rawls and Amartya Sen in order to suggest the most suitable approach to poverty in the capitalist system and how philosophy can improve the ways to measure poverty, as well as be more sensitive to the issues of inequality and well-being.

Poverty affects the majority of the global population. Indeed, in 2014, according to an Oxfam statistic, it was estimated that:

the richest 1% of people in the world owned 48% of global wealth, leaving just 52% to be shared between the other 99% of adults on the planet. Almost all of that 52% is owned by those included in the richest 20%, leaving just 5.5% for the remaining 80% of people in the world. If this trend continues of an increasing wealth share to the richest, the top 1% will have more wealth than the remaining 99% of people in just two years, with wealth share of the top 1% exceeding 50% by 2016.(Hardoon, 2015; pg. 1)

In January 2016, when Oxfam published their latest statistics, they were pointing out that the actual situation was worse than the one estimated in 2014. In fact, they wrote:

The global inequality crisis is reaching new extremes. The richest 1% now have more wealth than the rest of the world combined. Power and privilege are being used to skew the economic system to increase the gap between the richest and the rest. A global network of tax havens further enables the richest individuals to hide $7.6 trillion. The fight against poverty will not be won until the inequality crisis is tacked.(Hardoon et al., 2016; pg. 5.)

There are many definitions of poverty around. However, they do not help to end this situation. In my thesis, I will suggest that Rawls' and Sen's work on poverty, inequalities and well-being have been extremely successful and that they have started a process for evaluating the conditions of well-being in broader terms in relation to previous theories of justice.

I suggest that Sen's interpretation of the social world as well as to his interpretation of the individual, if fully accepted, leads to the creation of better social policy and economic system than any other influential philosophical approach can offer. I will show why the capability approach can be more desirable than an approach based on resources. I will also suggest that by taking Sen's point of view, his reflection can work as a starting point to make a cultural shift; every war against poverty is destined to fail until the majority of people will work in a capitalist economic system because it creates privileges for the richest part of the population.

I argue that Rawls proposes an interesting alternative to capitalism, named the “property owning democracy”(Rawls, 2001), however, his alternative forms fall shortly because it does not offer enough material to criticize some key institutions of capitalism, such as wage-labor, capital and private ownership.

In this work I will point out that poverty can take many different forms, and that it has to be defined in relation to people’s standards of living from biological, psychological, and social perspectives and not just in relation to the resources they have. The bottom line of poverty cannot be defined just in terms of people with low income, because many different types of individual and social problems are created and we cannot resolve the problems just giving them more money, but empowering them. We are morally obliged to consider the poor people of the third world, but also people that have a full time job in developed societies and cannot afford a good way of living. In this work, I will focus my attention on the latter.

In light of the above mentioned economic and political situations, almost any theory of justice within political philosophy that has aimed at addressing the problem of poverty and inequality has not been successful because they have not ended such conditions. Sen's and Rawls' attempts have been the most significant ones but as long as we still live in a capitalist economic system, every one of these theories is doomed to failure.

In the first chapter, I will present the critique advanced by Sen within The Idea of Justice against Rawls' theory of justice, presented by Rawls within A Theory of Justice(Rawls, 1971). I will start by introducing the basis of Rawls' theory, therefore, as the original position and an idea of justice as fairness. Sen suggests that the theory of justice as fairness has three main issues: the first of which is the problem of having a theory based on the agreement of the parties in the original position; the second problematic assumption is about people' rationality, and the third one is the methodological approach of the theory itself, which is considered an overly-idealised approach to issues of justice. Thus, I will present Sen's critique of a theory based on the social contract tradition, on the assumption of people's shared values and in general on perfect, but still abstract and unachievable principles. Since they are too abstract, I aim at showing that they are not desirable because they are unachievable; therefore we have to change the approach to deal with concrete issues about justice if we want to improve the present condition.

In the second chapter, where I will explain Rawls' principles of justice, I will suggest that he is a very critical thinker towards society as it stands and towards capitalism. Rawls enables us to reflect about other forms of economic systems that can be coherent with the principles of justice and therefore with the conception of the person established for a society based on equality and freedom.

However, I will suggest that despite the fact that Rawls offers us alternative economic systems to capitalism, his approach is still abstract and it does not offer practical guidelines to change the present condition.

