acerca del libro La Idea de Justicia, del nobel de Economía Amartya Sen

The Idea of Justice
Amartya Sen , Joanne J. Myers

October 2, 2009

The Idea of Justice
Questions and Answers


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I’m Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I’d like to thank you for joining us.

Our speaker is the 1998 Nobel Laureate in Economics. Professor Sen is considered to be one of the greatest thinkers of our era, and ranks among the very few contemporary intellectuals who has been able to bridge the world of ideas with the world of policy. His arguments have influenced not just academics, but the actions of government and global institutions, such as the World Bank.

Today, when he discusses his most recent book, The Idea of Justice, he will be asking us to consider whether social justice is an ideal beyond our grasp or one of the many practical decisions that could enhance our lives.

The quest for justice, whether political, social, or economic, has fired imaginations for a very long time. Even before the great American and French revolutions at the end of the 18th century, philosophers were contemplating the meaning of justice. Yet today justice is still a fugitive ideal, often seen only in terms of custom and tradition; or as inequalities, something we can choose to concern ourselves about or not bother with at all.

In The Idea of Justice Professor Sen considers two competing approaches to justice. For him justice is not a monolithic ideal, but a pluralistic notion with many dimensions. Although he draws on lines of reasoning that received particular scrutiny during the European Enlightenment, one of the more interesting features of this book is the extensive use of ideas gathered from non-Western societies, particularly from Indian intellectual history and elsewhere.

In this study our speaker challenges John Rawls’ theory of justice and questions the long-range search for perfectly just institution and rule. He does this insomuch as he believes societies will never be able to agree on a perfect set of arrangements and rules, as just institutions do not ensure social justice or a just society.

The alternative vision of justice that Professor Sen favors and writes about is a comparative one, which examines what kinds of lives people can actually lead, rather than one of absolutes. He talks about the capability of an individual to choose to use or not use resources at hand to achieve what he has reason to value. To this end he talks about specific issues, such as chronic malnutrition and ill health, which must be analyzed in terms of justice, for having good social outcomes is ultimately what matters.

In exploring what justice means, Professor Sen has given us a sense of history and a global perspective, as he teaches us that the prevention of great injustice can be more important than the pursuit of perfect justice.

The Idea of Justice is profound, formidably argued, thought provoking, and I dare say even challenging.

As Professor Sen invites us to have an open debate about values and principles, it is my privilege to invite you to join me in welcoming him to our program today, our very distinguished guest, Amartya Sen, who was a master of Trinity College and is now back at Harvard as Lamont Professor.

Thank you very much.

AMARTYA SEN: It is always an absolute delight for me to be back here at the Carnegie Council. I am very grateful to Joanne for being so kind and so welcoming. It’s very nice to meet some old friends, familiar faces, and some new ones—Joel [Rosenthal] and other old friends, but a lot of new ones too. I am very grateful.

I am not going to go into the distinctions in the Indian epistemic and ethical literature so much, and will concentrate more on the European Enlightenment, but I will be very happy to go into those issues, which are discussed in the book, if it were to come up.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, the great philosopher, wrote in the preface to his first major book in philosophy, Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, published in 1921: “What can be said at all can be said clearly, and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.”

Wittgenstein would reexamine this austere view on speech in his later work. But it is really wonderful that, even as he was writing the Tractatus, the great philosopher was marvelously inconsistent and did not always follow his own exacting commandments.

In a remarkably enigmatic letter to Paul Engelmann, written in 1917, Wittgenstein said: “I work quite diligently and wish that I were better and smarter, and those both are one and the same.” Really, one and the same thing, being a better person and a smarter guy? I couldn’t help asking, “Who is Wittgenstein kidding?”

I am, of course, aware that modern American usage has drowned the distinction between being good as a moral quality, and being well as a comment on a person’s health—no aches and pains, fine blood pressure, and such—and I have long ceased worrying about the apparent immodesty of those of my friends who, when asked about how they are, reply with manifest self-praise, “I am very good.”

But Wittgenstein was not American, and 1917 was well before the conquest of the world by vibrant American usage. So what was this pronouncement about?

Underlying Wittgenstein’s claim may be the recognition in some form that many acts of nastiness are committed by people who are deluded in one way or another on the subject. It has been argued that some children carry out odd acts of brutality to others, other children or animals, precisely because of their inability to appreciate and understand adequately the nature and intensity of the pains of others. There is, perhaps, a strong connection between being antisocial and the inability to think clearly.

We cannot, of course, be really sure about what Wittgenstein meant. But if that is what Wittgenstein meant, he was in the powerful tradition of the European Enlightenment that saw clearheaded reasoning as the major ally of making societies decent and acceptable.

The leaders of thought in the Enlightenment did not, however, speak in one voice. In fact, there is a substantial dichotomy, which has not received sufficient attention, between two different lines of reasoning about justice, that can be seen among two groups of leading philosophers associated with the radical thought of the Enlightenment period.

One approach concentrated on identifying perfectly just social arrangements and took the characterization of “just” institutions to be the principal, and often the only, identified task of the theory of justice. This way of seeing justice is woven in different ways around the idea of a hypothetical “social contract,” a hypothetical contract that the populations of a sovereign state are supposed to be party to.

Major contributions were made in this line of thinking, first by Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century, and later by John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant, among others.

The contractarian approach has become the dominant influence in contemporary political philosophy, led by the most prominent political philosopher of our time, John Rawls, whose classic book, A Theory of Justice, published in 1971, presented a definitive statement on the social contract approach to justice.

The principal theories of justice in contemporary political philosophy—not just Rawls, also other friends of mine, Ronald Dworkin, Robert Nozick, David Gauthier, and many others I can think of—draw in one way or another on the social contract approach and concentrate on the search for ideal social institutions.

In contrast, a number of other Enlightenment theorists—Adam Smith, Marquis de Condorcet, Mary Wollstonecraft, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, for example, taking the Enlightenment to go into the 19th century too—took a variety of approaches that shared a common interest in making comparisons between different ways in which people’s lives may go, jointly influenced by the working of institutions and people’s actual behavior and their social interaction and other factors that significantly impact on what actually happens.

The analytical—and rather mathematical—discipline of “social choice theory,” which has been actually my primary field of technical economic engagement, a theory which can be traced to the works of Condorcet in the 18th century, around the 1780s, but which has been developed in their present form under the leadership of Kenneth Arrow in the last century, belongs to this second line of investigation, in which I must admit I have been very involved. That approach, suitably adapted, can make a substantial contribution, I argue in this book, The Idea of Justice, to addressing questions about the enhancement of justice and the removal of injustice in the world today.

In this alternative approach we don’t begin by asking what would a perfectly just society look like but asking, what remedial injustices could be seen on the removal of which there could be a reasoned agreement.

One of the limitations of the social-contract approach to justice—and there are many such limitations, but one of them—is the unjustified conviction that there could only be one precise combination of principles which forms the contract and, despite the implausibility of this assumption, this is needed for the social-contract approach to justice because it takes on the job of identifying uniquely a combination of ideal social institutions based on those principles.

In contrast with this rigid insistence in most contemporary theories of justice, the alternative of the social choice approach allows the possibility of a plurality of competing principles, each of which is given a status, after subjecting them all to critical examination. It is, of course, important—and I emphasize that point—to scrutinize critically all principles that are presented for our attention. Some principles may indeed get rejected after a searching probe, but more than one competing principle may actually survive on the basis of their reasoned justification.

For example, in my book I discuss a case in which three children compete for a flute—one demanding it on the ground that she alone can play the flute (the others had no clue how to play properly), another on the ground that she has no other toys to play with (while others are well supplied with amenities), and the third on the basis of the fact, which others don’t dispute, that she had actually made the flute with her own labor. None of the claims are immediately dismissible, and a just arbritration has to weigh the claims of all these competing grounds. No mechanical priority of one ground, one principle, over the others may be convincing, and sometimes even at the end of the debate an element of arbitrariness may be left in the decision process.

Thanks to this plurality of surviving principles, we may not be able to resolve on grounds of justice alone all the questions about public policy that may be asked, for example, whether a 40 percent top tax rate is more just—or less just—than a 41 percent top rate. And yet, we have every reason to try to see whether we can get reasoned agreement on removing what can be identified as clear injustice in the world, such as slavery or the subjugation of women; or extreme exploitation of vulnerable labor, which so engaged Adam Smith, Condorcet, Mary Wollstonecraft, and later John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx; or gross medical neglect of the bulk of the population today through the absence of medical facilities in parts of Africa or Asia, or the lack of universal health coverage in most countries in the world, including, alas, the United States of America; or the prevalence of torture, which continues to be used with remarkable frequency in the contemporary world, sometimes practiced by the pillars of the global establishment; or the quiet tolerance of chronic hunger, for example in India, despite the successful abolition of famine.

I have so far been discussing the subject matter of public deliberation and justice. There is also an important question about participation. Whose voices should count in interacting public discourse on the demands of justice?

In the social contract tradition, the views that must receive attention, and only those, have to come from those who can be seen as parties to the social contract. Given the country-by-country and nation-by-nation structure of social contract, powerfully identified by Thomas Hobbes and pursued in mainstream contemporary political philosophy, the contractarian tradition tends to confine the discussion to members of a country or a polity or a state, in particular the citizens of each country who are engaged in deciding on the ideal institutions and corresponding values for that particular sovereign state. The need for impartiality in the treatment of different citizens within the country is accepted and celebrated, but there is no secure place in this formulation of deliberations of justice to go beyond the citizens of a particular state. This is called “closed impartiality,” as I do in my book, where impartial consideration is confined and closed to the citizens only.

