44 of 46 people found the following review helpful
on 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."
182 of 220 people found the following review helpful
on September 6, 2009
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. Democracy, then, is less about who gets what, and more about how people come to craft both their personal life-meaning and their collective destiny through political participation and discourse.
As an indication of the power of Sen's reasoning, he shows clearly how a commitment to a capabilities orientation to human welfare helps understand why income and welfare are conceptually and factually distinct and only somewhat correlated. Sen treats poverty as an inability to develop and exercise one's personal capacities. Thus, a family in the United States can have much higher income than another in a third world country and yet suffer from poverty while its third world counterpart does not. This is because the US family may be socially dysfunctional, or may live in a community that fails to provide the social relations and cooperative institutions that allow people to develop their capacities even though lacking in income.
Sen's innovation in this book is to critique the "transcendental institutionalism" of such traditional moral philosophers as Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant, Dworkin and Rawls, who seek to define a set of social institutions that foster "perfect justice," Sen argues that perfect justice is not capable of attainment, and it is better to focus on how society can be improved from its current state, give its actual pattern of injustices.
I have two major criticisms of this book. The first is that Sen has not updated his model of the individual or his critique of the neoclassical model of economic man since his important contributions of thirty or forty years ago. You would not discover by reading this book that there has been a virtual revolution in economic thought concerning human nature starting in the 1980's with behavioral game theory, experimental economics, and more recently, neuroeconomics. We can now go far beyond Sen's rather diffident and anemic argument that people are not always completely selfish. Perhaps Sen considers this new research deficient in some way. Or, perhaps such empirical findings do not belong in the same league as the venerable Western and Indian philosophers he quotes so liberally. We simply do not know what Sen thinks about this, or what his motives were to ignore this rich vein of research of obvious relevance to his argument.
My second problem is a bit more fundamental. I am extremely skeptical concerning the whole approach to justice that has dominated analytical philosophy since Rawls' seminal A Theory of Justice. Sen critiques John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, G. A. Cohen and other left-liberal thinkers on grounds of the impossibility of perfect justice. However, the real problem with these thinkers is that they believe justice is a matter of the distribution of wealth and income. This is not at all what justice means to most voters and citizens, who rather follow Robert Nozick in believing that justice consists in individuals getting that to which they are entitled by virtue of legitimate production, exchange, and inheritance. Serious thinkers must find the idea that ideal justice consists of complete social equality to be deeply repugnant.
In this view, justice is not fairness at all. Nevertheless, we can accept an entitlement view of justice and yet recognize that poverty, not some abstract inequality of income and wealth, is a real enemy of social wellbeing, not because it is unfair but because it is a preventable disease, like malaria, that we should not permit to inflict the young and innocent. Full social equality, then, is not a lamentable unattainable ideal state, but rather a thankfully unattainable monstrosity because it presupposes the absence of personal accountability and effectivity.
Sen's critique of the Rawlsian tradition is anemic and trivial. For this reason I find this book deeply disappointing. It is altogether too genteel in dealing with a philosophical tradition that deserves to be bitterly criticized, not gently reproached for its excessive zeal in the pursuit of an unattainable ideal.
45 of 52 people found the following review helpful
on August 28, 2009
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
22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on September 24, 2009
"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.
23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on September 24, 2009
The Idea of Justice
Amartya Sen is a very smart and distinguished man, a Nobel Prize winner in economics, an eminent political theorist, and an effective advocate of global human rights. I came to this book familiar with just some of his writing, only a small part of it, and I sought to refine my understanding of key contours of his thought. In spite of some shortcomings, I found The Idea of Justice satisfying in that regard. It is reflective of the scope and depth of his interests cultivated over the past 50 plus years. It is one book where the "Acknowledgements" section (a full eight pages) alone is instructive, suggesting how his thinking has been shaped through collaboration with dozens of other intellectual high achievers at the finest of the world's universities.
Here Sen inquires why we need a theory of justice and asks what such a theory might do. He criticizes certain notable theories and outlines his own. His chief target is contract theories, what he calls "arrangement-focused" conceptions of justice. According to Sen such theories are not an especially useful guide to practical reasoning, they do not help much to resolve the claims of competing values, and they focus exclusively on institutions and not on actual behavior.
He faults John Rawls' theory of justice as fairness for these and other reasons. He considers Rawls' ideal to be "transcendental," the specification of a perfect world based on a fiction. In contrast, Sen argues that we do not need an answer to the question of "what is a just society" in order to have a systematic theory of comparative justice.
He advocates a "realization-focused" approach to justice, one which stresses actual behavior and comparative choices among ways to live. He relies on certain core concepts drawn from his lifetime body of work, notably social choice theory and the human capabilities perspective on desired outcomes.
