Giving content to injustice: conversion factors and structural injustice

Capistrano, Pamela Joy Mariano (2018). 'Giving Content to Injustice: Conversion Factors and Structural Injustice' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


In this paper, I want to explore a point of intersection between the capability approach and the politics of recognition, more specifically between the work of Amartya Sen and the late Iris Marion Young. Starting from their broad similarities, particularly their commitment to an understanding of justice that is grounded in the concrete realities people face, I argue that both Sen’s and Young’s work can be seen as an effort to give content to the concept of ‘injustice’, versus the traditional approach in western political theory that has tended to define injustice negatively as the absence of justice.

Giving injustice a positive definition or content, I argue, is not simply a semantic issue; rather, it is an assertion of primacy and priority, an assertion that anyone interested in social justice must concern herself with understanding how injustice is manifested before we can even begin to address it, much less bring about justice. Real people’s lives take primacy over the formulation of a systematic and comprehensive theory of justice (if such a theory is even possible).

            I further argue that the commitment to giving content to injustice is most clearly seen in the similarities in Sen’s and Young’s criticisms of Rawls. Both express misgivings about Rawls’s emphasis on primary goods; while neither contest that access to primary goods or resources are important factors for justice, they point out that these are means for human living, not the ends of these lives. If we are truly concerned with justice, we ought to focus first on the actual lives people lead, and begin from there to evaluate their justice/injustice. As Sen asserts in The Idea of Justice, “It does make a difference whether we look merely at means of living rather than at the lives people manage to have.” (225) Young poses her criticism in Justice and the Politics of Recognition in the form of a question: “Should social justice give primacy to having or to doing?” (7) Moreover, both Sen and Young express skepticism (though less extremely so for Sen) of the possibility of a systematic, overarching theory of justice, as this risks the abstraction from the lived realities of injustice in the world.

To further illustrate the importance of giving content to the idea of injustice, I shall focus on a comparison of two fairly familiar concepts from their works, namely Sen’s concept of conversion factors on the one hand, and Young’s description of structural injustice on the other. Conversion factors—the factors that influence the individual agent’s ability to convert goods into achievements—are a concrete way of understanding both the extent of an individual’s capability and how it is limited/enhanced by social/structural/institutional and environmental realities. As such, how do conversion factors relate to structural injustice? Through this comparison, I hope not only to explore how conversion factors are complementary to understanding structural injustice, but also how these reinforce the importance of giving content to injustice, enabling a global-reaching discussion of justice that remains grounded in the diversity of human situations and the concrete circumstances of injustice we find therein.

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