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on 31 December 2010
One of my achievements of this summer (also got flooring done in hall cupboard!) was reading Amartyn Sen's "Idea of Justice". This big chunk of thoughts covers almost all elements of human thought through the prism of struggling with what the concept of Justice means in our contemporary society.
Although ostensibly an economist, Sen has won the Nobel Prize, his style is very broad both in the disciplines which he covers but also in his breadth of sources notably drawing on Eastern writings which are more than often overlooked in Western writings particularly on economics, philosophy and law.
His work, which I have never read any of, mainly deals in social choice theory which looks at the economics underpinning human behavior and the choices people make. Sen seeks to counter the presumption, which is fairly prevalent in capitalist thinking, that faced with a choice people always look after their own interests in a selfish way. Indeed, as he points out, choice theory has become synonymous with this.
This work is partially an attempt to integrate his work in this field into the area of legal theory. Indeed it also works as a comprehensive summary of all of his work to this date with a substantial and impressive referencing system and bibliography as part of the work.
The sweep of the work is one of its most impressive features from discussing the nature of freedom, to exploring the economic and political roots of famines to dissecting the writing of proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. You get a real sense of the breadth and depth of Sen's knowledge but also of his enthusiasm for all aspects of learning and knowledge. I would add though that some of the roots of the weaker elements of the work lie here as well.
The essential argument of the book is that theories of justice are dominated historically and in the present time by "transcendental institutionalism". That is the discussion focuses on the ideal institutions and how they could deliver a `just' society - not only the institutional machinery but the theories which underpin this are also discussed in relation to the higher transcendental concepts.
Sen also labels these thinkers "contractarians" as they often use the concept of a social contract - in that he puts Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau , Kant and importantly in modern times John Rawls. The first part of the work is essentially a dissection and critique of Rawls' work `A Theory of ice'. For Sen this is the paradigm of this mode of thinking.
He contrasts this school of thought with those who challenge injustice in the here and now and only view justice as how it relates to the immediate. They adopt a comparative approach to realize justice in a real social setting not an ideal world. In this school he puts Wollstonecraft, Condorcet (an early French revolutionary thinker on social choice who I had never heard of) Adam Smith, Bentham, Mill and possibly controversially but I think correctly Marx.
This I would argue is a strength of the work as it illustrates that Marx's work contrary to sloppy capitalist critique was not about creating a far off utopian society but exploring the concrete reality of capitalism and the injustice it delivers. By putting Marx in this category Sen is certainly distinguishing himself from most other current academic writers.
Sen places himself in this latter camp and in particular cites Smith heavily, in particular his writings on Moral Philosophy which is another neglected aspect of intellectual work. He utilizes in particular his concept of the `impartial spectator' as a judge (in the broadest sense) of what is just.
One of the examples and scenarios (of which there are many good ones) which was lept on by book reviewers and shows like Start the Week is in the Introduction, may have been as far asthey read!, seeks to explore this. It concerns three children and a flute. All of the kids have a claim on the flue - only one of them made it, only one of them knows how to play it and one of them is so poor they have no other toy to play with. Who should get it?
Now Sen is not making the case for any one of the children, contrary to the impression some of the reviews of the work have given. Rather his point is that all of them have a valid claim to the flute. In a modern society justice needs to have a system of deciding which is the most "just". Democracy is necessary for this as Sen equates democracy with public discussion and discourse not simply voting.
The flute example is also used to contrast Rawls' work and indeed is part of the critique. Now Sen is effusive in his praise of Rawls, the book is dedicated to him (he died in 2002), he cites all the joint teaching work he did with him and makes high claims for Rawls relevance to modern political thought. This I think is a bit of overstatement and perhaps overcompensation for his work more or less takes the basis of Rawls' work apart.
Rawls ideal institutions are drawn up by participants in a society from behind a "veil of ignorance" that is no one knows what their role in a society would be so they can't act in their own subjective interests. Sen's justifiable gripe with this is that it assumes that there is one true model of justice that will emerge from this which all will accept. In contrast to the flute problem where it is seen that three kids can't agree on what is just.
Thus this basic flaw makes the whole Rawlsian project untenable although Sen feels it has validity in some other areas for example the pre-eminence of liberty. It is of little use in delivering actual justice because it aims for a higher ground which is actually irrelevant. A parallel I enjoyed was an artistic one! That is it is of little use to say the best painting ever madewas the Mona Lisa when you are comparing a Picasso and a Matisse and asked which is the best compared to the best painting ever made.
In producing an alternative to this Sen travels across the whole world of human thought - the nature of subjectivity, how humans make choices, the role of language, what sustainability actually means in the modern world . In truth it probably goes too far on tangential issues - I was a bit lost at the discussion of incompleteness in evaluative theory for example!
This feeds into the conclusion which is a study of democracy and Human Rights, although the easiest to read it seems the weakest in argument as it idealises to a large degree issues around the media. Sen argues this is central to democracy and hence justice but does not really explore the pressures and the capitalist domination of all traditional media outlets now which threaten democracy. It also is weak in its examination of current tensions with a slightly idealized version of the Indian state and the UN, both of which Sen has links with. In a sense Sen is dabbling in some transcendental wish fulfillment of his own - ignoring for example the general Maoist uprisings across the subcontinent for example which has its own vision of injustice.