We can contrast this with Adam Smith’s powerful insistence in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, but also in The Wealth of Nations and his Lectures on Jurisprudence, on the necessity to pay attention to the views of people from far as well as near. This can be called “open impartiality.”

I should perhaps mention here that Penguin Books is publishing a 250th-year edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which I wrote a long introduction. This should come out, I think, in November. We will discuss that. The book was published in 1759. I argue why it remains immensely contemporary.

Smith saw that impartial consideration, which must be essential for justice, must demand going beyond the boundaries of each state.

There are two principal grounds for requiring that the encounter of public reasoning about justice should go beyond boundaries of a state or a region: (1) the relevance of other people’s interests which may be affected by our actions, by what we do; and (2) the pertinence of other people’s perspectives, their understanding, to broaden our own investigation of relevant principles, for the sake of avoiding our own parochialism based on the values and presumptions in the local community.

The first ground, related to the interdependence of interest, motivated Adam Smith to chastise the injustice of early British rule in India in the 18th century, describing the East India Company as being altogether unfit to govern its territory. In today’s interdependent world, it is easy to appreciate the need to consider the interdependence of interests, whether we consider the challenges posed by terrorism or by global warming or by the world economic crisis that we are currently experiencing. Confining our attention to national interest only cannot be the basis of understanding the demands of justice. Also, AIDS and other epidemics move from country to country and from continent to continent. And, on the other side, the medicines developed and produced in some parts of the world are extremely important for the lives and freedom of people far away if they can afford to buy these medicines.

In addition to the global features of interdependent interest, there is a second ground I must emphasize, that of avoidance of the trap of parochialism to which Smith referred. This is accepting the necessity of taking an open approach to examining the demands of impartiality.

If the discussion of the demand for justice is confined to a particular locality—a country, or even a larger region than that—there is a possible danger of ignoring or neglecting many challenging counterexamples that might not have come up in local political debates or been accommodated in the discourses confined to the local culture but which are eminently worth considering in an impartial perspective.

Smith was particularly concerned about avoiding the grip of parochialism in jurisprudence and in moral and political reasoning. In the chapter properly entitled, “On the Influence of Custom and Fashion upon the Sentiment of Moral Approbation and Disapprobation” in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith gives various examples of how discussions confined within a given society can be fatally limited by parochial understanding.

I quote from Adam Smith, and it’s a longish quote:

….the murder of new-born infants, was a practice allowed of in almost all the states of Greece, even among the polite and civilized Athenians. . . . Uninterrupted custom had by this time so thoroughly authorized the practice, that not only the loose maxims of the world tolerated this barbarous prerogative, but even the doctrine of philosophers, which ought to have been more just and accurate, was led away by the established custom, and upon this, as upon many other occasions, instead of censuring, supported the horrible abuse, by far-fetched considerations of public utility. Aristotle talks of it as of what the magistrate ought upon many occasions to encourage…. The humane Plato is of the same opinion, and, with all that love of mankind which seems to animate all his writings, no where marks this practice with disapprobation.
While Smith’s example of infanticide remains sadly contemporary even today, though only in a few countries, in a few societies, some of his other concerns have relevance to many other contemporary societies as well. For example, it applies to Smith’s general insistence: “The eyes of the rest of mankind must be invoked to understand whether a punishment appears equitable.”

Scrutiny from a “distance” may be useful for practices as different as the stoning of adulterous women in Taliban Afghanistan; selective abortion of female fetuses in China, Korea, and parts of India; and plentiful use of capital punishment in China, or for that matter the United States, which by the way is the fourth country in terms of frequency of capital punishment, following China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

The relevance of distant perspectives has a clear bearing on some current debates in the United States; for example, that in the U.S. Supreme Court not long ago on the appropriateness of death sentence for crimes committed by a person in his juvenile years, whether such a person could be executed for a crime committed when you were a minor, but the moment you become major, whether you could be executed then.

The demands of justice being seen to be done, even in a country like the United States, cannot entirely neglect the understanding that may be generated by asking questions about how the problem is assessed in other countries in the world, all the way from Europe and Brazil to India and Japan.

The majority judgment of the U.S. Supreme Court, as it happened at that time, ruled by a 5-4 majority against the use of death sentence for a crime that was committed in juvenile years, even though the execution occurs after the person reaches adulthood—though the judgment would almost certainly have been different today, as we know from the newly elected, when I was writing the book, Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion on the subject, who made it absolutely clear that American judges should not be influenced by judgments and legal debates occurring elsewhere.

In denying the appropriateness of capital punishment in this case, the majority of the Supreme Court did not simply—I quote from Justice Scalia, who wrote a then-minority report—they did not simply “defer to like-minded foreigners.”

Scrutiny from “a distance” can be very useful for reasons that Adam Smith analyzed in order to arrive at grounded but non-parochial justice, taking note of questions and arguments that consideration of non-local perspectives can help to focus on.

It is important, however, to recognize that to listen to distant voices, which is part of Adam Smith’s exercise of invoking the “impartial spectator” in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, does not require us to be respectful of every argument that may come from abroad. That would be absurd. We may reject a great many of the proposed arguments, sometimes even all of them, and yet there would remain particular cases of reasoning that could make us reconsider our own understandings and views linked with the experiences and conventions entrenched in a given country or culture.

The interdependence of reasoning is part of the ground on which Martin Luther King Jr. said in “The Letter from Birmingham Jail” in April 1963: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Acts of public agitation, news commentary, open discussion, are among the ways in which global democracy can be pursued, even without waiting for the global state. The challenge today is the strengthening of this already-functioning participatory process on which the pursuit of global justice will, I argue, to a great extent depend. It is not a negligible cause, nor, I would argue, is it beyond our reach.

Thank you.
Questions and Answers

QUESTION: I have two questions, if you will allow.

One is in international law there is the concept of jus ad bellum and just war. That, of course, is a very, very old concept. How would you talk about this in the 21st century? Some people will argue that with the current methods of warfare there is no more just war possible. And of course, the opposite point has also been made in several contexts.

My second question is: In the case of criminal justice, how would you see in a way the balance, because of course one dimension is the very strict application of rules that are laid down in legislation and in laws, and another dimension is the public perception that justice is done. I was born in Switzerland, in Zurich, where Roman Polanski was arrested last weekend. I think that the debate that is going on there is along those lines. What is justice in his particular case?

AMARTYA SEN: Difficult questions.

Let me give a general concept first. I think in each of these cases—for example, whether there is such a thing of just war—the approach I am trying to suggest is not whether in fact you accept certain things as just war and certain other things as not, but to say that if it is to be determined, it has to be determined on the basis of a reasoning as to whether it has reason enough to be counted to be a war that is just. Whether there will be any such war, given the nature of technology today, remains an open question. My guess would be probably not.

On the other hand, I am not closing this. It is not a public pronouncement book; it is a method book, to say there is something to discuss.

But it is not just today. One of the examples which I do discuss, a clearly just war, a long time ago, in the Indian epic Mahabharata, where a kingdom had been wrongly usurped by cousins who were quite naughty, and the just, those who can rightly rule the kingdom, the Pandavas, were trying to regain it. Arjun is the great warrior, the third brother, who would actually lead the forces, ready to fight and defeat the army on the other side. It was clearly a just war. The document called Bhagavad Gita is about that. Arjun says, “Is this right for me? Is this really a just war? Because, after all, it’s true that they shouldn’t have the kingdom, it’s true we will win the war, it’s true we will have the better rule; but how many people would actually die in this? Is it worth doing it? [inaudible]—this is a document from about 3rd century B.C.—and is this really just? Now, Krishna argues against, saying that you ought to do your duty. And as far as the religious document goes, it ends with Arjun saying that he accepts Krishna’s argument, he would fight. He fights, wins, and the war is over.

On the other hand, if you look at the first part of the Gita—that is not part of the Mahabharata, it’s a little bit of a very big epic, seven times the size of the Iliad and Odyssey put together—you find that there are strong arguments given by Arjun which are not fully rebutted by Krishna, as to why there is no such thing as a just war which involves a lot of killing, and your point is an extension of that.

And Mahabharata itself remains ambiguous, even the last scene. The right side has won, but there is a sense of pathos everywhere and as the brothers walk through the Indo-European valley they notice funeral pyres burning everywhere, women weeping for the men who have died in the battle, the bloody war. It doesn’t end in a sense of triumph. It ends in a sense of profound confusion. So that it’s not clear, even though from the religious point of view people have tended to say, including Mahatma Gandhi, that Krishna was completely the victim.

But it isn’t clear that, in terms of argument, that argument is actually closed. I’m not saying that Arjun shouldn’t have fought the war, but I am saying that the argument that you are presenting, of technology and brutality and death, is an extension. It remained valid then and it remains extremely valid now.

Now, whether at the end of it you come to the conclusion there is no such thing as just war, whether what is being waged in Afghanistan could be called a just war, given the likely consequence of what will happen if suddenly the war is ended and the Taliban comes back in power in Afghanistan, is a complex question.

But these arguments matter. That is what I am trying to argue. And it has to be global reasoning—not the coalition of the willing, but a general public discussion. As you know, many countries in Europe were opposed, many other countries in Asia and Africa were opposed, and there was something to discuss, which was not discussed in this form. This was a declaratory war. That is what I am arguing against.

The second thing, on the criminal justice system, I think there are two things: One is whether the rules are just; and the other is what the perception of justice is in the population.

