June 19, 2013
Glen Newey on Amartya Sen’s ‘The Idea of Justice’
Posted on Apr 1, 2010
By Glen Newey
This review originally appeared in the London Review of Books, whose website is www.lrb.co.uk, and is reposted with permission.
At some time in the past the idea took hold that social justice was all about the state’s hoovering up resources and then blowing them at needy or deserving recipients. Some of these resources, money for example, were material, and others, like opportunities, were virtual. But there were various problems. One was that there had to be just one hoover, the state, sucking in goods, although other providers, being plural, threatened to disrupt the favoured distribution by shunting them around for purposes of their own. Some, and not only libertarians, wondered whether the state’s cornering the market in resources might not frustrate the point of social justice itself – or even directly negate it, if for example the point was to make people autonomous. Then the resources had to be treated as homogeneous to satisfy the principles that were meant to justify redistributing them.
This puréeing of resources also made it hard to keep sight of the ends that gave social justice its point. For example, if the purée is cash, and the aim is to give each person as good a life as possible, this end may not be well served by handing a person whatever income fills the gap between her actual earnings and, say, half the national average, or some other benchmark. As Amartya Sen has shown elsewhere, it’s not what you have that counts, so much as what you can do with it. So the currency of justice should be capabilities. But it is far from obvious how to distribute capabilities justly.
But why should one have bothered about social justice anyway? Although the most obvious reason to worry about who got what was its effect on welfare – how well people’s lives went – quite a lot of things that affected welfare couldn’t be parcelled out. For instance, charm, good looks, artistic talent, a winning personality and so forth at best allow only of very limited redistribution. Still, someone may say, that doesn’t mean that what can be redistributed shouldn’t be; and even those who suffer non-remediable conditions that make their lives worse could be tossed the odd bone by way of indemnity. Here, though, the usual questions about fungibility arise. How much is a physical handicap worth, for example? And the very notion of welfare as a generic good to be shunted around according to some notion of justice is problematic. Is each person the best judge of his or her welfare? Or should your welfare be gauged by what someone else, such as a rational and benevolent spectator, might want for you?
In answering these questions, The Idea of Justice revives several debates to which its author has made significant contributions. The book, indeed, has a slight air of Amartya Sen’s Greatest Hits about it. For instance, he reprises his 1970 proof of the impossibility of a Paretian liberal. According to the principles of Pareto efficiency, given two distributions, Y and Z, if nobody does worse in Y than in Z, and at least one person does better, Y is preferred to Z. This seems plausible. Sen showed, however, that it runs afoul of the minimum demands of liberty, taken as the claim that each person should be decisive over at least one matter, such as deciding what books one can look at. In Sen’s celebrated example, Lewd wants to read a pornographic book and Prude doesn’t. But if only one person is going to read it, Lewd prefers that it be Prude (he wants Prude to be agonised), while Prude thinks that it should be he, Prude (he is worried that Lewd will chuckle over the book). Prude’s ranking of preferences is neither>Prude>Lewd>both, whereas Lewd’s is both>Prude>Lewd>neither. It then follows by Pareto that Prude’s reading the book is preferred to Lewd’s reading it, since each prefers this, and nobody prefers the reverse – even though Prude would rather not read it. Hence liberalism clashes with Pareto efficiency.
But this is rather odd. Certainly, there is nothing to stop Lewd from preferring that Prude be forced to read the book, to reading it himself. But in that case, Lewd has got what he wants: the satisfaction of his other-regarding preference that Prude, willy-nilly, should read it. If liberalism means satisfying the preferences that people actually have, then it should put other-regarding and self-regarding preferences on the same footing; conversely, if liberalism rules other-regarding preferences out, then it is those preferences, rather than Pareto, which conflict with liberalism. Anyway, it’s hard to see why Sen revisits the debate at all: he says that it is ‘a contribution to public discussion’.
Sen has indeed contributed strenuously to public discussion. He is a heroic figure who has published major theoretical works in welfare economics, social choice theory and political philosophy, but has also been politically engaged. He remains prominent in public life in the UK and elsewhere, as a trustee of the Nalanda University project, a member of the UK National Security Forum and sometime co-chair of the Commission on Human Security. Sen also devised a widely used index for measuring poverty and has written about Rabindranath Tagore, a family friend. Accordingly, the material in this new book is exhilaratingly broad. He discusses human rights, the Mahabharata, bounded rationality, development aid, the Bengal famine of 1943, cognitive psychology and risk aversion, discursive democracy, equality, liberty, Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, medieval Arabian astronomy and a lot more. He brings this off with erudition, not a little wit, and the odd guffaw: ‘To admit to being a “consequentialist” is almost like introducing oneself by saying, “I am a wog.” ’
As a result, perhaps, the book’s narrative voice is peripatetic and long on anecdote. Indeed, the caliginous aura of the high table, somewhere between the departure of the widgeon and the arrival of the Sauternes, hangs over much of the book. We learn what W.V. Quine wrote about the word ‘solstice’ in a personal letter to Sen, what John Sparrow said about the Good Samaritan parable over dinner at All Souls, and why Piero Sraffa used to rub his chin when chatting to Wittgenstein at Trinity. No doubt each of these tales forms a filament, however frail, in the pendant damask of our human story. But after a while the reader may wonder whether, amid the reminiscence and the engaging but heteroclite reflections, any distinctive theory is on offer.
The theory is buried in much other matter, but it is there. Political philosophy errs in formulating ideal principles of justice, which afford little help in resolving competing claims in our non-ideal world. In this world, the claims of justice are plural, in that people can often make competing claims on scarce resources with some show of plausibility. So there is little prospect that ideal principles will help resolve the dispute. Instead, insofar as a resolution is possible at all, it has to rely on public reason, which in modern political theory serves as a dialectical footbath, purifying the reasons that are put into the public realm and sterilising, in particular, the verruca of self-interest. Sen acknowledges that these reasons are plural, in that even if attention is confined to justice, it may remain uncertain what should be done. He gives the example of flautism. Suppose one asks who should get a flute: the person who made it, someone else who can already play it, or a third person who would like it, having no toys of his own? In the abstract, a question like this has no generally valid answer. But Sen argues that in situ one can reach an answer justified by the public reasons on offer, even if one cannot produce a complete ranking of all the options.
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