Amartya Sen’s “The Idea of Justice”

Almost a year ago on this blog, in what was perhaps my first post, I wrote about a lecture given by Amartya Sen at Harvard Law School on “The Idea of Justice”. In his lecture, Professor Sen expounded upon arguments contained in a book on the subject that he was writing at the time. The book of the same name has now been published and Professor Sen has given many interviews, including to several Indian news channels describing the central argument of the book, which is to advocate a theory of comparative justice as opposed to what he calls transcendental justice. That is, justice should be preoccupied not so much with achieving a precise distinction between the just and the unjust for the creation of an ideally just society (like Rawls’ basic structure (in “A Theory of Justice”) derived from the principle of equal basic liberties, the principle of fair equality of opportunity and the difference principle), but on the actual realization of good social outcomes in society.

The best reviews of the book that I have read so far appeared in The Economist and in Outlook India earlier this month, the latter having been written by Dr. Pratap Mehta, President, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Some excerpts from the review in the Economist are as follows:

“ . . . Mr Sen charges John Rawls, an American philosopher who died in 2002, with sending political thinkers up a tortuous blind alley. The Rawlsian project of trying to describe ideally just institutions is a distracting and ultimately fruitless way to think about social injustice, Mr Sen complains. Such a spirited attack against possibly the most influential English-speaking political philosopher of the past 100 years will alone excite attention.

The Idea of Justice” serves also as a commanding summation of Mr Sen’s own work on economic reasoning and on the elements and measurement of human well-being. It is often intricate but never worthy. Conceptual subtleties flank blunt accounts of famine’s causes or physical handicap’s economic effects. A conviction that economists and philosophers are in business to improve the world burns on almost every page.

Mr Sen writes with dry wit, a feel for history and a relaxed cosmopolitanism. He presumes that the values in play are of global, not purely Western, import. Earlier thinkers he cites on justice and toleration come less from fourth-century Athens or 17th-century England than from India, where he was born 75 years ago. Growing up in Bengal, he learned about poverty and equality directly, not from books.

Two themes predominate: economic rationality and social injustice. Mr Sen approaches them alike. He can, when he wants, theorise without oxygen at any height. But he believes that theory, to be of use, must keep its feet on the ground. Modern theorists in his view have drifted too far from the actual world.

Economists have tended to content themselves with a laughably simple picture of human motivation, rationality and well-being. People are not purely self-interested. They care for others and observe social norms. They do not always reason “instrumentally”, seeking least-cost means to given ends. They question the point of their aims and the worth of their wants. Well-being, finally, has no single measure and is not inscrutable to others. Its elements are many and do not boil down to “utility” or some cash-value equivalent.”

. . . .

Rawls held that social justice depended on having just institutions, whereas Mr Sen thinks that good social outcomes are what matter. Strictly both could be right. The practical brunt of Mr Sen’s criticism, however, is that just institutions do not ensure social justice. You can, in addition, recognise social injustices without knowing how a perfectly fair society would arrange or justify itself. Rawlsianism, though laudable in spirit, is too theoretical, and has distracted political philosophers from corrigible ills in the actual world.”

As Dr. Mehta writes, “[i]ndeed, the book is not so much about an idea of justice as it is about the vast range of legitimate considerations that have to be taken into account in a theory of justice. And finally what institutional arrangements might best embody a move towards greater justice will crucially depend on circumstances; perfect institutional structures are no guide to how we might proceed.

[A] large part of the book is devoted to defending ideas that Sen has so influentially articulated: the place of reason in ethical reasoning, the idea of positional objectivity, the defence of liberty and, most famously, the capabilities approach. The point of departure for the capabilities approach is the idea that “justice cannot be indifferent to the lives people can actually lead”. Individual advantage is judged by a person’s “capability to do things he or she has reason to value”. In a sense, this argument is situated between liberalism and Marxism. On the one hand, the traditional liberal conception focuses on freedom and the means to living such as resources or basic primary goods; the Marxist conception, articulated most recently by G.A. Cohen, focuses on whether we have actually achieved the fullest possibilities of self-realisation. The liberal emphasis on liberty is salutary; but its emphasis on resources confuses ends and means. Resources are merely means; it is the actual capabilities of people that matter. But on the other hand, a focus on actual achievement rather than capability would set the bar too high, and ignores the fact that there can be legitimate gaps between capability and achievement.”

The full reviews of the book in the Economist and Outlook India can be accessed here and here.

Without having read the book, it is not possible to comment on the ideas expressed therein. Therefore, I will confine myself to a few preliminary thoughts based on information about the book contained in the reviews that I have read and the lecture that I attended last year.

