New old ways of understanding justice

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Amartya Sen: The Idea of Justice. Belknap Press, 2009. ISBN 9780674036130. Publisher website

The Idea of Justice by Amartya SenJustice and injustice seem like the most basic of concepts, yet they unfold with labyrinthine complexity.

Take the problem with which the Nobel-prize winning and philosophically-minded economist Amartya Sen opens his book The Idea of Justice: three children squabble over a flute. Carla has worked diligently to make the flute; Anne is the only one who can actually play it; but poverty-stricken Bob has no toys or instruments at all.

A utilitarian, aiming to maximise the best possible usage would favour Anne; an egalitarian, toyless Bob; a libertarian would favour Carla, because she actually made the flute. Depending on your 'theory' of justice — utilitarian, libertarian, egalitarian — each of them has a claim to the goods. You end in stalemate.

This thought-problem is a barb aimed at a particular way of doing political and moral philosophy which has been dominant ever since the American political philosopher John Rawls published his famous wrist-breaker, A Theory of Justice (1971).

Rawls was concerned with the question of political justice. He identified justice as fairness. Fair procedures were identified with justice. Rawls invented a hypothetical state called the 'original position'. In this state nobody would know their gender, race, social position or wealth. Rawls argued that people there would opt to follow two principles. They would extend freedom as widely as possible without infringing on the freedom of others. And they would ensure that any inequalities in income tended to benefit society's worst off.

A society governed by these principles, Rawls said, would be just.

The literary critic Harold Bloom once said of Sigmund Freud that his influence was so pervasive as to be inescapable — you could be a Freudian or an anti-Freudian, but you could not be un-Freudian. The same applies to Rawls' grand theory — it set the terms of debate for philosophers of political justice.

But this discussion, Sen maintains, has become mired in an approach he calls 'transcendent institutionalism' which seeks to devise a set of perfect institutions to achieve justice. Rawls and his followers define justice as whatever results from following these principles. They not only cannot escape theoretical dead ends like the flute example but, more importantly, their absolutism makes them incapable of dealing with the ramshackle world of practical justice.

Sen concludes elegantly: 'If a theory of justice is to guide reasoned choice of policies, strategies, or institutions, then the identification of fully just social arrangements is neither necessary nor sufficient.'

Sen would replace this approach with what he calls 'comparative justice', a program for discussing competing ideas of justice and fairness that is more suited to addressing real problems like income inequality and global development. Sen finds figures that are traditionally seen as philosophically marginal, or not even part of philosophy, to be most useful to his approach. John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith are more helpful in discussions of global justice than Kant.

Rawls said his preoccupation with justice arose from his experiences as a soldier in World War II. For Sen, it was the Bengal famine of 1943 that cost millions of lives, despite being easily preventable. 'What moves us, reasonably enough, is not the realisation that the world falls short of being completely just — which few of us expect — but that there are clearly remediable injustices around us which we want to eliminate.'

Sen suggests that we might never know what perfect justice is, but we certainly know injustice when we see it. This is not to follow Rouchefoucauld's maxim that 'The love of justice in men is simply the fear of injustice': one of Sen's targets is the conception of people as fundamentally self-interested schemers.

Sen suspects that there is something deeply wrong (although Rawls himself was an unquestionably brilliant and decent person) about an approach to justice that relies on imaginary worlds and thought-experiments. Amid this intellectual bloodlessness, the prominence of Rawls' theory in the academy may owe less to its intrinsic philosophical merit than to it providing a limitless mine for academic conferences and papers.

In a famous passage in India's national epic, the Mahabharata, the God Krishna admonishes the warrior Arjuna, who begins to have doubts on the eve of battle. To Arjuna's protests that victory is not worth the carnage of the war, Krishna replies that the hero must do his duty, and not value consequences above right action.

In a small footnote midway through this new book, Sen relates a charming little anecdote from his high school days. Studying this episode in Sanskrit class, a young Sen asked his teacher 'whether it was permissible to say that the divine Krishna had got away with an incomplete and unconvincing argument'. His teacher replied: 'Maybe you could say that, but you must say it with adequate respect'. Sen is scrupulously polite, and it is always a pleasure to see him assault the entire academic establishment with the utmost judiciousness and respect.

This goes deeper than a rhetorical pose — it embodies Sen's proud Enlightenment conviction that mutual dialogue and public reason must be the foundation for moral action. Sen quotes the 15th century Indian philosopher Abul Fazl that 'the rule of the intellect must be the basic determinant of good and just behaviour'. The professional pessimist John Gray has owned to being unconvinced that being smarter made anyone better, but Sen argues forcefully that 'lack of smartness can certainly be one source of moral failing'.

In 400 pages, Sen covers democracy, reason, human rights (an outstanding chapter), and ultimately the relation between theory and action. The discursive tangents of the book are as interesting as the main thesis. Instead of giving yet another tired rehash of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau etc. Sen uses vibrant, colourful examples from history, philosophy, and literature, in particular from the Indian tradition. Instead of Hobbes' brutal state of nature, Sen discusses mastsyanyaya, a term from Sanskrit philosophy meaning 'fish-world' — where small fish are easy prey for big fish.

It is very difficult to discuss Sen's arguments in a short review, and as Sen himself puts it, 'every summary is ultimately an act of barbarism'. There is much to disagree with, but nothing to easily dismiss. This is an immensely rich book, demanding in the best and most deserving way, and ought to be read by anyone interested in the most important moral debates of our times.

Alex LewisAlex Lewis is an undergraduate studying Russian and Philosophy at Melbourne University. He recently spent three months studying in the Russia city of Tver. 

Topic tags: Alexander Lewis, Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice.Belknap Press, ISBN 9780674036130



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An impressive review which makes me inclined to buy the book. I am not so inclined to disparage Rawls, though. The world plainly is not intrinsically just, but justice is about society not the world in general, and models like Rawls's help us to think a little more objectively about society and those others we share it with... to think with empathy about others when we are faced with their situation ourselves, whence the veil of ignorance idea. And yes we are often given "tired" accounts and arguments, like those of Hobbes and so on, but we can hardly expect old writings to be adequate for today, even Indian ones. They might contain much wisdom, but our situation is constantly changing, and we end up simply selecting the bits we like. To judge from the gospels, Christ was a wise man, but all Christians of whatever denomination pick the bits of his teaching they like and ignore the rest. Yet his central message is unarguably that God is everyman, and we should treat everyman as if he were God. It is much the same as Rawls's argument, or rather vice-versa. The morality of capitalism is the opposite... dog eat dog!
Mike Magee | 12 June 2010

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