Aristotelian Practical Reason in Amartya Sen's Idea of Justice

31 Pages Posted: 22 Feb 2011 Last revised: 28 Mar 2011

Date Written: March 26, 2011


This paper highlights the Aristotelian features of Amartya Sen's conception of practical reason within his larger approach to social justice, as he presents it in his latest book, "The Idea of Justice" (2009). It refers specifically to fellow functional capabilities theorist Martha C. Nussbaum's reading of Aristotle in her early work, "The Fragility of Goodness" (1986), and the contrast she draws between Aristotle, Plato, and the social contract tradition. The Aristotelian elements of Sen’s approach are among its most important and appealing. They are evident in Sen’s focus on functional capability as the most appropriate measure of just social outcomes, but also in his conception of practical reason. He sees public deliberation over questions of justice as necessarily comparative and immanent, inclusive of a plurality of situated perspectives and reasons, but at the same time open to enlightened critique and objective scrutiny. He also admits that the deliberation will often remain incomplete and only partially resolve disputes over what constitutes a just arrangement, in part because of a plurality of non-commensurable reasons of justice. Sen challenges transcendental institutionalist approaches to justice, including that of Rawls. These propose an image of a perfectly just society based on supposedly universal principles that all rational subjects could consent to, and then derive just institutions based on these principles. Instead, Sen's realization-focused comparison approach attempts to remove manifest injustices by comparing actually existing societies and various, potentially conflicting, principles of justice. In contract to transcendental institutionalism, Sen focuses on the realization of actual social outcomes, how to encourage behaviors and fulfill capabilities under a diversity of existing institutional frameworks, and the contexts of social choice.

Keywords: Sen, Aristotle, Nussbaum, Rawls, justice, practical reason, capabilities

Suggested Citation

Tchir, Trevor, Aristotelian Practical Reason in Amartya Sen's Idea of Justice (March 26, 2011). Western Political Science Association 2011 Annual Meeting Paper , Available at SSRN:

Trevor Tchir (Contact Author)

University of Alberta ( email )

Edmonton, Alberta T6G 2R3

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