1. The argument in favour of a comparative idea of justice is not entirely new having been made in some form or other by people like David Hume. Given that Hume and Adam Smith were friends and contemporaries, it is not surprising that as the Economist notes, “[Sen’s] hero is Adam Smith: not the Smith of free-market legend, but the father of political economy who grasped the force of moral constraint and the value of sociability. To encapsulate the shift in attitude that Mr Sen has sought to bring about, ethics and economics are to be seen as Smith saw them: not two subjects, but one.” I suppose the true merit of the book (with respect to its central thesis, other merits notwithstanding) is not the newness of its central argument but its masterly attempt to bring this argument back within the debating arena. Since its publication in the 70s, “A Theory of Justice” is regarded as the text on political philosophy. In the introductory class on political thought taught at Harvard, students are informed that in terms of actual impact on intellectual thought, the three giants of political theory are Plato, Hobbes and Rawls. While this assessment may be contentious, it is undisputed that Rawls is widely regarded as the greatest political philosopher of the twentieth century, a label that Dr. Mehta endorses in his review. Though Rawls’s ideas have been critiqued extensively in the decades since “A Theory of Justice” first appeared, most theorists are preoccupied with identifying gaps in his theory and not challenging the entire edifice, the premise on which his theory is based.

2. Smith’s emphasis on seeing economics and ethics as one subject, not two is also significant for the argument against separation of social science disciplines in the academia, particularly in light of the status often given (wrongfully in my opinion) to Economics as a near science and its penetration into every social science discipline including that of law. Sen asks for economics to be seen as Smith saw it, as Political Economy. This recognition is important in a situation where today for instance, out of the hundreds of courses on offer at the Harvard Government and Economics Departments, there are only a few courses on political economy, with only one being offered in the Economics Department.

3. Sen draws upon ancient Indian philosophy in support of his argument even as he relies upon Western writers like Smith. Given that not just the western world but also political science students from India read almost nothing about ancient Indian political philosophy as part of their general degree course, it is wonderful that a person of the stature and credibility of Amartya Sen has taken upon himself the task of bringing the arguments contained in these works to the attention of a vast audience.

Of course questions arise even from such a preliminary understanding of the book, some of which have arisen from his earlier works as well. What are the implications of Sen’s argument for policy makers? If everything has to be seen on a relative scale and so many different things have to be considered, then all decisions will be marked by ad hocism and subject to the ills of decision making without guiding principles. As Dr. Mehta notes,

“The last section of the book argues rightly that the authority of any rankings will in part depend upon the practices of democratic justification. While there can be no quarrel with this position, it is a bit of a theoretical let-down in that it leaves a large question hanging: In some theories, such as those of Habermas, to whom Sen is sympathetic, the idea of justice is assimilated into that democracy. Justice is what democracy does; the trick is to specify what democracy means. That does not appear to be Sen’s position. What then is the relationship of ideas of justice to democratic deliberation. While there can be no quarrel with this position, it is a bit of a theoretical let-down in that it leaves a large question hanging: In some theories, such as those of Habermas, to whom Sen is sympathetic, the idea of justice is assimilated into that democracy. Justice is what democracy does; the trick is to specify what democracy means. That does not appear to be Sen’s position. What then is the relationship of ideas of justice to democratic deliberation?

The concepts used in the book have also been critiqued on various grounds. As the Economist notes,

“Virtually every claim Mr Sen makes will be objected to by someone. Right-wingers who follow Friedrich Hayek or James Buchanan will treat “social justice” and “social choice” as nonsense. Mr Sen wants to humanise canons of “maximising” rationality; behavioural economists, much in fashion, aim to ditch them altogether. Rawlsian liberals will rally to the defence of their hero. Nobody, however, can reasonably complain any longer that they do not see how the parts of Mr Sen’s grand enterprise fit together.”

The Economist further notes, “Mr Sen ends, suitably, with democracy. It can take many institutional forms, he says. But none succeeds without open debate about values and principles.”

However, ideas of democracy and open debate are not new and I hope that Sen’s book has more concrete solutions to offer. As Dr. Mehta points out, ” [ ] if the terrain of engagement is the actual state of affairs, then arguably what one needs is a messy engagement with the political economy of power rather than elaborate distinctions in the domain of justice. Here one wishes [Sen] had followed his great hero in the book, the much-caricatured Adam Smith, a bit more. Smith had the extraordinary capacity to combine immense moral sympathy, a belief in the possibility of progress, with a deep scepticism about the sources of progress. He had wariness about concentrations of power, one that Sen fleetingly acknowledges; but he also had a deep sense of the paradoxical and messy ways through which progress takes place.

The paradox of this book is that while Sen is a severe critic of utopianism in thinking about the ends of justice; he ends up sounding too straight-laced about the means to achieve justice. In the end, his profound humanism obscures the trickier problem for justice: how to straighten the crooked timber of humanity.”

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