This post just pulls in my review of Amartya Sen’s 2010 book The Idea of Justice, which I had originally posted on Goodreads in 2011 soon after I finished reading the book. It had picked up a few ‘likes’ but little discussion, so I thought I’d post it here again. I’ve added a few links for context.
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
When an author as distinguished as Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate in economics and acclaimed polymath and thinker, writes on the issue of justice, one expects great insight into an aspect central to human life and democracy. With more than 400 dense pages of text and footnotes, over 30 pages of notes, and a long preface, Sen’s book tries to take the reader through a labyrinth of ideas and literature from ancient times to modern days. Indeed, in proposing an approach that is philosophically and morally relevant to human freedom and capability, and that integrates well with modern views on democracy and openness, Sen makes a stalwart contribution to the literature of our times.
Sen’s essential thesis is simple. He sets up a contrast between two views of justice. The more paradigmatic traditional view, which Sen calls transcendental institutionalism, based on John Rawls‘s A Theory of Justice is set against a more realization-focused comparative approach developed by many thinkers and espoused by Sen himself. The former depends on a social contract among individuals that will ostensibly evolve in a hypothetical ‘original condition’ of impartiality where everyone is free of their vested interests due to a ‘veil of ignorance‘ that separates them from what they will be in the real world. This is then supposed to lead to two fundamental principles of justice (liberty, equality and equity) and determine the right institutions and rules governing justice, after which we are home and free on the road to perfect justice. In the latter view, Sen questions whether perfect justice is either attainable or required, and if creating institutions and rules are sufficient to see that justice is actually achieved in the real world. The answer, rather obviously, is no. We are mostly not interested in what perfect or ideal justice is in a given situation; mostly, what we have are two or more options that we need to assess to see which would be more just. Such assessment, should be based on reasoning, preferably public reasoning that is open, impartial, and democratic and leads to the best social choices and actual realization of justice among people in the real world. The contrast between the two concepts is also presented by Sen as the distinction between the concepts of niti and nyaya in Indian thought.
This overarching message of the book and the additional weight provided by someone like Sen in pushing it, is a valuable one. It suggests that in a world rife with problems and conflicts, citizens and the media have a more central role in engaging with issues, learning about them, reasoning publicly over diverse choices, and arriving at rational and better courses of action.
In the end, however, the book disappoints more than it edifies, it frustrates more than it clarifies. To be fair, this is not because Sen’s reasoning is defective or that the approach to justice he espouses in the book is vague or poorly reasoned. It fails partly because Sen is not really saying anything new in this book that he and others have not already said earlier. More important, Sen buries his simple and highly relevant thinking and his effort to pull ideas together under a cloud of pedantry and repetition. Only a diehard reader willing to suffer some poor, laboured writing in order to grasp some really rich ideas can plough through this book.
Does a man who knows so much about the economy of the world, know so little about the economy of words?
Early on, Sen describes the essential features of Rawls’s theory briefly, with the apology that
…every summary is ultimately an act of barbarism…
and his counter-view and reasoning. This, along with other related ideas on the importance of reason and impartiality, is then repeated many times (easily over a dozen times, but one loses count) throughout the book. Not only does Sen repeat the basic idea of justice (often in more or less the same words) in the text, he repeats himself in the extensive footnotes, and just in case you haven’t caught on, he obligingly marks in numerous additional footnotes that this same point was already made by him in an earlier chapter. It becomes rather more than a passing annoyance when he repeats his expression of what Rawls’s ‘veil of ignorance’ means thrice in two paragraphs (pg. 197-8). If summaries are an act of barbarism, then how does one describe such verbiage: vandalism? To quote Sen himself (pg. 73):
Words have their significance but we must not become too imprisoned by them.
Or even better, if only Sen had heeded the words of Ludwig Wittgenstein quoted in the first sentence of the first chapter of his book:
What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.
Reading Sen’s repetitive work, one feels for his editor, Stuart Profitt, who Sen says in the Acknowledgements made “invaluable comments and suggestions… almost on every page of every chapter”, mentioning his “relief” at the end of this book, which we come to understand well. Still, one wishes Sen could have ‘Profitted’ more from the editing. Sorely tempted, at the end of the 400+ page book to commit a barbaric act myself, I summarised his tome into a single sentence:
John Rawls’s theory that perfect justice can be derived by creating the right institutions and rules based on principled social contracts among people in a hypothetical original condition where everyone is ignorant of what they will be in the real world, is untenable; instead, the idea of justice requires open, impartial, and public reasoning to arrive at more just and democratic solutions through social choices made by comparing actual available alternatives, while being mindful of process and outcome on people in the real world.
