The idea of justice demands comparisons of actual lives that people can lead, rather than a remote search for ideal institutions. That is what makes the idea of justice relevant as well as exciting in practical reasoning.
Here, Sen is critiquing universal theories of justice (John Rawls as an example) that seek to prescribe one set of institutions for all persons. This form of justice, extended to all people, represents a “thin” form of multiculturalism which emphasizes our commonalities. The issue with having one form of justice that applies to all is that it ignores contextuality. It disembodies beings from their particular experience. The flip side then of a “thin” multicutluralism is a notion of justice that recognizes and supports difference (Iris Marion Young’s work as an example). This emphasis on individual distinctiveness situates people within their unique contexts by seeking to affirm group rights. This would be a “thicker” notion of multicultural justice. The problem with this approach is that in recognizing difference, “thick” multiculturalism ignores the real need for individuals to make collective decisions.
In the work I’m doing on diversity at public universities, I find that institutions are moving towards a thinner notion of multicultural justice. Court decisions, pressure from regents, donors and the business community all compel institutions to frame diversity in a less controversial language of diversity as a “competence” or a “skill set” that individuals need to be competitive in a global marketplace. This approach suggests that diversity is reducible to a uniform set of tools that can be applied to any context. This idea of “plug and play” diversity (apologies to Richard Florida) ignores the idysyncratic and ad hoc nature of dealing with others. This is what I like so much about Sen’s quote. Instead of teaching students to be deductively “culturally competent,” we should be teaching students to be inductive learners, building up their base of knowledge from experience and opening themselves to the ad-hoc and contingent nature of different interactions. I’m a fan of Charles’ Taylor’s call for “adhockishness” in our interactions with diverse others.