Now, Switzerland, of course, the perception of justice is very strong. I remember being very frustrated when I was trying to go to a restaurant rather late and the only place I could park my rented car had “no parking” in it. As I often do in England and in America, I thought I would leave it and pay the fine. But then as I was getting out somebody came and told me, “No, no, this is no parking.” So I said, “I am parking.” He said, “No, you don’t understand, it’s no parking.” I said, “I’ll pay the fine.” He said, “No, no, but it’s no parking, no parking.”

So I think the perception of rule is very strong in Switzerland, which is a very positive thing. In this particular case, it had some negative things. I was hopelessly late to my dinner. I would much have preferred to have paid my $125, or whatever it is I would have been charged. But it didn’t happen.

So I think we have to look at the perception of rules as well as the acceptability of the rules, and the same method, the argumentative method, in dealing with this issue.

QUESTION: Professor Sen, that was tremendously enlightening. I thought the distinction that you made between these two different lines of Enlightenment thinking was really illuminating. But of course, one of the appeals of the first line is that they provide you with a kind of machine for moral reasoning. So you take the categorical imperative or you take the veil of ignorance and you apply it to welfare reform and you have an answer.

So when you talked about the things that we can say are obviously unjust, from slavery to some people not having healthcare, given that you said these machines are much too blunt instruments, what is the means whereby you can come to the conclusion that these obviously morally unacceptable things are in fact obviously morally unacceptable?

AMARTYA SEN: A very good question.

I think what is interesting about the categorical imperative—as I discuss in my introduction to The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith was discussing that about 20 years earlier than Kant. In fact, Kant refers to Smith’s work in his book on anthropology as well as in letters. One of them is to Markus Herz, about ten years before Kant wrote The Critique. Herz wrote to him, saying, “This guy, this Englishman Smith,” as he described this proud Scotsman, “whose work you admire so much, et cetera.”

This is really the argument about the impartial spectator. What happens in the case of Kant, he then uses this device, but uses it with a sophistication that is breathtaking, but then arrives at a strong conclusion, like the way people have tended to do in philosophy earlier, like Aristotle—there are different kinds of life and there is a gradation; the life of contemplation is the highest, and then the others.

Whereas Smith ends in each of these cases with there is something to discuss, something to argue about in these cases: “I am quite convinced, sitting in Kirkcaldy, on the shore of the North Sea in Scotland, of this, but is this the way it would look to the Chinese, to the Indians, and to the Africans, et cetera?” Adam Smith was actually one of the persons who took a great interest in Africa, which people often forget. I have something on that in the book.

I think what he is arguing there is that you would not really expect to get a complete agreement on these things, but—and this is the point—you will get agreement on many of these issues which are extremely important to us, like abolition of slavery, like the tremendous neglect of the education of the working classes. He was very concerned about that.

People often forget that Smith was—his science was extraordinary. He took the view, which was completely naïve, of course, that there is no difference between one human being and another; everything is due to nurture, 100 percent nurture. Whether or not that is correct, what he was certainly right in is that nurture makes a big difference, which is really the point.

So he said there are huge things to be agreed on on these subjects, but despite the fact that we have many different arguments to present, we will have such arguments. Now, he was not a mathematician. What he was dealing with is what in social choice theory we call a partial ordering. You will agree on a partial ordering, not on a complete ordering.

Now, Kant and Locke and Rawls, and Dworkin today and Nozick, they all have complete ordering, and Smith does not. So that’s the point.

So I think, yes indeed, the blunt device of categorical imperative, ignoring all argument, will deliver those things. But you don’t need such a blunt instrument. Even with a finer instrument, you will be able to agree on some things, and those things on which you cannot agree you have to leave behind because there is not yet any agreement on that. That is roughly the position that Smith took and it is roughly the position that I believe is correct.

QUESTION: I jotted down the phrase you just offered about global reasoning and general public discourse and your assumption that that would lead to a positive outcome, sort of what the previous questioner just raised with you. Could you explain further what you mean by global reasoning? Is this some institution that you expect to have come into the world or some institutions that exist now? How is this to proceed? That’s my broad question to you.

AMARTYA SEN: It’s a very good question, too.

I think if you are looking for the institution to be set up first and then public discussion to take place, I don’t think we will get anywhere. I think there is a kind of interdependence between them. Institutions come into being on the basis of public discussion, and then sometimes public discussions are useful even without the institution.

Let me give you an example. The Human Rights Commissions of India and South Africa, which carry a lot of the public discussion—they were, for example, at the lead of indicting the Hindu extremists in Gujarat. The Human Rights Commission played a big part. They are recognized legally in India. They are legal bodies.

In Pakistan there is a Human Rights Commission which is just an NGO. So institutionally it is not there yet. And yet, because of the fact that they can skillfully use public discourse, they could make a huge impact on public policy. And indeed, it has played a big role under the really visionary leadership of Asma Jahangir and Raman. It played that part.

One of the latest examples was that it is through them that some person in Swat Valley, when under the Taliban, this young woman was being caned for having done something that went against the Shariah, he managed very courageously to videotape it while pretending to make a telephone call. This is where modern technology came into it—not an institution, but the technology. It’s only when that was put on the Pakistani television, GEO first and then all the others, and the Pakistani newspapers, that this sudden groundswell of opinion happened, which ultimately made the military move against the Taliban and against the conflict in Swat Valley.

So that happened through what I would describe as public reasoning—namely, presenting facts and argument to the public in a situation where the institution is utterly underdeveloped. There is no protection. Actually, my friend Asma Jahangir is under a death sentence from the Taliban, that anyone who kills her will be blessed.

So in this enormously courageous way people carry on dialogue. I am not looking for—you know, obviously it would be good to have a better system, and I prefer the Indian system whereby the Human Rights Commission can move even the Supreme Court. On the other hand, even if it doesn’t exist, it is not a question of saying, “We are not there, give up.” I mean in every situation, we try to do what we can to make a change.

And similarly in Iran, I think if you take the approach that I am doing, that the big way of thinking about how things might change in Iran would be to see how you could bring out the dissent that is already expressing itself in a bigger way, engaging that. And then there is always the fact that any intervention, even though American, has a dual effect: on one side it might frighten the government; on the other side it strengthens them by making the protestors look like American stooges.

So I think one has to look at all that picture and give public reasoning the recognition that is needed both in foreign policy as well as in our day-to-day activity.

When you talk with some of these people, when I used to be with Oxfam—I didn’t do very much for them; actually they still say I am with them but I am not; I was for three years—I was really impressed by the way people in very adverse circumstances courageously were continuing.

When the American forces went into Afghanistan, we had 18 people of Oxfam operating within Afghanistan, at great risk to themselves. I remember the next morning—I am very active in the Nuclear Threat Initiative set up by Sam Nunn; it’s a big group now, but he is the president of it—I remember being very impressed. Normally, I just listen to what Lugar or Sam Nunn has to say. But there was one occasion when suddenly I had more information because there were 18 of our kids in Afghanistan. I just had a morning call. I remember telling Ted Turner, who is actually the financer of that organization, “I know something which none of you know. Why? Because I happen to be connected with an NGO that’s active and playing a hugely important role.”

So that’s the way, the amorphous way, in which public reasoning takes place across the world.

QUESTION: My question is about means and ends. It seems to me the conversation, both globally and in countries like this, is often about means. Globally we talk about aid or free markets to end poverty. Here in America we talk about the role of government or insurance to deal with healthcare. This emphasis seems to de-emphasize ends—namely, the necessity of just outcomes, the necessity of the quality, the necessity of dealing with poverty.

First of all, do you agree with that observation? Secondly, how do we promote an emphasis on ends, on the moral necessity of justice, and indeed the practical necessity of justice, because inequality and unjust outcomes in all kinds of political and economic ways promote instability?

AMARTYA SEN: Well, first of all, I agree very much that the focus on ends—not just in terms of health outcomes, but also the health freedom, namely whether you have the freedom to go and seek medical help when you need it; you’re not obliged to seek it, but you have the freedom to do it. If you take freedom as the central concept of what capabilities you have, then you would like to look at how does the world work, what happens in the world, and what happens in the world are exactly the things that you want to emphasize and judge.

I would add to it the fact that the public discourse also sometimes misses out means in a big way. I mean of course here, as you know, the debate, the vilification of the European system, describing it as that no one has any choice of doctors, et cetera, was of course completely mistaken. But that is mistaken at a very simple level.

But at a more sophisticated level I think the American public discussion on healthcare has suffered far too much—I did try to write something in the New York Review of Books on that [see Capitalism Beyond the Crisis (March 2009)and Health Care, Elsewhere: An Exchange (July 2009)]—by concentrating on Canada rather than Europe, because the big difference is that in Canada you cannot have private insurance for other than some very limited purpose—dentistry, optometry, prescription medicines, and a private room—that’s it.

Whereas in Europe you can buy private insurance. Now, you may debate whether it is good that people with money could buy private insurance. That is something to be discussed. On the other hand, (a) I don’t think any system is going to be acceptable in America unless you allow that option; and (b) there is an ethical issue. If a rich person is absolutely free to spend his or her money in buying a yacht and going to Acapulco and blowing the entire world with expenditure, why is it that a person can’t buy insurance which covers him for optional surgery and so on?

So, bearing all that in mind, the natural thing would have been to look for a European alternative, which—the debate seems to always miss it—which is not the case. It is single payer, but it doesn’t exclude private insurance. Everyone has the right to go and have that insurance, which has that feature, and at the same time you could buy private insurance. Many of the universities and many of the employers do it. I have private insurance, in fact, despite the fact that I am also entitled to the National Health Service.

