Bras. Political Sci. Rev.. 11/Feb/2014;8(1):109-26.

Critical Theory and Social Justice

Álvaro de Vita

DOI: 10.1590/1981-38212014000100005

In Elements of a Critical Theory of Justice, the Uruguayan political philosopher does an admirable job of combining, in an original theoretical formulation, contributions for reflection on the nature of justice in a democratic society, deriving from two distinct traditions of contemporary political philosophy. One tradition is the “Critical Theory” of society, as expressed in writings by the contemporary heirs of the Frankfurt School, especially Jürgen Habermas, Karl-Otto Apel and Axel Honneth. Let me call the other tradition “post-Rawls theories of justice”. At least for the aims of the present article, this latter broad category can include the theoretical formulations of authors who have significant differences with Rawls, such as G. A. Cohen, Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. The idea is to propose a “critical theory of justice” or, we might say, a conception of “critical social justice.” The basic elements of this conception are extracted from theoretical perspectives that belong to these two traditions and are then articulated “in a new and systematized fashion, in such a way that the new theory can overcome the shortcomings of the original theories and express a higher commitment to application” (, p. 05). The intellectual ambition of this effort can hardly be underestimated. Regardless of how one appraises the success of this project by judging it according to its most ambitious aspirations, the discussion developed by Pereira to specify the “elements” of his conception of critical social justice makes this book highly relevant for students of normative political theory, especially those concerned with social justice issues.

It would be impossible to summarize here all the steps of the intricate reasoning – of an essentially conceptual nature – by which Pereira articulates elements from theoretical perspectives of both traditions mentioned above to build his own theory of critical social justice. In fact, the discussion that follows is quite selective. It consists essentially of an indication of a number of controversial issues that an undertaking like this brings up, especially when considered from the point of view of Rawlsian justice. Two preliminary observations are necessary regarding the scope of this discussion. The first observation is that, even though I stated above that Pereira combines elements taken from the two philosophical traditions in question here, it is a theoretical effort that, in its most characteristic aspects, remains solidly located within the intellectual structure of the critical theory. It would be a mistake, therefore, to characterize it as an attempt at theoretical syncretism. But what I want to stress, as a note of caution, is that the appropriation Pereira makes of the critical theory will not be discussed in this article. This leads us to the second observation. My purpose here is to examine a theoretical effort to formulate, mainly on the basis of the critical theory, a conception of social justice that is capable, or so it is argued, of dealing with certain deficiencies (which will be described shortly) of Rawlsian justice in a normatively appropriate way. It is the critical interlocution with the Rawlsian perspective that constitutes the focus of the concern behind this article. Beyond presenting a review of Gustavo Pereira’s book, what I intend to do here is to bring up controversial issues that deserve further research efforts by practitioners of political theory who dedicate themselves to normative reflection on social justice.


Critical Theory and Social Justice