Archive for the ‘Political Theory’ Category

Amartya Sen on Justice – An Introduction

July 31, 2009

I was not at Amartya Sen’s lecture at the London School of Economics where he launched his new book The Idea Of Justice (on Monday 27th July). Nor, from what I can gather, were many who wished to be. Around eight hundred email requests for tickets were made within five minutes of the website opening a week earlier.

I was however able to watch the live webcast, and the podcast is available for anyone who is interested here.

It seems appropriate that, 250 years after Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Amartya Sen, Nobel laureate in economics, and formally professor of philosophy at Harvard (now professor of economics at Cambridge), release a book espousing a theory of justice reaching back to Smith’s work.

During the lecture Sen distinguished between two broad schools of thought regarding justice which chair Nick Stern called the contractarian and comparative approaches, but which Sen prefers to relate to using the Sanskrit words ‘Neethi’ and ‘Niya’.

‘Neethi’ Sen explained, is used to refer to rules, institutions, and behaviour, while ‘Niya’ is used to say things like “the world is going justly”. As became clear during his lecture, ‘Neethi’ should be understood more procedurally, but also referring to a state of transcendental justice, of perfect justice. ‘Niya’ should be understood more consequentially, but also allowing for comparison between situations: “which situation is more just?”.

Tracing schools of thought about justice in Europe from the Enlightenment in the 18th century, Sen described an orthodoxy which is concerned with what constitutes a perfectly just society. Starting with Thomas Hobbes’s social contract theory, and including Locke, Rousseau and Kant, this historical orthodoxy is still dominant throughout the contemporary works of Ronald Dworkin, Thomas Nagel, Robert Nozick, David Gauthier, and John Rawls, despite their differences.

In his Theory of Justice for example, Rawls’ describes a set of perfectly just institutions from which the perfectly just society can emerge. Get the rules right, and everything else, including human behaviour, will follow; that’s a central vein of Rawls’ theory.

Disconcertingly, Thomas Nagel asserts that for there to be such a thing as global justice, there must be a global sovereign state, since, according to the orthodox perspective, justice is something to do with rules and institutions of a single society. So until we buy into the idea of a global sovereign state, which Nagel (and Sen) certainly doesn’t, there can be no such thing as global justice!

And this is when Amartya Sen describes the other school of thought, of which he is part, the school of ‘Niya’, which in European philosophy he traces back to Adam Smith.

Adam smith was concerned with particular injustices: famously, unjust government legislation, but also poverty, relative deprivation, illiteracy. Along with Nicolas de Condorcet and followed by John Stuart Mill, and Karl Marx, these thinkers worried more about making society a more just place, little by little, eliminating particular injustices, than trying to attain the chimera of a perfectly just society.

The drawbacks of the orthodoxy are plenty and Sen mentioned two. Many would disagree with any proposed perfectly just society, depending on personal views regarding the tension between liberty and equity. Secondly, vested interests aside, cultural contexts likely prejudice theories.

Smith and Sen’s approach avoids these difficulties. With no need of defining perfect justice, it is much easier to come to an agreement about at least some injustices. And taking one step at a time, injustices can be realistically addressed.

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