There is no contradiction in that. There may be a general contradiction as to whether the rich should have a great advantage. We could have a debate on that. But I think this is just the kind of Smith territory—you may not agree on that, but you could agree on everyone being covered by a system like the National Health Service, which gives everyone entitlement. Whether on top of that you allow, like in Britain, private insurance or, like in Canada, no such private insurance except for optometry and dentistry, that is a further debate. But we need not resolve that debate in order to outline the importance of having healthcare guaranteed for all that you are referring to.

I’m glad you asked the question because I have been very frustrated by the way the public debate has gone. When I wrote the New York Review piece, the attacks came mostly from people who are so besotted with the Canadian system. A couple of my Canadian friends in Toronto wrote to me, “Are you turning anti-Canadian?” My point is that there is something that is not quite acceptable.

By the way, in Canada too it would be a very different situation if the United States went like Canada, because the options that are open—Canadians can buy American insurance, Blue Cross and so on, if they want to—those options will go.

So there are a whole lot of things to discuss. But that doesn’t cloud the point that you were making, that ends are extremely important to discuss. But then again, we need also clarity and more information on the means.

QUESTION: You have mentioned and you cited the U.S. Supreme Court in your excellent remarks. I wonder if you think that the general system of high courts is a model that comes close to your ideal of a social contract, this ultimate dispenser of justice. For example, we have a court that is thoroughly governed by legal and constitutional mandates, it would seem. The British, on the other hand, not having had a constitution, have no high court other than the Lords of Justice.

AMARTYA SEN: But they are setting up one now.

QUESTIONER: They seem to get along rather well with their Crown judges. How has this general system of high courts, that model, in your view carried out justice?

AMARTYA SEN: I believe—this is just my personal view—that I think having a high court like the Supreme Court serves a purpose which the United Kingdom does miss out on.

It occurred to me, for example, many years ago actually, a friend of mine, a colleague at All Souls College, Lord Wilberforce, gave a big judgment that if the immigration officer thinks or suspects that you have been trying to illegally enter the country, he can on the basis of that suspicion detain you, and then you will be taken to the remand center, and you cannot move a court, because, although you are on British soil you have not been admitted, and therefore you cannot move British law to protest against this. So you could be held, incarcerated.

This was ultimately changed. But for two or three years the Wilberforce ruling—actually his ancestor did a lot to free the slaves, but his own position was rather conservative on this kind of issue. It seems to me that it’s a subject, that if it had been the United States, could have moved the court. Anyone could say that there is a Supreme Court in this country. If a guy is here, it would be for the Supreme Court to decide can we hear this.

But I think the United Kingdom recognized this. You have probably been reading about this in the papers. They have been setting up something rather similar. We have to see how it goes. So there are these methods.

But the other point to note is that the Supreme Court alone is never going to do it, as this example indicates. The Supreme Court has to listen to the argument that is going on.

On the point that Scalia made and Roberts made and Thomas made, namely that there is no argument for listening to foreigners, that is not the position of the American public. That was not the position of Jefferson. He was ready to listen to many of the Enlightenment figures. The American public has been willing to listen to foreigners from Jesus Christ to Edmund Burke, again and again, without saying, “They’re foreigners; they have nothing to offer in this case.”

So I think as long as we don’t regard the Supreme Court to be just supreme but as a part of the discourse, then I think we are moving into the Smithean direction I would like to push them in. That is what I would suggest.

I think it is a better structure. Personally I think it can focus argument. I think the Europeans have come to accept that now.

But on the other hand, it’s not alone. The institutions never will deliver you. You have to bring in the behavioral features, and that’s why The Moral Sentiments of Smith is so concerned with behavior, not just institutions. It’s a dual feature.

That, by the one, is one of the parting of ways between Kant and Smith, that behavior remains extremely important. Whereas ultimately Kant says it’s quite clear that you have these categorical imperatives you must follow, institutions aside—if everyone is following categorical imperatives, what will be the best institution?—Smith argues that is not the right question. A lot of people want it. What kind of institution do you need here and now, taking into account the variety of people and their precommitments?

QUESTION: How would you apply your approach to current issues of global governance, both in terms of institutions and processes, for example, to the greater voice of developing countries in various institutions like the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO, and so forth, or the arguments about greater policy space for developing countries in designing their economic, particularly macroeconomic, policies?

AMARTYA SEN: I think one of the gentlemen raised the issue of what the ends are. The end is to have a much more open public discussion. But you are not going to get it everywhere.

Along with Camdessus and others, I was one of the members of the IMF Governance Reform Committee, chaired by Trevor Manuel.

We did ask for a better representation. But it wouldn’t be a representation of all countries, but rather those countries which are IMF-wise quite important. Similarly, I welcomed the move from G-8 to G-20. These are moves in the right direction. If I was a person only looking for perfect justice, then that is not there yet. But I think one has to welcome the changes going in that direction.

But then again, you have to also emphasize that is not there. For example, take G-20. It gives a much bigger voice to China, to India, to Brazil, to South Africa. But when the Doha Round was busted a little over a year ago, a year and a half ago, that was really driven by the interests of India and China. They did not want that basically. I’m sorry. Forgive me, Ambassador. I’m a very loyal Indian citizen.

I think the African countries had achieved something in that deal, if it had gone through. I think it is to the disgrace of the United States and Europe that they were not accepting the demands that were being made by the Chinese and the Indians and Brazilians. But nevertheless, I think by busting it, what these more powerful, more dynamic developing countries did has not served the interests of the less dynamic, in many ways more stuck-in-the-mud, poorer countries in Africa.

So I think one has to bear that in mind. Ultimately, whether we go to a G-100 or G-200 is not the question. The question is how can those voices come in. That is the way I would tend to look at global governance.

The wrong way to look at it, as of course is often seen even among philosophical colleagues whom I respect, is how to have a global government involving all the social contacts of the world. I think that is absolutely getting us nowhere whatsoever.

It’s a question of how we can change the institutional structure. IMF will be harder to bend than the UN. The World Bank may be somewhere coming in between. So it’s a question of seeing what we can do.

And a lot of things which are not institutional—the media, the public discussion. I think the media’s role is enormously underestimated in the world. Even when people think about how to improve voices—and I have been seen the position of newspapers in many countries, from Uganda to India—pretty much all the dissenting voices are cash-strapped. They have very little money. And they are really trivial sums of money in comparison to the amount of aid going around. But while you can easily justify feeding the hungry, it becomes very difficult for these organizations to justify supporting the institutions.

Then it takes the form, as it did at one stage for UNESCO, you may remember, when the head of UNESCO wanted to achieve equality by simply shutting out the Western papers, like BBC, which, after all, provide about the only information that may be available in some places like Iran and Afghanistan today.

JOANNE MYERS: Two words: simply splendid. I thank you very much for being with us again.

Copyright © 2010 Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs





Published on The New Republic (

The Ideal and the Real
Moshe Halbertal December 12, 2009 | 12:00 am

The Idea of Justice

By Amartya Sen

(Harvard University Press, 467 pp., $29.95)

In his introduction to The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen asks the reader to imagine a scenario that will figure prominently throughout the book. Three children are arguing among themselves about which one of them should have a flute. The first child, Anne, is a trained musician who can make the best use of the flute. The second child, Bob, is the poorest of the three and owns no other toys or instruments. Clara, the third contender, happens to be the one who, with hard sustained labor, made the flute. Since philosophers try to reason about such distributive problems, each of the children can enlist support from a grand theory of justice that originated in what seems to be an impartial position in moral philosophy.

Utilitarians will opt for giving the flute to Anne, since their criteria for distribution is to give preference to the scheme that will maximize overall utility, thus granting the instrument to the individual who can derive the most pleasure out of it. Bob, the poorest child among the three, will be chosen by egalitarians, since the main concern of their distributive approach is to narrow social and economic gaps as much as possible. And libertarians, who emphasize rights-based ownership entitlements, will claim that Clara deserves the flute as the producer of the object, and that no other distributive concerns–egalitarian or utilitarian–can supersede her entitlement to what she naturally owns.

Since the publication of John Rawls’s monumental book A Theory of Justice in 1971, such grand theories of distributive justice have gained momentum and depth. Rawls himself defended an egalitarian position. He articulated it in his famous difference principle, according to which deviations from strict equality may be allowed only if such deviations will work for the benefit of the worst-off. According to Rawls, perfect equality should have been the rule, but rewarding capable people with differential income will create an incentive for them to raise the production of the sum total of goods, which in a system of fair distribution might end up benefiting the people who are at the bottom of the economic ladder.

The ultimate merit of Rawls’s work did not lie only in his own theory, but in the extraordinarily broad discussion that it generated. Rawls’s work provided a framework for a flurry of counter-theories, such as G.A. Cohen’s in Rescuing Justice and Equality, which challenged Rawls from the left and advocated a stricter egalitarianism; and Robert Nozick’s sophisticated libertarian response in Anarchy, State, and Utopia; and Michael Walzer’s development, in Spheres of Justice, of a communitarian approach to the problem. Now comes Sen’s magnificent book, which is dedicated to Rawls’s memory, but differs dramatically from the Rawlsian and post-Rawlsian conversations.

Sen rejects, as a matter of principle, the nature of Rawls’s project. The reader who seeks in this book yet another exercise in grand theory–another abstract discussion out of which the foundations for the institutions of a just society may be generated–will be disappointed. And the reader who wonders about the connection of all these abstractions about justice to the remedying of actually existing injustices will be glad. Sen questions the plausibility of such edifices of pure reason. His book quite radically attempts to shift the grounds of the conversation altogether. Its seeks to provide a counter-framework rather than a counter-theory. And this is only one of its many admirable ambitions.