Later, I will compare Sen's and Rawls' positions about the evaluation of people's conditions, and I will argue that a theory of justice aimed at achieving equality from the perspective of primary goods is uncompleted because it does not allow us to evaluate life in broader terms, such as qualitative ones. However, I will suggest that these theories won't be successful as long as the economic framework is still focused on a capitalist system.

In the final part of this work, I will compare Sen's and Rawls' positions about capitalism, by pointing out what I think is a surprising and probably deluded view suggested by Sen. Indeed, while Sen argues in favor of maintaining and revising capitalism, Rawls suggests going beyond it, proposing the property owning democracy economic system. Finally, I will challenge Rawls' economic theory on some main features of the property owning democracy. I will suggest that allowing the existence of wage-labor entails the main failure of Rawls' attempt to find an alternative solution to capitalism. Chiefly, it is because wage-labor creates undemocratic conditions in the workplace. I will point out that Rawls could have focused more on the problematic relationship created by wage-labor in relation to democracy. Dealing with this problem is of fundamental importance to recreate condition of equality and freedom.

Therefore, I propose an alternative to wage-labor while maintaining the possibility of respecting the two principles of justice, such as the condition of private ownership. I advance the idea supported in contemporary philosophy and economy by Noam Chomsky and Richard David Wolff about workers' self- directed enterprises. Finally, I argue that we should not pursue Rawls' idea of property-owning democracy, whereas we should try to understand how far the capability approach and Wolff's idea of workers' self- directed enterprises can lead us to overcoming capitalism and reach a society based on justice and freedom.

Chapter One. Ideas of Justice in a Liberal Framework

Before the discussion of Rawls' and Sen's positions about poverty and inequality can take place, it is important to acknowledge that the philosophical reflections of these authors has determined two different but still very important landmarks in the tradition of political philosophy and in theories of economics. Sen and Rawls do not only stand against what was the dominant view of justice, but they suggest innovative ways to conceive justice. The discussion of these two authors is of fundamental importance in order to understand the future possibilities we can adopt in order to evaluate inequality, as well as issues regarding poverty, and the well-being of persons, since they advanced new perspectives with which to understand the person's condition in the current economic systems and new way to measure people’s poverty and inequality.

1.1 Explaining Rawls

When Rawls published A Theory of Justice(Rawls, 1971), he pointed out a new way to understand justice, reconciling liberty and equality and suggesting a different view of the economy, morality, and people’s rationality. With his book, Rawls was attempting to defeat the entrenched, self-interest-orientated view proposed by utilitarianism. His attack stands as an important shift in the conception of the homo economicus. Although in different terms, Sen's idea had the same reach against the tradition inaugurated by his teacher, Rawls.

In 1998, Sen was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences suggesting a different parameter for understanding the concepts of equality, development, economy, and poverty. While the theory of Rawls moved the focus from an idea of justice conceived as the maximization of interests to the notion of fairness for all, Sen keeps the track inaugurated by Rawls since he maintains the concepts of freedom and equality as central points in his theory.

Nevertheless, Sen approaches the idea of justice in a different way, and here it will be discussed at length because it gives us the new parameters to understand justice, to measure poverty, address the problem of inequality and well-being. I aim at showing that, in adopting a different method from the one used by Rawls, Sen advances more practical and fruitful ways to achieve the same goal: equality in a liberal framework. Indeed, in A Theory of Justice(Rawls, 1971) Rawls presents his idea continuing the social contract tradition already found in Locke, Rousseau, and Kant. In the pages of A Theory of Justice(Rawls, 1971), a worldwide famous book, he unfolds the basis of his theory.

I will, therefore, get across Rawls’ idea of the original position (Rawls,

1971; pg. 11) because later I want to go into detail and analyze Sen's criticism about the necessity of revising Rawls' theory in the light of upcoming and new social policy. I will start by analyzing the idea of an original position, because it is one of the most important and emblematic features of Rawls' approach to equality and poverty issues. I will suggest that since the idea of the original position influences the view that people have of the social world, it is extremely important to realize that it advances an idea of social justice based on problematic assumptions on both social and individual levels. In this chapter I will analyze the social perspective that the original position advances whereas in the second chapter I will discuss the assumptions made at the individual level that have been determinant for Rawls’ conception of the social world.

