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Thomas Sowell

Page history last edited by dghos003@plattsburgh.edu 2 years, 2 months ago

The Man Himself


Thomas Sowell is a black man who grew up in Harlem in the 1930’s, he dropped out of high school to join the Marines, but then went on to multiple degrees including his undergraduate from Harvard and his doctorate from the University of Chicago (Hoover Institution 2018). Thomas Sowell catches the attention of many because of his background and his ability to have an open mind. He is very much against the idea of singly blaming one thing for the cause of a failure. This gets him a lot of credit for being a “thinker”, but also gets him some backlash because of his views of how impactful slavery really was/is. Regardless, Thomas Sowell’s views are very abstract, which results in many being able to understand and interpret his ideas.


The Ideas Of Sowell


To start this off, I believe it is best to talk about Thomas Sowell’s idea of cosmic justice. Sowell says cosmic justice, “seeks to mitigate and make more just the undeserved misfortunes arising from the cosmos, as well as society. It seeks to produce cosmic justice, going beyond social justice, which becomes one aspect of cosmic justice” (Sowell 1999, 5). He very much so likes to be sure that people recognize the difference between cosmic justice and social justice. For one, he believes all justice is inherently social because someone on a desert island can’t be just or unjust (Sowell 1999, 3). Another thing is cosmic justice not only takes into account the social issues, but also someone's genetic makeup. This ‘genetic endowment” is not social (Sowell 1999, 5). This can be connected to Disability justice. This concept he gets from Thomas Nagel, who said, “the range of possibilities or likely courses of life that are open to a given individual are limited to a considerable extent by his birth” (Sowell 1999, 5). Sowell also puts cosmic justice against traditional justice. Tradition justice is “applying the same rules and standards to everybody” (C-Span 1999). Cosmic justice deals with “equalizing the prospects of everybody” (C-Span 1999). One thing I want to make clear and so does Thomas Sowell is that these two different ideas of justice are completely opposite of one another. They are simply “incompatible” (C-Span 1999). Now that we have laid out what Cosmic justice is, especially compared to other concepts of justice, I think it would be best to understand where this idea comes from. The word “cosmic” comes from the word “cosmos”. A cosmos is “the absence of personal intention is a spontaneous order” (Sowell 1999, 4). When Sowell was coming up with this idea, he seemed to heavily consider Friedrich A. Hayek. Hayek’s idea of the cosmos was that it was the “absence of either justice or injustice” (Sowell 1999, 4). Sowell quotes him exactly saying, “Nature can be neither just nor unjust” (Sowell 1999, 4). This is important to understand when it comes to Sowell because he believes the universe itself is not just or unjust and when we talk about justice, “we must begin with the universe that we were born into” (Sowell 1999, 8). In order for one to best understand Sowell’s idea of comic justice, I believe it is best that we use an example from this book. Cosmic justice is used in the world today and the prime example is in colleges. The specific example is when a Stanford University director said she never required people to submit SAT scores because these tests unfairly treat students who are in education systems that do not promote or prep them for the SATs (Sowell 1999, 12). This is also the idea of Educational Justice and Racial justice. Again, cosmic justice is not about the rules, but about putting people in positions in society that they would have been in if not for the misfortunes (Sowell 1999, 12). In order to achieve cosmic justice, one needs the power to do the action required. So sometimes cosmic justice can not be achieved. In the college case, the director of the University had the power. So the quest of cosmic justice could take place. Another thing to be mentioned, but not considered in the cost analysis benefit of justice. “Weighing the full costs of action is an idea either alien or irrelevant or possibly an anathema to those in pursuit of cosmic justice (Williams 2001). This idea of considering the effects of correcting the injustices is not to be answered by cosmic justice. Traditional justice would take into account the cost of such actions, but the “demands of cosmic justice vastly exceed those of traditional justice” (Sowell 1999, 18). Sowell believes that cosmic justice is hard for humans to process because of its complexity, stating, “(cosmic justice) vastly exceeds what human beings are likely to be capable of” (Sowell 1999, 18). It is interesting to see how Sowell believes that cosmic justice is hard for people to actually fight for, but at the same time makes it easy for people to understand. For example, the requirements for cosmic justice are that it must be handmade and tailored to an individual's case (C-Span 1999). This is easy to understand, but to actually use this into consideration is quite complicated and therefore why I believe Sowell thinks human beings are likely incapable of cosmic justice. Another thing about cosmic justice, is how important the phrase is “through no fault of their own” (Sowell 1999, 12). It is this phrase that allows for people to understand who cosmic justice is for. Again, Sowell says that "cosmic justice" seeks to eliminate undeserved disadvantages for selected people (Williams 2001). Cosmic justice focuses on one segment of the population and disregards the interests of others who are not the focus of the discussion (Sowell 1999, 13). Cosmic justice is only about the disadvantaged, who have no fault in being disadvantaged, and does not account for the others even though they may be involved. Another concept of Thomas Sowell is the idea of a constrained vision and an unconstrained vision. The constrained vision “sees the evils of the world as deriving from the limited and unhappy choices available, given the inherent moral and intellectual limitations of human beings (Sowell 1987). Sowell puts this into more simplified terms saying, “ they, (people), cannot proceed as so many do that good things happen automatically, but bad things are somebody else’s fault” (Hoover Institution 2018). The unconstrained vision is when “the fundamental problem is not nature or man, but institutions” (Sowell 1987). Again, Sowell puts this into a simpler idea of “good things happen naturally, but bad things happen because of institutions themselves” (Hoover Institution 2018). In order to make this more understandable an example is offered, which I believe to be extremely helpful. Sowell talks about how these people in mountain like communities in Virginia, where a man’s life expectancy is these areas are 10 year less, the unconstrained vision would say that we need to fix this and this could be done with a law, the constrained vision says to take a deeper look into why these men are dying so sooner and to see what other factors are coming into play (Hoover Institution 2018). I wanted to talk about these concepts specifically because I believe they can be applied to justice as well as be connected to Sowell's idea of cosmic justice. I believe the constrained vision is very consistent with cosmic justice because of its idea of figuring out why these injustices are occurring and not just blaming the institutions themselves. It is not saying institutions are not involved, but saying other factors are present. For example, Sowell talks about how the social problems of black Americans has been solemnly attributed to slavery (Sowell 1999, 16). Sowell does not only believe this to be the sole cause and looks at the prevalence of fatherless families in the black community (Sowell 1999, 16). There is always more to the picture and the constrained vision sees this to be true and cosmic justice wants to take into account the bigger picture and not just in this case, slavery. The last concept or idea of Thomas Sowell’s that I want to get into is his view on disparities. Sowell does not believe all disparities are due to discrimination (Doleac 2020). This I find interesting because you can connect this idea to cosmic justice. Discrimination one would consider to be a social thing, and one would consider disparities as a form of injustice. Social justice would only fight for disparities based on discrimination while cosmic justice would fight for disparities based on discrimination and disparities not based on discrimination. Sowell’s idea seems to always be connected even if not done purposely; it is good to be able to understand his thought process throughout the years of writing.