Three other aspects I found wanting in this book are (a) the lack of discussion of real cases and choices on burning issues of justice, (b) the paucity of discussion on how his idea of justice naturally translates into important consequences for debates on global environment (e.g., climate change, wildlife conservation issues), and (c) his rather limited use of Asian philosophy, literature, and ideas. A few lines about each of these below.
Sen makes passing mention of some real cases: a line about the Iraq war and the role of the US (which he calls “this country”, on pg. 71, giving away the readership he seems to be writing for), mentions of famines, the French Revolution, and rights of women and slavery. There is some empirical data and discussion on famine in Chapter 16, but again based on old material he has covered in his 1981 book Poverty and famines. When Sen does discuss a case in greater depth, it is rather frivolous invented examples, about personal freedom and choices when sitting on seats in airplanes, or three children and a flute. These are alright to introduce the nuances of choice in justice, but in all this mad, chaotic world could Sen really find no real cases where the same dilemma for justice is present? He talks so much about realization and consequence in the real world, but the real world of cases is strangely absent in his own book. Real injustice and the failure of institutions could be well illustrated and discussed in many cases: for example, the Bhopal tragedy, the Holocaust, or the case of global climate change.
My greatest disappointment with the book was, however, more personal. As someone interested in the environment conservation movement—including issues of global justice, social choices and sustainability, and the expansion of human ethical horizons to include nature and the interests of animals—I expected more from this book than I perhaps should have, given that it is, ultimately, written by a Harvard economist. Sen deals with sustainable development and the environment in a little over 4 pages (pg. 248-252), bringing mainly two points to the fore. One, that development should not be seen as antagonistic to environment as it could lead to benefits, for instance through empowerment, female education and reduction in fertility rates. Second, that conservation can be based on our sense of values and our freedom and capability to hold and pursue those values is sufficient substantive reason to pursue conservation goals: a sort of freedom to conserve, indeed.
When Sen speaks of social choices, rationality, and other aspects of people such as sympathy and sharing, he seems oblivious, at least in this book, about the rich literature in anthropology and biology (including evolution and animal behaviour and psychology), and ethics (including environmental ethics and animal rights). Arguably, these have more contemporary relevance to the issue than Adam Smith‘s early and other economists’s recent speculations, uninformed by biology and anthropology, on these matters. The ideas of various thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Nagel, Adam Smith, and Mary Wollstonecraft, have been discussed extensively in the light of recent scientific research on human and primate behaviour, and moral philosophers have extended the ethical principles underlying human rights to issues of animal welfare and rights and environmental conservation. These are relevant, but missing, in the otherwise valuable chapters ‘Rationality and Other People’, ‘Human Rights and Global Imperatives’, and ‘Justice and the World’. This may seem harsh, but until Sen can integrate these views of economics and justice with the stellar advances in fields of biology, anthropology, animal behaviour, and moral philosophy, he remains, not a polymath as some have called him, but like most other economists, mostly a ‘math’.
Finally, Sen brings Asian philosophy to bear rather sparingly in the book. This includes, besides the niti-nyaya gradient, description of some essential ideas from Kautilya’s Arthashastra, the famous debate between Krishna and Arjuna on duty and consequence in the Bhagavad Gita episode of the Mahabharata, about Akbar and Ashoka, and sound bytes from the Buddhist sutta nipata. That’s it? That’s all that thousands of years and billions of people have to contribute to the idea of justice? Or is this a deliberate choice by the author to keep the focus on the John Rawls and Kenneth Arrows of this world? I can’t really tell.
In sum, this is an important book for the core idea it contains. For those who don’t wish to wade through the whole book, four chapters are still worth reading that present the essentials: the Introduction, Chapter 4 on ‘Voice and Social Choice’, Chapter 11 on ‘Lives, Freedoms, and Capabilities’, and Chapter 15 on ‘Democracy as Public Reason’. There are some interesting books and literature cited in the bibliography that can lead one to a wider reading (e.g., Jonathan Glover, Barry Holden, Jon Elster). One wishes, however, that Sen will enlarge his view and shrink his text in his next offering.
So it goes.