Comparative vs. Transcendental Approaches to Justice: A Misleading Dichotomy in Sen's The Idea of Justice



This paper examines the distinction drawn by Amartya Sen between transcendental and comparative theories of justice, and its application to Rawls' doctrine. It then puts forward three arguments. First, it is argued that Sen offers a limited portrayal of Rawls' doctrine. This is the result of a rhetorical strategy that depicts Rawlsian doctrine as more “transcendental” than it really is. Although Sen deploys numerous quotations in support of his interpretation, it is possible to offer a less transcendental interpretation of Rawls. Second, the dichotomy between transcendental and comparative approaches to questions of justice is partly misleading, insofar as any plausible moral doctrine has both transcendental and comparative elements. Transcendental elements are necessary to avoid the confusion between the general acceptance of a norm, value or principle and its justification. A comparative view highlights the conditions of application of the doctrine to the real world, taking into account the possibility of moral dilemmas, evaluative disagreements and limited resources, while proposing possible provisos and caveats to the risk of the doctrine being self-defeating. Third, although the transcendental approach is useful, it is argued that in elaborating this dichotomy Sen overlooks the merits of the third way between comparative and transcendental doctrines, what he calls “conglomerate theory,” and also the possibility that his doctrine (the capability approach) might be considered as an example of such a theory. The paper concludes with the argument that conglomerate theory does not aim to produce complete moral orderings, but rather a comparative approach with transcendental elements, as a form of weak transcendentalism.