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INDIAN JOURNAL OF HUMAN DEVELOPMENT

Volume 5

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INDIAN JOURNAL OF HUMAN DEVELOPMENT

welcomes original inter-disciplinary contributions from a


human development perspective on developing countries

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explores the inter-connections between policy


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Volume 5 Number 1

Institute for
Human
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INDIAN JOURNAL OF
H U M A N
DEVELOPMENT

Madhusudan Ghosh Regional Disparities in Education,


Health and Human Development in India
Jandhyala B.G. Tilak What Matters for
Outcomes in Elementary Education in India?
Pravat Kumar Kuri and Arindam Laha Financial Inclusion
and Human Development in India: An Inter-State Analysis
Symposium on
THE IDEA OF JUSTICE
Keith Dowding What Is the Idea of Justice?

INDIAN

Roberto Alejandro Towards a Hermeneutics of Justice:


Reflections on Amartya Sen's Philosophy
Sebastiano Maffettone Sen's Idea of
Justice versus Rawls' Theory of Justice
James P. Sterba What Sen Should Have Said to Rawls

JOURNAL

Charles W. Mills Re-Theorizing Justice: Some Comments


on Amartya Sen's The Idea of Justice
Valerian Rodrigues Justice as the Lens: Interrogating
Rawls through Sen and Ambedkar

Aakash Singh Rathore The Romance of Global Justice?


Sen's Deparochialization and the Quandary of Dalit Marxism

OF

HUMAN

Philip Pettit A Question for Sen


about Democracy and Justice
Christian Schemmel Sen, Rawlsand Sisyphus
Evan Riley Against Sen Against Rawls on Justice
O.A. Oyeshile Sen's Realization-Focused
Notion of Justice and the Burden of
Democratic Governance in African Societies
PERSPECTIVE
Udaya S. Mishra On Adjusting the Survivorship
Dimension in the Human Development Index
RESPONSE
M.H. Suryanarayana New Estimates of Poverty in India: A
Critique of the 'Tendulkar Committee Report'A Response

DEVELOPMENT

BOOK REVIEWS

Indian Journal of Human Development, Vol. 5, No. 1, 2011

Justice as the Lens: Interrogating


Rawls through Sen and Ambedkar
Valerian Rodrigues*

Justice as social justice has been a key concern of contemporary political philosophy. The
contribution of John Rawls is widely acknowledged as seminal in this regard. Amartya Sens
The Idea of Justice engages with the Rawlsian project centrally and attempts to tease out an
alternative conception of justice. The central preoccupation of B.R. Ambedkar in his writings as
well as political practices revolved around justice. This paper, while suggesting that there is a
shared ground across them on this concern, focuses on the differences in their respective stances
and the extent to which they can be justified.

Keywords: The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen, Ambedkar, Social Choice Theory

Social justice asks a simple question: How should we distribute the fruits of social
cooperation? In social cooperation, different people bring different resources, skills
and competences to the table, convert them into a division of labour for the production
of goods and sustenance of life, share the fruits of such a cooperative endeavour, and
assign responsibilities to one another. The relations that they engender in the process
and the institutions that they sustain may give rise to modes of dominance and conflict,
contesting the extent of share of the social produce assigned and the norms employed for
the purpose. Such cooperation may be expressed differently in different communities and
cultures and, in turn, beget and sustain them in their own ways. Therefore, potentially
there could be several versions of social justice depending upon how we understand
the agency of social cooperation, the relationship of such agency to the cooperating
community at large, and the way in which we stipulate the relation between the agency
and the cooperating society, on one hand, and the world (including God), on the other.
In this paper, we explore one such conception of social justice, which assumes that
the distribution of the fruits of social cooperation should not be determined by the
circumstances that we are placed in, and need not be based on the principles attributed
to God or the authority of customs or traditions. Human beings, through reason
and deliberation, are quite capable of formulating such principles for themselves.1
Justice, therefore, is a human endeavour and concern. This conception assumes that
certain powers and capacities make all humans uniquely equal irrespective of their
manifold inequalities and differences. It also sees a close kinship between justice
and democracy, and does not see the latter as merely a mode of rule but a form of
* Professor, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
Email: valerianrodrigues@yahoo.com

154 Indian Journal of Human Development

associated life, grounded on rights and deliberation, mutual respect and the shared
ways of life. Further, human beings involved in social cooperation are not self-same
or a homogenous lump, can think for themselves, dissent and protest, be critical of
themselves, and advance alternative proposals for such cooperation. In other words,
they are free. In spite of several differences across them, there are three significant
commentators on justice in our times, who assume all these conditions: John Rawls,
Amartya Sen and Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. There could be many others who are
in agreement with these assumptions and propose theories of justice, which may
partially agree or partially disagree with them. However, for the time being, the focus
remains only on these three and the kind of shared agreements and differences that
their conception of social justice is caught in. All three of them have made the issue of
justice central to their consideration.2 They invoke a stronger universality for justice in
spite of their sensitivity to differences and otherness.3 While their arguments suggest
a positive role for the State in the economy, they do not favour an economy wholly
directed by the State in the name of equality, or some other principle. Further there is
an additional reason for the focus on these three: while Rawls closely works within the
tradition of Western political philosophy, in general, and liberal thought, in particular,
Sen thinks that the core principles of justice, grounded in reason, find their echo in other
civilizations as well, particularly in India. Ambedkar is not a philosopher like either of
them and while being deeply influenced by the Western liberal and socialist thought
and the debate on social justice, approaches them by invoking equal rights with a strong
interventionist role for the State in favour of the disadvantaged. Further, he primarily
focuses on inherited, group-based inequality in a context wherein a dominant group
institutes relations of deference to itself and contempt towards other groups through
recourse to a specific division of labour, beliefs, institutions and other practices. While
being committed to democracy, he does not have the luxury of assuming democracy
and seeks to explore the challenges that it confronts in entrenched inequalities.
Methodologically, we will focus on John Rawls first, largely because his position
on social justice is well known, and all major political philosophers in our time who
have an argument to make on this issue foreground Rawls in their considerations.
We will present Rawls argument around five interrelated concerns: his critique
of utilitarianism; invocation of the idea of the human as moral; justice as fairness;
limitations of the equality of opportunity or liberal equality argument; and the social
contract argument. We will show Sen and Ambedkar as critically engaging with these
issues. Sen is clearly an interlocutor as well as a critic of the Rawlsian position from
early on4 and has maintained such a position even after thirty years. Ambedkar is
an outsider to a discursive engagement of this kind, but the moral stances around
which he argues the issues of social justice and his central concerns have a remarkable
kinship with those of Rawls and Sen.
CRITIQUE OF UTILITARIANISM
Rawls singles out the utilitarian conception of justice for adversarial treatment
against his own idea of justice as fairness. He sees the former as primarily arguing,