First of all, Rawls builds up his theory on the presupposition of an original agreement represented by the original position and on the idea of justice as fairness(Rawls, 1971). The original positions takes the form of an agreement, it is a device for choosing principles for a situation of social cooperation.

Rawls represents the principles of justice as originating in a kind of social contract, the original position. Rawls' idea of justice is profoundly social, indeed, “according to Rawls, we are social beings in the sense that in the absence of society and social development we have but inchoate and unrealized capacities, including our capacities for rationality, morality, even language itself.”(Freeman, 1996)

Rawls presumes the existence of a political relationship between the parties of the original position where these parties are intended as free and moral members of a political association. Indeed, with the original position Rawls aims at asking to the parties to choose among main conceptions of justice and especially the conception which is more suitable to enable the men to pursue their interests and final ends(Rawls, 1971). In the original position the parties are asked to decide and agree upon the best conception of justice according to the principle of a rational choice(Rawls, 1971). Rawls also assumed that the parties are rational in the sense that “they know that in general they must protect their liberties, widen their opportunities, and enlarge their means for promoting their aims whatever they are” (Rawls, 1971; pg. 143) and they are also free from envy because they do believe that the injustice are the not the outcome of an unjust system.

According to Rawls the selected conception of justice is the one able to combine into one conception all the conditions which people can recognize “as reasonable in our conduct towards one another”(Rawls, 1971; pg. 514).

It is from this special social condition that the parties are asked to decide about the social and moral principles they want in their future society. Rawls sets forth the idea of the original position because he wants to point out that every rational and free man can and would agree upon a set of social principles which in turn create a just society based on fairness. Rawls posits the original position as a mechanism via which rational parties decide upon those principles of justice going to be used by reasonable and rational citizens. These parties are thought as the persons whom they represents, “a group of persons” that “must decide once and for all what is to count among them as just and unjust.”(Rawls, 1971; pg. 11).

The original position takes the form of a hypothetical agreement, it is the outcome of free choice of rational parties in an idealized condition, and according to Rawls it has the power of setting the principles for a just society. Rawls assumes that the parties in the original position are rational, and that therefore the principles of justice are rooted in this particular conception of the person. By assuming a particular conception of the person, Rawls establishes the condition to justify a conception of justice based on people's political reasoning.

Following Rawls, throughout the original position, a condition of agreement and impartiality among free and rational persons, we will have a society based on fairness, whereby fairness is the state of equality and freedom. Given the differences in people’s social, personal and historical conditions, it would have been impossible to achieve a state of impartiality from a practical point of view, and this is the main reason why Rawls has to recur to a form of mental experiment to arrive at the original position, an essential agreement for a society based on fairness. Then, according to Rawls, it is significantly important that we can imagine a state of impartiality because in practice it allows for the decision about a set of just principles and to create a state of fairness in the society.

Indeed, the original position is the fundamental situation of primordial equality, in which people can abstract from their identities and decide to adopt the principles of justice. This first principle guarantees that every citizen has formal equality of opportunity, such as equal basic rights, as well as those liberties required to defend the fundamental interests of free and equal citizens and to pursue an extensive range of conceptions of the good. The second principle entails two sub-principles; the first one procures fair equality of opportunity in areas such as education and the professional sphere. It is thought to enable all to fairly compete for powers and positions of office independent of their gender, race, and economic class of belonging. The second sub-principle is called the difference principle and it provides for all a guaranteed minimum of proper means, such as income and wealth which individuals need in order to pursue their find ends and fundamental interests and to maintain their self-respect as free and equally dignified persons.

The decision about the principles of the society in which persons will have to live is taken from another fundamental condition, which is the veil of ignorance. The veil of ignorance is probably the main distinguishing feature of the original position since it is a situation in which the parties cannot benefit from the information about their future personalities about their biological and social conditions like their gender, ethnicity and social status. The veil of ignorance plays an extremely functional role since from this condition persons do not know how they will end up in their conceived society and they will desire the adoption of principles that are fair to all. In fact, if the parties do not know the class of belonging, they cannot rely on any privileges and luck. Therefore, according to Rawls, the parties will look for reasonable principles based on their rational self­interest. Indeed, it is evident that from this condition of ‘ignorance’, the rational men would like to have a society that treats all equally despite their family of belonging, a society that gives to all the same opportunity for education, job opportunities, the possibility to develop a career beyond any kind of discrimination and obstruction, a society that does not make differences between people holding different religious beliefs, etc.

