The Idea of Amartya Sen – A review of The Idea of Justice


Years from now when they evaluate Amartya Sen’s work, he could be remembered for a variety of reasons: eminent economist, game-theorist, historian of ideas, writer of popular books, scholar, researcher and academician. He could also be remembered for bringing eastern and western view-points closer to one another and debunking commonly held versions of cultures and times. But if he was wedded to all this, it would also be for his other love – political philosophy, that gives him a special place amongst the thinkers of our time – and above all his capability and enthusiasm to discuss often complex and involved ideas in simple terms so that they are understood and discussed not only by intellectuals and specialists, but lay public as well.

Ideas have immense power and influence over our lives. Hence we need to understand them and their consequences with clarity. No one explains this better than Amartya Sen, sometimes gently, sometimes with warning urgency, sometimes by explaining the differences, and sometimes by describing how they unify peoples and cultures across time and place.

By now he has possibly written quite a few books, edited numerous journals, delivered memorable lecture series, participated in policy and planning forums at global and national levels and after 1998 (when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics) has also been widely written about and referred to. But his new book “The Idea of Justice” (Harvard & Penguin 2009) possibly follows “The Argumentative Indian” and “Identity and Violence” – and is meant for wider audiences beyond economists and scholars – though at 415 pages (with an additional 80 pages of notes, indexes, preface, acknowledgements and contents) – it is a somewhat more formidable read.

“The Idea of Justice” is dedicated to the memory of John Rawls, the eminent political philosopher who spent the last 40 years of his life at Harvard, where Amartya Babu is now a distinguished professor of philosophy and professor of economics. Earlier (1998-2004) he was Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, perhaps one of the most eminent academic “khursi” there can be.

What provokes Amartya Babu to take on the idea of justice as a topic for discussion? Justice, as manifested in the free democratic countries has a global flavor and is grounded in universal and age-old principles, and yet systems of justice are tightly bounded by national borders. Systems of justice, enshrined in constitutions, have brought us thus far, and have seen many of the older injustices abolished, and yet while liberty and fairness can be guaranteed, so many asymmetries still exist that keep large parts of humanity bound by limitations. Thus, it is time to look at the very foundations of the Idea of Justice as it exists, whence it originated, and at its very base, its philosophical moorings.

The mainstream idea of justice as postulated and practiced today is based on the principle of the “social contract”. Under this, each individual is assumed to submit his / her final freedom to the state that in return provides protection to the individual. There would be specified institutions (like judges and courts) that would put into effect what justice requires, and in return, individuals would behave in ways that were amenable to justice being sustained in society. This combination of “institution” and “behavior” has been the principal platform on which the “social contract” has been implemented till now.

However, this has required mankind to define the same in some detail, with precision and without contradiction. Some of the most basic, original and important philosophical formulations of this are found in the works of, among others: Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679 England), John Locke (1632-1704 England), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778 Swiss-France), Immanuel Kant (1724-1804 Prussia now Russia) and now finally in the works of John Rawls (1921-2002 USA).

Amartya Babu provides in this book a wonderful description of the “Social Contract” and how it has operated in societies, now and in the past, but also points out important limitations to this idea.

To start with he makes us re-visit the Bhagwad-Gita where we see the idea of the “social contract” staring in the face of Arjuna. However, Lord Krishna explains otherwise – it is action without knowledge of the consequences that is the duty of mankind. In modern-day philosophical parlance these are known as the “consequentialist” and the “deontological” approaches. Perhaps it is not so much invoking of a basic Hindu / Indian text, but as Amartya Babu goes on to explain – that economic choice is by and large exercised by individuals in the deontological mode, that is without perfect knowledge of outcome or consequence.

From here he takes the discussion along two diverse paths – (1) how justice defines (and is in turn defined by) economic, political and social considerations, and (2) how societies have defined and managed this across different histories, geographies and cultures. He of course uses as benchmark – the mainstream (western) formulations and practices along with its corresponding historical (colonial) and philosophical (enlightenment) roots.

Defining justice in the wider sense, he asks many questions and some of the important one’s are: Is it justice for an individual (for example) to demand healthcare from the state, can an individual demand justice (from someone!!) if s/he lives in a tyrannical state and is deprived to basic necessities and freedoms, can a citizen of one country demand justice (in some way) if oppressed by another state? Do perceptions and expectations of justice differ against varying socio-economic, cultural and political backgrounds?

When he draws historical comparisons, he places centre-stage, as he did in his previous books, possibly the largest single failure (two largest, rather) of the British in colonial times – the Bengal famine that killed between 1 and 4 million people during the autumn of 1943, and the partition that also resulted in a similar number of deaths during 1947-48. Together, the two resulted in a greater number of deaths than the holocaust that is often projected by the “enlightenment” establishment as the greatest act of inhumanity perpetrated by man. The then British parliament did discuss the famine and the dangers of partition, but absolved themselves of any responsibility (or guilt) on these accounts, though in both cases, the actions of the colonial government directly resulted in the catastrophic number of deaths, and as has been established in later studies, were clearly avoidable. Simply stated, post-1947 possibly the sub-continent went through equally bad patches of economic downturns and droughts, but never were there so many deaths. But he does highlight that an even larger example of state failure was China’s “Great Leap Forward” that killed an estimated 30 million people during 1958-61. Even Mao, in his 1962 speech to the Assembly of Deputies admitted that had there been greater “democracy” at the grass-root level, all could have learnt more timely about the impending and on-going tragedy.

