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Glen Newey on Amartya Sen’s ‘The Idea of Justice’

Posted on Apr 1, 2010
the idea of justice

By Glen Newey

(Page 2)

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.


book cover


The Idea of Justice


By Amartya Sen


Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 496 pages


Buy the book

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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By CitizenWhy, July 14, 2010 at 8:55 am Link to this comment

On a personal level, some form of mutuality.

On the state level, some form of individual rights and minimal /basic income and

On the state level, holding in check the ability - and the desire - of the wealthy
and powerful to monopolize resources and control government and wealth.

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By Anarcissie, April 8, 2010 at 6:53 am Link to this comment

She’s blindfolded, too, which gives that sword a certain extra zap.

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By Shenonymous, April 8, 2010 at 12:18 am Link to this comment

I thought Justice was the lady who was blindfolded.

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By Anarcissie, April 7, 2010 at 12:55 pm Link to this comment

You’re describing grace, not justice.  Justice is the lady with the sword.

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By gerard, April 6, 2010 at 3:53 pm Link to this comment

Do you want somebody to treat you kindly?  Treat them kindly.
Do you want somebody to steal from you?  Don’t steal from them.
Do you want somebody to say nasty things about you? Don’t say nasty things about them.
Do you want to get enough to eat?  Help everybody to get enough to eat.
Do you want somebody to tell you lies?  Don’t tell lies.
Do you want somebody to kill you?  Don’t kill anybody.

This kind of simple-minded pablum doesn’t cover everything in the world, but it goes a surprisingly long way toward creating a better world without killing anybody or taking over their country or spending huge sums of money blowing up mountains, dragging out the coal and dumping pollutants on innocent bystanders.

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By Anarcissie, April 5, 2010 at 8:01 am Link to this comment

“I know it when I see it” doesn’t work in the case of justice, because if you look around you’ll observe that people have substantially different ideas of justice.  I mentioned one case before.  I can mention many much more horrific cases, such as the numerous gangs of thugs who think slaughtering people of other ethnic or religious groups is “just” because of events that supposedly happened years, sometimes centuries before.

Amartya Sen is one of those who thinks he can reason his way out of the dilemma (I guess—I haven’t read the book).  I don’t know if that’s possible because, as I said, the idea of justice is tied up with non-rational ideas, like one’s idea of the gods, that is, “I know it when I see it.”  Reason requires a set of common observations and beliefs before it can operate.  But that’s not what we have here.

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By GoyToy, April 5, 2010 at 2:29 am Link to this comment


I think you’ve reduced the idea of justice to something most can understand (and that’s a compliment). Frankly, I found reading the review a waste of time—nor am I an admirer of Mr. Sen. Mr. Sen is a Indian from the state of Bengal and a Hindu. He subtly pushes his theological and cultural background in his writings. Nothing wrong with that, as long as people realize that Mr. Sen is not speaking or writing from Mt. Olympus.

There will be a lot of intellectualizing on “justice.” Well, I guess, justice is like porn, one knows when one sees it.

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By christian96, April 4, 2010 at 9:37 pm Link to this comment

Superman killed himself.  That’s what is wrong with
the world.  No one left to defend the physically
weak from the bullies of the world.

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By berniem, April 4, 2010 at 5:15 pm Link to this comment

Justice, like all qualitative concepts, is perceived according to one’s position with regard to the barrel; i.e.,in or out. There is no justice in the fuzzy end of the lollipop. Wealth, or lack thereof, is also a determinant of what kind and how much of which one receives. A true oxymoron is Justice Scalia, et. al. as applied to anyone remotely humanistic. I still wonder to this day if Superman ever figured what he actually stood for. Was it Truth, Justice, OR the American Way?

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By Shenonymous, April 4, 2010 at 1:08 pm Link to this comment

Justice can be thought of in a couple of different ways.  As found in the
administration of the law, or as a quality of being just or fair to one
another or to a group.  It doesn’t do to give a facile answer as it leaves
too much out and too much up to personal opinion.  Surely this topic
warrants more than a biff bam comment?

