Dated October 19, 2009
Within the past month I was lucky enough to be able to meet with Amartya Sen thrice; at a conference, at a discussion and signing of his new book “The Idea of Justice,” and at a dinner where I was honored to be able to hold a long discussion with him. Here I will draw on my understanding of him and his subject to give a brief review of his new book, “The Idea of Justice.”
One of the carried misconceptions that I would like to point out in the beginning is that Sen is not a quote-and-quote hard boiled economist. Rather he is more of a philosopher of economic thought. As such most of his work carries inherent philosophies which can shake off the first readers. “The Idea of Justice” is entirely a building of philosophical ideologies as he draws on economic reasoning, current policies, laws and politics. One of the introductory examples Sen provides involves taking three kids and a flute. Anne says the flute should be given to her because she is the only one who knows how to play it. Bob says the flute should be handed to him as he is so poor he has no toys to play with. Carla says the flute is hers because it is the fruit of her own labor. How do we decide between these three legitimate claims?
Sen argues that with the current system which follows policies and laws based on a search of a “just society” as put forth by English Enlightenment Philosopher Thomas Hobbes and followed on by John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant and the contemporary most influential figure John Rawls (thereby often being referred to as the Rawlsian project; much of Sen’s critique is towards Rawls’ 1971 book, “A Theory of Justice”), there is no arrangement that can help us resolve this dispute in a universally accepted just manner. What really enables us to resolve the dispute between the three children is the value we attach to the pursuit of human fulfillment, removal of poverty, and the entitlement to enjoy the products of one’s own labor.
Who gets the flute depends on your philosophy of justice. Bob, the poorest, will have the immediate support of the economic egalitarian. The libertarian would opt for Carla. The utilitarian hedonist will bicker a bit but will eventually settle for Anne because she will get the maximum pleasure, as she can actually play the instrument. While all three decisions are based on rational arguments and correct within their own perspective, they lead to totally different resolutions.
The current system, Sen argues, revolves around an imaginary “social contract” where we are trying to make ideally just institutions assuming that people will comply with it. Sen identifies two major problems with this “arrangement focused” or “transcendental institutionalism” approach. The first is a feasibility problem of coming to an agreement on the characteristics of a “just society;” the second a redundancy problem of trying to repeatedly identify a “just society.”
What Sen proposes is a “realization-focused” approach that “concentrates on the actual behavior of people, rather than presuming compliance by all with ideal behavior.” Instead of focusing on an ideally just society which is influencing much of the recent political economy, Sen’s alternative focuses more on the removal of manifesting injustice on which we all rationally agree and the advancement of justice from the world as we see, instead of looking for perfection, which Sen points out, can never be attained.
What makes Sen’s writing more appealing to me is how he correlates many previously almost sadly unnoticed eastern ideologies with the western approaches, including those of Kautliya, the Indian political economy and strategy writer now claimed to be the Indian Machiavelli (which is funny because Kautliya was from the 4th century BC being compared to Machiavelli from the 15th century) and from early Indian Jurisprudence, namely the niti and the nyaya, to mention a few. Although Amartya Sen touches on these eastern topics as inspirational matters, I would be more satisfied if he had gone into more detail of their analysis in his book, “The Idea of Justice.”