A Response to Deen Chatterjee’s “Building Common Ground”

| June 2013
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In his recent, intelligent contribution to Ethics & International Affairs, Professor Chatterjee has offered a resounding defense of Amartya Sen’s critique of John Rawls’s liberal internationalism expressed in The Law of Peoples (1999). The debate between Rawls and Sen has become a staple in professional discourse about international political ethics, most recently exemplified in Measuring Justice: Primary Goods and Capabilities, ed. Harry Brighouse and Ingrid Robeyns (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). But Chatterjee’s contribution to this debate does not go beyond liberalism or whatever conundrums one associates with it; it remains within it. Indeed, Amartya Sen’s critique of Rawls, fairly represented in Professor Chatterjee’s piece, simply exacerbates the defects of liberalism as a political perspective—particularly in the arena of global ethics.

Liberalism is a constitutively incomplete political perspective, whether articulated by those on the left or the right, because a philosophy that primarily concerns liberty does not address questions of power–let alone the “justice” that Chatterjee seeks to promote. Instead, it presumes that the fulsome, popular liberty of the left or the individualistic, market-oriented liberty of the right provides a sufficient basis for dealing with any political problems that arise—a presumptuous assumption at best.

In the case of Sen or Chatterjee, the liberal assumption morphs into defenses of “pluralism” or “diversity,” which assume that all groups or differences can be automatically accommodated or “balanced”—another presumptuous  assumption. Moreover, it suggests that enlarging the tent of liberalism to include greater depth will promote harmony rather than conflict. It even presumes that the universality of liberalism could persist once the number of those norms expands, even though negotiations among them would occur only via a notion of “public reasoning” articulated by Sen (and implicitly the author) that is even more utopian than Rawlsian public reasoning built from original positions.

The conundrum of liberalism is that liberals want to solve problems of injustice and inequality without doing anything about them—like challenging the privileges of corporate power or the military bias in governmental priorities. Neither Rawls, nor Sen, nor Chatterjee touches the radical sources of social injustice. They don’t because they’re liberals. The only way to approach issues of global justice is to put everything on the table and attempt as peaceably and sensibly as possible to rearrange the conventions of power so as to benefit the powerless—not because the powerless are automatically virtuous but because there is much more evidence to indicate that the powerful are not.


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  1. Lynette E. Sieger says:

    Professor Wallach’s reading of Sen’s work as an “exacerbation of the defects of liberalism in global ethics” and critique of Chatterjee’s article as failing for having stayed within the liberal tradition seems to be a misinterpretation of the intent of both the aforementioned authors. Sen and Chatterjee clearly offer robust defenses of the normative and consequential utility of liberalism in negotiating and pursuing the project of global justice. Chatterjee does not seek to step outside of liberalism, but rather wants to embolden it.

    Wallach seems concerned with the supreme status of liberty within the liberal tradition and yet Sen directly rejects the privileging of liberty as a first or decisive principle and develops an idea of justice where, when negotiating political and social relations, he argues that we ought to step outside of strict commitments to institutionalism, nationalism, and ideal perfectionism, and appeal directly to understanding—through balancing value commitments with practical and consequential considerations—the needs, interests, and will of persons, groups, and institutions that come to light through robust discursive processes, or global public reasoning. Given the pluralistic and diverse world in which we actually live, Sen and Chatterjee favor negotiating competing normative claims in contextually sensitive ways not because all differences can be accommodated and balanced through ideal value commitments—as Wallach argues they do for liberals—but precisely because they cannot.

    Tossing the accusation that these “liberals” (Sen and Chatterjee) want to discuss injustice without doing anything about it is absurd. To be sure, Sen’s work on economic and gender inequality has served in the interest of pursuing more just economic, social, and political governance within states and the realm of global governance. His work is a hallmark of challenging the privileging of interests that perpetuates wealth and power disparities. Additionally, the normative work of Chatterjee is a method by which we engage in informed public reasoning related to social issues without which the problems of injustice would not be addressed and ideas would not find ground for development or contestation as Wallach here aims to do.

    I am confident that should Wallach re-read Chatterjee’s article, and Sen’s work The Idea of Justice, he will find a robust defense of approaching the issues of global justice via “putting everything on the table.” The method Sen suggests and Chatterjee defends in order to achieve this is via open public reason. Other than raising the objection that public reason is a liberal idea, I wonder why Wallach rejects the promotion of global public reason, and how without it would he suggest that we “put everything on the table”?