‘The Idea of Justice’ reviewed by David Marjoribanks

The Idea of Justice

Allen Lane, London, 2009. 468pp. £25.00hb
ISBN 9781846141478

Reviewed by David Marjoribanks

About the reviewer

David Marjoribanks is an Associate Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Kent. His PhD thesis …


In this book, Nobel Prize-winning economist and philosopher Amartya Sen presents his distinctive approach to justice, which might be termed a ‘social choice theory of justice’. This approach challenges the very way political philosophy tends to be done. Justice, for Sen, is about comparative assessment rather than construction of ideally just pipe-dreams; “the question ‘what is a just society?’ is not … a good starting-point for a useful theory of justice” (105).

The book therefore has a rather ironic title, for the approach Sen sets out is far from an idea of justice. The stated focus of Sen’s theory is remedying real injustice rather than constructing a theory of what justice demands. Sen contrasts two ways of thinking about justice: ‘transcendental institutionalism’, which encompasses the bulk of contemporary political philosophy, and ‘realization-focused comparison’, which characterises his own approach (7). To bring out this contrast, Sen invokes an old distinction from Sanskrit literature on ethics and jurisprudence. In classical Sanskrit, he writes, the word ‘justice’ has two forms: ‘niti’, which refers to organisational propriety and behavioural correctness, and ‘nyaya’, which stands for a comprehensive concept of realised justice (20). While Rawls and others are focused on niti, Sen draws our attention to nyaya.

Sen’s central thesis is that justice is about real-world choices to improve human lives. Sen’s approach to justice seems to direct us to practice and comparative assessments rather than abstract philosophising and is rather reminiscent of Marx’s famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, “the philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it”. What motivates the common perception of injustice, he observes, is not that the world falls short of being completely just, but that there exist manifest and remediable injustices which we want to eliminate (vii).

Justice for Sen is comparative, then, not transcendental. The purpose of the book, as he describes it, is to “attempt to investigate realization-based comparisons that focus on the advancement or retreat of justice” (8).

However, although this theme is repeated throughout the book, there is a certain irony in the fact that this work remains a piece of political philosophy, and is very thin on policy or the real-world practice which Sen directs us to. On one hand, his theory of justice gives no ideal, no ranking of alternatives; on the other, it is policy-light and has little to say about how injustices which are agreed to exist might be remedied, despite its claims to be focused on real injustice.

Sen does not offer anything by way of suggestion of rankings of plural reasons. The thrust of his work is in rejecting finality, rejecting a fixed threshold from which comparative assessments and rankings may be derived. But the claim that there may be no ultimate ranking is one thing; it is another to get on with the real-world problems of ranking competing claims. Sen provides no indication of how justice may then be achieved; he leaves the reduction of injustice to the exercise of public reason. Justice, it seems, is whatever emerges from the exercise of public reason, although that reasoning will give no final result. While Rawls accepts that unanimity may be impossible, but nevertheless offers his reasons for thinking that Justice as Fairness is the best theory so far, Sen seems to have nothing to say on the relative merits of different conceptions, or on how justice might be advanced in the world. For a work which focuses on moving away from abstract ideas of justice, this is at times frustratingly abstract.

Sen illustrates the plurality of reasons for justice with an example. Take three children and a flute over which the children are quarrelling. Anne claims she should get the flute because she can play it. Bob says it should be given to him because he is poor and has no toys of his own. Carla has spent many months working to make it, and argues it should be hers as the fruit of her labour. How do we decide between these claims? Sen’s answer is that we may never reach a final ordering of plural values. Consequently, there may not be a clearly identifiable perfectly just arrangement, on which impartial reasoning would converge.

How then are we to ever decide between competing claims? Sen argues that we can make comparative assessments without an ultimately fixed standard. To choose between a Picasso and a Dali, he writes, it is of little help that the ideal picture is the Mona Lisa (16). As Sen later acknowledges, the comparison with aesthetics might be difficult, given its inherent subjectivity and indeterminacy (what would a ‘perfect picture’ even be?). The comparison with art is then replaced by height: to understand Mount Everest as the tallest mountain is not helpful in comparing the peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro or Mount McKinley (102). But here again the comparison is difficult: height is by nature relative, and it is not an essentially contested concept; justice is. While it is unnecessary to have an ultimate standard of height to assess relative heights, it may yet be necessary to have an ultimate standard of justice to judge relative injustices. Sen’s arguments to the contrary will not, I think, persuade those inclined toward the transcendental approach.

Although rankings will only ever be partial and limited, it is crucial for Sen’s approach that some partial ranking is possible. However, this is more asserted than argued, and Sen not only offers no suggestion of what such partial rankings might be, he also dedicates relatively little space beyond the poorly chosen comparisons above to defending the claim that partial rankings and comparative judgments do not require a transcendent ideal of justice.

