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Arguing about justice

Axel Gosseries
Philippe Vanderborght


Axel Gosseries et Yannick Vanderborght

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1This volume is a gift for Philippe Van Parijs, a tribute to his work and friendship. The Hoover Chair in economic and social ethics, which Philippe has led since its inception in 1991, turned 20 this year, while the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), which he co-founded in 1986, turned 25. During this same year, he published two new books, one a collection of essays entitled Just Democracy (ECPR Press), and the other a long-awaited monograph entitled Linguistic Justice for Europe and for the World (OUP). He also received the Belgian Ark Award for Free Speech, a prize created in 1951 by Flemish intellectuals opposed to restrictions on freedom of expression. On top of that, 2011 happens to be the year of his 60th birthday. We had to do justice to such a convergence of circumstances – especially to the latter.

  • 1 The crazy-lazy connection (eds.)(2001), Short essays in honour of Philippe Van Parijs's 50th birth (...)

2We thought Philippe would prefer a book to a cake. We also wanted to make sure he did not have the book – not an easy task. The safest way was to edit a new one, if possible something slightly more ambitious than the little lighthearted blue book we edited 10 years ago for his 50th birthday.1 Perhaps unsurprisingly, we quickly managed to convince authors from all over the world, who all respect his ideas and like him as a person, to join this project. We then subjected all contributors to a firm and thick veil of ignorance: they were asked to write pieces trying out new ideas, taking risks if possible, without knowing anything about who the other authors were, their number, the publisher’s name, the venue for the gift-giving, etc. As expected, several authors tried to learn a bit more, putting us under some pressure. We firmly resisted their curiosity, so firmly that one of them (whose name we won’t disclose) wrote to one of us "You are in the wrong business. You should have been a secret agent!" To the publisher, we referred to the project as "The Secret Book." Now, a few months and hundreds of no less secret e-mails later, the end result is in your hands: fifty authors and forty-one original papers advancing new ideas, including both theoretical arguments and practical proposals.

3We do not intend for this introduction to serve as a biographical essay. Writing one would no doubt double the book’s size, making this volume even more unaffordable to the least well off. It would be instantly outdated as well, as there is still a lot of Philippe’s life and work ahead. We will, however, highlight three aspects of his personality – the diversity of his interests, his intellectual style and gregariousness, – leaving to others the task of a more balanced and comprehensive biography in the decades to come.


4The diversity of Philippe’s research interests is a striking feature of his career, and is duly reflected in the present volume, with contributors from various disciplines covering a wide array of issues. Apart from his early work on epistemological issues, most of the other themes to which he devoted a significant amount of his energy are addressed in this volume.

5Papers on the idea of an unconditional basic income are of course well represented. They consider how and to what extent such a basic income can be justified (Arnsperger & Johnson, Bowles, Boulanger, Carter, van der Veen, and Widerquist) as well as the prospects of its implementation, based on experiences from France (Clerc), the United Kingdom (Jordan), Brazil (Suplicy), or at a more general level (Zelleke). Other chapters explore a variety of issues in social policy, such as education policy (Cantillon & Van Lancker), trade-offs in health policy (Schokkaert), the funding of public services in contemporary welfare states (Blais), and the use of mobile phones to increase access to water in developing countries (Jeon & al).

6Eight papers address linguistic issues, including whether the protection of specific language groups and the preservation of linguistic diversity can be justified (Bowles, de Schutter, Williams), the implementation of such protections through electoral systems (Stojanovic), the extent to which some linguistic groups owe compensation to others (de Briey, Drèze), the choice of a lingua franca (Fleurbaey), and whether a multilingual public sphere is possible (Sinardet).

7Some papers focus on issues directly related to democracy. Electoral design, for instance, is addressed by Casal (in relation to gender and age), Sinardet (in relation to public sphere issues), and Stojanovic (in relation to federal states), whereas Weinstock focuses on the issue of self-determination in the case of cities. Two papers discuss the role of the media in liberal democracies: Ackerman (on how to save journalism) and Sinardet (on the extent to which we can expect the media to contribute to the creation of a public sphere in divided societies).

8Gender and family issues are also well-represented throughout the book. Parental rights and obligations are discussed in chapters comparing parental partiality with patriotism (Brighouse & Swift), examining the role of parents in issues of truancy (Cantillon & Van Lancker), asking whether family policy should encourage population growth (Goodin), and considering whether there is a universal duty to care (Robeyns). Gender is very present throughout the volume too, especially in chapters on marriage as assets (Alstott), the importance of hormones (Casal), and on the idea of a genderless society (Wright).