As an abstract idea, Justice with a capital J represents all those
interactions between individuals where one (or a group) takes
advantage of another (or another group) or to whatever degree of
fairness that might be the social convention.  Justice with a capital J is
the “idea” and where lower case j justice is evaluated in actual
experience and defines all the individual incidents of fair treatment is
measured against.  What is fair treatment?  Agreement as mentioned
already among the members of any level of society must be derived,
even if that society is global composed of all sub-societies as found in
nations, then more subsidiary societies within nations. This reduction
into smaller and smaller groups occurs all the way down to the way two
individuals treat each other. 

If reason is just a disguise to make actions ‘seem’ reasonable, then to
what is insanity measured?  If insanity is the norm, then that ascends
to the throne of reason.  How is one to judge reason and
reasonableness?  How are reasonable men determined to be reasonable
and by whom are they so determined?  G. Anderson makes the age old
argument of the individual vs. the society and taking the side against
the individual.  But there are good arguments for the maintenance of
the individual.  This website is one example.  If there was no self-
indulgence, I highly doubt anyone would be posting here.  Little
creativity would emerge as well.

In a society, a world society really, where the ancient superstitions
evolved into religions are dwindling and shrinking its membership, in
spite of the desperation of missionary groups to attract members, one
even going so far last week as to pay people to go to their church, to
win car to go to church, there is a trend that eventually religion will
nearly disappear.  That is why learning to be moral people without
religion is the new imperative.  Whether there is a god or not is not the
argument.  It is how people consciously agree to treat one another. 
That is not to say that religion has not provided a colossal benefit to
societies and gave an external control, albeit an omnipotent deity, to
those who were not able to control themselves because they had not
yet fully developed an abstract understanding or altruistic sensibilities. 
Hence the birth of morality.  But as humankind’s consciousness of the
world expands as well as their knowledge, their reliance on
extraterrestrials will disappear.

For a philosophical exploration, Plato’s Republic is the classic
demonstration of using the paradigm of a city to help define justice as
a virtue for the individual.  He explored the question “Is it always better
to be just than unjust?”  Offering no final answer, he presents several
views to answer this question and one must come to their own
conclusion.  He is not the only one however who has investigated this
question.  John Rawls talks about the social contract which he named
The Difference Principle that offers an alternative distributive principle
and does not conform to strict equality so long as the inequality has
the effect that the least advantaged in society are materially better off
than they would be under strict equality.

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By christian96, April 4, 2010 at 8:17 am Link to this comment

Today, April 4th, there is an article on
about the “justice” of one-and-done basketball
players.  Those who go to college one year to play
basketball then leave college for the NBA.  The
article is titled: “UK Notebook: One-And-Dones Pose
Quandry For Todd(President of the University of
Kentucky).” I wrote the following comments after the
article which seem appropriate for Easter Sunday.

Christian96 wrote on 04/04/2010 10:34:51 AM:
What do you expect from these youngsters? They are raised in a society
that places extremely high value on “Fame and Fortune.” I’m one of few
Counseling Psychologists who believe in the Bible. I’ve studied it for
32 years since my father’s heart attack on Good Friday, April 8, 1977.
I’m convinced the Bible was written by men who were inspired by the
Holy Spirit. I’m presently writing a book for young people to explain
how the Bible relates to their everyday lives. For those of you who
don’t know much about the Bible, one concept it strongly teaches is that
“you can’t worship God and money.” You have to make a choice. I was born in a coal mining town in Muhlenberg County Kentucky and raised in a
coal mining town in West Virginia. Because of the cruel way coal mine
owners treated the miners they had to fight to form a union. During that fight there was a popular song among the miners that ask the question, “Who’s side are you on brother? Who’s side are you on?” Well, it’s that way now in society with it’s worship of money. Since
you can’t worship God and money, “Who’s side are you on brother? Who’s
side are you on?” Appropriate questions for today, Easter Sunday!

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By felicity, April 3, 2010 at 11:17 am Link to this comment

gerard - “If we are half-way human, we each recognize injustice unless we try not to recognize it”  Bravo.

As an example of what justice isn’t, America decided long ago that violence begets justice. First off, it is just to bomb, invade and occupy a country because justice will have been rendered and justice will prevail when we leave - if ever. Seems to me, at least as far as American foreign policy is concerned, that rather than worry about the rendering of justice, we’d better work on defining it.