Rawls, Sen and Ambedkar 155

that society is rightly ordered, and therefore just, when its major institutions are
arranged so as to achieve the greatest net balance of satisfaction summed over all the
individuals belonging to it.5 It does not matter how the net aggregate satisfactions
are arrived at. Utilitarianism does not take seriously the distinction between
persons. It presumes that as the well-being of a person is measured through the
aggregate satisfactions at different moments, the well-being of society too must be
measured similarly. It can easily lend itself to the idea that there is nothing wrong if
some human beings are treated as instrumentalities of the purposes of others as long
as it serves the aggregate good. In its theory, there cannot be a serious objection, as
to why the violation of the liberty of a few might not be right for the greater share
of good of the many. It appeals to a form of perfectionism that those institutions
and acts are right which, among available alternatives, produce the most good,
defined as pleasure or happiness. Once such a good is identified, the correct course
to be followed is essentially a question of efficient administration. The utilitarian
stance undermines not merely the equality of persons but also the moral criterion of
treating persons as ends. It violates what is for Rawls a conviction of common sense,
further reflected upon by many a philosopher, that each person in a society has an
inviolability, which, even the welfare of everyone else cannot override. (Rawls,
1971, A Theory of Justice, p. 28). A man cannot be asked to die for the good of even
the society as a whole.
Against the utilitarian conception of the human person, for Rawls, the plurality
of distinct persons with separate systems of ends is an essential feature of human
societies and their correct regulative principles must reflect it. (ibid., pp. 27-29).
Justice as fairness, therefore, has to take into account the right of human beings to
choose for themselves, and equal regard has to be extended to all of them in view of
this capacity. Therefore, it doesnt specify the good independently from the right, or
does not interpret the right as maximizing the good (ibid., p. 30). In justice as fairness,
the question of attaining the greatest net satisfactions never arises. Its foregrounding
principle is, right is prior to good, or our choice makes the good that we strive for
rather than a pre-existing good marking our choice. No individual in such a society
can barter the liberties of others, without their consent, for the enhancement of his own
pleasures or in the name of certain valued ends.
Although utilitarianism has little moral defence to offer against our considered
judgements or reflective assessments, Rawls draws attention to its entrenchment
in modern institutions. It has become the benchmark not merely for the working of
public institutions but all social institutions including family. Its capacity to transform
the human into an object of policy had become infectious across societies.
The sweeping presence of the utilitarian conception of justice, in all liberal
societies, and in other societies too, wherever there is the popular element to reckon
with, and its moral indefensibility are important foregrounding conditions for Rawls
considerations on justice. It is important to stress that Rawls thinks that intuitive and
embedded conceptions of justice are not able to provide a consistent and encompassing
alternative to utilitarianism. This engagement with utilitarianism also makes Rawls

156 Indian Journal of Human Development

focus on social institutions, rather than actual lives.6 Rawls admits that the scope
of justice is large and, in A Theory of Justice, he would like to restrict it only to public
institutions.
Sens principal charge against Rawls is that there is a plurality of ways of conceiving
what is justice and it might be expressed not merely through institutions but peoples
actual behaviour, social interactions, etc. He feels that several overlapping reasons can
be cited as to why one prefers a standard of justice rather than a single reason and even
the most impartial deliberation need not necessarily lead to a single set of principles.
In this context, he says, guillotining all the other evaluative criteria is not in fact a
prerequisite for getting useful and robust conclusions on what should be done. This
applies as much to the theory of justice as it does to any other part of the discipline of
practical reason (see Sen, 2009, The Idea of Justice, p. 4). He further thinks that Smith,
Condorcet, Wollstonecraft, Marx and Mill gave expression to such a stance and he
himself is inclined to endorse such a position. Rawls would readily agree that there
are plural intuitive conceptions of justice but they are not able to contend against
securely ensconced benchmarks of utility in modern societies, particularly liberal
democracies. Rawls will have definitive problems with regard to the thinkers that Sen
cites as advancing alternative conceptions of justice, both with regard to culling out
a unified approach to justice in their writings, and their position on the issue making
room for substantive liberties. In fact, Rawls would probably contend that Sen would
have to eventually make way for the priority of utility in one form or another, though
he might accommodate other considerations subordinate to it. In fact, Sens arguments
against utilitarianism as a whole are much more muted in comparison with those of
Rawls (ibid., pp. 277-78). Many of the specific charges that Sen makes against Rawls
would come under the intuitive conceptions. For instance, Sen thinks that we know
injustice faster than we formulate what justice is. Further we may have a strong sense
of injustice on many different grounds, and yet not agree on one particular ground as
being the dominant reason for the diagnosis of injustice (ibid., p. 2).
Sen distinguishes between the approach of transcendental institutionalism
towards the formulation of a conception of justice, such is that of Rawls and Nozick,
and realization-focused comparison with which he identifies himself. According to
him, the former is characterized by two features: first, It concentrates its attention
on what it identifies as perfect justice, rather than on relative comparisons of justice
and injustice (ibid., p. 6). Secondly, in searching for perfection, transcendental
institutionalism concentrates primarily on getting the institutions right, and it is not
directly focussed on the actual societies that would ultimately emerge (ibid., p. 6).
He calls this conception of justice as arrangement-focused and contrasts it with the
realization-focused comparison. The latter concentrates on, the actual behaviour of
people rather than presuming compliance by all with ideal behaviour (ibid., p. 7).
It is not concerned with identifying the nature of the just as much as seeking an
alternative less unjust than another (ibid., p. 6). It is concerned primarily with the
removal of manifest injustice from the world that we see. The questions that these
approaches ask are also very different. While the first asks the question as to what

Rawls, Sen and Ambedkar 157

would be perfectly just institutions, the latter asks the question, as to how would
justice be advanced? I think Sen mixes up between principles and policy when he
mounts these criticisms against Rawls. While there are pluralities of policies and
various mix of them for the pursuit of a set of principles, no institution would be
able to work in the longer run unless it is coordinated by a set of principles. Further,
the Rawlsian second principle interjects the first principle and introduces substantive
indeterminacy to its actual working in practice!
Sen draws a comparison between his approach and that of Rawls with the
traditional conceptions of niti and nyaya, respectively, within the Indian philosophical
traditions. While niti refers to organizational propriety and behavioural correctness,
nyaya is linked with the world that actually exists and not just the institutions
or rules that we happen to have. This distinction between niti and nyaya is a little
overstated and there are usages when it occurs interchangeably. In this context, one
wonders whether Sen over-reads the distinction between the two terms (see Ghosal,
1959, Chapters XXI, XXII and XXIII) and whether the comparison is legitimate at
all. Overall we can say that Sen does not adequately take into cognizance the moral
affront that utilitarianism poses. His idea of justice, while tending to nurture human
capacities, does not morally deflate the hold of utilitarianism. Therefore, while any
systematic application of the Rawlsian critique of utilitarianism, as is the case with
that of Ambedkar, would call for a massive displacement and re-crafting of existing
social institutions, Sens position does not offer such a challenge. Sen distinguishes
between the utility-maximizing approach and his own capability approach. The latter
approach refers to a persons capability to do things that he or she has reason to value.
In his own words, the focus here is on the freedom that a person actually has to do
this or be thatthings that he or she may value doing or being (Sen, 2009, pp. 23032). The idea of freedom here refers to being free to determine what we want, what
we value and ultimately what we decide to choose. The concept of capability is thus
linked closely with the opportunity aspect of freedom, seen in terms of comprehensive
opportunities, and not just focusing on what happens at culmination (ibid., p. 232).
Sen also underlines certain specific features of this approach: it has an informational
focus in judging and comparing overall individual advantages without insisting how
that information would be used. According to him, what we are concerned with is
our ability to achieve various combinations of functioning that we can compare and
judge against each other in terms of what we have reason to value. It makes a serious
departure from concentrating on the means of living to the actual opportunities of
living (ibid., p. 233). Sen emphasizes the connection between public reasoning and the
choice and making of capabilities in social assessment.
It is important to flag off at this juncture that Ambedkar, while insisting on an
interventionist role for the State, both in the economy and market, rejected utilitarianism
as a measure of policy, as it is tilted towards majoritarianism. He thought that
utilitarianism as the foregrounding principle of State policy in India would enormously
strengthen the hold of an ascriptive majority. He saw an alternative to it in a political
order based on rights and equality, and for this purpose, saw the necessity of instituting

