The Idea of Justice

Sen, Amartya
Penguin (2009)
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Including a review of a purely philosophical work on a theology website should require no apology given, as Sen points out in one of his myriad of wise observations, Christianity's poor record in the field of social justice. Ecclesiological superstructures have frequently and disastrously obscured the Church's mission of justice encapsulated in the Gospel of Luke.

Coincidentally, I read Sen during the two weeks before the announcement of the 2010 UK Government Comrehensive Spending Review when every proposal from a Minister was greeted with the accusation of unfairness when it was clear that none of the interviewers had a clue what fairness might be.

I was brought up at the feet of John Rawls in the school of what Sen calls "Transcendental institutionalism", with its strong links to contractarianism, epitomised in Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Kant prior to Rawls. Sen, who was the great man's star pupil pays his respects but bases his counter arguments firmly on the basis of what he calls "comparative realisation", based on the thought of Adam Smith, Condorcet, Bentham Wollstonecraft, Marx and John Stuart Mill. In other words, his central point is that you can settle a mass of issues concerning social justice without first establishing a theoretical set of perfect institutions for settling issues, a contrast summarised in the Indian concepts of Niti and Nyaya; and through the book which necessarily deals largely with thought patterns from classical Greece and beyond, Sen adds some stimulating ingredients from his native India and from other South and South-East Asian perspectives.

Perhaps Sen's most interesting work has been in the field of justice and public reasoning where he has shown that there has never been a major famine in a democracy, defined as a space for the competition of ideas. Indeed, Sen's foundational point is that there are many equally valid and conflicting forms of justice; he cites the competition of three children to use a flute: the gifted player; the most deprived; and the maker. In basing his yardstick for justice on capability rather than on theoretical rights, Sen digs deep in showing that we might do many things which do not fit in the narrow remit of "self interest" as described by contractarians and economists, a point which Christians will readily understand, but he does not go so far as to explore Paul Kahn's point that no liberal democracy can survive without sacrifice.

Sen's presentation is largely non technical and conversational, steadily laying out his idea of justice as one which is practical and somewhat untidy. There is much to learn from what he says but without a strong theory the book gets less interesting and more repetitive as it goes on. It suffers, too, from an early failure by basing much of its argument on Kenneth Arrow's social choice theory without explaining how it might work in spite of Arrow's own terrible pessimism.

If you want to use the ideas from this book to teach fairness, it might be helpful to note Sen's point that to weight desirable outcomes is not to rank them rigidly. People change their minds according to their circumstances (positionality) and the relative plight of others; all that we can do is to check that what we propose stands up to "reflective scrutiny". Sen also urges us to focus on long-term "comprehensive" outcomes of decisions rather than narrow, short-term "culmination" outcomes, a point which will become ever more relevant in a global context.

On the whole, you might accuse Sen of putting together his own festschrift, given the number of personal anecdotes and self citations but the list of acknowledgements is eye-watering and the references and bibliographic range are startling. Indeed one of Sen's strengths is that he judiciously paraphrases the dense and often obscure thought of his predecessors in clear and simple language but this still leaves plenty of room for the advancement of his own thoughts. His conclusion is that any idea of justice must be multi-faceted but, then, that postmodern outlook only constitutes a problem for modernists like me.