The Sympathetic Indian

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Amartya Sen introduces an ethical dimension to canonical economic theory, says Tridip Suhrud

Reasoned identity
Reasoned identity
Economist Amartya Sen

AT THE heart of Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice is deep and poignant awareness of injustice. It arises from both an understanding — sympathy as he would write of it — and commitment that there are remediable injustices that we can and should eliminate, and his sense of manifest injustice that can be overcome. Unlike his principal interlocutor in this work, John Rawls, Sen is not in search of a transcendental theory of justice or with proposing the nature of institutions. He is not concerned with the societies that could possibly emerge as a result of such an engagement.

Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness — both as procedural fairness and as a principle — remains central to our understanding of what constitutes justice. This theory, Sen emphasises, advanced our understanding of institutional frameworks that ensure justice as fairness and also our understanding of inequality. But, society’s search to reduce injustice must necessarily constitute a search for institutions that promote justice, and not for institutions that embody justice. In the tradition of Rawls, justice is available to those who come together as a result of a social contract; notions of equity, fairness and impartiality are valid for the covenanted people. Sen makes a powerful argument for “open impartiality” in which the contractarian position opens itself up for universal inclusion.

This need to go beyond positional confinement — that one tends to view the world from one’s vantage point — allows Sen to provide a sustained critique of rational choice theory. The idea of rational choice has been pivotal in economic theory. It argues that all individuals act on the basis of perceived self interest and such action is regarded as one guided by reason. Sen introduces an ethical dimension to this debate to argue that sympathy — even if self-motivated — and commitment are central to amelioration of injustice. Asymmetry and relations of power make it obligatory for the powerful to act to reduce injustice. This commitment arises out of asymmetry and not from any need for cooperation between equals.

Sen draws on his work on poverty and hunger to advocate the idea of freedom based on the capabilities approach. Drawing on work with Martha Nussbaum he posits that freedom is an opportunity to pursue objectives of life wherein the process of choice itself is crucial. This approach makes an advance on both the utilitarian argument and the resource-based argument to judge individual advantage where a person’s “capacity to do things he or she has reasons to value” is central. He argues that deprivations lead to inadequacies, chief among them capability deprivation.

The book’s final section is concerned with the intimate relationship between democracy and justice. Sen takes further his celebrated argument that democracy reduces the incidence of famine and argues that democracy, defined as government by discussion, permits exercise of “public reason” and hence creates possibility for enhancement of justice and reduction of remediable injustice.

This work is in some ways a culmination of a lifelong engagement — both philosophically and in the sense of commitment — with hunger, poverty and equity, entitlements and their relationship to social, political and cultural worldviews. Only someone who is deeply moved by injustice could make it the central argument in a work on justice.

This book is instructive in other ways as well. It shows a way to be argumentative with deep courtesy and generosity, with acknowledgement of friendship and intellectual debt. This work — Sen’s love affair with philosophy — is not just an advance both in political philosophy and economic theory; it is an invitation. It is an invitation to expand the rubric of justice and reduce the ambit of injustice by committed action.

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