Not to leave the argument at this point, Amartya Babu delves deeper into the comparative histories of nations and cultures. Enlightenment mostly prides itself for its Athenian roots, especially the establishment of democracy as it is most commonly understood – by instituting direct voting for electing its rulers. However, as per the enlightenment version, the practice was to disappear completely after Athens, only to re-appear in the eighteenth century. Amartya Babu points out that while the Greek experiment failed to move west, it did indeed move eastwards, till many city-states in India (and also Iran and Bactria) had democratic forms of Government, and he brings home this point rather playfully but substantially by quoting from Aldous Huxley’s novel “Point Counter Point” where … the lead character, Sidney Quarles, goes frequently to London from his country home in Essex, ostensibly to work at the British Museum on democracy in ancient India. ‘It’s about local government in Maurya times,’ he explains to his wife Rachel, referring to the Indian imperial dynasty that ruled in the country in the fourth and third centuries BC. Rachel does not, however, have much difficulty in figuring out that this is an elaborate ploy by Sidney to cheat on her, since his real reason for going to London, she surmises, is to spend time with a new mistress.

Huxley wrote ‘… and when, on his return from a third journey and, a few days later, on the eve of the fourth, he began to groan ostentatiously over the vast complexity of the history of democracy among the Ancient Indians, Rachel felt convinced that the woman had been found …’

The important point here being that around the same time the Greek philosophers were just writing about the ideal “Republic” with its local democracies and philosopher kings, the Indians (in the time of Emperor Ashoka) were already putting all this into widespread practice. Thus he realistically speculates that it is quite likely that individuals like Aristotle and Kautilya (who were contemporaries) could very well have been influenced by one another in more ways than is commonly acknowledged by the prevalent historical accounts of the period. Thus he also points at the ancient Indian way of addressing justice via two vehicles: Niti (arrangements and institutions) and Nyaya (comprehensive outcomes). As the ancients explain, if there isn’t an appropriate Niti in place, Matsyanyaya (big fish devour the small fish) would prevail. Conversely he points out that Athens was great not only because they had ballots, but also the principal supporting elements of democracy like public discussion and reasoning as a basis for decision-making. However, such a framework could not prevent or eliminate Athens biggest failings especially death sentence by Hemlock – that was both prolonged and painful, and even worse, the common practice of infanticide that both Plato and Aristotle endorsed and even urged magistrates to apply in the appropriate manner.

Of course, Amartya Babu talks not only of such foibles of history and ancient practices to give justice greater meaning and relevance in wider contexts. He builds his case exploring every possible nuance of reason, objectivity, institution, individual, voice, choice, impartiality, objectivity, reasoning, plurality, consequence, agency, life, freedom, capability, resource, happiness, well-being, equality, liberty, human rights and (whew) global imperatives. In examining all these, he not only investigates how the ideals surrounding them are constructed, but also what they mean in reality, and often in different contexts and cultures.

In coming to his conclusions, we begin to see Amartya Babu’s reasoning and the consistency that he has attempted to build in his entire endeavor of research, study, teaching and discussion. His own path-breaking work in economics has focused on what is called “Social Choice” Theory – that models how individuals make economic decisions that supposedly address individual and collective welfare. This originated in eighteenth century France in the work of Condorcet – a mathematician, but was taken up more substantially in the twentieth century by Amartya Babu’s guru – Kenneth Arrow and colleagues like Kotaro Suzumura.

He finds philosophical underpinnings for his work in both Adam Smith (in works like Theory of Moral Sentiment) and Karl Marx (on who really owns the labor of the labor). He also looks at Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797 England) who a century before many others took a hard look at gender equality and urged that like slavery, greater justice could be afforded to larger numbers by removing inherent, often socially imposed barriers on entire classes of individuals. Wollstonecraft belonged to a small but articulate group called the Rational Dissenters, who firmly defended the American and French revolutions. She died somewhat prematurely in her first child-birth, whence the daughter survived and went on to become Mary Shelley, the poet. Among contemporary philosophers, Amartya Babu finds coherence in the work of the leading constructivist thinker – Jurgen Hebermas.

Social Choice theory is about taking “deontological” decisions that maximize possibilities of welfare vis-a-vis the more “consequentialist” framework of the “social contract”, and to concludeAmartya Babu perhaps while espousing merits of the former, alludes that we need to do a bit of both, as one takes you beyond the other – to provide justice in every sense, for every individual and in every context, time and place.

In the two deeply entwined strands of his story – of reasoning based on knowledge, and of the telling lessons from history – which is the more convincing? In the end, I go back to the one single example. Long before the Greeks discovered the merits of open discussion and public discourse, India already had in place the so called Buddhist “councils”. They were held regularly from the sixth century BC (shortly after Gautama Buddha’s death) till about second century AD. The first one was held in Rajgir and the last in Kashmir. The largest such “council” was hosted by Emperor Ashoka himself in the third century BC at Patliputra, then the capital of India. In the end, whatever the detail, they set out to answer the same question that the Buddha asked then and Amartya Babu poses in this book once again today – why does the human being suffer, and how can mankind organize itself so as to minimize this suffering.

(C) October 2009 Johannesburg

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