The veil of ignorance acts as a foundation for people’s desiring fairness, as it ensures the impartiality of the judgment that is required, since, assuming this situation of ignorance, persons would like to have a community based on equal treatment for all; a society based on justice as fairness.

According to Rawls, the veil of ignorance is the only condition from which we can ask the party to agree about the principles of justice because it is a situation void of personal differences among those individuals.

The above-explained conditions - the original position and from behind the veil of ignorance- set the situation whereby people should decide in accord with the principle of impartiality and rationality. To Rawls, the original position and the veil of ignorance are the fundamental and necessary conditions to reach not only the impartiality but also, and probably more importantly, unanimity of decision about the two above-mentioned principles of their future society.

1.2 Sen's Criticism of Rawls.

In the light of what has been stated, the entire Rawls' theory works as far as people reach a joint agreement in the original position, a unanimous decision. This is the first difficulty that Rawls' theory encounters. Rawls has to presuppose that the parties are rational and hold the same political reasoning in order to work out a conditional agreement because only after this accord can the principles of justice be established, and the primary institutions will be formed. The entire theory is based on the concept of the unanimous agreement, which in turn relies on the rationality of the parties in the original position.

Such way of thinking highlights that Rawls set forth a pyramidal way to construct a theory of justice and the accord among people is the very basis of this pyramid. It is a pyramidal construction of the theory, which is working in accord with the principle of democracy, because the organizations or institutions can be defined as the ultimate achievement of society, which are formed by principles that are determined by the original agreement among people. There is a processual, logical and coherent order in Rawls' theory because it is from the original position, which represents the first stage, that we can create an upper level of society, the constitutional state, which in turn can form the third legislative stage.

The theory is built upon the original agreement, therefore justification for accepting the conditions of the theory is weakened. Indeed, Sen objects to Rawls' presupposition regarding the impossibility of reducing the variety of the ideas that persons hold about the conception of a just society on the unique set of principles. The range of ideas and the impracticability of reducing them to a single set of principles points out a serious weakness in Rawls' theory. According to this objection, if it is the case in which people’s idea about liberal societies are not convergent and still, they are perfectly defensible from an impartial point of view, Sen advances a defeat for Rawls' theory. If, in fact, this is the case, we would end up with many sets of principles and we would not be able to form the required basic structure for a just society on Rawls' conditions(Sen, 2009). The absence of the unique set of principles determines the inapplicability of Rawls' theory and therefore it represents a failure of his overall approach.

In order to illustrate his point about non-convergent but still impartial and rational points of view, Sen highlights out an enlightening and symbolic example that sheds light on many other cases. This example involves three children quarreling over one flute, and requires us to examine each child’s reason to get the flute (Sen, 2009; pg. 43). Anne is the only child who knows how to play the flute, and the others do not deny her capacity and suitability to play it in relation to them. However, there is also Bob who is the poorest among the three children and having the flute would be very significant for him because it is the only toy he can have for his own. Again, the other two children recognize that this would be his only toy and it would be unfair to deny to Bob the possibility to have the flute.

Alternatively, there is Carla, who made the flute, and she points out that she has been working very hard for many months to make it. The others confirm that she has used much of her time and efforts to finish it and it is comprehensible she complains about not having it. Again, we could see it as completely correct to give her the flute. If we hear about each case without knowing about the existence of the others, we would have all agreed that Anne should have had the right to get the flute, as well as Bob and Carla. Every resolution of this conflict would have been right but it would have left out the other two children without any reasonable explanation.

Might Anne's claim would have found the sympathy of the utilitarian hedonist, Bob the sympathy of the economic egalitarian and Carla the libertarian, it would be hard to claim that each of their claims would be unfair. Every one of these claims could have been pursued for the personal interest, for the pursuit of human flourishing and fulfillment or removal of poverty. Since it is not easy to brush aside any of these claims because every resolution would have made sense, it is clear that without some arbitrariness it is impossible to figure out the one that should prevail without injuring the others’ personal and social interest(Sen, 2009) (Sen, 1992).

