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Customer Review

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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