And perhaps it’s easier to determine what isn’t just. Forty million Americans, the vast majority of whom work, are poor. In the as-advertised richest nation in the world, most of us can “recognize (this)injustice” - unless of course “we try not to recognize it.”

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By Anarcissie, April 3, 2010 at 7:18 am Link to this comment

G. Anderson—You seem to be making a rational argument for rational behavior.

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By G.Anderson, April 3, 2010 at 6:58 am Link to this comment

Welcome to Cloudcuckooland…

Reason, is just a disuise to make actions seem reasonable, when often they are insane…yet when insanity is perptrated by madmen who are foaming at the mouth, it’s so much easier to lock them up.

It’s when insanity is perpetrated by reasonable men, that people become confused, because we are taught to believe that reason, and logic should be trusted.

This is why ideologies often become twisted by people, to cause horrendous crimes against us all, because they often are just a disguise, sitting on top of some digusting impulse, or predjudice..

No ideals, no social justice, for us, as long as we worship self indulgence, and live in our heads, justifying our actions with reason, instead of facing ourselves for what we really are.

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By Anarcissie, April 2, 2010 at 5:17 pm Link to this comment

People don’t agree about what is just.  For instance, some people believe it is just to have a Welfare system—they call this social justice—while others believe that it is unjust, because it takes wealth away from those who produce it and gives it to those who don’t.  Others think only communism is just.  The disagreements lead to a lot of excited discussion, to which philosophers are irresistibly attracted.

The word justice itself etymologically refers to gods or oaths—the ju- part is the same as the ju- in Jupiter (“god-father”)—and as people do not agree about the gods, they are unlikely to agree about things they derive from the gods.

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By gerard, April 2, 2010 at 1:04 pm Link to this comment

Well, I have to admit that this review article is beyond me. So I should be smart enough to refrain from commenting?

Look at it this way:  Most of the people in the world who are physically or mentally suffering from injustice due to deprivation will wait for justice till hell freezes over before the administrators of justice reach agreement on theories of distribution.

If we are halfway human, we each recognize injustice unless we try not to recognize it. We don’t need to agree on a theory to know that it is not fair to kill people, not fair to exploit people and resources, not fair to cheat, lie, steal.  Do unto others went a long way toward solving this problem a long time ago. 

Still we refuse to acknowledge and act on the basis of this simple adage.  How, then, are we to make use of Amartya Sen’s rather high-flown theorizing?  Thank God, human decency isn’t that complicated!  It’s human behavior which is gnarly.

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By RenZo, April 2, 2010 at 9:43 am Link to this comment

This reviewer seems to have gone outside of the Nobel Laureate’s current book to find fodder for his gristmill. When he says “As Amartya Sen has shown elsewhere”, it is a dead give-away that he is writing about things beyond the titled subject. I have not read this book, but this review makes me quite unsure of the reviwer and tells me nothing I trust about Amartya Sen’s brilliant thought on the human condition.

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By Anarcissie, April 2, 2010 at 9:07 am Link to this comment

I had the idea that the reviewer was not doing original theory but attempting to replicate his experience of reading the book for out possible amusement.  The fact that the ruling class buys off the rest of the population with Welfare when in soft-cop mode seems to have very little to do with any notion of justice and a great deal to do with considerations of power, however it may be dressed up in fancy garb.

In any case, this review, with its rather surrealist vocabulary play, piqued my interest, whereas most of those I found following the link to Amazon were deeply discouraging, containing such leaden weights as comparisons to Habermas, excuse me, “German philosopher Jürgen Habermas”, as if one were not enough.  Twenty dollars is twenty dollars, and one’s budget and one’s time are finite.

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By RM, April 2, 2010 at 6:35 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is about the stupidest review I have read. The whole image of the state hoovering up resources and re-distributing them is the way a Friedmanite economist would view the world. In fact, the wealthy use the state to steal—I repeat, steal—wealth produced by the working classes of the world. If there is not to be an all-out revolution, the state must recover at least some of the stolen wealth and re-distribute it to the poorest. States preserve capitalism by preventing revolution in any way they can and “social justice” is one way to do that. Capitalism will never offer social services like healthcare, education, sanitation, etc. to all. But most “developed” people on earth believe that when these and other services are distributed to all there is a greater degree of social justice. I like Amartya Sen a great deal. This reviewer is just not intellectually equipped to deal with his work.

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