Top Leaderboard, Site wide
Truthdig: Drilling Beneath the Headlines
January 24, 2017 Disclaimer: Please read.

Statements and opinions expressed in articles are those of the authors, not Truthdig. Truthdig takes no responsibility for such statements or opinions.

Born to Run
Draw Your Weapon!

Truthdig Bazaar more items

Arts and Culture
Email this item Print this item

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

Posted on Apr 1, 2010
the idea of justice

By Glen Newey

(Page 3)

Suppose that more than one property goes to deciding if an arrangement is just. As Sen says, one arrangement may do better on one count, and another on another, so one may not know which is more just, all things considered. The idea that we cannot fully rank different arrangements relies either on scepticism about relative weightings, or on the claim that the different goods are incommensurable, that is to say, cannot both be measured on a single scale of value. Sen is a bit rude about incommensurability: he dismisses as ‘feeble’ the idea, often voiced by value-pluralists, that one might confront incommensurability in having to choose, say, between a Hazel Blears speech and a poke in the eye. So presumably Sen favours scepticism. But scepticism seems not to do the job: then one can’t say that, in deciding justice here and now, one needs a knowledge of ideal justice.

Sen’s implicit argument might be put this way. Justice is a practical matter. Feasibility is salient in practical matters: in thinking about what to do, the realisation that some action is practically impossible closes off that branch of the deliberative tree. So any mooted principles of justice that fly in the face of feasibility are not principles of justice at all; they are rather, in the pejorative sense, utopian, since they wish away practical constraints which will be with us not simply in the world as it is, but in any world one could sanely hope to reach. To take the most obvious example, distributive justice assumes, as Hume noted, relative scarcity: if everybody had as much as anyone could desire, the question of justice wouldn’t arise. If so, the problem of justice can be solved by imagining scarcity away. Naturally, that looks like a cheat. But imagining away non-compliance, lack of co-ordination, sub-prime motivation –  and disagreement about justice itself – also seems like a cheat. Sen’s overriding point is that these worries can be put off by asking what it is best to do in the here and now, given what can be done.

Sen, then, calls for nyaya over niti. Unsurprisingly, his work on capabilities, developed with his sometime collaborator Martha Nussbaum, resurfaces in this connection. The original rationale, plausibly enough, lay in concern that the resource-based approach to distributive justice largely ignored the net impact which getting a particular handout has on its recipient’s life. One should look at capabilities net of resource inputs, rather than worrying only about who gets what. Take, for example, a disabled person on a high salary: using earnings to measure wellbeing overlooks the functional limitations that the disability imposes on him. This case seems straightforward. But generalising it to yield a basis for distributive justice is far from simple.


book cover


The Idea of Justice


By Amartya Sen


Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 496 pages


Buy the book

What is a capability? Sen’s earlier work on this bore the firm imprint, via Nussbaum, of Aristotle, who takes certain achieved capabilities as the mark of human flourishing. The Metaphysics distinguishes a dunamis, or capacity, from an achieved capability, or entelechia. Aristotle says the relation of entelechia to dunamis is like that between someone now using her capacity to see, and a normally sighted person whose eyes are shut. Sen sees capabilities as dunameis. For him, what matters is not just what someone actually does, but what they could do. But ‘could’ comes in different strengths: is adunamis more like an ability which, though currently dormant, could be exercised presently, like my ability to drive; or more like a potential, which could be realised only with a lot of pump-priming, like my tragically undeveloped potential to speak Finnish? As far as resource allocation goes, it presumably makes sense to create abilities rather than unrealised potentialities, as the latter can only benefit their possessor if they are converted into abilities that can be exercised securely, as Jo Wolff and Avner de-Shalit underline in their book Disadvantage. They use Sen’s example of wild honey gatherers in West Bengal, who run a significant risk of being eaten by tigers. Those who gather do so from economic necessity, and the fact that they are capable of gathering the honey may not offer much consolation. They are disadvantaged by having to seek their income at risk of death.

So it seems that it is secure abilities which the capabilities approach should treat as the currency of justice. This still leaves some big questions. While education sometimes inculcates generic abilities like numeracy and literacy, often it has more specific capacities in view, such as bagpipe tuition. Then there are capacities that the state probably won’t fund at all, like that for flea-training. Not everyone will get help from the state to develop her preferred capacities. The state has to take a view about what kinds of life are better, in violation of modern liberals’ belief in neutrality, according to which the state should take no position about the nature of the good life.