According to Sen, a sustained and reasoned argument about justice should focus on a result-oriented comparative approach among different conditions, rather than on an attempt to formulate the philosophical conditions of a perfectly just society. We can confidently claim that a society that rejects slavery is more just than a society that endorses slavery. And such a sound comparison can be performed without actually having a clear-cut notion of what a perfectly just society would be like. Injustices are altogether easier to identify than the conditions of perfect justice. And injustices can be identified on the basis of various and competing grand theories, which may overlap in such actual comparative judgments. As Sen observes, we can assess whether a painting by Dalí is better than a painting by Picasso without making the claim that the Mona Lisa is the best or the most ideal painting of all. Constituting a perfect standard is not a necessary condition for the comparative work that has to be done in removing injustices. Nor is it a sufficient condition: we might have a clear conception of the perfectly just society and still find it difficult, or even impossible, to evaluate two options, two courses of action, that present themselves in real life. Each of these options, which will never be fully perfect, might be closer to perfection according to a different variable they each have.

Given the fact that having a perfect conception of the just society is neither necessary nor sufficient for the actual comparative judgments that are needed in real life, Sen concludes that such a project is quite redundant. To the redundancy argument he adds a deeper and philosophically more interesting argument for rejecting the very notion of the theory of justice. He argues that such an attempt is not feasible. Consider again that debate between the three children about the flute. According to Sen, each child makes a persuasive claim, and each of the grand theories that support such claims–utilitarian, egalitarian, libertarian–can withstand impartial scrutiny, and therefore each of them is right. There simply is no way to adjudicate between the rival grand theories that support different distributive schemes.

There is genuine humility in recognizing the intrinsic limits of our reasoning and the essential pluralism of value. Sen’s conceptual sophistication is in the service of a rare intellectual modesty. Still, we must distinguish between two different interpretations of the rejection of the grand theory of justice, only one of which seems to me defensible. Sen, at different moments of his argument, asserts that indeed each of the proposed grand theories is right and has a strong case, and that we should therefore avoid the business of arguing about–and attempting to establish–perfect justice, because perfection can legitimately come in a variety of radically different forms. I think that such a view is implausible. There are some good arguments for rejecting libertarianism, and some of them are made by Sen in his book, and also in his previous works.

Imagine a slight shift in the parable of the three children. Let us assume that what is at stake for distribution is not a flute but a rare medicine that Clara, the brilliant and productive child, somehow managed to invent. She is willing to provide the medicine to Anne, who is very sick, but only for an outrageous compensation. If she does not get her coveted price, then Anne will die; and nobody–this is the libertarian claim–can take the medicine away from her, since she has ownership rights as a producer. In such a story, it seems clear that sticking solely to the libertarian approach to ownership rights, regardless of the outcome, is wrong. Even if we assert that there are such rights, surely they should not be absolute.

A serious argument can be made as well against the other grand theory–utilitarianism, the one that would have awarded the contested flute to the child who would get the most use out of it. In its sole interest in outcomes, utilitarianism tends to erase the individuality of people, as Rawls pointed out. In order to highlight this problematic feature of utilitarianism, let us once again alter the circumstances, and therefore the distributive stakes, of our parable. Let us assume that Clara needs a liver transplant and Anne a heart transplant to survive. From a strict utilitarian perspective, as a matter of principle, there is a justification for removing Bob’s heart and liver. (Assume for the sake of argument that Anne’s heart or Clara’s liver cannot be used for transplants.) But such a violation of Bob’s rights to the integrity of his body seems intuitively wrong. Moreover, the egalitarian approach is also vulnerable to serious criticism. If Clara is the only producer among the children, and everything that she produces is given by the egalitarian to the deprived child Bob, so as to minimize the social gaps, we can expect that Clara will stop producing altogether. And that will end up harming Bob, among others. (Rawls was himself concerned about this consequence.)

So it should be possible to state, and interpret, Sen’s argument in a slightly different and sharper way. The problem with grand theories of justice, we might say, is not that each of them is, in its own way, right, but that by aspiring to grandness and exclusivity they are, all of them, wrong. The very attempt to produce a total and ultimate theory for a perfectly just society will inevitably generate injustice. This is the reason why Sen, after realizing the limitations of each grand theory, wisely resists any temptation to produce one of his own.

Following Sen, when we examine different grand theories we realize that each of them has a point, that there is an aspect–but no more than an aspect–of their respective claims that is convincing. Grand theories become perverse when they postulate themselves as exclusive, when they wish to solve all the complex issues with one decisive and final principle. Rights-based libertarians have a point, but their complete disregard of outcomes makes their position flawed. Utilitarians make an important contribution to the conversation, but their exclusive interest in outcomes is wrong. Egalitarians are deeply attractive for the principle that moves them, but their principle cannot withstand critical scrutiny when it is the only principle of justice there is.

The best way of making comparative judgments is by considering multiple points of view as they are refined by different theories, and weighing the diverse claims that they make. By rejecting an ultimate theory of justice, we do not paralyze ourselves, or surrender our intention to improve the world. Quite the contrary. We liberate ourselves for the full complexity of the challenge before us, and equip ourselves with all the elements of comparative reasoning that the evaluation of an injustice requires. Only when philosophy is deployed in this patient and pluralistic way can we apply it usefully to real people and real conditions.

It is important to note also that Sen’s acceptance of the limited and relative force of each grand theory does not deteriorate into any kind of moral relativism. Pluralism is not relativism. Choosing between different approaches and policies is not an expression of taste or prejudice, a purely subjective effusion of passion. Such choice has a more general and objective and rational ground. In Sen’s view, truth may be secured intellectually without our being in control of a single absolute criterion. In this connection, he develops one of the deepest ideas of his book–the notion that he calls positional objectivity.

Objectivity, Sen insists, is not omniscience, or a God’s-eye view of things, or a view from nowhere. After all, we are always somewhere, in a specific position, with particular constrictions of perception and understanding. Yet we still can mentally correct for the limitations of our cognitive situation and make a rational judgment in choosing a policy and opting between alternatives. We do this–we arrive at objectivity–by means of a thorough examination of diverse points of view. This is also the procedure of democracy, which Sen likes to call government by discussion. In a true democracy, we are open to ideas and methods that originate outside our own cultural and political traditions. It is through such an examination of the relative weight of different arguments that we can approach a consensus about the truth of a matter, without claiming to possess any perfect or ideal or absolute standard.

Sen makes a powerful argument for adopting a particular standard in ranking and comparing the various approaches to proposed policies or states of affairs. In making such assessments, he says, we should consider the standard of capabilities, and their distribution across a society. By capabilities, he means the actual effective power that people have to develop their human potential and to act in the world. Such a scale measures relative conditions such as health, literacy, and freedom, which all combine together to measure the relative condition of people for the fulfillment of themselves and their community. In measuring capabilities, we must understand that sometimes the broadening of agency and effectiveness may bring about a decline in happiness. Deprived people with no choice might be happy about their condition, since happiness is often a function of limited expectations; and with rising expectations comes the revolution that bears their name, and also the possibility of disappointment and defeat. And yet, Sen insists, we should opt for agency and freedom rather than for sheer happiness.

In his emphasis on capabilities, Sen rejects two other measures of the condition of individual agency: income and well-being. Income is too narrow a criterion, since the capacity to convert income into actual freedoms and possibilities differs between people of similar means. If someone is limited by an illness or a handicap, his capacity to make use of a certain income will be very different from that of a healthier person. According to Sen, we should also avoid using well-being–which is very commonly supported among economists who deal with social choice–as a criterion for our approach to justice. The adoption of welfare, well-being, or happiness as the standard is based on an assumption that people are self-interested creatures who seek the fulfillment of their desires, and that the rational approach to assessing a social situation is measuring to what degree it offers maximization of self-interest. Well-being, in other words, is just a softer name for self-interest and egotistical harshness.

The repudiation of the economicist account of life is one of this book’s most valuable achievements. People seek not only their own well-being but also the well-being of others, and often they are willing to make sacrifices so that others will benefit. In measuring their situation, therefore, we should consider also the degree to which they have the capability to contribute to others. Theorists who support the self-interest picture of “economic man” claim that this kind of altruism is actually reducible to egoism. In this economic view, people seek the good of others because it will make them happy. There is no essential difference between an altruist and an egotist–they both wish the fulfillment of their desires, but the altruist happens to have a desire that benefits others.

Such an argument is a reversal of the actual causal order. People do not seek the good of others because it will first make them happy. They are happy as a result of the help, the happiness, that they give to others: they wish to help for its own sake. The gratification that they receive from helping is hardly the primary reason for their help. Even more, Sen argues, the very capability and power to affect the lives of others for the better is the source of our moral obligation.

The spectacle of an economist rejecting a purely economic understanding of the individual is delightful to behold. And this wise and deep position–focusing on a comparative, results-oriented approach, which is measured by the actual capabilities that it offers human beings–is not based on Sen’s arguments alone, important and penetrating as they are. His position expresses also a larger sensibility that is anchored in his exceptional range of thought and his lifelong commitments. Besides what he describes as his love affair with philosophy, he is a world-renowned economist and one of the greatest public intellectuals of India, who has been a leading voice for social and economic reforms, breaking new ground in the analysis of gender inequality, famine, and illiteracy.

Sen’s range is amazing. His intimacy with the Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim cultures of India, which is beautifully woven into the book, gives him access to a far greater range of argumentation and reasoning than is common among philosophers who were educated exclusively in the Western analytical tradition. His knowledge of this vast cultural history, and his profound respect for it, is an important source of Sen’s humility in recognizing the essential plurality of legitimate claims–in rejecting any sort of monism in the life of the mind.