However, there are also plenty of other cases like this one. For instance, supposing that a public university such as the UvA has just one space left out and they have to decide among three different persons with all the same grades and opportunity to succeed. There is Gianluca, who comes from Italy and for him the possibility to study at the UvA is very important because it would mean having a career and a different future in another country, because his country is not developed enough to offer him the future he would like to have. There is Leonardo, who is living in a system whereby the academic system is very expensive and for him the possibility to study at the UvA would mean having the chance to finish his academic background and have more possibilities in his own country. Finally, there is Philip who is very passionate about Philosophy and he knows that the UvA is highly recognized in this field because there is the Spinoza Chair, an important and unique University's award. Therefore, he would like to study at the UvA because they have the University that would allow him to have a successful future in the academic field.

Might Gianluca rise the sympathy of the utilitarian, Leonardo of the egalitarian and Philip of the libertarian, it is very hard to say that one should be favored over the others. This kind of decisions have to be made in every context, in the context of social housing for instance, and in the private and public sectors.

According to this example impartiality can take many forms and there is a practical impossibility to reach an agreement upon one set of principles.

At this stage, in A Theory of Justice, Rawls has to assume that people have some impartial shared values to expect that their rationality can lead them to the same outcomes, whereas Sen's answer sheds some light on the problem of having individuals with alternative but still moral values and the difficulty of creating a theory based on a social contract.

Nevertheless, in Justice as Fairness; A Restatement (herein referred to as ‘JF’)(Rawls, 2001) Rawls would react to this criticism by saying that there is a conception of justice on which people would agree despite people's reasonable differences in their holding of comprehensive doctrines. Rawls considers in his later work exactly which common political ideas people need to share to reach an agreement. Indeed, in JF he states that the fact of “reasonable pluralism”(Rawls, 2001; pg. 3) makes this idea of people sharing partial comprehensive doctrines impossible. Sen would say that in admitting “reasonable pluralism” Rawls cannot rely upon the formation of a unique set of principles of justice, and if it is the case, there is a serious problem at the very beginning of his theory.

Indeed, Rawls claims that “this is the fact of profound and irreconcilable differences in citizen's reasonable comprehensive religious and philosophical conceptions of the world, and in their views of the moral and aesthetic values to be sought in human life”(Rawls, 2001; pg. 3). However, Rawls answers to Sen that despite the differences in people's beliefs, the fact that persons are rational, means that they will agree on this unique set of principles.

Following Sen, Rawls' reaction generate the second problematic assumption, which is about people' rationality because we do not have the possibility to rely upon a set of values established once for all in accord with people can decide. In JF Rawls assumes that despite the condition of reasonable disagreement upon moral and ethical issues, the citizens have some “fundamental and intuitive ideas” (Rawls, 2001; pg.175) of the conception of justice, such as the idea of justice as a society as “a fair system of social cooperation over time from one generation to the next”(Rawls, 2001; pg. 175)

The idea of social cooperation has three main features. The first one is about the accepted “public recognized rules and procedures which those cooperating accept as appropriate to regulate their conduct”(Rawls, 2001; pg. 6). The second is about the “fair terms of cooperation”(Ibid; pg. 6) such as an “idea of reciprocity” (Ibid; pg. 6), and the third is about “the idea of each participant's rational advantage, or good”(Ibid; pg. 6). This clarified understanding of people's reasoning regarding reasonability is used by Rawls as a system of justification(Quong, 2013) among individuals who do not hold the same comprehensive doctrines such as philosophical or religious beliefs.

In the first feature, Rawls advances the idea of public reason which is separated from the discourse about the comprehensive doctrines. The idea of a common public reason wants to make an appeal to the concept of rationality as a notion standing apart from other people's beliefs in order to have a unanimous agreement about the laws of the society despite reasonable pluralism. So, Rawls assumes that there are “fundamental and intuitive ideas”(Rawls, 2001; pg.175) which are the outcome of people's rationality and that those idea are different from people's beliefs. However, it is not clear what kind of epistemic or ontological status the role of rationality shall have in relation to beliefs in order to led all the people to agree upon the same principles of justice. Moreover, if these “fundamental and intuitive ideas”(Rawls, 2001; pg.175) are the outcome of people's common sense, it is still difficult to believe in the existence of such “common sense” because it should be the outcome of history, economic and social conditions which do not lead people to have such an a common ground based on equality and freedom.

