7 November 2009

Who gets the flute?

The Idea of Justice, by Amartya Sen (Allen Lane)

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 reengineered 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 characterization 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 institutionalism”, 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 civilized 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 well-being 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 onto 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.

  • Chris Bertram

    “too much talk” …

    I wonder how much talk would be the right amount? Seriously, though, this is a rather soft review Steven, which somewhat uncritically accepts Sen’s self-serving propaganda about the differences between his approach and rival ones (such as Rawls’s). Do you really think that it is true that Rawls was only concerned with abstract utopia building and uninterested in the connection between justice and practical reasoning? Is it actually true that Sen’s capability measure is can function as a public standard of advantage or disadvantage and that Rawlsian and Dworkinian proposals cannot? Or does he just pick an easy target by focusing on GDP?

  • http://stevenpoole.net Steven

    this is a rather soft review

    Is there a reliable distinction to be had between a “soft” review and a “positive” one, or does the choice of the first word just reflect the speaker’s own view of the work in question?

    Do you really think that it is true that Rawls was only concerned with abstract utopia building and uninterested in the connection between justice and practical reasoning?

    No; and Sen is careful to say that Rawls was not only concerned with utopian institution-building. I’m sorry if I gave the impression that he says otherwise.

    does he just pick an easy target by focusing on GDP?

    Similarly: it’s by no means his only target. There is a lot more nuance and detail on both these points in the book; I might have been able to adumbrate some of it if I’d had twice the space….

  • fred says

    Sen is a profound thinker.I wonder if he read Global Rift by Stavrianos before writing The idea of Justice.