This larger scope, I should add, enables Sen to teach–by example: he is not a preacher of any kind–a more nuanced sense of the complexity and the richness of Eastern and Islamic cultures. Though Sen is steeped in other traditions (some of which are, of course, his own traditions), his syncretism carries no threat of a clash of civilizations. Nor does it propound any kind of superficial harmony. Instead his work–in its simultaneous affirmation of the universal and the particular–serves as an eloquent and humane testimony to the power of reason, which respects (when it is honest and attends to the integrity of its arguments) the multiplicity of voices and traditions. Reason seeks truth wherever it may be found, and so, like the author of this genuinely important book, it travels widely, and may find support near and far.

Moshe Halbertal is a professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University and the Gruss Professor at New York University School of Law.


Every fall they pack Sanders Theatre to the rafters. A spellbinding philosopher takes the stage before a rapt crowd of Harvard students, and soon enough the cavernous space becomes a classroom where the bright shades of Aristotle, Jeremy Bentham, Immanuel Kant and John Rawls are summoned to have their say on the enduring questions. What is the good life? Is pleasure the highest end, or is something else? Are acts moral because they lead to good consequences, or because they are done on principle? To keep the discussion grounded, the class–called simply “Justice,” it now regularly enrolls more than 1,000 undergraduates–is asked to confront these quandaries in the context of hard cases brought to life by the philosopher’s trademark hypothetical situations or policy dilemmas culled from newspaper articles.

For Michael Sandel, justice is not a spectator sport–at least not in Sanders Theatre, where he expects engagement from the first. He asks a question, and an answer is voiced by an anonymous face in the crowd. Even students too shy to raise their hands are drawn into testing their moral intuitions against prominent theories. The exposure to classic texts at leading universities usually succeeds in giving students the ability to drop canonical names–the sort of cultural distinction elite institutions provide in their continuing role as glorified finishing schools. That Sandel has managed to elevate the conversation is a miraculous accomplishment. Over the years, more than 14,000 Harvard students have participated in it, and now Sandel is trying to broaden the audience. Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, a new book closely based on his course, comes on the heels of the publication of his Justice: A Reader, a selection of essential primary texts. Together with a PBS series based on the course airing this fall, the books allow anyone to follow Sandel’s commentary at home and enjoy a close approximation of a signature Harvard course (without the sticker shock).

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Since Socrates argued that philosophy must concern itself with human affairs and not just heavenly things, inquiries into abstract justice have revealed as much about their place and time as anything else. (The same is true of the actual pursuit of justice, ever since the Hebrew Bible enjoined it.) As it happens, the publication of Sandel’s Justice coincides with the release of a very different kind of book on the subject–The Idea of Justice–written by his Harvard colleague Amartya Sen, an accident that calls for more than a philosophical discussion. Although Justice doesn’t fully succeed in bottling the formula of Sandel’s class–how could it?–it is easily the most accessible primer on the topic now available. But Sandel aspires to do more than merely vulgarize the available positions in political theory and explore them through contemporary examples: he is calling, as he long has, for nothing less than a reinvigoration of citizenship. As for Sen, his pressing concern is not the lifting of a nationwide malaise but the alleviation of global immiseration, and it drives him to propose a radically different approach to justice. Notwithstanding these discrepancies of interest and scope, however, the two men converge in a striking omission. To make sense of it, one must ask how their theories of justice reflect not just the universal and eternal but also the here and now–most notably, the cold war’s lingering hold on liberal philosophy.

Sandel’s book is organized as an excursion through three main theories of justice–one based on welfare, one on freedom and one on virtue–and like the best teachers, Sandel gives each theory its due. But the excursion is also designed to undercut the first two theories in order to prepare the ground for the third. The theories of justice are sequenced like dominoes: the views Sandel rejects fall as the book goes on, and his favorite approach turns out to be the last one standing.

Sandel’s discussion of welfare begins with Bentham’s famous definition of justice as “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” This formulation could justify a commitment to market distribution, if it were shown to be the best means for promoting the general welfare. But pleasure is not the only good, and there is no common measurement for things as different as love and money. In any case, the quest for aggregate happiness also risks running afoul of personal rights. It is absolutely true that personal freedom matters, whether in a libertarian version that insists on noninterference and contract, or more egalitarian schemes–like those of Kant and Rawls–that square individual freedom with equal freedom for all others. Libertarianism, however, is compromised by the mistaken assumptions of self-ownership: if personal attributes–Michael Jordan’s basketball prowess, in Sandel’s example–are themselves unearned, then the earnings that follow from them should not all necessarily flow to Jordan’s bank account. Moreover, no one would base justice solely on consent alone, a point borne out by Sandel’s vivid story of the German man who recently agreed to be eaten. (The fact that he had approved his own death and fricasseeing, the judge unsurprisingly concluded, could not keep his killer out of jail.) Kant and Rawls, for their part, fairly consider the modern aspiration for autonomy but fail to make sense of the claims of loyalty, solidarity and memory. Their thinking is hobbled by the notion of a human being who is a free agent before anything has defined him or her.

Sandel concludes by calling for a scheme of justice revolving around the collective good life of virtuous citizens. But from this appeal also flows the principal worry about his enterprise. Sandel plausibly contends that devotion to a scheme of the good life as controversial as collective virtue sets him against the aspiration to neutrality that characterizes much contemporary liberal thought. A full-bodied public commitment to ranking ways of living would suggest that basic values are not necessarily a private matter, as most liberals insist. It would praise virtues and condemn vices, and therefore involve officious interference with autonomy, which is why liberals typically avoid legislating morality. But despite his principled rejection of neutrality, Sandel ends up being rather coy about the exact theory of virtue he is championing, for today’s Americans or in general. To explain his stance, it’s necessary to trace his philosophical roots and consider how he has chosen to define his role as a public moralist in an age especially unaccommodating to his views.

Nearly thirty years ago, in his massively influential debut in political theory, Sandel argued that communal belonging precedes individual freedom–that, in his language, the self is “encumbered” and therefore not altogether prior to the ends it chooses. An intrepid technical dissection of his colleague Rawls’s epoch-making A Theory of Justice (1971), Liberalism and the Limits of Justice made Sandel’s name as a “communitarian.” Sandel demonstrated that for Rawls, the freedom of individual choice alone is the morally relevant starting point for inquiry into justice, an assumption that renders things like family ties, religious belief, group loyalty and historical identity irrelevant, except as a secondary extra. Communitarians like Sandel, Charles Taylor (with whom Sandel studied as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford) and Michael Walzer responded that most people, even in liberal societies, prize those things at least as much as personal autonomy. The most attractive part of Sandel’s criticism was his contention that relationships, rather than being the result of previous choices, are the sphere in which identity is possible at all. (To put it in more technical terms, there is no individual subject not intersubjectively constituted from the first.) Ever since making these claims, even as political theory has substantially evolved, Sandel has continued to argue for the priority of the communal good in an account of justice, even as he recognizes its risks for liberty.

Those risks are sobering. In the classic ancient model of Aristotle’s thought, which Sandel showcases in Justice, the canonization of virtue depended on a more general belief in a teleologically organized universe, one in which the reasons for the existence of everything, and not simply everyone, came built in. Not only did modern science unseat that view but–as Sandel recognizes–the argument for collectively given ends can be an affront to human freedom. “Communal encumbrances can be oppressive,” he acknowledges. In the precepts of traditional religions, meanwhile, moral obligation and collective inclusion come at the notoriously high price of restrictive moralism, without even Aristotle’s commitment to furnishing a rationale for the code of ethics being outlined.

To his credit, Sandel proposes to retain only parts of the ancient legacy for a modern account of justice. Unlike a few of his colleagues–Alasdair MacIntyre, for example, or some Straussians who see modernity as a moral catastrophe–Sandel wants collective virtue to invigorate liberal democracy instead of standing as a full-scale alternative to it. But perhaps what’s most surprising about Sandel’s career is that while he has argued that some vision of the good life must provide the first basis of a theory of justice, he has–given his critique of the aspiration to neutrality–remained surprisingly neutral toward various models of communal morality that might claim our allegiance. The peculiar result is that unlike Rawls, Sandel has abstained all along from offering any programmatic “theory of justice.” He has limited himself to arguing that justice demands collective identity first, without getting specific.

There are a few probable reasons why. One is that vague appeals to a good shared in common allow Sandel to build a broad coalition while postponing inevitable disputes about its precise mission. It offers the false sense of a common agenda to people who in fact do and should differ. Nowhere is this clearer than in his sympathy for potential religious sources of collective ideals. Sandel recognizes that in contemporary America the priority of communal virtue is most appealing to the religious right, and his hymns to community often contain strong hints that religious perspectives could or should help define it. This approach will not satisfy those who need to know the exact moral dimensions of a religiously inflected definition of the good life before agreeing to its public endorsement. Should one champion the injection of religion in collective politics without first being clear about what it would really mean?

This concern is pressing even for the right, but it is especially serious for the left, where Sandel’s sympathies seem to lie. Progressives, he warns, are mistaken to react to conserva-tive appeals to “values” by opposing all such talk as intrusive instead of providing their 
own better set. He writes in Justice, as he has written before: “Fundamentalists rush in where liberals fear to tread.” Clearly, his heart is with a reinvigoration of liberalism based on appeals not simply to morality generally but also to religion specifically. “Not only the Taliban, but also abolitionists and Martin Luther King, Jr., have drawn their visions 
of justice from moral and religious ideals,” 
he explains. And most revealing, Sandel is thrilled by Barack Obama’s praise for the necessary role of religion in American politics.