Moreover, Rawls makes an appeal to a public political culture that in order to work have to rely upon a sort of reciprocity and convergent moral demands. However, I believe that this idea regarding the relationships of reciprocity is problematic due to Rawls' appeal to the rational moral basis of persons. For instance, the concept of public reason needs to presuppose an idea of the good life based on cooperation. But it can be the case that people's rationality is not convergent according to their different attitudes and justified beliefs. Indeed, if the current society in which people live does not treat them equally, it is very hard to rely upon idea of reciprocity and common sense. Moreover, we do not have the ways to guarantee such a common idea of the good life. Rawls requires us to give to the idea of civic friendship too much weight. In fact, according to his theory, it should be the ground for the kind of reason needed in a political context.

However, it is worth pointing out that Rawls has the merit of suggesting a new idea of rationality, in contrast to that which is found within utilitarianism. In contrast to Rawls, the utilitarian trend is working with a very narrow idea of rationality; in fact, according to utilitarianism, people act rationally as far as they work to maximize their interests. Rawls suggests a view of rationality that is not new, since it is derived from a Kantian conception of rationality(Rawls, 1981)1 but it is broader than that found within utilitarianism.

Adopting a Kantian conception of the practical reason embedded in the concept of reasonability, Rawls is considering the reason as the capacity to make an evaluation about the ultimate ends and the means to reach the ends, to prioritize the order of the desires and to evaluate according to rational and moral principles. Therefore, Rawls outlines a new instrument to use within not only political philosophy, but also economics, by changing our understanding of the rationality of the homo economicus.

Rawls suggests a view of reason that is defined in political and social terms, in accord with principles of cooperation. On the other hand, utilitarianism has defined reason in psychological and individual terms, especially in accord with utility. Therefore, utilitarianism allocates the moral values of persons at the level of the personal and not on a higher level, like the social one.

Sen brings another fundamental objection to Rawls' theory, which is the direct link created by Rawls between the set of principles and their successful applicability in the society. Rawls assumes that once we have given a set of right principles the society will be just because the principles are the sources of just institutions(Maffettone, 2011). According to Sen, Rawls' assumption presupposes an unreflective and westernized way to conceive the society, because it presupposes persons' trust toward institutions. Sen argues that institutions are not always seen by individuals as the product of their will, institutions can be the result of colonialism. Therefore, persons may not be willing to follow the roles decided by those institutions.

Moreover, Sen accuses Rawls of a lack of attention to “what happens to people”(Sen, 2009; pg. 68) and to focussing too much importance on the just institutions. Indeed, it can be the case in which institutions are made with good principles but the people making up those institutions do not behave in a way that is institutionally correct. Sen's critique to transcendental institutionalism will be discussed at length in the next chapter and it will come up throughout other examples of my thesis.

Last but not least, the agreement and the original position are ahistorical and hypothetical by definition. They are ahistorical because the agreement and the original position couldn't ever have happened in reality. Therefore, it can just be made outside the limit of the literal sense of existence. They can be a metaphorical sequence of event that we do not deduce from the real world but within a limited experimental exercise. They are hypothetical because people would have decided to adopt a set of principles if they were in the given hypothetical situation of the original position but they aren't. It is a mental experiment and a hypothetical agreement, and as such, the agreement cannot have the power to oblige persons or the authority to determine their actual and contingent behavior. Therefore, such agreement is impossible to achieve in practical and empirical terms. According to this view, we could suspect that the theory is not of any practical use in establishing a system based on justice, but more importantly a system that can work as guidance for economic theories.

1.3 Sen's Critique toward Ideal Theory.

John Rawls clearly conceived the structure and the aim of his work in terms of the ideal theory. I believe it is important to point out why this is a problematic method of approaching issues of justice. Rawls wants to demonstrate that if the underlying principles of justice on which all the persons will agree with are perfectly just, consequently the society will be just.