Also because of its scope I found the conclusion a little unsatisfying. Essentially the idea of justice deals with the here and now and must be determined through public discourse with input from outside observers so our idea of justice is notparochial and does not cover up injustice which we in our society may accept. I guess this is enough without being prescriptive and indeed he want s to get away from idealized institutional prescription.
But a brilliant book in many ways - an excellent source of further reading, very well written and comprehensive. I think I will always have a well thumbed copy on shelf.
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on 12 August 2013
This is the first book by Amartya Sen I have read. I respect the guy hugely as an intellectual, but as an engaging writer not at all. I think you could sum up what he says in this book in 4 pages, and detail it enough in 40 pages - but he writes it in 400 pages. He rambles - a lot - gets caught up in minor technicalities and repeats himself over and over. On top of that, his writing is so full of Sahara-dry academic terms that you can read some sentences 20 or 25 times and still not get any meaning out of them. In his defence, it seems he knows personally most of the people whose theories he criticises, so, nice guy that he is, he treats them with kid gloves, first praising their work and then gently saying what's wrong with it.

This is a book by an academic for academics, not for interested lay readers. I think someone else will come along and write an accessible coverage of Sen's work which will be much more readable.

(Sorry for not covering the content of the book, but other reviewers have done that.)
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on 19 August 2009
Amartya Sen has one idea in this book. He claims that John Rawls' theory of justice relies on just institutions working with a social contract towards a transcendental (ie unachievable?) vision of a perfectly just society. Sen critiques this for ignoring real actual achievable outcomes, excluding wider interests and failing to address behaviour. He proposes instead that justice should operate by comparing actual outcomes through a process of `unrestricted'(page 44) public reasoning. He offers one example, of whether a flute should belong to a child who can play it, a child who has no other toys, or the child who made it (although he frequently but vaguely refers to meta-examples of slavery and women's rights).

Had he stated this single idea and single example clearly once and then proceeded to analyse each thoroughly we might have a more succinct book on justice. Instead the text is repetitive and long, and strays into vast themes with weak linkage to justice. Sen is ever keen to tell us who he knows - there are 9 pages of acknowledgements which include a vast panoply of the intellectual great and good. He frequently name drops his friendship and/or working relationship with everyone from Isaiah Berlin to W V Quine. There are long sections on welfare economics, rational decision making and happiness which are Sen's Nobel Prize specialisms but are of vague if any connectivity to his theme of justice. A long discourse on democracy conceived as `government by discussion' rather than mere votes and elections, suggests that since `no major famine has ever occurred in a functioning democracy' (page 342) then democracy implements Sen's concept of public reasoning and thereby is a `protective power' in the drive for Senian justice in society (as distinct from a Rawlsian transcendental `just society'). This argument is underdeveloped and extremely weak. Theoretically a benign dictator may offer greater justice than an indecisive corrupt or even evil democracy. Democracy is almost always twinned with a free market economy whose concerns for distributive justice Sen and others have long and properly challenged. Access to the `free press' Sen celebrates is extremely limited - the media is in fact a near total oligopoly. Power game play within and between political parties has perverted the democratic process and shifted it from any original value or justice focus. Bureaucracies rule supreme and unchallenged.

Even weaker is his reliance on public reasoning. He fails to show how this could possibly work in practice (his own recent presentation in Bristol UK was booked out and so many were excluded from participation). How is a myriad of `bottom up' detailed outcomes to be compared and judged? Sen might be right in that just institutions do not guarantee just outcomes. His conceptualisation of justice is more bottom up than top down and is more akin to linear programming by outcome comparisons than to top down differential calculus. This might be OK but he simply does not show how it could work - there is no Simplex algorithm. Even government by referenda would undoubtedly re-introduce capital punishment to the statute book which surprisingly Sen is reluctant to clearly oppose.

But more importantly he fails to show how reason and (public) reasoning necessarily promote just outcomes. He doesn't even try to establish this very necessary connection but just assumes it. The puzzle of the Enlightenment is that reason and reasonableness have no necessary link. Fascism has its own internal logic. Reason does not require or drive virtue. Ethics are arbitrary and justice is indefinable. His example of the flute somewhat proves this, although he fails to work this through as thoroughly as he works nuances of concepts of `capability' et al. The base hypothesis of justice would be that the child who has made the flute owns it. Providing that the producer child used her own materials and equipment (and Sen fails to make the crucial point that more detailed information is needed here and in every situational determination of justice), then on what possible basis can two other children who want the flute claim it from the child who made it? If the producer simply has to give the flute to another child then there are unlikely to be any more flutes made. Sen also omits any creative solutions such as sharing of the flute, training other children how to make flutes themselves etc and in this sense he is no Solomon. The book is unnecessarily long and disappointingly empty since in the end Sen's `Idea of Justice' fails to solve the one simple example he offers and leaves justice as an unresolved dilemma.
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on 11 November 2009
Having greatly enjoyed Mr Sen's lectures at university 25 years ago, I was disappointed by this. Maybe it's because I now consider myself a 'lay' reader out of practice with the extreme theoretical tone of many philosphical papers.