The Conflicts Of Sowell’s Ideas


To begin this, I want to start off with one of the reasons Thomas Sowell wrote his book “The Quest For Cosmic Justice”. He got into an argument with this unnamed colleague from the University of Stanford (Sowell 1999, viii). This colleague talked about life on a level playing field (C-Span 1999). Sowell argues that his colleagues' level playing field would be in reality a tilted playing field (C-Span 1999). Life is not inherently fair so this idea of a level playing field is just not existent in the world we live in today. He argues that his colleague was taking the very common traditional view of justice, where rules are applied equally. Sowell brings up this example of a fair fight. He said that a traditional fair fight would mean that the fighters are agreeing to the same set of rules (C-Span 1999). However, though the idea of cosmic justice a fair fight would mean the fighters agree to the “same prospects of winning” (C-Span 1999). I believe these two ideas of justice are very prevalent in society today. It is about the bigger picture of should we start today with treating everyone the same or do we go back and try to correct the wrongs that are making certain populations struggle to this day. 


As stated in the very beginning, Thomas Sowell’s view of how much racism has affected the black community can be seen as controversial. Here I will talk about why it comes off as controversial and how others view this. Jennifer L. Doleac is an Associate Professor of Economics at Texas A&M University. She is pretty critical of Sowell and she went as far as to review his book called, “Discrimination and Disparities”. One major difference between Sowell and Doleac is how much they believe the government can help with disparities. Doleac says, “I find far more reason to be hopeful about the role of government than Sowell does” (Doleac 2020). In regards to this idea, Doleac disagrees with the evidence Sowell uses on the government impact on disparities and what he takes away from the policies themselves (Doleac 2020, 1). As she sees things, she believes the government can move society closer to the ideal (Doleac 2020, 1). I find this point highly interesting because Sowell’s book called, “The Quest For Cosmic Justice”, makes me think he wants the government more involved in fixing injustices. He talks about the importance of a third party for cosmic justice to work and I am just unsure if he thinks the government counts as a third party. However, based on this book, “Discriminations and Disparities”, I think government does not count as a third party. In general, this view of if the government is more helpful is up for debate. Many argue the more the government gets involved the worse we are and vice versa. Clearly, Sowell believes in the first while Doleac believes in the latter. The biggest way these two disagree is how Sowell believes in certain disparities possibly being random/chance. Sowell has this idea of certain prerequisites that make people doomed for failure or success (Doleac 2020, 3). However, Doleac calls out Sowell for noting that this random set of prerequisites would not produce outcomes where specific races correlates with worse outcomes (Doleac 2020, 3). I believe Sowell plays down the role of racism simply because he does believe in accountability of one's actions. Based on reading and listening to him, he does believe one can do things in order to succeed. His belief in this makes him downplay the idea of how strong racism is. I think he can make the argument that it is being overplayed and his argues this in “The Quest For Cosmic Justice” and “Discrimination and Disparities”. The argument is there, but regardless Doleac believes you have to take it into account because of how much correlation exists between the black communities and disparities. I will agree with Doleac here because of simply the correlations being too strong, but I will bring up Sowell’s cosmic justice because according to cosmic justice we would consider racism, it just would not be the only thing we would be looking at when considering cosmic justice. 