According to Rawls' view, the original position and the agreement between free and rational people are the sufficient and necessary conditions to establish principles of justice for a future just society. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls states that “we can still ask what and absolutely just society would be like”(Rawls, 1971; pg. 8). Rawls clearly aims at creating one perfect society, offering justice as fairness as the theory he believes is most reasonable within ideal theory. Furthermore, he argues that the choice of the principles of justice is up to citizens collectively after due reflection. Rawls argues that his theory is the best under the conditions he establishes.

One of the main problem with the ideal theory approach is the tendency of idealizing some state of affairs, since in the end it can result in a more conservative approach whereas non-ideal theories adopt a more critical way, focused on what has to be changed. A theory of justice aimed at changing the social world should not aim at creating what is the perfect ideal view of justice because the ideal can be distant from reality, and therefore demotivating. Instead, the goal of these theories should be to figure out a way to improve people’s actual conditions in order to reach equality and freedom, by helping them to think about ways to escape their unequal social system not by abstracting from it, as Rawls does, but by giving them practical solutions. If our aim is to improve the social situation of persons we should start from the observation of the society in which those persons live, and not from an abstract point of view. The aim of theorizing about justice should be not focused on creating spotless principles in the perfect society but rather focusing on finding new ways to find solution considering our starting point, therefore our actual situation.

Sen defines Rawls' ideal theory in terms of “transcendentalism” because it aims at providing universal principles for the “perfect” institutions in a spotless society, where these principles have been stipulated by an agreement among people in the original position. Sen's approach, on the other hand, is not focussed on finding perfect principles and on the assumption of having, directly from that, perfect institutions, but is instead aimed at reducing and addressing the problem of injustice.

For the purpose of resolving existing problems, Sen considers Rawls' theory almost useless since he believes that knowing the just principles is neither a necessary or a sufficient condition to know how the perfectly just society should be. Rawls would answer that the ideal theory is necessary because we cannot act in the non-ideal theory without knowing the ideal one, and this is an interesting observation. Rawls is right when he claims that to operate in a correct way, we must still presuppose some guiding principles. Nevertheless, Sen argues that the transcendental principles are not useful for addressing real problems. Indeed, Sen is claiming that we do not need any form of normative guidance to resolve unjust and non-ideal circumstances. Given the purpose of solving injustice, I believe that Sen is right when claiming that ideal knowledge is not useful in those situations since we do not need to know what a perfect state of affairs should look like to make an evaluation of the contingent situation because this could be too far from the actual situation. When our goal is to resolve one particular issue, it is more helpful to have a deep knowledge of the roots which have created such issue, and the knowledge of the possible solutions.

Moreover, Sen argues that institutions do not work by themselves once we have established the principles, since justice is more an activity than a concept, it has to be continuously assessed. According to Sen, justice is a working process, a gradual formation of people’s character and it is overly-simplistic to assume that if an organization or institution is just, it will be just in the future because it does not consider what happens to people. According to Sen, in a society, the justice of the institution is not given by principles established in an a priori, conditional and ideal situation and he refuses the idea that some principles would be enough for a society to function in a perfect way. This way of reasoning represents a real shift of paradigm in the way of thinking and working on the issue about justice. Sen contextualizes the discussion surrounding justice, creating a contingent and real context that makes the possibility of intervention the primary goal of the theorizing.

To Sen, Rawls underestimates the importance of what happens to persons, and a theory of justice should not be based on institutions but on persons.

Sen wants to focus the attention on the moment of the social realization of the institutions and the role of practical reasoning. Whereas, according to Rawls, if the institutions are just, the society and people's behavior will be just. Rawls takes for granted that the just organizations shape the characters of the individuals.

This problem arises the question of the moral character formation, and Rawls is acting in support of the hypothesis according to which if people are brought up in a just society, they will be good citizens. According to this view, the virtues are created by the tradition and the social environment in which a person grows up. However, I do not believe that persons’ sense of justice can be entirely derived from the society and from the environment in which we grow up and live. For instance, on one hand, it can be the case in which a person grows up in a society where moral principles are upside down because there is a high level of corruption, but still, he can have formed a stronger sense of justice than a person living in a just society because he has experienced injustice first-hand. On the other hand, it is not true that a person cannot violate the concept of respect, fairness and justice of other persons if he grows up in a fair society. Since a person can grow up in what we believe to be a just society and a wealth family, but still, she can lack some important moral principles. The foundation of moral virtue is a complex psychological process that cannot entirely rely on the institution, or the environment, or on the individual alone.