158 Indian Journal of Human Development

specific checks and balances in the constitutional and administrate regime in India for
favouring the minorities.
OUR MORAL CAPACITY AND UTILITARIAN REDUCTIONISM
In spite of the breath-taking reception to utilitarianism and its insertion as a virtue of
modern social institutions, Rawls assumes that under normal circumstances, human
beings beyond a particular age have a moral capacity to judge what is right and wrong,
and adduce reasons for the same. Sometimes, our confusions with regard to arriving
at such judgements do not detract from this fact. Hedonism, irrespective of however
influential and pervasive it might be, has a limited reach to keep us in its thrall. Our
moral capacities involve principles and theoretical judgements that go beyond the
norms and standards cited in everyday life. Considered judgements, based upon such
reconsiderations, engage with common sense critically and deliberatively, and in
them, our moral capacities are displayed amply. But such considered judgements too
are susceptible to revision once their regulative principles are subjected to question. In
such revision, we may reasonably exclude some judgements which may sound rational
in the first instance but are not able to sustain themselves as such subsequently. We
often find people accepting an intuitively7 appealing account of a sense of justice as
considered judgements. But such accounts may not stand up to closer critical scrutiny.
From a moral point of view, the best judgements are those that match a reflective
equilibrium. Such a situation is reached when a person has weighed various proposed
conceptions and has revised his judgements to accord with them.
For Rawls, intuition cannot offer a consistent set of principles to counter
utilitarianism. Intuitionism itself does not tell us why we are indisposed to the
theoretical edifice of utilitarianism as a whole. According to him, intuitive theories
have two features: first, they consist of plurality of first principles which may conflict
to give contrary directives in particular types of cases; and second, they include no
explicit method, no priority rules for weighing these principles one against another:
we are simply to strike a balance by intuition, by what seems to us most nearly right
(Rawls, 1971, p. 34). Therefore, intuitionists when confronted by moral complexity,
tend to reiterate the principles on which their intuitions are based and their attempts
to go beyond them often sounds trivial, or they simply cave into oversimplification
by endorsing such principles as utility. Therefore, it is important to establish some
priority among conflicting principles, a systematic set of principles that structure our
different intuitions. Only by formulating such principles which can critically engage
with our intuitions and help resolve their paradoxes and conflicts, can an effective
counterweight to utilitarianism be posed. He says, the only way therefore to dispute
intuitionism is to set forth the recognisably ethical criteria that account for the weights
which, in our considered judgements, we think appropriate to give to the plurality of
principles (ibid., p. 39).
For Sen, however, such a scrutiny need not lend itself to a unique set of principles
and, therefore, easily lends himself to moral pluralism. He endorses the nature

Rawls, Sen and Ambedkar 159

of objectivity in practical reason highlighted by Rawls, as a public framework of


thought with its basis in reason and evidence after discussion and due reflection
(ibid., p. 62). Sen appreciates Rawls for pointing out at the moral powers that
people have and their capacity for a sense of justice and for a conception of the
good. He endorses Rawls rejection of a hedonistic conception of the human being.
Further, he appreciates him for making the distinction between being rational and
being reasonable, with the latter being informed by the considered judgements and
susceptibilities of others (on this distinction, see ibid. p, 79-81). However, while Sen
endorses several ideas of Rawls with regard to the moral nature of the self, there is a
basic difference in their fundamental assumptions in this regard. For Sen, all human
beings are endowed with a dignity unique to them and accordingly there need to be
certain basic threshold opportunities that all of them need to access to. Institutions
and practices need to work towards such an end. Processes and functionings are much
more important in this regard than principles foregrounding public institutions. Given
human inequalities, these threshold opportunities could have widely varying impacts
and, therefore, we need to take into account all possible contingencies. It is then left
to the concerned individuals to decide what they wish to choose for themselves. It
is for the State to ensure the minimum threshold conditions. Individuals endowed
with initial equality and the capacity to exercise their freedoms would decide the
principles that they would choose for themselves to shape their public life. However,
there is no warranty that such individuals would ever agree on a set of determinate
principles as well as their ordering priorities. What we can ensure at the most are
impartiality, public reasoning, democracy, etc. Sen agrees with Rawls that hedonism
cannot be a tool for policy. But the moral pluralism that his position lends itself to
cannot effectively counter utilitarianism.
Ambedkar has an interesting take with regard to the stand that both Rawls and
Sen take on this issue. Ambedkar celebrates human capacity to reason and moral
capacity for right and wrong, ought and ought-not (see Rodrigues, Reading Texts
and Traditions: The Ambedkar-Gandhi Debate, 2011). However, he also points out
that modes of dominance can deny and suppress such capacity, and that the pursuit
of reason and moral capacity are deeply caught in certain enabling conditions. Such
conditions can be constituted only by transforming social relations. In other words,
for Ambedkar, both Rawls and Sen seem to be working on the notion of an already
constituted self, which does not exist. For him, reasoning and moral self are the
outcomes of a constitutive process.8 Ambedkar then would turn around and say that
while fine-tuning principles of justice is required, it is important that society itself
needs to be attuned to it and social relations need to be made our primary target of
action.
Therefore, for Ambedkar, the moral self that refuses to be subjected to utilitarian
calculations cannot be simply assumed. One needs to foreground conditions whereby
a human person is made available for moral considerations and consequently to
concerns of justice. It calls for a massive overhauling and transformation of social
relations and institutions to establish conditions conducive to justice. Rawls, in a naive

160 Indian Journal of Human Development

way, thinks that social institutions and relations can be re-crafted by a democratic
community that is committed to justice as fairness. Sen, at the other end, thinks that
if we can muster adequate civil society appeal, then institutions can be revamped
through the existing processes (see, for instance, Sen, 1999, Development as Freedom, pp.
xiii-xiv). For Ambedkar, both Rawls and Sen confine themselves to persons as already
constituted and do not probe further into the denial of personhood itself. He thought
that Marxists drew attention to this aspect but restricted their understanding of social
relations to narrow confines.
JUSTICE AS FAIRNESS
Rawls envisages justice as fairness that acts as an effective counterweight not merely to
utility as a criterion of justice but also to assorted but conflicting conceptions of justice
that clamour to direct social institutions. An intuitive general conception of justice
suggests an equal share of social goods across members bound in social cooperation.
But removing all inequalities may not be the best way of treating people as equal.
If certain inequalities benefit everyone, it might be better to let those inequalities
remain rather than equalize social goods. Therefore, inequalities are permissible if
they improve my initial share but not so if they undermine my share. Such a general
conception is, however, inadequate because it may not respect liberties: one might be
able to increase ones share of social goods by foregoing liberties. Therefore, the general
conception, which is an intuitive conception, needs to make a place for the principles
of liberty. It makes Rawls formulate the relation between liberties, opportunities and
merit as follows: justice should ensure the priority of equal liberty of all and such
liberty can be restricted only for the sake of liberty; claims of the disadvantaged are
prior to efficiency and welfare, that is, claims of the disadvantaged are lexically prior
to the principle of efficiency and the maximization of the sum of advantages; and
fair opportunity is lexically prior to considerations of social and economic inequalities
(Rawls, 1971, A Theory of Justice, pp. 302-03). In this ordering of the principles of social
cooperation, Rawls does not wholly reject utility, merit and the pursuit of excellence.
However, social institutions can pursue them only through the lens of human
equality, defined as equal liberties, and they deserve consideration only and to the
extent to which they are beneficial to the disadvantaged. While everyone can pursue
equal liberties, he or she has to take along the disadvantaged; and the pursuit of equal
liberties is unjustified unless we do so.
Sen appreciates Rawls for making the idea of fairness central to justice though
he does not think that fairness as impartiality captured in the reflective device of the
original position is adequate for the purpose. While Sen has some problems with
Rawls conception of liberty, he clearly endorses his prioritization of liberty. He also
thinks that the idea of procedural fairness highlighted in the first part of the second
principle9 provides a significant enrichment of the literature on inequality in the social
sciences (Sen, 2003, The Idea of Justice, p. 64). He thinks that a large part of mainstream
social science literature has tended to emphasize social status or economic outcomes
while ignoring disparities in the processes of operation. He thinks that Rawls provides

