The Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat of the Jesuit Curia in Rome


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Fernando Ponce, S.J.



This work18 sets out to study the way in which the problem of poverty can influence the formulation of a concept of the just society. Normally, the relationship between justice and poverty is established by starting with the first and then proceeding to the second: any concept of the just society, when applied to the problem of poverty, will maintain that the latter is an injustice. While concurring with this sort of relationship, our analysis proceeds in the other direction, starting from the problem of poverty so as to work out a concept of the just society. Our thesis is that poverty, to the extent that it is construed as an injustice, constitutes a valid, interesting and innovative perspective in the debate on the just society. This means two things: first of all, the phenomenon of poverty can play a role a priori in any investigation of the just society; in revealing what is unjust, it raises problems for, and challenges the fundamental elements of the concept of the just society in the very process of their being worked out. Next, and as far as Rawls’ concept of the just society is concerned, poverty is a problem which the protagonists of the original position may not neglect; on the contrary, they must articulate a principle which guarantees equality in the exercise of the basic capacities, a principle which would trump the principle of equality of basic freedoms. Our paper will be governed by three consecutive and strategic arguments, each of which can be summed up in two statements.



1.         Analysis of the general relations between poverty and justice, mediated by the idea of injustice, passing by the negative route from one concept to the other


a.         The unjust helps to think the just


In the contemporary Anglo-American debate about the just society, the philosophical origins of the enquiry itself still remain to be explored. Every philosophical question has an origin, according to Karl Jaspers, and that of social justice is no exception. At a certain junction, any situation whatsoever, whether it be external to the philosopher or not, becomes the point of departure for her thinking, also furnishing her with a content for the “subject” to be thought through. The real injustices of our society, such as subjection or lack of recognition, can fulfil this function in the question before us; they have the wherewithal at once to scandalise thought and to raise questions for it.


b.         Poverty is an injustice which makes an a priori appeal (‘interpellation’) to justice


Social sciences teach us that poverty has three formal characteristics: a) it consists of a lack which affects three important dimensions of any human life (material, relational and personal); b) this lack has a vital character, that is to say, the person’ life is seriously prejudiced in one or in all its dimensions whenever external resources, integration into the social body or social recognition are missing; c) the lack of what is vital for living in the material dimension is at the origin of the deficiencies in the two other dimensions. For this reason, poverty can be a point of departure for philosophy, engaging it, in other words, through the scandal it provokes. When it comes to the content that it can provide for the question of the just society, the economic and philosophical thought of Amartya Sen, as well as certain elements of the philosophical tradition will be of use in discussing the question.



2.    Identification of the philosophico-political stakes of poverty, with the aid of Sen’s capability approach and the reflections of Aristotle, Spinoza and Locke


a.         Poverty, understood as a deficiency in basic capacities, is also a radical lack of freedom. According to Sen’s welfare theory, poverty consists in a deficiency of basic capacities. Persons who are poor are not in a position to exercise a range of fundamental capacities necessary to the realisation of their life project, and this is a result of their impoverished material resources. The deficiency in these capacities has something to do with the three dimensions of human life (material, relational, personal) and is registered at a level in such a way that the complete exercise of a life project in its three dimensions is jeopardised. In more philosophical terms, the deficiency of basic capacities means the radical lack of the fundamental freedom to act, and not merely a diminishing of well-being. Poverty is thus an attack on the person: at the very least she is rendered fragile, and, more often than not, her very freedom to act is annihilated. In other words, poverty threatens the exercise of personal autonomy. This understanding of poverty presupposes a positive notion of freedom which integrates the idea of an absence of obstacles but which goes beyond it.


b.         This lack of freedom endangers the constitution of a city. What are the immediate consequences of a radical lack of freedom to act on the constitution of a political community? First of all, from the moment that certain members of a society no longer enjoy fully the freedom to act at a fundamental level, the constitution of the political becomes difficult, not to say unlikely. Next, poverty is a permanent source of instability and may possibly lead to the dissolution of the political community. When the necessary means to provide minimal welfare and the basis for a life project are lacking, the reactions of those who are concerned can range from political indifference all the way to disobedience and revolt. These two challenges suggest that the phenomenon of poverty puts into question not only the end but also the nature of any political community. Furthermore, guaranteeing the means of a decent living and conditions of freedom for all, makes the distribution of these means a major challenge for both the theory and the practice of a society which aspires to justice. Finally, the positive concept of freedom as power to act returns to the central ground of the democratic discourse on individual freedom.



3.    The relationship between Sen’s philosophico-political understanding of poverty and other philosophical reflections and the thought of Rawls


The exclusion of poverty from the original position is not justified. How are these issues related to justice as fairness (equity)? The latter’s implicit understanding of poverty may be summed up in four points:


a)      Poverty is the way of life of those who find themselves below a minimal level of acceptable conditions of existence.

b)      This minimal level of life is attained once the fundamental human needs of the citizen are met.

c)      Poverty is a problem pertaining to the original position only in the case of a society that finds itself in an unfavourable context.

d)      These fundamental needs are already met in a favourable context, that of the particular concept of justice by virtue of the very definition of this situation. As a result, poverty is no longer a problem here; it represents no important challenge for the Rawlsian concept of justice. But this exclusion seems arbitrary for it relies on the debatable hypotheses about the person and economic development.


Justice as fairness (equity) must guarantee the exercise of basic capacities. Justice as fairness (equity) could thus be opened to the question of poverty according to the way it responds to three questions:


a)      What is the relevance of inter-individual differences (physical, intellectual, psychological, etc.) in the original position, once you assume ideological diversity?

b)      How are we to understand the elementary demands of citizens as human beings? Are they fundamental needs which must be met or basic capacities whose exercise must be guaranteed?

c)      What role should we grant to the positive freedom of action in a just society?


By opening up these questions, justice as fairness could articulate the problem of poverty in the original position under the form of a principle of priority in relation to the principle of basic freedoms equal for all. Taking our inspiration chiefly from Sen, we believe that a principle that proclaims the equal right of everyone to the free exercise of basic capacities responds to the philosophico-political challenges of poverty better than Rawls himself has been able to suggest.



Fernando Ponce, S.J.

Eloy Alfaro 503 y Manabí

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18 This is a (two-page) summary of a PH.D. in Philosophy submitted by the author to the University of Paris (France) under the guidance of Jacques Bidet.