Sen’s social choice theory of justice directs us to remedy manifest gross injustices (of which there are, criminally, many, of course), but it offers little help in the struggle for cases of more controversial justice. This is not necessarily a criticism – the ‘basic injustice’ focus of Sen’s work could provide a radical political programme, and it is no trivial task to remedy many basic injustices which he mentions, such as the absence of guarantee of medical attention, the severe undernourishment of children, the subjugation of women, and continuing famines in a world of prosperity. However, while a purely comparative theory of justice suffices in extreme cases of injustice, it seems of little help when we are confronted with many injustices which are less obvious and basic. His argument that transcendence is insufficient is well made. But the argument that it is not necessary seems problematic and is insufficiently defended.

If we distinguish a plurality of reasons from a relativity of reasons, we may want to say that although pluralism is a fact of life, there may yet be reasons which have more weight than others. Sen may be correct that a final ordering is impossible, but he leaves us with an apparent relativism: in his example of the three children he is content to say this shows the plurality of reasons, rather than arguing that some particular ranking of these values might be preferable. Although an ultimate ordering may be impossible, if the children were reasonable adults thinking about a social system rather than just this case they might agree, for example, that reward for labour, enjoyment, and equality are all important, but decide that reward for labour is less important, given that people can only take credit for a portion of that work, for genetic make-up, upbringing, and other contingencies of birth account for a large amount of people’s life-chances. Sen’s theory of justice would be less vague if he provided an argument for a certain possible ranking. As it is, Sen’s theory of justice is disappointingly vague.

Objectivity is crucial for a theory of justice and for Sen it comes from reasoned scrutiny from different perspectives. On this point, Sen provides an excellent argument, based in Adam Smith, for the need for ‘global-ness’ in impartiality. Distinguishing ‘closed’ impartiality, as given by Rawls’s territorially-situated agents from ‘open’ impartiality, he argues that real impartial scrutiny requires sensitivity to the others; objectivity therefore requires taking note of different viewpoints from elsewhere. We need to extend our sense of neighbourhood beyond its current frontiers. Justice must then be global.

Rawls’ theory of justice figures throughout, usually as a starting point against which Sen contrasts his own approach. In his critique of Rawls, however, Sen rather over-emphasises the contrast. Having placed Rawls as a transcendental institutionist, Sen then retreats to admit that in his later writings Rawls concedes that the content of public reason is not given by a single political conception of justice, but many. Rawls is not therefore committed to the view that there is only one ‘correct’ theory of justice, which Sen opposes. Sen then argues that Rawls’s admission here undercuts the very project Rawls is engaged in, for if we do not know whether a plurality of reasons for justice would generate a single set of principles in the original position, Rawlsian justice, which proceeds from the identification of just institutions, would “get stuck at the very base” (11). Here Sen’s argument is rather weak. He does not pursue his argument to show why the ‘Rawlsian project’ would be immediately devastated by the admission of uncertainty about securing unanimous agreement. It is not clear to me that Justice as Fairness must be abandoned once we accept this. Rawls does not argue that his conception is the only possible reasonable one, but he does provide reasons for thinking it is the best, he hopes. Sen’s engagements with Rawls throughout this book are rather disappointing, and do not bear the weight he attributes to them. Although Sen also is not reticent about his intellectual debt to Rawls, his critique seems often to be felling a straw man, or over-emphasising the contrasts. The fourth chapter, ‘Rawls and Beyond’ is one of the most disappointing chapters of the book.

Nevertheless, despite his esteemed standing, Sen writes with an elegant humility. His list of acknowledgements is eight pages long and he frequently cites colleagues, friends, fellow academics, etc. from whom he has learnt. In his critiques of other positions he is exceedingly polite while forceful in his reasoning.

Sen describes his work as ‘a theory of justice in a very broad sense’ (ix). Indeed, the breadth of the book is huge, encompassing not only a social choice theory of justice, but economic rationality, public reasoning, the limits of ethical objectivity, democracy, human rights, capabilities and human wellbeing and the need for global justice. This strength is at the same time a weakness, for several sections are insufficiently developed. In particular, as I argued above, his social choice theory of justice – his most important contribution – is confined to a single chapter, and requires further elaboration.

The book is lengthy, and veers away from the core thread of the argument at times. Sen is keen to integrate into his theory of justice his work on rational decision making and the elements of human wellbeing, but the rather long sections on rational choice theory (much of part 2) and capabilities (much of part 3), for example, do not always have a clear connection to the theory of justice.

However, this book is wonderfully lucid and readable, and is very accessible, to the intelligent public as well as academics. Sen writes engagingly with a feel for history and a truly global perspective. Anecdotes from Indian history and literature provide illustrations of points and take their place alongside Shakespeare, Dickens and other literary examples which bring the arguments to life.

Sen sees the mission of economists and philosophers as improving the world, and the focus on the real project of bettering humanity is evident throughout. The capability approach, for all the vagueness of Sen’s theory of justice, draws attention to real human beings’ actual ability to lead a fulfilling life, and Sen’s humanitarianism is apparent in the pages. Despite the disappointing vagueness of Sen’s social choice theory of justice, this is a highly interesting, provoking and enjoyable work of political philosophy.

18 June 2010

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