Rawls, Sen and Ambedkar 161

a corrective to it. He appreciates Rawls for making deprivation central for the purpose
of advancing a set of primary goods.
However, given the problems in the Rawlsian method as well as approach, Sen
thinks that it is important to shift the perspective itself from the Rawlsian conception
of justice with its focus on just institutions to just societies that rely on both effective
institutions as well as actual behavioural features. He does not think that some of
the alternatives that have been suggested, such as qualifying excessive priority to
liberty in Rawls by such considerations as concern for hunger, starvation and medical
neglect, are adequate for the task. He also thinks that the move to shift the focus of
primary goods to freedoms and capabilities does not cover adequate ground, since it
would be, mainly an adjustment of the strategy of practical reason.10 Falling upon
Adam Smiths The Theory of Moral Sentiments, particularly the concept of the impartial
spectator, he argues that the methodology for considerations of justice entails: 1.
Dealing with comparative assessment and not merely identifying a transcendental
solution. 2. Taking note of social realizations and not only the demands of institutions
and rules. 3. Allowing incompleteness in social assessment, but still providing
guidance in important problems of social justice, including the urgency of removing
manifest cases of injustice, and 4. Taking note of voices beyond the membership of the
contractarian group, either to take note of their interests, or to avoid being trapped in
local parochialism (Sen, 2003, p. 70.) Against such an approach of open impartiality,
he finds the Rawlsian approach as closed impartiality, as the formulations in the
original position are arrived at in isolation. He thinks that Adam Smiths approach
allows us to outgrow the trappings of identity that the Rawlsian approach is prone to.
The latter may not let objective scrutiny of social conventions and parochial sentiments
may influence rules chosen in the original position. It may enable people to see beyond
their personal vested interests but it does little to ensure an open scrutiny of local and
possibly parochial values. On the other hand, the Smithian procedure includes the
insistence that the exercise of impartiality must be open and this can be done only by
endeavouring to view issues with the eyes of the other people, as other people are
likely to view them (ibid. p. 128). Sen thinks that transcendental institutionalism of
the Rawlsian variant is deeply caught within the ambit of a nation-state and has little
in substantial measure to say on global justice. In the Law of Peoples, Rawls advances a
supplement to Justice as Fairness but according to Sen, it eventually boils down to a kind
of negotiation between the representatives of different countries on some elementary
matters of civility and humanity. Eventually, it turns out to be nothing but minimal
humanitarianism.
Much of Sens critique against justice as fairness is overstated, and the alternative
that he suggests does not seem to have anything more to add than what is already
implied in Rawlsian principles: Sen does not seem to disagree with the principles
that Rawls advances and his invocation of impartial spectator does not make any
significant difference to them. For Rawls, justice is a foregrounding principle for any
extended social cooperation. Its substantive elaboration and specification is the task
of a democratic community with an informed public sense and thriving critical public

162 Indian Journal of Human Development

opinion.11 It necessarily has to keep itself open to ideas and views from everywhere
and cannot afford to be cocooned. However, the whole world cannot be the domain of
thick social cooperation as the lives of people are caught in dense associations within
the bonds of communities and nations. The world as a whole can provide, so far,
only a thin arena of such cooperation and thick principles of justice appropriate for
national communities as a whole cannot be invoked in the global arena. In fact, Rawls
would be deeply apprehensive of the kind of invocation of the global community that
Sen suggests, because decisions under it would be made by experts rather than by a
democratic community.12 Sens attempts to shift the focus of justice considerations to
the society as a whole would be seen by Rawls as making room for competing and
conflicting conceptions of justice, not ensuring stable political order, but reinforcing
their fragmentation. In this context, it might be important to recall that, for Rawls,
justice as fairness is the foregrounding principle for democratic deliberation rather
than being the outcome of constitutional democracy.
Sen thinks that the social choice theory is eminently suited to provide a measurable
estimate of justice. It addresses the problem of arriving at aggregate assessments on
individual priorities and focuses on outcomes of the social choice procedure which
take the form of ranking different states of affair from a social point of view in the
light of the assessments of the people involved (Sen, 2009, pp. 91-95). As a framework
for reasoning, it is eminently suited for comparative analysis, accords recognition to
inescapable plurality of competing principles, which sometimes may conflict with each
other, allows and facilitates a re-examination of issues, makes place for partial resolutions
while being open to a better solution, can process a range of diversity of information
and inputs, stresses on precise articulation and reasoning, and allots a significant role
for public reasoning in social choice. Against it, he calls the transcendental theory of a
Rawlsian kind, as something like the grand revolutionarys, one-shot hand book.
It does not tell us much about the comparative merits of different social arrangements.
While Rawls may not have much of a problem in employing social choice theory as a
tool to aggregate and rank social priorities, he would definitely retain the initiative of
making social choices in a democratic community rather than entrust them to technical
specialists! Sen does not seem to be drawing this line of demarcation sharply.
Briefly, we can state Sens idea of justice as follows:
1. Everyone must be enabled to choose for her/himself a life of value, or one has
reason to value. A life of satisfaction primarily lies in pursuing a value that is
dear to oneself.
2. There could be pluralities of conceptions of justice under conditions of fairness.
Democracy as a system of deliberation therefore becomes foundational to bring
about shared agreements.
3. Certain capabilities are basic to the pursuit of a life of value and constitute measures
of justice. Justice is, therefore, not a virtue so much of institutions but social
outcomes. What actually happens to people is important. The focus, therefore,
should be on avoidance of injustice rather than on the pursuit of justice. The

Rawls, Sen and Ambedkar 163

capabilities that justice cherishes are not fixed but are an outcome of deliberative
reasoning.
4. If social outcomes constitute the yardstick of measuring justice, then such an
exercise can be undertaken not by laying down a formal, transcendental criterion,
but by comparing one set of outcomes with others.
Like Rawls, Ambedkars search for justice is fore-grounded on a conception of
human equality. He argues that human beings are equal as they possess in degree and
kind, fundamental characteristics that are common to humanity (Moon, 1979, BAWS,
Vol. 1, p. 97). He quotes Jacques Maritain to say, Human person is both a physical
and spiritual microcosm; subsistent in an independent manner, more a whole than a
part; while being a minute fragment of matter, he is at the same time a universe; image
of God, belongs to the order of things naturally sacred (ibid, pp. 95-96). Equality is
not merely a juridical notion as equality before law, or a political notion as equality of
treatment. It is a value that denotes the kind of consideration that we need to extend to
another person and, in turn, demand the same for ourselves. It sets standards for our
ways of life and thereby sustains a regime of rights. Democracy can become a way of
life only by extending equal consideration to others.
Ambedkar problematizes regard for equal consideration. Empirically, men and
women are quite unequal. Our experience highlights numerous facets of human
inequality rather than equality. A mans power is dependent upon: (1) physical
heredity, (2) social inheritance or endowment in the form of parental care, education,
accumulation of scientific knowledge, everything which enables him to be more
efficient than the savage, and finally, (3) on his own efforts. In all these three respects,
men are undoubtedly unequal.13. The fact of inequality stares us in the face. Therefore,
if natural equality is made the principle of organizing societies, the weakest will
always go to the wall ( Rodrigues, 2002, p. 276). How can one reconcile the empirical
and the normative? Ambedkar resorts to the moral plane to reconcile the opposites,
making equality a belief to be sustained (Moon, 1979, BAWS, Vol. 1, p. 197). He,
therefore, called belief in human equality as a construct or a fiction, which should
nonetheless be considered as a governing principle. Only when we uphold equality
of men will we not run counter to some of our other deeply held beliefs. Those beliefs
become tenable only on the presupposition of equality.
Specifically, he argued, if heredity and upbringing, which make men unequal,
constitute the measure of their estimation, then their efforts, that is, what they do
with their lives, will not be the basis of social relations. Human agency expressed
in their efforts will not find recognition. It would not be the selection of the able. It
would be the selection of the privileged (Moon, 1979, BAWS, Vol. 1, p. 8). Human
endeavour and agency will find due acknowledgement only if we treat people equally
with respect to heredity and inheritance (Ambedkar, 1957, p. 277). Therefore, birth
and natural assets, education that is not funded out of ones own earnings, family
name, business connections and inherited wealth cannot be the basis for the allotment
of resources.14

