Saturday, 28 August 2010

The Idea of Justice. By Amartya Sen

The Idea of Justice

Amartya Sen

Published in 2010 by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books.

This was a present from Amritha, when she was leaving for the US. She gave it to me in April or so, but I got around to reading it only in July and finished it now (August middle, actually).

A good book, heavy, text-bookish, but still fairly easy to read for most part. However, I think, to really get the best out of it, one should be a serious reader of economics and jurisprudence. Most of the book is an attempt by Sen to show that John Rawls was not completely correct in what he said about justice in his seminal work 'The Theory of Justice'. It is difficult to summarize here what Sen actually says, but let me try.

First of all, what did Rawls say about 'justice'? As an aside, let me add that when I was studying law for those 2 or 3 months in 1977, I remember my lecturer in jurisprudence suggesting that we read Rawls - of course I didn't then, but I did intend to, I wrote that name down in my list of authors to read, but I never got around to reading any of his writing. So what I say here is sourced second-hand from Sen's work. Rawls says that 'justice is fairness'. So then the natural question is, can one define fairness, in some fundamental axiomatic way? The answer to that is, well, maybe not, but if we set up some procedures on how to decide what is fair, and therefore what is just, we should be able to get a firm handle on the idea of justice. So then, what are these procedures? Well, one of them is to set up a group of people, a kind of a club, drawn from a particular society (or nation - i.e. some kind of closed group) who will decide what is fair and just, and then make the laws and so on to implement these ideas. Well how do you ensure fairness and justice by this process? The thing is, the group of people that decides is actually an imaginary construct - and the group are screened by a 'veil of ignorance' from the society they are creating. They will be eventually part of it, but when they make the rules and the laws and set up the institutions, they do not know what roles they are actually going to play in that society and that way they are not biased towards any one particular viewpoint, or in promoting the interests of any one particular group of people.

Sen has many criticisms about this idea of justice. The most prominent among them, the one that stays most in my mind, is that, this idea may work for a closed group of people, such as a nation, but what happens when you have to see something as 'absolutely just', applicable to all peoples. Can we think of a group drawn from ALL the people in the world, who will then decide about what is just? Sen's answer is No. Obviously, as he himself says, he is thinking about the current situation where the US decides on what is just for itself, and assumes that this is some kind of absolute way of arriving at justice for everybody. Think Iraq, think Afghanistan, etc., etc. Sen also criticizes Rawls idea that what we need is an absolute idea of justice that will work for all, and that does not allow for any kind of diversity in culture, history or geography. The third point that Sen says is wrong about Rawls' theory is that all Rawls does is say how to set up institutions that will ensure this absolute idea of justice, e.g. elections, courts, free press, etc. Sen is concerned that the way these institutions actual work in practice may turn out to be different from the ideas with which they were set up. Sen has a few more criticisms, but these are somewhat technical, and I don't really follow them all.

After (and while) making these criticisms, Sen tries to present his own idea of justice. Actually he does not give any set of rules of ideas about what justice is and how it could be achieved. He does give a lot of ideas on what should be done to arrive at justice. He admits that democracy is essential (though he does not either subscribe to the view that electoral democracy as practiced in the West (USA, UK, etc.) now is the only true democracy, nor does he admit that democracy is a Western idea tracing its orgins solely to the Greeks and later to the Magna Carta, and the French and American revolutions. He gives a lot of examples from other civilisations (chiefly Indian) to show that the idea of democracy is somewhat broader that what the neo-cons would say. He also says that freedom of speech is essential to ensure justice, but only so that everybody may make his choice clear. Here, and also in the context of democracy, he talks about 'social choice theory'. He points to Kenneth Arrow's theorem that one vote for everyone would lead often to no choice at all, and therefore not necessarily to justice, but says that further developments in social choice theory, including his own and those of Rawls and his school, have shown that one can weight the choices to arrive at just decisions, and one chief way of weighting is to give a larger weight to the choice of what one may call the 'most deprived'. Sen also gives a detailed exposition of 'capability theory' which he has apparently played a big role in developing, where a person's freedom is not decided by what he can do, but by the choices in front of him, these choices being not controlled by anything other than his own will. The example he gives is of a person who is forced by others to stay at home, when he wanted to anyway stay at home. This would be imperfect freedom, since he is limited in his choices, or in his freedom of choice to exercise his capabilities, even though this limitation does not actually come in the way of his particular choice, anyway. Sen argues that a true system of justice would try to make way for every person to exercise all his capabilities. Again there are many technical and closely argued points about these ideas which I found difficult to follow.

My own reponse to the book has two parts to it. First, I expected some kind of scientific or mathematical theory of justice, where a few self-evident truths are laid out, and then these are developed by argument into practical principles that could be applied to various real life situations. Apparently this is what Rawls tries to do, but Sen rejects this in favour of a more amorphous idea of justice, where certain truths are affirmed, but these truths are not absolute, and then are not developed into some idea of justice that is written in stone. Second, after reading this book I expected to be able to answer a specific set of questions regarding what is happening in the tribal areas of India. What for example would be the policy to follow or the attitude to have when thinking about or dealing with a tribe such as the Jarawas, who may live primitive lives, without even having the knowledge about what and how to choose. Suppose we have tribe that practices human sacrifice, with the person sacrificed willingly and happily accepting his role - what then? Would it be 'just' to not expose them to 'development' or 'education' or other thought processes, which may end the human sacrifice, but also end up in their exchanging their relative innocence for all the ills of 'civilisation'? Of course human sacrifice is extreme, but there are several such less extreme examples one comes across in everyday life. One of them is the argument by people like Rajan, that after all since the PhD programme requires a lot of sacrifice (time, effort, money), which some of the people (women, 'lower' castes, etc.) can't afford, and which does not anyway lead either to jobs or to good careers, therefore such people should be advised against it. Clearly this would be unjust (and highly partronising). Anyway the book does not answer such doubts in my mind, except to vaguely support the kind of leftist, and the kinder and more gentle and more inclusive view of justice, which I have anyway - but maybe that's what I am reading into the book. Maybe Sen means something else altogether.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Tall Short Stories. Edited by Eric Duthie

Tall Short Stories

edited by Eric Duthie

Published by Ace Star, New York, 1959.

This is a lovely collection of short stories that I first, serendipitously, laid my hands on nearly 30 years ago. The book then disappeared from my shelf. When I wanted to re-read it, it was out of print. Recently I located a second-hand copy on and got Chitra to get it for me. On the second (actually nth) reading it is still as lovely as ever. The book collects together about 50 short stories,all of them, as the book title says, 'tall' stories. It has a nice introduction by Duthie (who apparently is/was a kind of compulsive editor of various collections of short stories). Let me list some of my favourites, that I remember from the previous, 30-year old, reading as well - The open window, 'Saki'; The unicorn in the garden, James Thurber; Earth to earth, Robert Graves; Two bottles of relish, Lord Dunsany; Guest of the Redshields, Christina Stead; Pigs is pigs, Ellis Parker Butler; The awful fate of Melpomenous Jones, Stephen Leacock; The Golden Scilens, Sir John Squire; God and the machine, Nigel Balchain; I'll always call you Schnorrer, my African explorer, S.J. Perelman; Love is a fallacy, Max Shulman.