Amartya Sen on justice: How to do it better The Economist
Aug 6th 2009 From The Economist print edition
In his study on how to create justice in a globalised world, Amartya Sen expounds on human aspiration and deprivation—and takes a swipe at John Rawls
The Idea of Justice. By Amartya Sen. Belknap Press; 496 pages; $29.95. Allen Lane; £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk
AT THE disputed crossroads where economics and ethics meet stands Amartya Sen, a Nobel-prize-winning economist who thinks like a philosopher. In a dauntingly impressive flow of books and papers over 40 years he has done much to change both disciplines for the better, humanising the one, bringing content from the real world to the other. His work is technical, however, and the fine detail has sometimes hidden the shape of the whole. Mr Sen’s latest book answers both difficulties in magisterial style.
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. It is often intricate but never worthy. Conceptual subtleties flank blunt accounts of famine’s causes or physical handicap’s economic effects. A conviction that economists and philosophers are in business to improve the world burns on almost every page.
Mr Sen writes with dry wit, a feel for history and a relaxed cosmopolitanism. He presumes that the values in play are of global, not purely Western, import. Earlier thinkers he cites on justice and toleration come less from fourth-century Athens or 17th-century England than from India, where he was born 75 years ago. Growing up in Bengal, he learned about poverty and equality directly, not from books.
Two themes predominate: economic rationality and social injustice. Mr Sen approaches them alike. He can, when he wants, theorise without oxygen at any height. But he believes that theory, to be of use, must keep its feet on the ground. Modern theorists in his view have drifted too far from the actual world.
Economists have tended to content themselves with a laughably simple picture of human motivation, rationality and well-being. People are not purely self-interested. They care for others and observe social norms. They do not always reason “instrumentally”, seeking least-cost means to given ends. They question the point of their aims and the worth of their wants. Well-being, finally, has no single measure and is not inscrutable to others. Its elements are many and do not boil down to “utility” or some cash-value equivalent.
Complexity, though, need not breed mystery. Well-being’s diverse elements (freedom from hunger, disease, indignity and discrimination, to name four) are generally observable and, he believes, measurable. They are, to put it crudely, matters of fact, not taste, even if his philosophical story—that what underpins the several elements of well-being is that they all extend people’s “capabilities”—is still argued over.
Rawls held that social justice depended on having just institutions, whereas Mr Sen thinks that good social outcomes are what matter. Strictly both could be right. The practical brunt of Mr Sen’s criticism, however, is that just institutions do not ensure social justice. You can, in addition, recognise social injustices without knowing how a perfectly fair society would arrange or justify itself. Rawlsianism, though laudable in spirit, is too theoretical, and has distracted political philosophers from corrigible ills in the actual world.
Other arguments feed Mr Sen’s main themes. For example, that social-choice theory (how to gauge a society’s welfare from that of its members) permits good-enough, albeit incomplete, social comparisons. Also that the inevitable fact that moral judgments are made from a viewpoint does not make moral values local or subjective; that when talking of equality, you must always ask “equality of what?”; that rights carry extra weight without necessarily outweighing every concern; that justice’s demands outrun countries’ borders.
Tying the whole together is Mr Sen’s confidence that, though values are complex, economics provides tools for thinking clearly about complexity. “The Idea of Justice” is a feast, though perhaps not one to be consumed at a single sitting.
Virtually every claim Mr Sen makes will be objected to by someone. Right-wingers who follow Friedrich Hayek or James Buchanan will treat “social justice” and “social choice” as nonsenses. Mr Sen wants to humanise canons of “maximising” rationality; behavioural economists, much in fashion, aim to ditch them altogether. Rawlsian liberals will rally to the defence of their hero. Nobody, however, can reasonably complain any longer that they do not see how the parts of Mr Sen’s grand enterprise fit together.
His hero is Adam Smith: not the Smith of free-market legend, but the father of political economy who grasped the force of moral constraint and the value of sociability. To encapsulate the shift in attitude that Mr Sen has sought to bring about, ethics and economics are to be seen as Smith saw them: not two subjects, but one.
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.