164 Indian Journal of Human Development

Ambedkar placed a second argument for equality in the Buddhas mouth. In the
struggle for existence if inequality is recognised as the rule of the game the weakest
will always go to the wall (Ambedkar, 2011, pp. 165-66). Is it right? Some people are
positively disposed to it. They reason: It will help the fittest to survive. It does not,
however, answer the following questions: Who is the fittest? And are the fittest the
best from view of the society? Equality may help the best to survive even though the
best may not be the fittest (ibid., p. 166).
This view is supplemented by a third argument that a social body can bring out
the best in men and women only when initial equality is extended to them. Utility
and progress demand that we treat people on an equal basis. In this case, Ambedkar
specifies equality as accorded initially. It does not demand that equality of opportunity
remains the condition throughout, disregarding the effort put in by people. Ambedkar
thought that only by treating people as equal would we be respecting the agency of
people to define themselves as what they wish to be. If they are treated as unequal
and particularly condemned to their natural station in life, then their definition of
themselves and what they would wish to be would not be appreciated.
He formulates a fourth argument by appealing to pragmatism. It demands that
people be treated equally as it helps us avoid the traps of unfair treatment. Statesmen
have to handle vast numbers. It is well nigh impossible to go on the basis of need or
capacity, particularly as they are susceptible to continuous changes. Therefore, in all
fairness, the rough and ready rule is, To treat all men alike not because they are alike
but because classification and assortment is impossible (Moon, 1979, BAWS, Vol. 1,
p. 58).
The argument of initial equality and equality of treatment work cumulatively. If
there is no initial equality, there cannot be equality of treatment subsequently. If in the
initial run, resources and opportunities were unequal, then they would beget unequal
individuals, obviously for no fault of theirs. Extending equality of treatment to them,
subsequently, will reproduce the unequal condition rather than make amends for it.
Preferential treatment makes amends to initial inequality and the distortions it throws
up in equality of treatment. It reinforces equality and does not undermine it.
Equality considerations do not allow Ambedkar to foreground an atomized
individual. For him, human beings are also naturally social, which he attempts to
capture in the concept of fraternity. He says it is the name for the disposition of the
individual to treat men as objects of reverence and love and desire to be in unity with
his fellow beings. (Moon, 1979, BAWS, Vol. 1, p. 97). He says fraternity is a sense of
common brotherhood, the principle which gives unity and solidarity to social life.
Sympathy and fellow feeling, therefore, are integral to a conception of fraternity.
There is a great deal of kinship between Ambedkar and Rawls on the idea of justice
as fairness grounded in human equality. Rawls associates considerations on fraternity
much more strongly with his second or difference principle.15 Ambedkar, however,
lays stress on human agency as compared to Rawls emphasis on discrete liberties,
though liberty remained for him as one of the archetypal values alongside equality and

Rawls, Sen and Ambedkar 165

Fraternity. Further, he seems to closely associate fraternity as a priority consideration,


rather than a second order consideration. Ambedkar is also forthright in arguing that
birth should not be associated with any advantage. Rawls, comparatively, is much
more circumspect with regard to disabilities.
While Sen stresses on sustaining a social order conducive to fostering capabilities
that are grounded on human equality, he thinks that the Rawlsian stress on equality
does not pay attention to human differences and differential needs arising therefrom:
If people were basically very similar, then an index of primary goods might be quite
a good way of judging advantage. But, in fact, people seem to have very different
needs varying with health, longevity, climatic conditions, location, work conditions,
temperament, and even body size... Judging advantage purely in terms of primary
goods leads to partially blind morality (see Sen, 1980, Equality of What?, p. 209).
In justice as fairness, Sens emphasis remains on impartiality and liberty rather than
equality.
CRITIQUE OF EQUAL OPPORTUNITY ARGUMENT
Rawls develops a two-fold proof to the propositions of justice as fairness: a critique
of the ideal of equality of opportunity and secondly, the device of a hypothetical
social contract to reinforce his critique of equality of opportunity. He finds that while
the priority of civil and political rights is widely accepted in a liberal society, there
is no equal acceptance of the need of fair shares as suggested by justice as fairness.
The principal intuitively upheld for the purpose is equality of opportunity. The
principal suggests that inequalities are permissible if there is fair competition for the
benefits offered. The principle also suggests that the proceeds of such competition
belong to the person concerned. Such a stance, however, cannot be sustained morally
on the principle of human equality. Equality of opportunity might be grounded on
widespread social and economic inequalities. It makes the principle unacceptable
since it does not afford equality of opportunity in any true sense. Even if initial equality
is provided, as a counterweight, equality of opportunity might allow the talented to
run away with the larger piece of cake. Such an anomaly demands that there should
not merely be an initial levelling but also that people should be able to claim a greater
share of resources only if they can show that it benefits those who have lesser shares.
For Rawls, the disproportionate shares in social and economic resources do
not qualify as moral claims, and talents too do not, as they both are underserved
acquisitions. They are not the product of ones efforts. He does not agree that it is
enough to ensure that no one is disadvantaged by their social circumstances and
thereby assume that the proceeds of our success belongs to us. He does not accept that
unequal income accrued through equality of opportunity is fair because it is merited.
For Rawls, the lens for human entitlements is, It is fair for individuals to have unequal
shares of social goods if those inequalities are earned and deserved by the individuals,
that is, if they are the product of the individuals actions and choices. But it is unfair for
individuals to be disadvantaged or privileged by arbitrary and undeserved differences

166 Indian Journal of Human Development

in their social circumstances (see Kymlicka, 2002, p. 58). Natural talents and social
circumstances are both matters of brute luck and peoples moral claims should not
depend on it. He thinks that the liberal view, while recognizing the unfairness of social
circumstances, ignores differences in natural talents. But, how should one engage with
natural talents? While nobody should suffer from the deprivation of natural abilities,
it might be quite possible that they could benefit the less fortunate. Therefore, while
no one deserves his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favourable starting
place in society... it does not follow that one should eliminate these distinctions. There
is another way to deal with them. The basic structure can be arranged so that these
contingencies work for the good of the least fortunate (Rawls, op. cit., 1971, p. 102).
Ambedkar and Sen adopt very different stances in this regard: Both of them agree
on the limitations of equality of opportunity. Sen calls basic capability equality (Sen
Equality of What, p. 215) in its place. He also thinks that such a principle would
be able to take care of differences across persons. He regards Rawlss idea of social
primary goods as inadequate for the purpose because the conversion of goods to
capabilities varies from person to person substantially, and the equality of the former
may still be far from the equality of the latter (ibid., p. 215). This is an important
flaw in Rawls, which may lead the hard working and the diligent to subsidize the
lazy and the indulgent. But Sen himself does not offer any alternative to the unequal
productivity of different capabilities. In other words, Sen seems to endorse liberal
inequalities resting on basic equality capability. Sen is silent on the proceeds of
natural talents, except probably its differential contribution to fund capabilities.
Ambedkar rejects the argument of equality of opportunity and argues that equal
opportunities should be qualified by preferential considerations to the disadvantaged.
He thinks that such opportunities should beget presence, representation and
constitutive possibilities of a robust self. Public presence provides an opportunity to
persons to be reckoned in social life. Presence in public life affords an opportunity
to actively participate in the process of government (see Ambedkar, Evidence
before the Southborough Committee, op. cit., p. 247) and other walks of life. Besides,
participation in associated life begets social bonds and stakes. It is through such public
presence and the associations that it breeds that a person constitutes himself. Such
public presence makes a big difference in certain societies such as India where, he felt,
that there were no shared bonds of aims, beliefs, aspirations, knowledge and common
understanding, and therefore little endosmosis across social groups.
Representation makes a person or a group that he belongs to visible to others.
According to him, the primary purpose of representation is to transform opinion
and preference into public action (ibid.). When a group or community is denied
representation, or denied it in fair measure, then its beliefs and preferences have little
bearing in shaping public policy (ibid., pp. 243-78). Virtual representation is not merely
inadequate but also not in accord with human agency. The disadvantaged, in particular,
have much to gain or lose depending on the kind and extent of representation available
to them. The untouchables, for instance, may not have large property to protect from
confiscation. But they have their very person confiscated (ibid.). Representation can

