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Thoughts on Sen's Idea of Justice
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.