Connecting Ideas


When learning about Thomas Sowell’s ideas and concepts, I can’t help, but connect him to two thinkers. One being John Rawls and the other being Shatema Threadcraft. To start, Sowell brings up Rawls’ ideas himself in his book and his speeches. John Rawls’ idea of fair equality of opportunity and formal equality of opportunity can go hand and hand with Sowell’s difference between traditional justice and cosmic justice. Rawls believes that genuine equality of opportunity can not exist with the idea of fair equality of opportunity (C-Span 1999). Sowell believes this to be true because he argues that traditional justice does not achieve real justice. Rawls also believes that undeserved inequalities call for redress (C-Span 1999). Sowell has the same idea when it comes to cosmic justice being achieved: a third party must be there to enforce the rules, aka this redress. Sowell also mentions Rawls’ difference principle, which means no such policy should be fought for unless it helps the least fortunate (C-Span 1999). Sowell, however, disagrees with the idea at least if society is fluid. He argues that the people at the bottom do not stay at the bottom (C-Span 1999). He also points out that if a policy helps millions of people and does not help the bottom, Rawls would say that policy should not be pushed forth. Sowell believes that to be nonsense. Now, Sowell does not specifically mention Threadcraft, but I do believe you can make connections between cosmic justice and intimate justice. A requirement for cosmic justice is that it “must be handmade and tailored to an individual case” (C-Span 1999). Threadcraft says that intimate justice deals with “individual capacities and identities” (Threadcraft 2016, 123). It is key to both theories of justice that the individual is what is examined. Also present in cosmic justice is the accountant for difference in both male and females (Sowell 1999, 13). This brings about the idea of Gender justice. Threadcraft would certainly argue that men and women are different and therefore why her theory exists in the first place because other theories lack the idea of the female. Sowell believes cosmic justice requires this information therefore giving in my view legitimacy to women’s injustices. Simply, you could argue that women in certain societies are born with disadvantages that are no fault of their own. As said before, this phrase is very important for cosmic justice and the fact that I can connect it to women makes cosmic justice fight for women. 


Final Thoughts


Cosmic justice seems to bring the idea of disadvantaged individuals to the forefront of society. These people through no fault of their own struggle in life. As a society, we must help those who do not have a fair chance in the race. The reason we must help is because it is the right thing to do, we have a moral obligation to make sure the less fortunate do not get left behind. The universe is neither just or unjust and nature itself does not provide equal opportunity, but human beings and society are just or unjust and can provide equal opportunities. I believe cosmic justice can lead us to a more equal society and a better world. People all over suffer for different reasons and if we look closely and assess those issues, we can then in return get those individuals on the right path, which will in return benefit society. Cosmic justice does not allow one thing to be the blame for an individual's problems, cosmic justice seeks to seek all the issues in order to better assist the individual. All people are different no matter if they share the same skin color or culture. Cosmic justice will allow society to have a pure form of justice that accounts for the individual and the world we have been given. Cosmic justice is a real concept that can be implemented in real life. It may be complicated, but it makes sense. Cosmic justice for all!




  • Doleac, Jennifer. L. 2020. “A Review of Thomas Sowell’s Discrimination and Disparities”. Department of Economics, Texas A&M University.
  • Hoover Institution. 2018. “Thomas Sowell on the Myths of Economic Inequality”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mS5WYp5xmvI&t=200s
  • Sowell, Thomas. 1987. "A Conflict Of Visions". William Morrow & Co. 
  • Sowell, Thomas. 2018. “Discrimination and Disparities”. Basic Books.
  • Sowell, Thomas. 1999. “The Quest For Cosmic Justice”. Simon & Schuster.
  • Sowell, Thomas. 1999. New York. “The Quest for Cosmic Justice”. C-Span. (October 13).   https://www.c-span.org/video/?152807-1/the-quest-cosmic-justice 
  • Threadcraft, Shatema. 2016. “Intimate Justice: The Black Female Body and the Body Politic”. Oxford University Press.
  • Williams, Walter E. "The Quest for Cosmic Justice." Society 38, no. 2 (2001): 89. 



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