Rawls, Sen and Ambedkar 167

help them access rights and resources to pursue their aims and objectives. He says,
unlike what is generally believed, communal representation need not necessarily
harden social divisions: it could be a way of dissolving them by bringing together men
from diverse castes who would not otherwise mix together (Moon, 1979, BAWS, Vol.
1, p. 266), and by begetting new forms of associated life. Such associations can threaten
fossilized ways of life and help dissolve set attitudes (ibid.). Representation of
opinions and preferences alone is not an adequate measure for democracy. It requires
personal representation as well. The latter involves representation of opinions as well
as representation of persons. It is by reflex effects of association that one can feel and
measure the growth of personality (ibid.).
Ambedkar believes that the possibilities of constituting oneself as a subject of
justice depend a great deal upon the prevailing social relations: Opportunity for social
interaction afforded through presence is particularly important for the constitution
of a healthy and confident self. In interaction with others, a person forms himself or
herself. What one is as a person is what one is as associated with others (Moon, 1982,
BAWS, Vol. 2, p. 446). A valued or degraded understanding of oneself has much to do
with ones location in such interactions. Social exclusion can greatly impair the growth
of both the human person and communities, as has been the case with untouchables
in India. Untouchables have been denied their very personhood and consequently the
basis of their treatment as equals. They have their very persona confiscated. The socioreligious disabilities have dehumanised the untouchables and their interests at stake
are therefore the interests of humanity. What they have been deprived of is something
basic that is incomparably of greater interest than interests of property (Moon, 1979,
BAWS, Vol. 1, p. 255). Social interactions treat untouchables as nobodies and others try
to construct superior selves of themselves on their degradation. The former, he says,
are like Platos slaves, who accept from another the purposes which control their
conduct. They are denied their ability to make their choices and consequently their
agency. They are socialized never to complain or expect improvement in their lot
or to expect common respect which one man owes to another (ibid.).
SOCIAL CONTRACT ARGUMENT
Rawls employs the social contract argument to buttress his argument against the liberal
ideal of equality of opportunity. While there are several possible interpretations as to
why Rawls resorts to the social contract argument, the reading offered by Kymlicka
seems closer to the text: We should think of the contract not primarily as an agreement,
actual or hypothetical, but as a device for teasing out the implications of certain
moral premises concerning peoples moral equality (see Kymlicka, 2002, op. cit, p.
61). In other words, the device asserts the moral equality of the individuals. In social
contract theories, such as that of John Locke, for reasons, such as uncertainties and
scarcities, individuals, without giving up their moral equality, cede certain powers to
the State but only if the State uses these powers in trust to protect members from those
uncertainties and scarcities. If the State were to betray such trust, then the citizens are
not under an obligation to obey it any longer. The fact that Rawls uses it in that sense

168 Indian Journal of Human Development

is obvious as he says, The original position is, not of course, thought of as an actual
historical state of affairs, much less a primitive condition of culture. It is understood
as a purely hypothetical situation characterised so as to lead to a certain conception of
justice (Rawls, A Theory of Justice, op. cit., p. 12).
Against the existing contractual theories, Rawls also stresses that the initial
position of contract was the position of equality across members.16 For this, he resorts
to the construction of the original position where people are under a veil of ignorance.
Such original position ensures, that no one is advantaged or disadvantaged in the
choice of principles by the outcome of natural chance or the contingency of social
circumstances. (Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 12). In other words, in the original
position, all are similarly situated and no one can propose a set of principles favourable
to his particular condition, his talents and even ambition. He explicitly says that the
position is intended to represent equality between human beings as moral persons,
by removing all potential sources of bias. It is intended to establish a set of criteria
from a position of equality that respects each persons claim to be treated as a free
and equal being. The question that he intends to explore is whether the principles
that are going to be chosen are fair. Therefore, the charges that it is historical or presociological do not seem to be applicable to him.
There are some assumptions underlying the contract. Irrespective of whatever
the differences between individual plans of life, they all share one thing in common,
that is, they are all committed to the pursuit of the ideal of the good life, for which
purpose, certain things are needed. Rawls calls the latter primary goods. They are
of two types a) social primary goods, that is, goods directly distributed by social
institutions like income and wealth, opportunities and powers, rights and liberties,
and sources of self-respect; and b) natural primary goods, such as health, intelligence,
vigour and imagination. Natural talents are affected by social institutions but are not
directly distributed by them. Under the veil of ignorance, people attempt to choose
the best possible access to the goods distributed by social institutions and insure
themselves against deprivations and potential disadvantages.
The choices under the original position are not driven by egoistic moves. Given
the veil of ignorance, one does not know what his specific requirements are. One could
be anybody else and, therefore, one may have to put oneself into the shoes of every
person in society and see what promotes their good as well. Therefore, the contract is
another type of benevolence whereby equal consideration is extended to each person.
Several principles could be plausible under the original position but since they are
not in tune with fairness, they are not tenable. Therefore, the most reasonable choice
under the position is to adopt a maximin strategy, that is, one attempts to maximize
what one would get if one were to find himself in the minimum or worst-off position.
Critics have argued that Rawls position is already inclined in a specific direction; that
the device which he adopts lends itself to the conclusion that he wants to arrive at. In
fact, Rawls himself accepts that this is so because according to him, the principles that
we are going to chose should match our considered convictions of justice or extend
them in an acceptable way (Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 19).

