Monthly Archives: December 2011

Twin giants of justice

What the reviewers said about two of the most important books in philosophy last year

The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen (UK: Allen Lane; US: Harvard University Press) £25/$29.95 (hb)

Richard Reeves in the Sunday Times starts his review of Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice by noting that polymathic brilliance in scholars is a thing of the past. “The advance of knowledge means that providing intellectual leadership in economics, political theory and ­philosophy, as John Stuart Mill did, is not possible. Academics need to pick a subject and burrow into it as deeply as possible. But someone ­forgot to tell all this to Amartya Sen.”

“More immediately, the search for a perfect set of arrangements for ­society can distract us from tackling real-life, immediate injustices such as access to education for women in the developing world or action on climate change. The perfect becomes the enemy of the good.”

“One of the joys of the volume is the rich use of Indian classical thought – the debate between 3rd-century emperor Ashoka, a liberal optimist, and Kautilya, a downbeat institutionalist, is much more enlightening than, say, a tired contrast between Hobbes and Hume.”

Carlin Romano in the Chronicle of Higher Education notes that justice theory has been a “growth industry” since John Rawls and Robert Nozick shook up the subject in the early 1970s. “Since Rawls, one hardly ranks as a political theorist without a whack at the J-word,” he writes. Romano describes Sen as walking “a difficult line between the analytic foundationalism Rawls and Nozick practiced and the sensitivity to real-world justice in people’s lives that Sen and Martha Nussbaum argue for and describe as the ‘capabilities’ conception of justice.”

“In repeatedly bringing back into the discussion Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments,” Romano continues, “Sen signals the need for justice theory to reconnect to realistic human psychology, not the phoney formal rationalism that infects modern economics or the for-sake-of-argument altruism that anchors Rawls’s project.”

“Nothing would be sadder than if An Idea of Justice, like A Theory of Justice, generates a fresh industry of acolyte-driven justice literature without moving political actors to improve people’s lives (surely the author’s paramount goal).”

The unsigned review in the Economist reports that “Conceptual subtleties flank blunt accounts of famine’s causes or physical handicap’s economic effects. A conviction that economists and philosophers are in business to improve the world burns on almost every page.”

“Tying the whole together is Mr Sen’s confidence that, though values are complex, economics provides tools for thinking clearly about complexity. The Idea of Justice is a feast, though perhaps not one to be consumed at a single sitting.”

Justice: What’s The Right Thing To Do? by Michael Sandel (UK: Allen Lane; US: Oxford University Press) £14.99/$25 (hb)

The Guardian devoted one of its “In praise of…” editorials to Michael Sandel in October, calling him “one of the world’s most interesting political philosophers” and concluding: “At a time when debates such as bankers’ bonuses are split between the shrilly populist and the purely technical, Sandel beats a more attractive theoretical path.”

In the New Statesman Edward Skidelsky notes the origins of Sandel’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? in Sandel’s very popular Harvard course “with the unassuming title Moral Reasoning 22”, adding that “Its origins are evident in its carefully crafted lucidity, its patient, teacherly tone and in its occasional professorial wisecrack.”

“Sandel’s insistence on the inescapably ethical character of political debate is enormously refreshing – a riposte to the arid and evasive legalism of so much recent liberal thinking,” but adds that “he must show us that there is such a thing as moral truth, and that it is accessible to us. Failing this, his plea for a remoralisation of the public sphere looks like nothing more than nostalgia for a lost era of grand politics. And we have had enough of that in our time.”

The Economist starts by assuring us that Sandel “has no basic quarrel with capitalism,” but adds that he believes “nevertheless that markets, if left to themselves or encouraged to spread too far, can injure basic moral values and short-change the common good.” It then tells us that the book under review is different.

“Sandel brings abstruse-sounding ethical puzzles down to earth with vivid examples taken from the news: price gouging in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, affirmative-action programmes at American universities, large bank bonuses paid with public money,” the Economist says, adding that “This is ethics with trainer wheels, and up to a point it works well. His aim is not to offer solutions or end disagreements, but to exhibit ethical argument as a back-and-forth between intuitions and principles.

“He returns also to an old charge against the late John Rawls. In Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982) Mr Sandel argued that Rawls’s celebrated account of social justice downplayed the moral weight of family feeling, group loyalties and community attachments. He repeats those ‘communitarian’ charges here.”

Lisa Jardine found the Reith lectures “provocative and challenging” but the book “sadly, a far less engaging, less lively version of Sandel’s argument”. Writing in The Times she said, “He is a charismatic speaker who attracts huge audiences, but, without the compelling delivery, readers may find it hard to sustain the sense of moral urgency that Sandel urges upon us.”

She encouraged them to persevere, however, saying the problem Sandel presents is compelling. “We should, in other words, abandon the politics of patchwork policy-forming by focus groups, and return to a politics shaped and formed by the big ideas of ethics and religion. It is an ambitious and an appealing idea.”