The capabilities perspective, as Sen frames it, differs from utilitarianism because it considers people's freedoms and obligations, not just the utilities they enjoy. People have agency interests and values, he says -- the ability to reason, appraise, choose, participate, and act -- not just needs for well-being.
While Sen describes these and other features of his desired theory of justice, he does not pull them together here into a rigorous comprehensive statement in the manner that we find in Rawls, for example. Instead, he seems to suggest that the details in any given circumstance might be worked out through reasoned discussion. Human rights are ethical claims that hold up to unobstructed public scrutiny, he contends. He recognizes that in many cases conflicts among competing values will remain after considering all of the arguments, but proposes that many cases will also lead to resolution.
I was left with the sense that Sen has spent too many years in seminar rooms too little exposed to the level of public policy debates portrayed in the popular media, that he himself has a transcendental expectation. It may be revealing of his unfounded confidence in open public debate that he offers universal health care as the example of where we can make progress even though there is disagreement on the means to achieve it.
So, while many elements of Sen's ideas about justice have appeal, do not expect a tidy and fully persuasive theory of his own to emerge. You will also need to tolerate repetition (introduction of an idea, later development of it, and then further references back to it) and either have some willingness to be side-tracked by substantive footnotes or possess the ability to remain oblivious to them.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on December 29, 2010
Before I bought the book I thought that some parts of it could be a difficult read for someone who is not well versed in political theory, philosophy of justice and social choice theory. Notwithstanding the potential intellectual difficulties, I could not resist the urge to read a book on such an important and fundamental concept written by a Nobel laureate in economics. Thankfully, Sen generally did not fail to amaze me with his clarity, concrete examples, breadth of references and depth of interpretations while forcing me to ask more and more sophisticated questions on the relationship between justice, democracy, absolute principles, ideals and the future of humanity. I found his examples on human-induced famines and their relationship to the lack of uncensored public reasoning especially striking. I'm not in a position to comment very much on his criticism of contractarian / transcendentalist approach but I cannot refrain from admiring his rigorous attempt at developing and defending an alternative which I found to be much more aligned with current political problems existing at various places in this world. I wish he gave more pages to the justification of human rights which seems to be a fairly difficult philosophical problem and deserves more investigation for practical purposes if for nothing else. I consider the every minute I spent on this book well worth the effort and I'll continue to explore the theory of justice with its help, further references and critical questions.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on October 20, 2009
This is an accessible yet dense book. Sen essentially argues that it is extremely difficult and likely past the ability of people to start axiomatically about how a justice system should be formed and deduce the practical results. This stems from the fact that the elements that people define as the parameters of their freedom are multidimensional versus something reducible to say utility, or even a ranking system of priorities that Rawls prioritized on. The repurcussion of this lack of strict relationships between the various degrees of "freedom" that people live under he reasons (along the lines of mathematical economists) there dont exist strict "optimal" solutions. He makes the point clear by referring to self referential utility and the fact that in such systems and especially the real world, our freedoms are all interconnected and thus there are sometimes no way to go about ranking justice from a bottom up perspective.
I think its hard to not agree with that as a thesis. An obvious example of an incredibly difficult practical problem to solve via ranking individual freedoms would be something like the environment and global warming. Another current example is solving moral hazard problems, especially within finance- there are a MASS of perspectives of right and wrong depending on how one weighs aggregate policy repurcussions against the need to promote lesson learning. Sen argues that problems which involve large systems need to be looked at as a complex system and judged by the repurcussions of the social architecture and then the "wisdom of crowds" both local and global shed light on the greatest injustices which should then be dealt with. Sen takes a very practical approach to justice as the complexities of trying to actually define a system of justice in a philosophical axiomatic way is unlikely to yield the results that are hoped for due to the multitude of priorities and competing interests. He doubts the philosophical exercises that give weight to the conclusion that our measures of right and wrong are all on the same side of the scale that we define as right and wrong (ie right is right wrong is wrong under veil of ignorance) and articulates this with one of his opening example of the kids and what their rights/entitlements are. To be honest, i would doubt that justice philosophers dont readily acknowledge a lot of what Sen says, but defer to the fact that one cannot define justice in a philophical sense from the top down. That is what things like common law and political lawmaking have evolved from (one can debate whether this is effective but our institutions allow for bottom up modification based off top down repurcussions), our inherint understanding that as things evolve, so does the justice system. Things that shape judges and political opinions are often intellectual movements that originated via people doing thought experiments of how we might be biased and what are ways to remove that (veil of ignorance).