Rawls, Sen and Ambedkar 169

If the original position does not do anything except reinforce our own intuitive
judgements then why should one resort to the device at all? Rawls offers some
clarifications in this regard: the contract device makes our intuitive judgements vivid. It
also makes them precise in the sense of extracting the consequences of our intuitions.
Further, it provides a perspective to test opposing intuitions. Their detachment also
gives us the warranty of being unbiased. It is also important to point out that the veil
of ignorance renders vivid the idea that other people matter in and of themselves, and
makes the good of others our own good.
In this context, it is important to point out the central intuitions that inform the work
of Rawls. He makes the distinction between choices and circumstances. According
to him, peoples claims to social goods should not be dependent on their natural
endowments. The talented, therefore, do not deserve greater rewards unless it benefits
the less off. The difference principle thus guarantees that the natural assets do not
have an unfair influence. However, Rawls stresses strongly on social primary goods.
He does not lay equal stress on natural primary goods in determining who is worst
off and, therefore, such natural disabilities such as low talents, physical handicaps and
mental disabilities are not significant in his scheme of affairs. There is a contradiction
in Rawls in this regard. If natural talents are not deserved, similarly natural inabilities
should not factor in the dessert. Rawls is not very clear why he subscribes to the first
position and not to the second, given the fact that many of these disabilities are also
socially constructed. His emphasis on justice as a virtue of social institutions and
the distinction between the social and natural that he carries overboard, makes him
take the stand that social inequality should be compensated and natural inequalities
should not influence distribution. The second major issue that the Rawlsian scheme
confronts is the burden of unchosen costs, that is, when people make costly choices. In
such instances, rather than removing a disadvantage, the difference principle might
just subsidize expensive desire or taste. Instead of promoting equality, it undermines
it and two types of people are treated differently in the process.17
We have already suggested that Sen does not subscribe to the idea of the original
position. However, Sen is also acutely aware that even our considered judgements
could be biased. According to him, much of our understanding is caught in what he calls
positionality (Sen, 2009, The Idea of Justice, p. 155). Positionality affords observations
from specified positions. They can be ascertained by any normal person occupying a
given observational position and, therefore, do not necessarily constitute an illusion.
The object of observation would look the same for anyone with the same positional
features. Positional observations need not necessarily be subjective because a number of
people standing in relation to what is seen and heard in the same way can perceive the
same objects but a position-dependent understanding of objects need not necessarily
be the idea of objectivity. For that, we need to take into account positional variability
of observations. In order to avoid positional prejudice and sectional favouritism, it
is important to have a position-independent understanding of the world. For Sen,
Smiths impartial spectator plays precisely such a role. One could be embedded in
positionality not merely with regard to the perception of physical objects but with

170 Indian Journal of Human Development

regard to ethical and political re-evaluations as well. These are basically observations
de-lineated somewhere. According to Sen, what is ethically justifiable eventually is
a position-independent understanding of the world and he thinks that Adam Smiths
View From Nowhere meets such a demand. Eventually, positionality provides a onesided, sectoral and segmented view of things and these limitations can be overcome
through public reasoning.
According to Sen, there could be more than one competing principles of justice
that survive critical scrutiny and can have claims to impartiality. While Rawls admits
only a unique set of two principles of justice, there can be differences in the exact
comparative weights to be given to distributional equality on the one hand, and
overall and aggregate enhancement, on the other. Rawls, however, modifies his stance
significantly in his later works but Sen thinks that, once the claim to uniqueness of the
Rawlsian principles of justice is dropped the institutional programme would clearly
have serious indeterminacy, and Rawls does not tell much about how a particular set
of institutions would be chosen on the basis of a set of competing principles of justice
that would demand different institutional combinations for the basic structure of the
society (ibid., p. 12). He thinks that the change in the Rawlsian stance becomes feasible
only by abandoning what he charges Rawls oftranscendental institutionalism. The
substantial concerns of the policies and their different mix might vary across time
and across different groups that are involved in social cooperation. But if there are
principles in contention, then it is unlikely that a society can endure in the indeterminate
future. Therefore, for Rawls, there is no easy replacement to a national society that is
based on certain basic principles of social cooperation. There is precisely an absence
of such principles at the international level because the overlapping agreement that
it would bring forth necessarily remains thin. The indeterminacy that Sen charges
Rawls with in a political order with deeply entrenched but reasonable competing
conceptions of good may not be as insurmountable a problem as it initially seems.
In fact, Rawls transposes to such a condition the same arguments of fairness that he
applies to societies composed of equal and free persons with democratic deliberation
as the engine driving the grid of overlapping consensus.
In this context, it might be worthwhile to point out Sens agreement with Rawls
on the distinction between the rational and the reasonable. The latter entails paying
attention to the perspectives and concerns of others. While survival under ones own
engaged scrutiny is central to the idea of rationality, taking serious note of critical
scrutiny from the perspectives of others has a significant role in taking us beyond
rationality into reasonable behaviour in relation to other people.18
There is no place for social contract in Ambedkars writings. Probably, there could
not be. He was primarily involved in contexts of inherited group-based degradation
and deprivation where the discrete individual is not a prior social unit. He, of course,
called for a new moral compact whereby communities reconstitute themselves on the
basis of conducive traditions where people can be equal and free. He also saw it as a
political project that ensures the expanded reproduction of such communities.

Rawls, Sen and Ambedkar 171

CONCLUSION
We have argued that Rawlss intervention on justice, which he characterizes as social
justice, has to be seen on a two-fold axis. the moral indefensibility of utilitarianism,
and of the public domain of liberal democracies, which while subscribing to equal
civil and political liberties is not equally forthcoming on equal basic shares for its
members. Further, some of the principles that the latter advances for the distribution
of social produce, such as equality of opportunity, are not able to keep the promise.
Rawlss ambitious project attempts to revisit the foundational principles of societies
committed to the equality and freedom of its citizens through a process of reasoning,
which suggests a set of alternative principles that he calls justice as fairness. Rawls
also works out, on broad terms, the implications that these principles would have
on constitutional, legislative, administrative and judicial processes, and for a vibrant
public life. Confronted with liberal societies with embedded communities committed
to reasonable comprehensive visions and plans of life, he argues that the political
stability of such societies as well as their active public life can still be sustained
through a conception of fairness bound up with the overlapping consensus across
such groupings.
Sen does not think that liberal democracies, whether homogenous or deeply diverse,
can agree on a set of principles to foreground their public life and institutions. He, however,
rejects utility as a principle to organize public life and argues that all members of a polity
should be enabled, through a set of capabilities to choose the kind of life they value.
For him, the democratic framework and public reasoning constitute an indispensable
framework for this purpose. In many ways, Sen calls for a shift in attention from public
institutions to a civic ethics, in which public institutions are partners for building up the
necessary tempo in favour of dispensing and enhancing such capabilities. He also thinks
that such a shift will help us appreciate that nation-states and its public institutions
are not adequate for the task. Further, he believes that public reasoning as a mode of
constituting public policy is not exclusive to the liberal West and that several societies
have invoked such a value in their own traditions of thought.
We have suggested that B.R. Ambedkar was one of the first to advance a set of
powerful arguments for human equality. However, he argued that the human self,
including the citizen-subject, constitutes itself in and through social relations. Given
the unequal social relations, with some of the most atrocious being those manifested
in untouchability and slavery, a large number of people hardly possess the capacity of
being human persons, and such failures beget, in turn, a vicious cycle. He, therefore,
argued that while it is important to pursue a political and social order of cooperation
based on equality, equality of opportunity alone does not serve the purpose. He
pointed to the need for a differential approach based on the nature of the disadvantage
to enhance the presence and representation of such groups and to help them form a
confident personhood of themselves. The deprivations and disadvantages that people
suffer from are deeply group-bound and embedded in social relations. He, therefore,
argued that the pursuit of justice and democracy would largely much depend upon
overhauling social relations and transforming basic institutions.

172 Indian Journal of Human Development

There are many shared grounds between these three but there are also fundamental
differences. We have argued that while Ambedkar may not have had the occasion
to philosophically fine-tune his position, he thought that a radical transformation of
social relations and the constitution of a moral community of equals is a foregrounding
condition for pursuing justice. We do not think that Sen has adequately responded to
some of the basic concerns that set the course for the Rawlsian project. Further, his
idea of justice, while justifiably defending a set of basic capabilities and freedoms, will
eventually be confined within the framework of liberal equality with deep inequalities
across the distribution of social produce. While Rawls makes a valiant attempt to
formulate principles of justice in the context of liberal society, his attempt to keep at
bay the concentration of resources in a few hands, while avowing at the same time a
democratic regime and vibrant public life, seems far too naive.
NOTES
1.

