Dr. Amartya Sen at the 2013 Kellogg Biennial Lecture on Jurisprudence


Click here for the video of the lecture.

At the 2013 Kellogg Biennial Lecture on Jurisprudence, Dr. Amartya Sen spoke on the importance of reasoned disagreement in the creation of shared conception(s) of justice. He noted that to understand the role of reasoned disagreement, it is important in fact to understand that reasoned agreement in theories of justice, as notably outlined by Lord Hewart in 1923 and “legendary” Harvard Professor John Rawls and his work in Theories of Justice, seek not mere agreement, neither instrumental nor functional, but the fostering of the conditions of reasoning on societal affairs. Dr. Sen argues that this very fostering requires us “to encourage and facilitate rather than dissuade or stifle reasoned disagreement” because of what he calls the non-dichotomous distinctions between facts and values  in the “implicit contingency” of “factual valuations” that play in our judgments and conclusions.

“We make very extensive use of some factual beliefs, often implicitly without mentioning it at all about the world surrounds us, and these connections may be critically important for our valuational conclusions.  The scope for arguing about and disagreeing on the acceptability of the underlying presumptions including factual proposition can be widespread and extensive even though the sanguine believers of their own reading of the real world may not at all like entering that territory of examination.”

In the first part of the lecture, Dr. Sen surveys, very briefly, the connections between the “soundness of a judgment and its ability to survive public scrutiny” in Professor Rawls works in thinking about the objectivity of justice. This part also contains, equally brief, a few responses and a survey of various meta-ethical and metaphysical questions involved in the question of reasoning. In the second part, Dr. Sen questions whether the role of impartiality in Professor Rawls Theory of Justice really withers away disagreement between reasonable agents, something which Rawls may have questioned himself, aside from those arguments that could on grounds of reasoning eliminate some disagreement. Dr. Sen questions whether the demands of fairness identified in the Rawlsian “original position”, i.e., the impartiality involved when choosing from the “veil of ignorance”, truly eliminates not only disagreement but lasting disagreement. While he concedes that the Rawlsian position however does not seek only agreement but the conditions that foster reasoning, he argues that ensuring the conditions that foster a Kantian type of freedom in reasoning require the conditions that “encourage and facilitate rather than dissuade or stifle reasoned disagreement” because what he calls the “implicit contingency” of “factual valuations” that exists even between impartial and reasonable agents.

“But impartiality alone, which is part of my thesis, is — wouldn’t deliver you to a complete agreement.  No agreement ever emerged between the two sides even after prolonged arguments and well-intentioned reasoning with each other. […] This does not, however, imply that arguments on such fundamental issues are a waste of time.  Indeed I must emphasize the distinction between the position that to reason argument with each other the two sides must always be able to come to one exact agreement, a hope that I do not entertain.  And the position that it’s useless to argue once we seem to hit a point of apparently deep-rooted disagreement.”

In the third part of the lecture, Dr. Sen proceeds to demonstrate what he calls the “implicit contingency” in the policies of neoliberalism in the European financial restructuring that occurred in the post-2008 recession. In the fourth final part, Dr. Sen argues that as it may at first glance seem problematic that we cannot seem to escape disagreement even in situations of impartiality, it rather implies that the “reasoning process” is “not something which can end at any point of time”. While conditions of the objectivity of reason are public, they can also be contingent and factually based on wrong assumptions, even those can be characterized as impartial. This does further not deny that conditions of objectivity can never be attained over time, just as much as conditions of objectivity can ever be forever maintained.

“The possibility of lack of agreement on the kind of impartial system we want can be a major and in some ways, fatal blow to the Rawlsian approach of what he calls justice as fairness in the way outlined since the strategy of proceeding from the unanimous identification of just institutions to the specification of demands of justice in general is seriously undermined by the durability of reasoned disagreement. This does not highly imply that there would not be many reasoned agreement on specific issues of justice.  The area of agreement may well be change over time partly as a result of closer implication of implicit contingencies and debates about them.  Disagreements have a voice but there is no difficulty in this way of thinking about the historical progress of justice in human society nationally and globally building on the consensus that’s already emerged. The durability of disagreement may undermine a totalist one-shot approach to perfect justice.  But it does not disable the approach of recent partial agreement in pursuit of justice over time. From the abolition of slavery in the 19th century to the spread of universal franchise in the early 20th, the movement towards universal schooling and universal medical attention and the pursuit of equality of men and women and for treating people from different races, classes and castes as equal, the world has seen many changes that have been occurring and continues to occur today. In many ways, the history of social change in the world is a story of far-reaching contribution from productive disagreement and recent argument. Kant was right to see the contingent importance of firmly resisting the invitation and the command that surround our life.  Don’t argue.  Get on the parade. Despite the foundational importance of reasoned agreement, joining the parade may not be the best way of advancing the cause of justice.”

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