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Glen Newey on Amartya Sen’s ‘The Idea of Justice’
Posted on Apr 1, 2010
By Glen Newey
Sen is addressing this question: how are principles of justice related to the concrete circumstances in which just acts take place? On one view, the relation is like – indeed, is an instance of – the relation that theory bears to practice. Those who like to make the distinction sharp, including not a few academics, see theory as ‘prior’ to practice. Anybody could come up with principles of justice, and then imagine acting on them, perhaps in some utopia. Plato, whose thoughts about justice have often been read in this way, imagines Dike¯, the personified figure of Justice in the Laws, tagging along behind the Almighty and meting out condign punishment to malefactors. In similar vein, the late G.A. Cohen argued that ‘principles’ were ‘prior’ to facts: any given fact will have practical implications only if there is some principle which tells us why we should pay heed to that fact. For instance, someone who thinks it makes a difference, when parcelling out slices of cake, whether or not the recipients are fat, must rely on some principle which tells cake-cutters, say, that in situations like this, the fatties should snag the bigger (or smaller) slices.
By contrast, one may affirm instead the primacy of practice over principle, as Sen does. This approach has a long ancestry. In his discussion of justice in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle mentions something he calls the ‘Lesbian rule’. Students can get excited when this PowerPoint slide comes up but, crushingly, it turns out that Aristotle is thinking not of a body politic subject to correction by Dike¯ , but of stonemasons on Lesbos, who apparently used a bendy ruler made of lead for measuring curved window mouldings and the like. Bendy rulers adapt themselves to the shape of the material, and that, presumably, is part of Aristotle’s point. The absolute size and ratio of just distributive shares vary with context. More radically, the very metric by which the shares get parcelled out varies with context.
For Sen, the hunt for ideal principles of justice misses the point, because justice has to be implemented in non-ideal circumstances. He gets to this conclusion via a very short argument, of the following form. Suppose that Anna Karenina is the ideal novel; this knowledge doesn’t put anyone in a position to appraise other, non-ideal books. Knowing that the Tolstoy is the ideal doesn’t help in deciding whether a Joanna Trollope surpasses a Philip K. Dick in literary merit. And so, Sen concludes, with justice: we don’t need a grasp of ideal justice to know how to act justly in the non-ideal world.
Sen frames the prime contrast as between niti and nyaya, two Sanskrit terms for justice, which he renders, less pithily, as ‘transcendental institutionalism’ and ‘realisation-focused comparison’ respectively. The distinction comes out in the question: should theory concern only the design of ideal institutions, procedures and principles, or should it take account of how the world actually is? But this runs together two distinctions: between ideal and non-ideal theories of justice; and between theories which are institution-based and those which aren’t. The two distinctions are distinct. Someone could elect to design ideal institutions from scratch, but someone else might heed real-world imperfections, say by institutionalising complaints procedures. If niti and nyaya are respectively ideal and non-ideal approaches to justice, institutions are incidental.
As a result, the intended contrast proves elusive, as does what is at stake (Sen complicates matters further by drawing a parallel between this distinction and the debate between Krishna and Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita). For clarity, let’s stick with the Sanskrit. Niti is encapsulated for Sen by the idea that justice should be done regardless of the consequences. He cites the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I’s dictum, ‘fiat iustitia, et pereat mundus.’ When this tag surfaces in moral philosophy, as in debates over Kant’s view that one shouldn’t lie to a would-be murderer regarding the whereabouts of his intended victim, the opposing idea is usually consequentialism. But nyaya seems not to be simply a morality of consequences, which anyway may be as idealised as one could wish; while Kantians – anti-consequentialists par excellence – could be called ‘realisation-focused’, in not lying to the axe murderer. So the niti/nyaya contrast is not between a morality of right and one of consequences.
If we take the analogy with novels seriously, the idea of nyaya seems instead to be that one can, at least grosso modo, identify actual injustices such as slavery without a notion of an ideally just society. One objection to this would be that it mistakes complements for alternatives. It may be that one can identify slavery as wrong without recourse to ideal principles, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with ideal theory. Is it so wrong to focus on the ideally just world? One could answer that it depends what you are trying to do. After all, there are purely aesthetic versions of utopianism, such as News from Nowhere. But the point Sen wants to press is that if one is interested in applicability, knowing the ideal may not help much.
Someone may still object that one can’t rank sub-ideal specimens without knowing the ideal. In the novels example, it may be said, one needs some principle of appraisal in judging that the Trollope beats the Dick. According to this principle, the ideal novel maxes out on some property – psychological depth for instance – and so a novel with a given amount of this must beat any novel with less of it. Whoever is in a position to say that a novel is ideal must do so on the basis of criteria that will, at least in principle, enable him to rank those that fall short of the ideal.
Suppose, similarly, that justice is top dog among political values, the first virtue of societies etc, and further, that only one property is relevant to justice. Someone might think, say, that justice is all about equality, and infer that the more equal some set of arrangements is, the more just it is: one should ignore every other consideration, such as desert, merit, absolute measures of welfare and so on. So, in comparing two sub-ideal distributions, the one with less inequality must be the more just one. And for that, the objection goes, one needs a grasp of ideal equality.
But is it the case that more equality must be more just than less? Prioritarians favour a society in which the worst-off do better than they do anywhere else, sufficientarians one in which more people have enough: on some ways of measuring overall equality, each may prefer the slightly more unequal one. It will immediately be said that here the ground has shifted from justice qua equality, to welfare. But as debates about priority and sufficiency suggest, it’s when the pure principle is at issue that the grounds for endorsing it become significant. What makes equality just? The rationale for justice qua equality will rest either on nothing – which looks like dogma – or on a concern with something else, like people’s moral equality as expressed by their life prospects. The justice that demands equality will require other inequalities to achieve it.
The real world will be reflected imperfectly, if at all, by the ideal. Sen’s guiding thought is that one can, here and now, make comparative judgments without ranking all conceivable options. Quite often, political questions come down, basically, to ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The decisive judgment may be that some practice, like slavery, exemplifies injustice, rather than that such practices deviate from an already well-defined template of justice.
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