Im surprised at the dissillusionment in the theory of rawls. It has served an extremely valuable service, and i think those people who work on describing new social contract ideas have the potential to be very influential on institutional arragnement. Similarly so will social choice theorists as they will counterbalance some of the over deduction used from foundational exploration by philosophers. Its hard not to see how both are necessary places for people to be working. One reviewer critiques the lack of embracing behavioral economics and the leaning on more walrusian style actors. I personally dont get that at all, and see the whole thesis as evidence that people cant be reduced to agents operating under utility maximization. One cant start from a framework of behavioural finance because it has no assumption basis from which results follow, its primarily a results based field for which results are used to work out internal dynamics- which is what Sen is saying we need to adopt.
All in all, the book has a LOT of material and ideas, it gets you interested in more, but is really far from complete. I didnt get a sense of chapters following one another particularly, but perhaps there is no real way of doing that well either given the amount Sen was trying to cover. I plan on reading more on the subject. The mental prodding the book does is reason enough to buy it, but this book definately wont leave one feeling like, ah, this is the final chapter, not even close. This sort of book really should open up debate, in a constructive way, but is unable to make one feel like we have the tools to measure justice in a more fair way.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on February 14, 2012
When I read the facts about poverty, the figures are astonishing and mind blowing. According to the World Bank accounts 2,735 million people (44 percent) of the world are living below $ 2 per day and only consume 1.3 percent of the global product. The number of annual deaths resulting from poverty-related causes reaches 18 million, or one-third of all human deaths. In contrast, high-income countries consisting of 955 million citizens account for 81 percent of the consumption of global product with per capita income nearly 80 times higher than that of the poor (Pogge 2005).Despite the growing global average income (currently $ 7,000) the income disparities are so huge that the average income of people living in rich countries stands at $ 35,000 (The Globalist 2007) per year, which makes the world average income four times larger than the world median income ($ 1,700). Such enormous income disparities between rich and poor raise many questions about 'justice'. Sheer inequalities have produced devastating poverty, illiteracy, low life expectancy, ill health and heavy dependency for living hood for 44 percent of global population. How has that happen, despite the existence of otherwise fine arrangements of justice? This is the concern Amartya Sen raised in his Book, "The Idea of Justice".
How can we go beyond the organizational arrangements and see whether the demands of justice are being addressed? Two words are very important in Sen's book "niti" and "nyaya" - both words have been used in legal theories in ancient India. One of the uses of "niti" is in the meaning of organizational propriety while in contrast the word "nyaya" stands for a more comprehensive concept of realized justice. Elaborating the concepts of "niti" and "nyaya" he gives few examples. Applying the concepts of "niti" and "nyaya" in the context of setting up schools for children in low education countries, the very act of setting up school is an important "niti", however, the sense of "nyaya" goes even further. In this case the real virtue of "nyaya" will be the achievement that boys and girls are actually educated and have the freedom that comes from that accomplishment. In another example, removing the counterproductive patent laws in order to make urgently needed drugs affordable by the poor of the world would be an excellent "niti", but it is the actual overcoming of diseases through the effective mix of measures, including making drugs available to poor through more targeted reach, better delivery etc., that is desired by "nyaya".
In terms of freedom of life - how can the organizational view limit the demands of justice vis-à-vis freedom from being subjugated to autocracy even in the name of democracy? What can go wrong in conceptualizing the public participation in a democracy? Sen says "there are of course formal and older views about democracy that characterize it mainly in terms of elections and ballots rather than in broader perspective of government by discussion" (Sen 2009). To him such interpretation is based on just "niti-oriented" (institutional) understanding of democracy, not on "nyaya-oriented" understanding of democracy. In the views of Sen, democracy should not be understood just as a procedural requirement, but rather also be judged by its merits as a form of participatory government that encourages public reasoning. Though ballots and elections are one way that public reasoning operates in a democratic society, the effectiveness of ballots depends on what goes along with the process of balloting particularly whether freedom of expression, access to information and freedom to vote one's own preferred political agenda is guaranteed or not?. If these conditions are not fulfilled then the true value of democracy may not be realized. Even the process of balloting alone can turn into benefits of authoritarian regimes as can be seen in the example of North Korea.
Seeing economic globalization, is global democratization also possible? In pure sense though we do not have a global state, but global reasoning is becoming a more powerful force in determining sovereign state's political, social and economic decisions. Many institutions have an influential role at global stage including the United Nations, Cross-national activists, Anti-globalization movement, Human rights NGOs, Environmental activists and so on. These organizations are exerting more and more influence in determining the course of action of sovereign states and businesses. Sen argues that aside from domestic policy, in international relations, distribution of benefits is largely dependent on international social arrangements, trade agreements, patent laws, global health initiatives, international educational programs, research and development cooperation, environmental management initiatives, past-debt-treatment and restraining from war or conflicts. Sen believes active public agitation and open discussion play an important role in the realization of global democracy.