Yet Sandel never squarely addresses the hard question of how to make religion a valuable source for progressive change, nor does he take up the question of whether it’s justifiable to emphasize the progressive rather than conservative strains of existing religions, in their own moral doctrines or in contemporary politics. Sandel is probably right that Obama’s elevation of religion as a moral source in contemporary life is good politics. But it is only “good political philosophy,” Sandel implies, if a thinker is willing to engage in a contentious struggle to explain why religion can and should be freed from its distant past of subjugation in the name of revealed truth, and its recent history of conservatism in the name of the “moral majority.” In an era of so-called new atheism, in short, it remains surprising to see Sandel frequently gesture toward the moral dimensions of religion when a defense of the moral credentials of religion, including his explanation of how to endorse one version of religion rather than another, is nowhere to be found in his writings. All things considered, it would be foolish to rush in just because fundamentalists do.

What is true of Sandel’s strategic or vague endorsement of religion as a fund of collective morality is true of his general approach to justice. It need hardly be stated that there are secular visions of the common good that compete with various religious ones. Despite continuously advocating a politics of the common good, Sandel offers next to no means to help decide which of many rival proposals about the morally preferable life for people in common is best. It is all very well to champion a renewed citizenship, but–especially for a critic of neutrality–not without some more contentious indication of its foundation and implications.

There is likely a historical reason for Sandel’s reticence. His first appearance in the New York Times, long before he became a professor who contributed op-eds on moral issues in contemporary politics, was in 1975, as part of the paper’s spring review of commencement speeches. In his valedictory 
address at Brandeis, Sandel bemoaned the passing of the activist spirit of the 1960s, with its notion of citizenship wedded to public engagement and reform. It had already given way, Sandel ruefully noted, to moral “emptiness,” as attention shifted “from the shortage of good in the world to the shortage of goods.” Sandel has often invoked Robert F. Kennedy as the politician who promised to make virtuous citizenship, rather than rights and markets, the compass of liberalism. Strikingly, Sandel is still making the case decades later, but at a time when large social movements are even more of a dim memory. 
Absent new models, the nostalgia for a collectivist model of liberalism has been Sandel’s fate, more than his choice, in an age of conservative ascendancy.

His attempt to shelter a guttering flame–if that is what in fact defines his role as public moralist–would be honorable, except that it critically affects how he has thought about justice, and taught it. Leaving aside what are either strategic feints toward religion or unacceptable failures to explain why religion should cut left instead of right, Sandel has ended up aligning his collectivism with Aristotle’s ancient virtue ethics rather than the modern social movements that inspired him. Correspondingly, what’s glaringly absent from Sandel’s otherwise generous survey of theories of justice is the approach to the subject that has been the dominant one in modern times in the West, especially on the left and among social movements: justice as collective freedom and empowerment.

In his rambling over the territory, Sandel presents theories of justice that champion freedom as the basis for personal rights–or at most, egalitarian norms. In principle, for Sandel, the communitarian alternative is necessarily a strike against freedom rather than a theory of it. Absent from his canon, similarly, are philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, G.W.F. Hegel and their followers, for whom ancient virtue could not be revived without reinventing it as a doctrine of collective emancipation. Sandel seems, in fact, to long for this tradition (he has mentioned Hegel, and had warm praise for his follower John Dewey, in other contexts). But he has opted not to advocate for it, or even make room for it, in the survey of Justice.

The Idea of Justice is a very different book: Amartya Sen offers a theoretical argument so richly and lovingly detailed that its central objective has to be teased out of a tangle of specialist debates and engrossing digressions. At the end of his book Sandel insists that the scandal of economic inequality is one of the principal reasons to mobilize for the collective good; but apart from a tangential affirmation of local solidarity, he shows little interest in the issue of transnational justice, notably the battle against worldwide poverty, even though it is today the burning topic in the field. By contrast, a major feature of Sen’s approach is his introduction of what he calls “global perspectives” into discussions of justice. He blends an expansion of geographical scope with a theory that insists on a more realist brand of reform, in which political theory is not about drafting blueprints for castles in the air but comparing feasible next steps for improving the world as it stands.

Sen, who is a generation older than Sandel, was born in 1933 in the town of Santiniketan in West Bengal, the home of the educational utopia founded by the Indian poet and humanist Rabindranath Tagore. (Sen’s mother was a disciple of Tagore.) In a career spanning nearly half a century, Sen has scaled the peaks of Anglo-American academia, enjoying long spells at Oxford and Harvard, where he teaches today after a recent interlude as a Cambridge don. A Nobel laureate in economics, Sen confesses that philosophy is his “love affair.” Even as he has thrown himself into criticizing the assumptions of his home discipline, he has profoundly shaped the field of development at the United Nations, where he has campaigned against the inadequacy of a narrow GDP measurement of well-being. And all along, Sen has pursued the more abstract problems of academic political thought at a very high level. Though The Idea of Justice is much more a synthesis of his disparate contributions to the field than a fundamentally new theory, it is clearly the place to start for ascertaining how his views fit together into a unique and inspiring position on justice.

Sen has little use for Sandel’s communitarianism. He sees in the diversity of cultures not challenges for universalism but historical sources of its precepts, and he likes to cite Indian traditions as authority for his moves within Anglo-American liberalism. (Akbar, a Mughal emperor in the sixteenth century, has Sen’s special admiration for his commitment to pluralistic toleration.) Still, like Sandel’s earliest work, The Idea of Justice is essentially an analysis and criticism of John Rawls’s political thought. And in retrospect, it seems clear that after successive utilitarian, libertarian and communitarian waves of assault on Rawlsian liberalism, it is the demand for global justice that has proved to be the most serious undoing of Rawls’s system. Even Rawls’s faithful disciples, like Thomas Pogge of Yale, were appalled when, late in life, the great Harvard philosopher confirmed that he thought about the nation-state as the natural forum for justice, with international justice a secondary consideration and mostly reduced to a minimalist humanitarianism. In response, Pogge and others have maintained the essentials of Rawls’s thought–most of all, his social contract–but altered its scope. In a cosmopolitan age, they argue, everyone in the world must be seen as parties to the bargain over the principles of justice. National boundaries are merely the legacies of an arbitrary history rather than the bright lines of any fundamental moral map. Sen does not dispute the limitations of Rawls’s complacency in an era of globalization. But, like his onetime associate Martha Nussbaum, he thinks the problem of global justice requires a very different fix to Rawls’s system–in some ways, a more profound one.

Of the many arguments Sen offers, his weightiest is a defense of “comparativism” against Rawls’s “transcendentalism”–the reckoning of next steps as superior to the perfection of blueprints. Indeed, Sen contends that the wishful desire to promote a principle of global justice surpassing nations reflects too much allegiance to Rawls’s commitment to ideal schemes. Sen impishly wishes Pogge “good luck” in simply transferring Rawls’s social contract to the global forum, in the absence of the robust coordinating authority of a world government. Recommending a different course of thought, Sen argues that if a theory of justice is concerned not with outlining distant utopias but with deciding among proximate alternatives (especially when they rule out manifest wrongs), the persistence of national politics need not be a fatal objection to the pursuit of cosmopolitan improvement. Political constraints that rule out global equality in a world of nation-states fade in their theoretical significance if justice itself is understood not as a system built from scratch but as a choice among options available in the world as it exists now.

The most fascinating passages in The Idea of Justice, therefore, are ones in which Sen methodically makes the case that “transcendent” utopias of the Rawlsian sort are neither possible nor necessary. One set of arguments says that theoretical agreement over first principles is not available–certainly not of the kind Rawls famously promised with his “original position,” which imagined an ideal situation of choice (which Pogge and others transfer upward to the global scene). “A diagnosis of perfectly just social arrangements is incurably problematic,” Sen insists. Anyway, he then argues, even if such a diagnosis were available, it is unclear how it would help, since policy choice is always between two or more proximate alternatives, and a revolutionary utopia would provide no guidance about which foot to put forward first. More specifically, neither theoretical agreement nor any particularly grand scheme is needed to identify egregious wrongdoing. Finally, people’s behavior is inescapably relevant to the reformer, making theories that fail to reckon with it useless.

Such arguments have an obvious appeal as a recipe for drafting a step-by-step agenda for the pursuit of justice, and Sen goes further in recommending his discipline of social choice (distinct from the very different academic enterprises known as rational choice and public choice) as a tool kit for analyzing different political options comparatively. As brilliantly carried off as it is, however, Sen’s refutation of “transcendence” is unconvincing on a number of grounds. Most of all, it fails to acknowledge the diverse roles that theoretical options, beyond proximate, realizable ones, play in theory and practice.

In a somewhat technocratic mode, Sen treats the options presented in public debate as given in advance, as if coming up with a menu of options did not require inspiration. But even if Sen is right that transcendent schemes can play no direct role in adjudicating between local alternatives, it seems obvious that they have an important effect in helping to precipitate those alternatives. Much more important, utopias have always galvanized people to advocate even piecemeal reform in the unjust circumstances of the world as it is. Sen wants to reach the conclusion that the “hiatus” between his “relational approach” to justice and the “transcendental approach” is “quite comprehensive,” but he completely ignores the value of the transcendent as providing a fund of ideas and motivation. It is key to both the theoretical elaboration of and the practical quest for even proximate reforms.

Thus, even if Sen is right that a fetish for a “complete” blueprint of social justice is a distraction, it does not necessarily follow that confining inquiry into justice into a discussion of proximate options is the sole alternative. One of the attractions of his approach, of course, is that it provides a warrant for dropping scholastic controversy so that rival schools can converge in alleviating “manifest injustice.” But even such consensually supported goals have to be defined; even a world without slavery, to take Sen’s favorite example, had to be imagined, and the energy for its achievement summoned and mobilized.