9Several papers consider the contribution to be expected from political philosophy in society: the role of arguments (Baker), the potential of big ideas (Clerc), the existence of contested concepts in public debate (Deschouwer), the extent to which misunderstandings are a necessary component of social life (Van Campenhoudt), or the challenges raised by taboo trade-offs (Schokkaert). Marx is also central to some of the contributions, especially in the chapters by Elster (on Marx's – and Freud's –legacy), Lacroix (on Marxism and human rights), Offe (on Cuba), Vrousalis (on historical materialism), and Zelleke (on the capitalist road to communism).

10Last but not least, as the title of this volume suggests, the requirements of social justice are discussed in almost all of the papers, with references to real freedom, especially, throughout the book. Papers focused particularly on social justice include Audard’s on the idea of self-development, and several on various issues especially relevant to egalitarianism: by Carter (completelife), Fleurbaey (levelling down), Roemer (roots of inequalities), Steiner (starting-gate conceptions and genetic resources) and Williams (maximin). Finally, two papers address questions of blame and responsibility in very different contexts: in relation to rape (Chaumont) and financial debt (de Grauwe).


11In addition to addressing a broad range of Philippe’s many areas of interest, this book is also a tribute to his intellectual style, his way of doing philosophy and social sciences: carefully argued, sometimes to the point of baroqueness; explicitly addressing questions of importance with an eye toward both conceptual sharpness and socio-political relevance. In this sense, Philippe's style is clearly in line with the analytical tradition. He is passionate about joining together well-informed, sometimes unexpected, empirical evidence together with explicit normative claims, associating a great sense of detail with a broad vision of society and justice. This is reflected in many of the contributions.

  • 2 Quoted in FREEMAN, S. (2007), Rawls, London: Routledge, p.7. As Philippe often says, smiling: "Raw (...)

12Those who know Philippe from intellectual exchanges might be familiar with both his curiosity and his ability to wait for the debate to unfold, before raising his finger and attracting the attention of the audience on a (sometimes orthogonal) unnoticed and yet crucial distinction. He is never arrogant in debate, always listening patiently to his interlocutors until the very end, even when there are reasons to suspect that there would not be much to be learnt from them – a trait he probably picked up from one of his intellectual fathers, Belgian philosopher Jean Ladriere. Even when he discusses views that he rejects, he tries to show them in a favourable light. This is also how he teaches philosophy, clearly following the style of one of his other intellectual fathers, John Rawls. "[One] thing I tried to do", Rawls explained in 1993, "was to present each writer's thought in what I took to be its strongest form."2

13Those who know Philippe as a teacher are familiar with some of his other habits, such as a little handwritten ”OK” in a text’s margin to indicate a good point. His five-point checklist is a classic, perhaps one that should be used in every classroom: "For example?", "What is you canonical definition of concept X?", "What is the (potential) evidence?", "Can you put it more simply?" and, of course, "So what?" Will Philippe have his checklist in mind when reading the contributions to this book?

14Finally, as is clear from his contributions to the Belgian public debate, Philippe likes to be provocative and has no qualms about being controversial. In recent years, for instance, he has invited a few colourful figures to take part in his course in ethics at Louvain University, such as the representative of the left-wing radical Arab European League, or the leader of the most prominent right-wing Flemish nationalist party. This practice is at the core of his conception of what a "public intellectual" should always do and, even more broadly, of his conception of democratic life: rather than appealing to the approval of one's own political side, one always needs to engage with one's opponents' views, in a courteous but decided fashion.


15Those who know Philippe even a little will also have spotted his characteristically enthusiastic, positive, friendly, and casual attitude. He is a person of long-term comradeship, who hardly ever criticizes people openly or interprets their actions with suspicion. This has not only led to numerous individual relationships, but also to engagement with a number of groups with a typically mixed purpose of intellectual clarification, advocacy, and comradeship. Several contributors to this volume have been actively involved in one or more of these groups.

16Many readers will be familiar with the September Group, of which Philippe has been a member since its founding in 1978 at the initiative of G.A. Cohen, Jon Elster, and John Roemer. Also referred to as the No Bullshit Marxist Group, it explores the analytical potential of Marxism and has clearly had a great impact on analytical political philosophy more generally.

