Review: The Idea of Justice

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

sen200“Justice delayed is justice denied,” runs the old adage. Amartya Sen has taken this truism and turned it against almost all his illustrious predecessors who have written about justice. To Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant and even his old teacher John Rawls, Sen adds: and likewise justice idealised is justice not realised.

At least he would have done, had he been a canny intellectual opportunist rather than a thoughtful, measured Nobel laureate. Such pithy sound bites are absent from a text which is at times repetitive, loose and in need of a good edit, but which also contains such a generous measure of incisive, clear and important ideas that any such failings are quickly forgiven.

The book’s moral heart is located in an idea Sen sets out in the book’s first paragraph: “What moves us … is not the realisation that the world falls short of being completely just … but that there are clearly remediable injustices around us which we want to eliminate.” In the mouths of some people, this could have been little more than the activist’s lament that while the world goes to hell in a handcart, philosophers discuss how to balance scales of justice on the head of a pin. But Sen’s point is not that jurisprudence is irrelevant, but that it too often rests on a mistake.

That mistake he calls transcendentalism: the idea that the way to think about justice is to first describe what ideal justice is like and then use that conception to guide the practice of justice in the real world. This is the method of classic social contract theories, like those of Hobbes and Rousseau, and also of John Rawls (Sen’s old friend and colleague, to whom the book is dedicated), who uses the device of “impartial spectators” behind “the veil of ignorance” to establish what ideal justice is.

Sen makes a convincing case that there is no general principle from which one could conclude that having an ideal of justice is necessary to rank the relative justice of two different systems or states of affairs. In a neat analogy, he observes that “if we are trying to choose between a Picasso and a Dali, it is of no help to invoke a diagnosis … that the ideal picture in the world is the Mona Lisa.” But more than that, making the conceptualisation of an ideal state of justice might actually prevent a theory from fulfilling a basic requirement, namely that it “include ways of judging how to reduce injustice and advance justice.” It us simply implausible to assume that it would always be possible to measure two imperfect societies against the measure of the perfect, to determine which is better.

More particularly, Sen criticises the focus on establishing what ideal institutions should be like. You have only to look at the world to see that countries that have very similar formal institutions can vary enormously in how just or unjust they are. For instance, “[the] presence of remediable injustice may well be connected with behavioural transgressions rather than with institutional shortcomings.” Injustice within a family, for example, may show nothing about the failure of the institution of the family.

Sen’s alternative is to promote a comparative approach, whereby we judge societies, practises and states of affairs against alternatives, actual and possible. This is practically, as well as theoretically more powerful. As he says, we didn’t need to know what an ideal society looked like before we could conclude that it would be better if we abolished slavery.

The constant and seemingly effortless interplay between practical necessity and theoretical rigour is one of the delights of Sen’s writing. This is particularly evident in how he addresses what has been a recurrent theme in his work: the challenge of creating a better, more equal and peaceful world in the absence of universal agreement on ethics, politics and the good life.

The foundations of Sen’s response to this challenge was laid down in his past work with Martha Nussbaum on the capabilities approach, which he returns to several times in The Idea of Justice. This insists that although there may be many different, equally valid conceptions of the good life, there are nonetheless some universals which we can, and must, insist that all societies work towards. What saves this from contradiction is the idea that the universals are not particular activities or ways of life that people adopt, but capabilities they are fully enabled to exercise. So, for example, while it may be a particular, non-universal value that men and women fulfil the same social roles, it is a universal value that women are not prevented from exercising their capabilities to fulfil the same roles that men do, should that be what they want.

The capabilities approach is not without difficulties. In particular there is a question of how far it is possible, in practice, to have the right to exercise a capability in a society where there are no formal barriers to doing so, but social practices run contrary to doing so. However, there is surely something right in Sen’s insistence that it is unrealistic to expect a viable theory of justice to eliminate all traces of pluralism.

He illustrates this with a parable about three children and a flute. Each has a very different claim to it. The first argues that the other two have plenty of other things to play with, whereas he only has the flute. The second is the only child who can actually play it. The third, however, spent days making it. Sen is not arguing that in this particular case there may not be an objectively fair solution. However, he is saying that it is unrealistic to suppose that there could be a general theory of justice which could determine which of the claims of need, ability or property rights always takes precedent over the others. What is realistic is to say that in any given case, one can make a particular judgement about what would be most just in that situation.

Sen’s combination of pluralism and universalism reflects the deep humanity that infuses his outlook. Unlike some religious leaders who praise interfaith dialogue and tolerance while at the same time preaching doctrines which are evidently exclusivist and intolerant, Sen genuinely tries to see the good in all his intellectual opponents. Many a time he prefaces critical remarks, not with general terms of praise, but specific examples of what he does actually agree with. This is so prevalent that it is noticeable when he shows signs of actual loathing for an idea he double distances himself from by use of adjective and punctuation, calling it “so-called ‘rational choice theory’”. Sen rightly deplores the fact that the theory has somehow managed to equate “rational” with “smart maximisation of self-interest”.

While Sen is often sharp in his analysis, as with his last book, Identity and Violence, there is nonetheless an absence of a clear idea about how we take his ideas forward. Sen is a passionate advocate of public reason, but while his pleas that we try to resolve comparative justice disputes in the rational public square are welcome, how in practice we do so remains elusive. But perhaps to expect a more prescriptive route map is to misunderstand the nature of his project. If thinking about and creating justice in the world is not about creating ideal conceptions and ideal institutions, then isn’t it necessarily about piecemeal negotiation of particular issues, as they present themselves? Criticising Sen for not telling us more about what we should do is like listening to someone advocate the merits of improvisation and then asking to see a score.

Julian Baggini is editor of tpm

  1. Noble Sen may be, but you mean ‘Nobel laureate’, don’t you? (Ed- Well spotted! Corrected.)

  2. The synthesis of universalism with pluralism is surely the major task of contemporary philosophy. Both Sen and Baggini himself do a great service to current thinking with the work they are developing in this respect. They are equally valuable in articulating disdain for so-called “rational choice theory” (maximization of individual self-interest) which is increasingly being promoted within the paradigm of “evolutionary psychology” as somehow a natural, inevitable and desirable characteristic of the human species. It must be the case that the intelligent course is to “judge societies, practices and states of affairs against alternatives, actual and possible”, rather than by reference to imaginary utopian notions on the one hand, or alleged inescapable ontological limitations on the other.

    But to eschew dogmatic prescriptions for behaviour is not the same thing as rejecting attempts to analyse the alternative methods of setting ideas against one another in order to transcend the more superficial contradictions with ever-improving alternatives. So, in my view, the argument about ethics resolves into one about epistemology precisely because of the positions both Sen and Baggini have rightly adopted. One recent book from a dialectician who was influential in the development of methodological pluralism in the last century seems to hit this spot with precision, passion and humour: Ford’s NEVER POINT AT A RAINBOW: AN INTRODUCTION TO RADICAL LOGIC is crying out for an incisive review by Baggini.

  3. TPM: The Philosophers’ Magazine | Books of the Year - pingback on December 18, 2009 at 12:46 am

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