It’s also worth stressing that Sen’s approach works best when the injustice at issue is a geographically local or chronologically episodic one. The sad devastation of a hurricane or even a widespread horror like human trafficking call for interventions that, no matter how difficult, are confined to the outrage at hand. Of course, such upheavals can end up revealing structural wrongs the public had preferred not to see–as in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. All the same, responding to a fundamentally systemic injustice like global poverty is inseparable from a more controversial positive agenda, in theory and practice; in modern times it has typically been a positive agenda of collective freedom. The main reason is that the campaign for social justice, especially on a global scale, intrudes too profoundly into the fundamentals of existing social arrangements not to make the most basic questions of justice pressing, and the rivalry of what one might call comparatively transcendent schemes hugely relevant. In Sen’s thought, his famous proposal–further developed here–to make self-realization in all its multifaceted forms, or “capabilities,” the metric of justice could not but prompt an open-ended campaign for improvement far beyond assuaging the crying shame of manifest deprivation.

In this regard, Sen has just as interesting, if not as vexed, a relationship to modern social movements as Sandel. Large-scale mobilizations are arguably at the heart of what both imagine justice to involve, but they are not as well integrated into the theories as Sen 
and Sandel think. Sen acknowledges that indignation, not just argument, matters in imagining justice, though he concludes that such emotion is relevant only insofar as it can be translated into a comparison of available reforms. Just as Sandel praises the moral and even religious basis of campaigns for slave emancipation and civil rights, Sen cites them as examples of movements that abolished glaring evils. Sen has notably kind words for the alternative globalization movements of recent history. It is very doubtful, however, that such movements have worked by confining their claims to proximate fixes alone instead of by imagining distant utopias. The reverse is true, both throughout modern history and in recent times, as the slogan of alternative globalization–“another world is possible”–suggests. It is better to think of local comparison and grandiose ambition not as mutually exclusive, as strict alternatives, but as mutually necessary.

Like Sandel, finally, Sen is so wary of the definition of justice as social freedom that he fails even to acknowledge it, despite its modern standing and appeal. Sen repeatedly indicts Rawls’s absolute preference for the value of personal liberty over “economic or social equity”–it is “extremist” and “overkill,” he says–but only to emphasize a moderate version of it rather than to dispense with the dichotomy between liberty and society. Sen’s dichotomy is a version of Sandel’s: collective life is a means for the advancement of personal capacity and freedom, and no more.

For all their legitimate striving for participation in the eternal concerns of Plato and the Bible (and Akbar), Sandel and Sen are writing for a world in which academic philosophy has clearly taken on board the liberal victory over communism in the cold war and allowed it to shape the terms of the debate. (If there are figures in academic political philosophy who are exceptions, like the recently deceased G.A. Cohen, they are ones that prove the rule.) Whether or not the marginalization of justice as collective freedom is defensible, the striking fact is that for Sandel and Sen it just goes without saying.

If liberalism deserved to win its battle to the death with communism, the resulting constraints on liberal political thought are nevertheless not easily justifiable. The consensus is all the more striking since philosophy is intended to be more than a creature of its moment: it is not supposed to restate temporary biases as universal truths. While critical of the promulgation of “sterile utopia” in his field, Sandel acknowledges the risk that philosophy could degenerate into an apology for its time and place: “a self-consistent skein of prejudice,” as he puts it. That risk will strike you as rather serious after reading these books, if you think the viability of an account of justice as collective freedom was not exclusive to communism and therefore did not expire with it. There have been, after all, democratic approaches to collective emancipation and social freedom, notably in the Anglo-American age of progressive reform, as well as around the world.

At the same time, the end of the cold war has forced liberal philosophy to reckon with phenomena it has not been particularly well suited to incorporate, in the variety of its revisions of and departures from Rawlsian thinking: most of all, the claims of diverse cultures and the deepening of scandalous economic inequality on a global scale. These phenomena are novel only for contemporary liberalism, not for other philosophical traditions or in the lives of ordinary people. Sandel and Sen have tried to adapt to these circumstances by plotting a different theoretical course, but it is one beset by a great tension. They esteem social movements as the most vital tribunes of justice but fail to honor the aspiration to collective freedom that has so often animated them.

Samuel Moyn
November 18, 2009 | This article appeared in the December 7, 2009 edition of The Nation.


The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen
Steven Poole enjoys a rigorous examination of an abstract notion
Steven Poole
The Guardian, Saturday 7 November 2009
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Capuchin monkeys share their food fairly. Photograph: © Wolfgang Kaehler/Corbis
The Idea of Justice
by Amartya Sen

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Humans are often misled by abstract nouns of their own making, and sometimes the bamboozlement can last centuries or more. Because one can say the word “justice”, one might conclude that a singular thing or essence called “justice” actually exists. And so one could spend a life trying to figure out what this abstract animal called “justice” really is, and fail to pay much attention to problems of justice in the world.

The eminent professor and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has chosen for his deeply interesting synthesis of political philosophy, economics and “social choice theory” a title that might at first appear rather bland, but it is holding two opposing ideas in a kind of dynamic stasis. Half the implication is indeed that it is possible to spend too much time on justice-as-a-mere-idea. But the other half is an insistence that justice-the-idea could be re-engineered to work better as a basis for “practical reasoning”, such that it might improve the world.

For Schopenhauer, injustice was the analytically primary term: justice was merely the absence of injustice. (There seems to be a primordial sense of injustice: animal researchers have observed chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys showing a keen sense of when treats are distributedly unfairly.) Schopenhauer does not make an appearance in this book, but Sen’s approach is arguably Schopenhauerian to this extent: “[A] theory of justice that can serve as the basis of practical reasoning,” he writes, “must include ways of judging how to reduce injustice and advance justice, rather than aiming only at the characterisation of perfectly just societies.”

This might seem obvious to some. Aid workers, lawyers, or humanitarian NGOs might understandably have little time for perfectionist justice-talk as they go about their business. Sen argues that philosophy could help, were it not that too much talk of justice in modern political philosophy has, by contrast, been concerned with interrogating an otherworldly ideal of the perfectly just society constructed ab ovo. His main target in this tradition is John Rawls, who published his monumental A Theory of Justice in 1975. Sen calls Rawls’s method “transcendental institutionism”, in contrast to his own “comparative” approach.

By “comparative”, Sen means first that we can compare the justice of two different situations, X and Y, without needing a perfect theory of justice, and we can also make good use of partial rankings: if X is better than Y and Z, we can choose X without waiting to know which of Y or Z is better. Secondly, the term “comparative” acknowledges that different reasonable principles of justice exist, which Sen illustrates with a beautiful parable. Suppose three children are quarrelling over a flute. Anna says she is the only one who can play the flute, so obviously we should give it to her. But then Bob says that he is the only child who has no toys at all, so surely he ought at least to have a flute to play with? Suddenly the question does not look so easy. And finally Carla points out that she spent months actually making the flute. So who should get it? For Sen, any theory of justice must begin in recognition of such clashing principles.

The contrast between “transcendental” and “comparative” theories is just one of the clarifying and useful distinctions that Sen goes on to draw, in a long argument that can at times seem slow-moving, and perhaps generously repetitive, but is also enlivened with many asides of twinkling humour. Thinkers of all political hues agree that justice means equality of some kind – the question is: equality of what? Sen’s preferred answer appears to be equality of freedom: though he warns, near the end of the book, of the quixotic nature of any attempt to translate all possible values into one commensurable measure, he does do this to some extent himself: “sustainable development” becomes “sustainable freedom”, and a defence of the idea of human rights near the end of the book essentially translates rights into freedoms too.

Sen is exquisitely civilised in his disagreements with other thinkers, even while he is elegantly trashing whole schools of economic and social thought. He dismisses reliance on GDP as a measure of “the enhancement of inanimate objects of convenience”; and notes that the use of income as a comparative measure of wellbeing is flawed because there are differences in the rates at which people can convert wealth into other things. (This latter point is an example of his insistence that justice-thinking must take account of the lives people can actually lead, rather than the static bureaucratic situations in which they are placed.) Refreshingly, his terms of reference are not limited to western politics: he borrows an illuminating distinction from classical Indian thought, and demolishes the prejudice that democracy, if understood broadly as government by public reasoning, is an exclusively western tradition.

The very inclusiveness and generosity of Sen’s thinking might invite criticism on the basis that his “capacious theory” is indeed so capacious, so concerned to be “open” rather than “closed”, that there is nothing that could not, with a little tweaking, fit in it. The less a theory excludes, the more work is left up to the post-theoretical “practical reasoning”. But Sen provides enough brilliant examples of such reasoning (with regard to famine, disability, disease and so on) that this comes to seem, on balance, a virtue. A second, tougher criticism might point to the apparent assumption throughout that the argument is essentially taking place between well-meaning liberals. He writes: “To argue that we do not really owe anything to others who are not in our neighbourhood, even though it would be very virtuous if we were to be kind and charitable to them, would make the limits of our obligations very narrow indeed.” For Sen, that appears to suffice as a dismissal, on the grounds of implausibility, of such a view; yet it appears to be the principle behind Republican efforts to stymie universal healthcare in the US, or Conservative hopes to offload more social provision on to charities.

Perhaps, then, Sen’s magisterial summation of his thought suffers from an excess of niceness; but this is surely preferable to its opposite. There is something quietly inspiring about his final chapter on the increasing reach and quality of “global reasoning”, via institutions and less formal methods, which for him already constitute a kind of global democracy in embryo, and he ends on a delicately pitched note of calm optimism: “The general pursuit of justice might be hard to eradicate in human society.” We can hope so. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

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