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The Idea of Justice 1st Edition

4.3 out of 5 stars 30 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674036130
ISBN-10: 0674036131
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Editorial Reviews


The most important contribution to the subject since John Rawls' A Theory of Justice. Sen argues that what we urgently need in our troubled world is not a theory of an ideally just state, but a theory that can yield judgments as to comparative justice, judgments that tell us when and why we are moving closer to or farther away from realizing justice in the present globalized world.
--Hilary Putnam, Harvard University

In lucid and vigorous prose, The Idea of Justice gives us a political philosophy that is dedicated to the reduction of injustice on Earth rather than to the creation of ideally just castles in the air. Amartya Sen brings political philosophy face to face with human aspiration and human deprivation in the real world, to whose improvement he has devoted his intellectual life.
--G. A. Cohen, University of Oxford

A major critical analysis and synthesis. Sen's inclusive approach transcends the many important scholars and viewpoints that he analyzes. The Idea of Justice presents a set of considerations on justice of importance to both the academic community and to the world of policy formation.
--Kenneth Arrow, Nobel Laureate in Economics, Stanford University

Few contemporary thinkers have had as much direct impact on world affairs as Amartya Sen --Philippe Van Parijs, Louvain University

In the courtliest of tones, Mr. Sen charges John Rawls, an American philosopher who died in 2002, with sending political thinkers up a tortuous blind alley. The Rawlsian project of trying to describe ideally just institutions is a distracting and ultimately fruitless way to think about social injustice, Mr. Sen complains. Such a spirited attack against possibly the most influential English-speaking political philosopher of the past 100 years will alone excite attention. The Idea of Justice serves also as a commanding summation of Mr. Sen's own work on economic reasoning and on the elements and measurement of human well-being...Mr. Sen writes with dry wit, a feel for history and a relaxed cosmopolitanism...The Idea of Justice is a feast...Nobody can reasonably complain any longer that they do not see how the parts of Mr. Sen's grand enterprise fit together...Mr. Sen ends, suitably, with democracy. It can take many institutional forms, he says. But none succeeds without open debate about values and principles. To that vital element in public reason, as he calls it, The Idea of Justice is a contribution of the highest rank. (The Economist 2009-08-06)

[Sen's] magnum opus on a line of work he's long addressed and now thoroughly re-examines: justice theory...In repeatedly bringing back into the discussion Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, Sen signals the need for justice theory to reconnect to realistic human psychology, not the phony formal rationalism that infects modern economics or the for-sake-of-argument altruism that anchors Rawls's project.
--Carlin Romano (Chronicle of Higher Education 2009-09-14)

An original contribution to political philosophy.
--Adam Kirsch (City Journal 2009-09-11)

Sen's whole book is a cornucopia of commonsense humane advice combined with analytical insight, and far wiser than those thinkers who try to derive all their recommendations from one usually questionable overriding value.
--Samuel Brittan (Financial Times 2009-09-04)

In this intricate, endlessly thought-provoking book, Sen brings the full force of his formidable mind and his moral sense to show how specific questions--of chronic malnourishment, ill-health, demographic gender imbalance--must be analysed in terms of justice. Doing something about them is not a discretionary matter--it is a requirement of being human. Sen is the most sophisticated intellectual campaigner of our times--his arguments have shaped not just academic disciplines but the policies of governments and of global institutions like the World Bank.
--Sunil Khilnani (Financial Times online 2009-07-25)

Polymathic brilliance among scholars is now generally agreed to be 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...But someone forgot to tell all this to Amartya Sen.
--Richard Reeves (Sunday Times 2009-09-26)

[A] majestic book... Reading The Idea of Justice is like attending a master class in practical reasoning. You can't help noticing you are engaging with a great, deeply pluralistic, mind...This is a monumental work.
--Ziauddin Sardar (The Independent 2009-08-21)

Sen has given us a magisterial treatment of a moral and philosophical problem which touches us from the cradle to the grave. The work bids to replace John Rawls and his predecessors back to Hobbes and Locke as the model and paragon of theoretical analysis on the idea of justice...A compelling read.
--Bill McSweeney (Irish Times 2009-08-15)

I depart feeling challenged, invigorated, and questioning after my encounter with one of the most remarkable thinkers alive today.
--Sholto Byrnes (The Independent 2009-07-19)