For instance, Sen argues for the centrality of reason in formulating the principles of justice: while
sometimes we might be able to grapple with truth intuitively, there is no warranty that this is the
truth. Reason, therefore, has the capacity to advance verifiable propositions. Reasons scrutiny
from different perspectives is an essential part of the demands for objectivity and ethical and
political convictions (see Sen, 2009, The Idea of Justice, pp. 31-51).

2.

Rawls life-long work revolves around justice. Although Amartya Sen wrote The Idea of Justice
in 2009, even a cursory look at the work shows that it draws heavily from many of his earlier
writings going back all the way to Equality of What? (1980). Both the doctoral dissertations of
Ambedkar (1917 and 1922) raised central concerns on justice. But the first major statement of his
position on the issue is in Evidence before the Southborough Committee in 1919 (see Moon,
1979, BAWS, Vol. 1, pp. 247-77).

3.

There are significant differences between them on this issue: Rawls, while admitting plural
conceptions of life under conditions of liberty, early on, came to acknowledge plurality of
reasonable comprehensive doctrines and reworked a conception of justice as Political Liberalism
(1993) much later. Ambedkar remained generally deeply sensitive to diversity and pluralism.

4.

See Sen, 1980, Equality of What?, pp. 195-220. It is important to note that some of the key
issues that Amartya Sen raised against Rawls in The Idea of Justice were already formulated by
him in this lecture.

5.

See Rawls, 1971, A Theory of Justice, p. 22. Utilitarians have often deployed more complex and
nuanced explanations. See, for instance, Harsanyi, 1976 and Griffin, 1986.

6. This is one of the charges that Sen makes against Rawls. A term such as actual lives is a
problematic term for Rawls for instituting principles of justice, as he would regard them as
a product of their liberties. He, however, admits in Political Liberalism that actual lives are
caught in reasonable and often conflicting conceptions of the good and for such societies to
be viable, an overlapping consensus founded on justice is called for (see Rawls, 1993, Political
Liberalism, pp. 133-72).
7.

For Rawls, intuitionism suggests an irreducible family of first principles, which have to be
weighed against one another by asking ourselves which balance, in our considered judgement,
is the most just. Once a level of generality is reached, an intuitionist thinks that there exist no
higher-order constructive criteria to determine the proper emphasis for the competing principles
of justice.

8.

There are other political philosophers who have drawn their attention to this issue, such as Iris
Marion Young. See Young (1990).

Rawls, Sen and Ambedkar 173


9.

Rawls modifies these principles a little after their first statement in A Theory of Justice (1971, p.
302). As stated in Political Liberalism in 1993 (p. 291), they read as follows:

Each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties which is
compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for all.

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.

10. See Sen, 2009, p. 66. In Equality of What? (Sen, 1980, pp. 484-85), in one of his first major
engagements with Rawls, Sen is very optimistic in this regard.
11. See Rawls, 1971, A Theory of Justice, pp. 225-28. For an elaborated perspective on this issue, built
on Rawlsian foundations, see Cohen, 1989, pp. 17-34.
12. It is interesting to see the stand that Sen takes on human rights and the duty domain it invokes
in Elements of a Theory of Human Rights, 2004, pp. 315-56, and the mellowing of his stand on
this relation in The Idea of Justice, 2009, pp. 355-87. In the latter case, the invocation of the duty
domain is watered down substantially.
13. See Ambedkar, 2002, p. 276. These arguments are repeated almost verbatim by Ambedkar later
on. See also Ambedkar, 1974, p. 221.
14. See Ambedkar, 1957. For similar arguments discounting natural assets and talents from desserts,
see Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 1973, p. 12 and pp. 507-11, and Dworkin, 2002, pp. 85-92.
15. Rawls links the value of democracy with fraternity and associates his second principle with
them. See A Theory of Justice, pp. 75-80.
16. He thereby ensures that pre-contract inequalities in rights and liberties, as in John Locke, do not
vitiate adversely fair claims under civil society.
17. These dilemmas created by Rawls position are responded to by Ronald Dworkin, who posits
an ambition-sensitive and endowment-insensitive stance. But while it answers some problems,
it may not answer certain other issues such as those pertaining to natural disaster because the
amount of societies resources may not be adequate for the purpose. Therefore, a pure ambitionsensitive and endowment-insensitive approach will not do. Thus. as a second best approach,
Dworkin suggests what he calls the Insurance Scheme. But under this scheme, those who
are fortunate in the natural lottery would be forced to be as productive as possible in order
to pay the high premiums that they hypothetically bought against a natural disadvantage. In
such a case, their talents would be a liability that restricts their options rather than a resource
that expands their options. Those with greater talents would have less freedom to choose their
preferred mix of options (see Dworkin, 2002).
18. For Sen, rationality is primarily a matter of basingexplicitly or by implicationour choices
on reasoning that we can reflectively sustain, and it demands that our choices as well as our
actions and objectives, values and priorities, can survive our own seriously undertaken critical
scrutiny (The Idea of Justice, p. 194). Sen credits Rawls with imposing much more exacting
requirements on rationality through the term reasonable. For Rawls, the idea of reasonableness
is closely tied up with the demands for fairness linked to their defensibility in an open and free
framework of public reasoning. For rationality to be reasonable, it is important to take serious
note of the critical scrutiny from the perspective of others.

REFERENCES
Ambedkar, B.R. (1957). The Buddha and His Dhamma, Siddharth, Bombay (Second edition).
(2011). The Buddha and His Dhamma, Akash Singh Rathore and Ajay Verma (eds), Oxford
University Press, New Delhi.

174 Indian Journal of Human Development


(1919), Evidence before the Southborough Committee in Vasant Moon (ed.), Babasaheb
Ambedkar Writings and Speeches (BAWS), Vol. 1, Government of Maharashtra, Bombay, pp. 24377.
(2002). Annihilation of Caste, in Valerian Rodrigues (ed.) The Essential Writings of B.R.
Ambedkar, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, pp. 263-305.
Moon, Vasant and Hari Narake (eds) (19792005). Babasaheb Ambedkars Writings and Speeches, Vols.
1-21, Government of Maharashtra, Bombay.
Rawls, John (1971, Paperback 1973). A Theory of Justice, Oxford University Press, Oxford. .
(1993). Political Liberalism, Columbia University Press, New York.
Rodrigues, Valerian (2011). Reading Texts and Traditions: The Ambedkar-Gandhi Debate, Economic
and Political Weekly, Vol. XLVI, No. 2, pp. 56-66.
Sen, Amartya (1980). Equality of What? in S.M. McMurrin (ed.) The Tanner Lectures on Human
Values, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 195-220.
(1999). Development as Freedom, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
(2004). Elements of a Theory of Human Rights, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Fall, Vol. 32, No.
4, pp. 315-56.
(2009). The Idea of Justice, London, Penguin.
Young, Iris Marion (1990). Justice and Politics of Difference, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

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Madhusudan Ghosh Regional Disparities in Education,


Health and Human Development in India
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Pravat Kumar Kuri and Arindam Laha Financial Inclusion
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THE IDEA OF JUSTICE
Keith Dowding What Is the Idea of Justice?

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Roberto Alejandro Towards a Hermeneutics of Justice:


Reflections on Amartya Sen's Philosophy
Sebastiano Maffettone Sen's Idea of
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James P. Sterba What Sen Should Have Said to Rawls

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Charles W. Mills Re-Theorizing Justice: Some Comments


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Valerian Rodrigues Justice as the Lens: Interrogating
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Aakash Singh Rathore The Romance of Global Justice?


Sen's Deparochialization and the Quandary of Dalit Marxism

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Christian Schemmel Sen, Rawlsand Sisyphus
Evan Riley Against Sen Against Rawls on Justice
O.A. Oyeshile Sen's Realization-Focused
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Udaya S. Mishra On Adjusting the Survivorship
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