17Perhaps less well-known outside Belgium is the Collectif Charles Fourier, named after the French socialist thinker, which Philippe launched in 1983 with Paul-Marie Boulanger and Philippe Defeyt. This small group was the predecessor of the Basic Income European Network (BIEN), which was launched in 1986 in Louvain-la-Neuve. Philippe was one of the founding fathers of this network, along with Peter Ashby, Alexander de Roo, Bill Jordan, Claus Offe, Guy Standing, Robert van der Veen, Walter Van Trier, and others.3 In 2004, BIEN expanded its scope and became the Basic Income Earth Network.

18More recently, Philippe has launched two important initiatives related to institutional issues in his home country. He co-founded the Pavia Group in 2006, together with Kris Deschouwer, in order to foster public discussion about the possible implementation of a federal electoral district.4 The Pavia Group defends this reform as part of the solution to the ongoing crisis of Belgian federalism. Since 2009, Philippe also coordinates with Paul De Grauwe the Re-Bel Initiative, a group of Flemish and French-speaking scholars rethinking (Re-…) the institutions of Federal Belgium (…Bel) more generally.5

19These are just a few examples of some of his global and local initiatives. Those who are concerned about issues such as the right of foreign citizens to vote in local elections or the availability of cycling lanes in the centre of Brussels know that he has kept himself busy on these fronts too. Working in small groups is a not only a way of enjoying the company of fellow academics and activists, but also a very effective way of forming and testing ideas collectively in an interdisciplinary context, and of finding ways to turn them into reality in a given political environment.


20Finally, let us warmly thank all contributors for their imagination, trust, and patience. We thoroughly enjoyed reading and commenting on the papers, and we are pretty confident that Philippe will feel the same. We also want to apologize to those who could have contributed as well. Since this was meant to remain a surprise until the very end, we did not ask Philippe whom he would want to contribute to this volume in his honour; in any case, he always says ”don’t ask people about the gifts they would like to receive.” As the project progressed, we became aware of several other great friends of his who should have been invited to contribute. However, it was simply too late. To all of them we want to sincerely apologize.

21There are also a few of his friends who would no doubt have contributed were they still alive. Jean Ladriere, his first mentor at Louvain who, with his wonderfully modest smile, introduced Philippe to the search for clarity so central to analytical philosophy. He was also greatly influenced by three Oxford-related figures for whom he had strong feelings of admiration and friendship: Brian Barry, his first supervisor in Oxford in 1974, G.A. Cohen who he met in 1978, and his friend Andrew Glyn with whom he had so many exciting discussions about the future of capitalism.

22Before closing this foreword, we would also very much like to thank John Baker and Almaz Zelleke for their linguistic help in the preparation of this volume, as well as Berengere Deprez from Louvain University Press (Presses universitaires de Louvain). We hope that Therese Davio, the Hoover Chair’s manager, as well as Philippe’s wife Sue Black and their children Rebecca, Jonathan, Benjamin, and Sarah will forgive us for having kept this secret till the end. Perhaps an outcome of our (somehow Rawlsian) risk aversion?

September 20th, 2011


1 The crazy-lazy connection (eds.)(2001), Short essays in honour of Philippe Van Parijs's 50th birthday, unpublished, 56p.

2 Quoted in FREEMAN, S. (2007), Rawls, London: Routledge, p.7. As Philippe often says, smiling: "Rawls resembles Pascal's God in one respect: 'A little bit of thinking leads you away from him, a lot of thinking takes you back to him'."

3 For further information on the history of BIEN, see

4 See Stojanovic, this volume. The Pavia Group website is at:

5 See


Axel Gosseries is a philosopher (PhD, Louvain) and law scholar (LL.M., SOAS). A permanent research fellow of the FNRS and a Professor at Louvain University (UCL), his work focuses especially on theories of intergenerational justice and on the political philosophy of firms. He is the author of Penser la justice entre les générations (Aubier, 2004) and of articles in journals such as J. of Political Philos. ; Politics, Philosophy & Economics ; NYU Environmental Law J. ; International Economic Review and Economics & Philos. He co-edited one book on intellectual property (Palgrave, 2008) and another one entitled Intergenerational Justice (Oxford U.P., 2009, with L. Meyer).

Yannick Vanderborght teaches political science at the Facultés universitaires Saint-Louis (Brussels), where he currently directs the Research Centre in Political Science (CReSPo). He is also a member of the Hoover Chair (Louvain), of the Executive Committee of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), and an associate editor of Basic Income Studies. He co­authored with Ph. Van Parijs L'allocation universelle (2005), and has published several articles on basic income and related issues. He is the co-editor (with K. Widerquist, J. Noguera, and J. De Wispelaere) of Basic Income: an Anthology of Contemporary Research (Blackwell, forthcoming).

© Presses universitaires de Louvain, 2011

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