This is an essential book; it sums up and extends the contributions of one of the world's leading thinkers about justice.
--David Gordon (Library Journal 2009-10-15)

Sen is one of the great thinkers of our era, and his writings range from discursive and luminous interventions on great modern questions, such as identity and famine, to major complex works on political philosophy. At a moment when many are wondering whether there couldn't be a better world than that preceding the credit crunch, and better lives to be led, Sen is publishing...The Idea of Justice, an attempt to construct a new way of understanding what a more just world might be like...If a public intellectual is defined by his or her capacity to bridge the worlds of pure ideas and the most far-reaching policies, Sen has few rivals... Sen's revolutionary idea is that of capability, the capacity that people have for living and choosing how to live a good life. A good idea of justice concerns enhancing capability.
--David Aaronovitch (The Times 2009-07-04)

Characteristically clear and powerful...This book is a distillation of so much that has come to be associated with Sen, and reading these new formulations is truly humbling. The intellectual clarity, the ability to create conceptually innovative distinctions, the broad range of historical learning from sources across the world, the powerful use of examples, but perhaps most importantly, the deep humanity and faith in a certain form of non-utopian progress all vividly shine through.
--Pratap Bhanu Mehta (Outlook 2009-08-12)

[Sen's] book quite radically attempts to shift the grounds of the conversation [about justice] altogether. It seeks to provide a counter-framework rather than a counter-theory. And this is only one of its many admirable ambitions...The repudiation of the economicist account of life is one of this book's most valuable achievements...The spectacle of an economist rejecting a purely economic understanding of the individual is delightful to behold. And this wise and deep position--focusing on a comparative, results-oriented approach, which is measured by the actual capabilities that it offers human beings--is not based on Sen's arguments alone, important and penetrating as they are. His position expresses also a larger sensibility that is anchored in his exceptional range of thought and his lifelong commitments. Besides what he describes as his love affair with philosophy, he is a world-renowned economist and one of the greatest public intellectuals of India, who has been a leading voice for social and economic reforms, breaking new ground in the analysis of gender inequality, famine, and illiteracy. Sen's range is amazing. His intimacy with the Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim cultures of India, which is beautifully woven into the book, gives him access to a far greater range of argumentation and reasoning than is common among philosophers who were educated exclusively in the Western analytical tradition. His knowledge of this vast cultural history, and his profound respect for it, is an important source of Sen's humility in recognizing the essential plurality of legitimate claims--in rejecting any sort of monism in the life of the mind...His work--in its simultaneous affirmation of the universal and the particular--serves as an eloquent and humane testimony to the power of reason, which respects (when it is honest and attends to the integrity of its arguments) the multiplicity of voices and traditions. Reason seeks truth wherever it may be found, and so, like the author of this genuinely important book, it travels widely, and may find support near and far.
--Moshe Halbertal (New Republic 2009-12-02)

Clearly the place to start for ascertaining how [Sen's] views fit together into a unique and inspiring position on justice.
--Samuel Moyn (The Nation 2009-11-18)

Sen's stimulating and eloquent new work is in some ways a commentary on Rawls, but its refinements give his arguments greater applicability. (New Yorker 2009-12-07)

The Idea of Justice is...grand in the best sense of the word, taking on difficult subjects, and respectfully following centuries of philosophical debate while imaginatively rethinking them...[It] will undoubtedly set many future agendas for social research...The Idea of Justice marries economic and political analysis to moral reasoning, and this is among the most important elements of this volume...The Idea of Justice transcends political convention, expansively and elegantly. Read it front to back as a logical rethinking of classical political theory; read it back to front as an agenda of pressing, shared concerns. Either way, this is a volume worth its considerable weight and length. In an era typified by increasingly contentious politics, violent challenges to states and societies, and elusive (and often ignored) norms for global political engagement, The Idea of Justice is a call for civility in the best sense of the word, and a model of gracious intellectual engagement.
--Paula Newberg (Globe and Mail 2009-10-24)

The must-read of 2009 is The Idea of Justice.
--Christopher Lee (The Scotsman 2009-12-05)

Sen's magisterial critique of the dominant mode of liberal political philosophy, which chases after the chimera of an ideally just society rather than identifying existing injustices, confirmed him as the English--speaking world's pre--eminent public intellectual. By 2009, leading politicians from all sides were falling over themselves to claim Sen as their own. (New Statesman 2009-12-10)