Then there is the fact that for some people, lack of function is a desideratum. They include not just mystic fasters and voluntary amputees, but also the millions of normals who run to fat or submit themselves to a blitz of drugs, drink and junk TV. On each of these counts, Sen’s best bet is the basically Aristotelian position that there are generic capacities which the good human life displays, and the state can try to instil these through education, even though it can’t guarantee that people won’t succumb to akrasia and cretinise themselves.

Sen could be accused of echoing conservatives who treat theory with impatience, and assert the primacy of practice. Occasionally, indeed, conservatives adopt a pragmatist bone-headedness – stolidity and want of imagination –  as a pose. But this pose need not be all that pragmatism amounts to. Insofar as conservatism is not simply the flag of convenience in which an otherwise naked status quo wraps itself, it makes extant practices the launch pad for future action, as conservative thinkers like Michael Oakeshott argue. That will mean, indeed require, asking how far those practices need shaking up. But doing so leaves open all the options that are open. If it says otherwise, conservatism isn’t just pretending to be bone-headed.

The Idea of Justice valuably adjusts justice theory’s preoccupation with principles and institutional design. Orthodox theorists will not like the focus on practice-dependency. It leaves space for the charge – which might be worn as a badge of honour – that the account of justice is imperfectly theorised, or that talk of justice makes sense only where the practices already exist. It also invites the objection that practice has eclipsed principle entirely, and that there is nothing but a glut of localised norms – what Martin Hollis used to call ‘liberalism for liberals, cannibalism for cannibals’. How far one feels bothered by this is no doubt a personal matter. The slope at whose bottom the pit of moral relativism froths has never wanted for lubrication by op-ed journalists and academics. But, as often, relativism is beside the point. Even if beliefs about justice were globally uniform, there would still be a question about whether practice should take its bearings from an ideal set of principles.

What price justice? It is worth remembering that, like injustice, it does have a price. As Sen implies, the price is not usefully paid in the specie of eternity, an idea behind some psychopathically meliorist projects of modern times. There is always a political question about whether and why to take an interest in something – even the justitia whose fiat has been joy-ridden by philosophers on behalf of an absconded deity.

Glen Newey is on research leave from the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies.

New and Improved Comments

If you have trouble leaving a comment, review this help page. Still having problems? Let us know. If you find yourself moderated, take a moment to review our comment policy.

Join the conversation

Load Comments

By CitizenWhy, July 14, 2010 at 7:55 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.

Report this
Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, April 8, 2010 at 5:53 am Link to this comment

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

Report this
Shenonymous's avatar

By Shenonymous, April 7, 2010 at 11:18 pm Link to this comment

I thought Justice was the lady who was blindfolded.

Report this
Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, April 7, 2010 at 11:55 am Link to this comment

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

Report this

By gerard, April 6, 2010 at 2:53 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.

Report this
Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, April 5, 2010 at 7:01 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.

Report this

By GoyToy, April 5, 2010 at 1:29 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.

Report this

By christian96, April 4, 2010 at 8:37 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.

Report this

By berniem, April 4, 2010 at 4:15 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?

Report this
Shenonymous's avatar

By Shenonymous, April 4, 2010 at 12:08 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.

Report this

By christian96, April 4, 2010 at 7:17 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!

Report this

By felicity, April 3, 2010 at 10:17 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.”

Report this
Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, April 3, 2010 at 6:18 am Link to this comment

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

Report this
G.Anderson's avatar

By G.Anderson, April 3, 2010 at 5:58 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.

Report this
Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, April 2, 2010 at 4:17 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.

Report this

By gerard, April 2, 2010 at 12:04 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.

Report this
RenZo's avatar

By RenZo, April 2, 2010 at 8:43 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.

Report this
Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, April 2, 2010 at 8:07 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.

Report this

By RM, April 2, 2010 at 5:35 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.

Report this
Right 1, Site wide - BlogAds Premium
Right 2, Site wide - Blogads
Right Skyscraper, Site Wide
Right Internal Skyscraper, Site wide
Join the Liberal Blog Advertising Network