It would assist his view, with which I concur, that just outcomes are more likley after wide public scrutiny of ideas, if the book was more publicly accessible. He spends too long countering a wide variety of other philosophers' ideas, rather than in seeking to illustrate how the application of his own theories would lead to different actual practical recommendations.

He is rightly critical of approaches that rely on a perfect 'transcendental' idea of just institutions and says we need to focus on actual outcomes. To me the book is at its best when he uses real examples of dilemnas. How much more powerful would it be to set out examples of many more real ethical dilemnas and suggest how the recommendations he believes would emerge from his approaches would differ from competing theories of justice.

Overall, it comes across as a long theoretical discussion of topics related to justice rather than a coherent theory in its own right.
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on 24 December 2010
Sen seeks to develop an alternative theory of justice based on "comparative justice". An extremely poor book and quite disappointing in many respects. Sen is a brilliant economist, but philosopher he is certainly not. Not only does the book simply rehash his old material, but there's no proper grounding of justice. To be fair Sen's view is that we don't need to have a theory of justice, what we need is be able to compare existing or different conceptions of justice. But clearly if we have no grounding for justice, who is to say what we end up with is justice? The book is also poorly crafted! It is quite repetitive and Sen's thoughts appear scattered and incoherent.
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on 29 September 2009
I found this much-hyped book a great disappointment. It is mostly waffle. True, Sen's heart is in the right place, and he makes (or repeats) some valid criticisms of Rawls' theory of justice, and of Pareto-optimality as a standard of the right. But the book is very long (and repetitive) and contains insufficient substance to fill more than a fraction of its pages. By and large the intellectual pressure is pretty low.
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on 29 November 2009
This book is disappointly: too discursive, repetitive and long - the critique of Rawls could have been put succinctly in 5 to 10 pages. Rawls may be important but there are many other thinkers on Justice. It is also irritatingly self-absorbed - even for a Nobel prize winner there are too many references only or largely to Sen's own work.
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on 17 September 2010
Yes it is quite repetitive, Sen really wants you to actually understand his ideas, so repeats his key messages quite a lot. Perhaps too often. But I'll forgive this as it convincingly demolishes some of the standard ideas in political philosophy. There is a nice irony in an Economist (an academic field largely filled with irrelevant work) showing that political philosophy is an academic field largely filled with irrelevant work.

Sen's Idea of Justice, isn't so much a concept of Justice, but a framework in which to think about justice. One should reject any form of transcendental institutionalism (we just need to figure out what the perfect institutions are) and instead urges us to ask "how do we change society for the better?" He doesn't so much propose an answer to this question, but that this should be the question we ask (and respond to from varying perspectives).

We will often have multiple conflicting objectives but perhaps in practice this isn't a problem, after there are many banal decisions we make everyday which have multiple objectives (cost/time/hunger/thirst/...). An important book, one of the best I've read in a long time.
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on 6 March 2015
Some interesting and important points made here, I found a pleasing contrast by also reading 'Freedom from the Known' by Jiddu Krishnamurti.
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on 9 September 2011
'I believe that Amartya Sen's The Idea of Justice is the most important contribution to the subject since John Rawls' A Theory of Justice' - Hilary Putnam.

I have to agree with Putnam, this is a remarkable work which engages with over two-millenia of philosophical and political thought. In the end, Sen doesn't posit his own idea of what perfect justice would look like (as so many have), but rather what we should look for when pursuing the idea of justice.

The book is a response to the intellectual currents unleashed by thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke and Rawls who believe a perfectly just society can be created through a social contract. By contrast, Sen is not looking to understand perfect justice through a hypothetical thought-experiment. He is, however, in the tradition of thinkers such as Marx, Wollstonecraft and Mill, looking to make the world more just, working with what we already have.

Simple as it seems, Sen is the most formidable thinker to argue against Rawls' methodology and conclusions in order to make the world more, not perfectly, just. He argues that global justice can be better achieved through a shift in focus. First, we need to devote more attention to carefully scrutinising, examining and debating courses of action so that we are better equipped to remove injustices. Public reason, looking to hear voices from outside one's own constituency and generally broadening the information base from which we form decisions, all must be allied to efforts to further justice.

Second, we need to expand on the substantive pathways to achieve justice by incorporating the insights reason provides. Most importantly, this includes the importance of democracy and focussing on enhancing the capabilities which individuals are able to enjoy.

On these two legs, much more is discussed to develop a comprehesive and persuasive system of thought for considering justice.

In addition, this book is wonderful to read not only for the quality of argument but also for quality of writing, weaved and threaded through with vivid literary references, wit and humanity.

Some of the reviewers who provide 2*s have two qualms with the book. First they dsagree with Sen's argument. Well thats the point of disagree! Second, they find him too deep academically for a lay audeince. I should say that this is a book at which you can't enjoy without, at least, elementary knowledge of key political philosophers. But once you cross this threshold, the book will certainly stimulate you.
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