In The Idea of Justice Sen orchestrates his many contributions and achievements into a distinctive position on justice...How the current revival of political philosophy will influence future generations is impossible to predict. But it's a safe bet that the debates will be of world-historical importance, and that Sen's ideas about justice, social choice theory, and the capabilities approach to assessing well-being will make a crucial contribution to them.
--Samuel Freeman (New York Review of Books 2010-10-14)

About the Author

, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics, is Lamont University Professor, Harvard University.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press; 1 edition (September 30, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674036131
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674036130
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.3 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #597,446 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Amartya Sen is Lamont University Professor, Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Economics, at Harvard University. He won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1998 and was Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, 1998-2004. His many books include Development as Freedom, Rationality and Freedom, The Argumentative Indian and Identity and Violence.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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.
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Amartya Sen, recipient of the Nobel prize in Economics in 1998, is a very special economist. He has first-rate technical skills, he is a fine interpreter of the empirical evidence on the causes of famine and poverty around the world, he has a deep commitment to egalitarian social change, and he is a looming figure in modern political philosophy. Sen is a key contributor to the current movement towards integrating the insights of the various social sciences towards better understanding of society and increasing our capacity to improve social policy interventions in to economic and political life.

The Idea of Justice is a large, meandering book that is accessible to the novice in social theory and political philosophy, and includes most of the ideas Sen has championed in his long and productive career, plus a new idea that leads him beyond such established contemporary political philosophers as John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin.

In much the same way as German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, Sen's commitment to freedom and democracy is based not on distributional issues, but rather on a deep understanding of the importance of communicative discourse and public debate in making the good society. This commitment fits well with Sen's major contribution to welfare economics, which is providing an alternative to the selfish and materialistic Homo Economicus of standard neoclassical economics. For traditional economics, well-being is a function of the goods and services and individual enjoys. For Sen, well-being is a function of how fully and vigorously an individual exercises his human capabilities.
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Amartya Sen presents the remarkable conclusion that justice is a process that never becomes absolutely perfect. He presents very convincingly the view that you need to compare many alternatives "social choice" and discuss them widely with many people from different categories, also considering what other countries have done and rank these alternatives. In ranking you should not fall in the trap of mathematical optimization procedures. It requires common sense.
This does not mean you need ranking for gross injustices like racial discrimination. Sen rejects the Rawls idea of Justice as Fairness as it is one, may be the best one, of the absolute just systems. In fact all thinkers or politicians that claim to have developed an absolutely perfect system are wrong. Very important is to look not only at a system from a theoretical justice point of view but also equally important what is the reality of application at the level of all citizens.
He also makes a very interesting review of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations. His view is that the "rights" are not rights in the sense that they are legal rights to be enforced. They are however very important as aspects to be considered in the ranking of alternatives.
Those that might have hoped to find a system of justice that is absolutely right will be disappointed, those are looking ways to improve justice will be very enthusiastic about this book
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Format: Hardcover
"Identity and Violence" was close to the best book I have ever read, so I did not hesitate to pick up "The Idea of Justice" when it was published.

As a non-philosopher, there were occasions when I battled. I don't have a detailed grip of the various schools of thought on justice, and that meant my readings were going to be strained as I tried to follow Sen's various arguments and counterarguments. And there were times when he lost me.

But recalling this aspect of the book misses a bigger point when you get to read the arguments offered by one of the great thinkers of our time - you don't need to get everything, arguably you don't even need to get most of it, in order for the content to be enriching. That's how those of us who aren't experts in Sen's field need to approach this book. And on this aspect, I saw the structure of the book as quite helpful, in that each of the chapters concludes with a fairly accessible summing up of Sen's ideas. After wading though some dense argumentation, especially dense when you were absorbing the footnotes as well, it was invaluable to have something akin to an overview.

But this still doesn't answer the question of why someone who will find this a difficult read should give it a go. Here's why - Sen will prompt you to challenge your existing prejudices and dogmatism. We all hold particular beliefs about why certain things should be so, and Sen will prompt you to re-analyse them. In this case, it is on ideas of fairness and justice, for which we all hold conscious (and subconscious) preconceptions and biases.

This sounds terribly banal, but the reason to read Sen is that he teaches us to think. And the issue on which he is asking us to think here, could not be more fundamental and far-reaching.
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