Participatory democracy goes beyond balloting as Sen argues "No famine has ever taken place in history of the world in a functioning democracy" (Sen 2009). We can see its evidence from India where 350 million of India's one billion people go to bed hungry every night, and half of all Indian children are malnourished despite the fact that India is agriculturally a surplus producer and Indian government holds more than 50 million tons of surpluses of grain (Massing 2003). Thanks to functioning Indian democracy that allowed freedom of speech and freedom of expression, public protests, critical editorials and an appeal to the Indian Supreme Court forcing government to take measures to use this surplus. In a way all such freedoms have supported people's freedom from starvation (though not completely) which is not possible from a purely utilitarian stand point.
In a democratic system, ruling parties have to go in election for getting re-elected and in order to large prevent public discontent, they have incentive to undertake measures to avert famines and other such catastrophes. Because of this mechanism of critical scrutiny, in a just democratic system we see that ''There has not been a large-scale loss of life since 1947'' (Massing 2003) in India though ''there have been many incidents of large-scale food crises that, while not resulting in actual famines, have led to many, many deaths.'' (Massing 2003). Why could democracy not mitigate food crisis all together in India? Sen would say we must distinguish between the role of democracy in preventing famine and the comparative ineffectiveness of democracy in preventing regular undernourishment (Sen 1999).
Having gone through "The idea of justice", I arrive to conclusion that in his book, Sen has introduced a new discipline in the debate on justice as he perspicuously draws clear lines between rule-oriented and actualization based views of justice. He builds his thesis on the diagnosis of injustices instead of trying to find what can be a perfectly just society. In diagnosing injustices, Sen gives critical importance to public reasoning. Sen's eloquent expression of the terms "niti" and "nyaya" and respective outcomes of justice coincides with a profound legal maxim, `Justice should not only be done but it must be seen to done'. It involves the actual addressing of the questions that cannot be answered properly by means-based measures of human enrichment. Sen favors a comparative approach that entails comparing not entirely just societies with each other and find what a just society could look like. To conclude I would like to quote the most appealing argument of Sen "It is bad enough that the world we live in have so much deprivation of one kind or another (from being hungry to being tyrannized); it would be even more terrible if we were not able to communicate, respond and altercate" (Sen 2009).
1. M. Massing, 'Does Democracy Avert Famine?' (The New York Times, 2003).
2. T. Pogge, 'World Poverty and Human Rights', Ethics & International Affairs, (2005).
3. A. Sen, 'Democracy as a Universal Value', Journal of Democracy 3 (1999).
4. A. Sen, The Idea of Justice (Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009).
5. The Globalist, 'Average earnings worldwide', (Washington: 2007).
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on November 8, 2011
My solution would be for Carla to keep the flute. However she could then sell the flute to Anne, reinvesting the proceeds to make more flutes. Anne's competant flute playing would create demand for Carla's flutes allowing her to sell more flutes and employ more people who she could train in flute manufacture. (if Bob is genuinely interested in flutes maybe he could apply for the job and buy his own flute out of his earnings, thus averting the need for a charitable solution). In the fullness of time Anna can buy another flute from Carla to give to Bob out of her earnings as a concert flautist, or Carla can use some of her retained earnings as a flute manufacturer, or dividend income if the company has gone public and she has retained a share, to buy a flute from her stock for Bob (or more realistically for one of Bob's kids). If one feels sorry for Bob there are probably a lot of things that could help him out of poverty more quickly than than a flute that he cant play.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on November 5, 2011
The book really serves the intended purpose. It helped me better understand the extensive discourses and research around the topic of Justice and Sen's own advancement in contrast to 'just society', the modern theories often deal with. In page 20 he explains the contrast between an arrangement focused and realization focused view of justice where he introduces to Sanskrit words - Niti and Nyaya - to explain the difference. He further quotes an example from Gita where Krishna persuades Arjuna to fight a 'Just' war and asking him to focus on the duty. Arjuna is not convinced and worries about killing his relatives and the other consequence of the war. So clearly, Arjuna is more realization or Nyaya focused. In page 211 he elaborates this point by referring to Robert Oppenheimer's mission and his later regrets.
Rational Choice, Sympathy and Commitment in the context of Social justice are analyzed in page 188 which was very interesting to read. As an economics student, I liked the welfare economics and happiness discussions in page 272. Overall, the book is not as easy reading for someone who has no training on the topic. However, it provides enough references so that at the end you feel like you know something about the topic.