Moreover, the sense of community and of belonging to society is not given by institutions, but it is provided by a process of character formation. Such process requires a series of steps, from the sense of belonging to a family, to the concept of friendship and love we can arrive at conceiving a broaden sense of belonging to a community of people. However, Rawls' ideal theory presupposes that persons are already educated to act by the rules of society, whereas the role of family and the group of friends play a fundamental role as well. Again, he does not want to take in account cases in which people do not behave reasonably by compliance of the ideal theory. However, people do not always act according to the principle of morality despite the right environment. Moreover, the persons can have very different idea of reasonable behaviors in particular circumstances.

Following Sen, we have to give relevance to the cases in which people’s actual actions are not rational, because rationality is not a perfect science. Humans are fallible, and we cannot rely on the character of the individual just by assuming a set of right principles. Therefore, we have to give the contingency of behavior a fundamental position when analyzing matters of justice. The shift of paradigm made by Sen can be understood as the need to consider the contingency of behavior and practical reasoning, without taking anything for granted.

Following Sen the pursuit of justice is to guarantee the proper functioning of the system, but it is something that we have to address continuously. Moreover, justice can be gradually pursued throughout the progressive formation of desirable ways of behaving.

The two principles of justice established by Rawls cannot be the only basis for people's behavior; there is an underestimation of the role of practical reasoning in a context of social justice, and this is the reason why according to Sen, Rawls' approach based on the institution is a reflection of the westernized way of conceiving officials and public organizations. Indeed, Sen observes the lack of justice despite the presence of just institutions because he gives relevance to the different idea people have of the State. For some countries, the institutions do not recall the will of the nations. Instead, they are the product of colonialism. Sen wants to put under the spotlight the actual functioning and the role played by the contingency of the behavior in a theory of justice, since we should aim at a creating way of reducing injustice instead of creating abstract principles. However, these critiques at the level of the social are the outcome of a different approach at the individual level, and it will be discussed in the next chapter.

To sum up, in this first chapter I presented Rawls’ theory at its first stage and I supported Sen’s intuition about the necessity to revise his theory. Rawls uses the original position as a device of representation to be used by parties in order to decide the best conception of justice according to the principle of rational choice. The parties are thought to be free, rational and free from envy; they are asked to decide about the social and moral principles they want in their future society. The original position is a situation of primordial equality, a condition in which the parties can abstract from their personal identities and decide to adopt the principles of justice. The decision about the principles of the society is taken from another fundamental condition, the veil of ignorance. The veil of ignorance is a situation in which the parties cannot use the information about their future gender, ethnicity and social status. The veil of ignorance acts as a foundation for people desiring fairness; it guarantees the impartiality of the judgment that is required. Assuming this situation of ignorance, people would like to have a community based on equal treatment for all; a society based on justice as fairness.


1Rawls’ theory resembles the Kantian doctrine in many ways. Rawls’ idea of rationality is similar to the Kantian one because they assume a certain concept of the person from which we can reach agreement about principles of justice(Rawls, 1981). Rawls and Kant considered the persons as free and equal, as they are “capable of acting reasonably and rationally, and therefore as capable of taking part in social cooperation among persons so conceived” (Rawls, 1981; pg. 518) The principles of social justice are socially justified not because they follow a divine or natural order, but because they are congruent with the understanding of ourselves.
Furthermore, Rawls and Kant both try to spell out the conflict among the variety of ways to understand freedom and equality. They try to find principles of freedom and equality, and which ones of these principle free, equal, moral persons would agree upon.
Rawls states that they both try to find appropriate principles of justice for democratic societies and not regardless social and historical circumstances.(Rawls, 1981)
They both have a hope in the existence of “a common desire of agreement as well as a sufficient sharing of certain underlying notions”(Rawls, 1981) and therefore of principles. They both want to make explicit the principle behind the common sense.

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Philosophical Approaches to Poverty, Inequality and the Idea of Wellbeing
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