Friday, August 28, 2009

The Idea of Justice

Book Review: The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen

The Times of London

Polymathic brilliance among scholars is now generally agreed to be a thing of the past. The advance of knowledge means that providing intellectual leadership in economics, political theory and ­philosophy, as John Stuart Mill did, is not possible. Academics need to pick a subject and burrow into it as deeply as possible. But someone forgot to tell all this to Amartya Sen.

An accomplished mathematician, a brilliant economist (he won the Nobel prize in 1998) and now a giant of contemporary philosophy, Sen has also worked for the UN on human development. As a young man, he kicked off by reshaping welfare economics. One of his earliest and most famous claims was that famines do not occur in properly functioning democracies with a free press, because the pressure of public opinion forces the fairer distribution of food. As so often with great public philosophers, a childhood experience profoundly shaped his outlook. As a nine-year-old, Sen witnessed first-hand the 1943 Bengal famine, when hundreds of thousands died in the British colony under the cover of a news blackout.

Democracy, especially in the shape of public argument and debate, plays a key role in Sen’s latest work. Public reasoning is the “primary hero” of The Idea of Justice. It is up to individuals to determine their own course through life, based on their own reasoning and reflection — in this sense Sen is an indefatigable liberal — but the tackling of injustice and the shaping of progress rely on a constant, engaged public conversation. For Sen, democracy is not, at heart, a set of institutions and rules. “The working of democratic institutions, like that of all other institutions,” he writes, “depends on the activities of human agents.”

It is clear that this volume is intended to be the “Essential Sen”. All the primary themes of his previous five and half decades of work are here, in synthesis. For those who know Sen’s work well, there is a strong sense of déjà vu about many of the chapters. But anybody sufficiently motivated to have read Inequality Re-examined or the doorstop treatise Rationality and Freedom will probably not mind.

The Idea of Justice, though, wouldn’t be a book from Sen if it did not also provide something fresh. And the most important new intel lectual notion here is a working through of the fundamental distinction between two competing approaches to justice.

Most modern political philosophers are concerned with finding the right rules, institutions and social contracts for a just society. This school of thought — dubbed “transcendental institutionalism” by Sen — found its greatest 20th-century exponent in John Rawls, who built on foundations laid by Kant and Rousseau.

Sen characterises the institutionalists as engaged in a “long-range search for perfectly just institutions”, and a hunt for “spotless justice”.

For Sen, these philosophies are ultimately regressive, because societies full of actual human beings will never agree on a final, perfect set of institutions and rules. He quotes his old friend Bernard Williams, who wrote that “disagreement does not necessarily have to be overcome”. More immediately, the search for a perfect set of arrangements for society can distract us from tackling real-life, immediate injustices such as access to education for women in the developing world or action on climate change. The perfect becomes the enemy of the good.

The competing vision of justice Sen prefers is a “comparative” one, which examines “what kind of lives people can actually lead”. The heroes of the comparative pantheon are Condorcet, Wollstonecraft and Mill. For them, as for Sen, abolishing slavery or giving women the vote would free people to lead lives of their own choosing, even without creating a perfectly just society. The keystone of judging the lives people can actually lead is an assessment of what Sen has labelled their “capabilities” — or, as he explains, “the power to do something”.

Freedom, in Sen’s eyes, does not consist merely of being left to our own devices. It also requires that people have the necessary resources to lead lives that they themselves consider to be good ones. The focus on the individual has led some critics to accuse Sen of “methodological individualism” — not a compliment. Communitarian opponents, in particular, think that Sen pays insufficient regard to the broader social group. In response, Sen — usually an unfailingly courteous writer — becomes a bit cross. He points out that “people who think, choose and act” are simply “a manifest reality in the world”. Of course communities influence people, “but ultimately it is individual valuation on which we have to draw, while recognising the profound interdependence of the valuations of people who interact with each other”.

Nor is Sen easily caricatured as an egalitarian: “capabilities”, for example, do not have to be entirely equal. Sen is a pluralist, and recognises that even capabilities cannot always trump other values. Liberty has priority, Sen insists, but not in an absurdly purist fashion that would dictate “treating the slightest gain of liberty — no matter how small — as enough reason to make huge sacrifices in other amenities of a good life — no matter how large”.

Throughout, Sen remains true to his Indian roots. One of the joys of the volume is the rich use of Indian classical thought — the debate between 3rd-century emperor Ashoka, a liberal optimist, and Kautilya, a downbeat institutionalist, is much more enlightening than, say, a tired contrast between Hobbes and Hume.

Despite these diverting stories, the volume cannot be said to fall into the category of a “beach read”: subtitles such as “The Plurality of Non-Rejectability” provide plenty of warning. But for those who like their summer dinner tables to be filled with intelligent, dissenting discourse, the book is worth the weight. There’s plenty here to argue with. Sen wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen
Allen Lane £25 pp496

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