Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice (2009)

When I was in college in the early 1970s, anyone interested in reading, studying, and discussing philosophical ideas was likely to read John Rawls' A Theory of Justice, which was published in 1971. I approached Rawls at that time as an economics student and found his adaptation of that branch of economics known as welfare economics, which considers distributive impacts on societal economic welfare, to his views on distributive justice, of great interest. One did not have to agree with everything Rawls postulated or concluded, but the incorporation of aspects of 20th century economic analysis in a philosophical discussion of ethics and justice was illuminating. My particular interest in Rawls' approach was to tax policy, and how it informed a fair tax policy that simultaneously considered the societal benefits of economic growth. Despite Rawls' conclusion that a properly conceived theory of justice contemplates maximizing the welfare of those who are worst off economically (maximin), Rawls recognized that economic differences among individuals were a tolerable consequence of the need to develop incentives to do things that would maximize the welfare of the worst off (the difference principle).

Among the footnotes in A Theory of Justice were references to the work of a young Indian economist, Amartya Sen, who was just making a name for himself in the field of development economics and for his contributions to theory of "social choice." Social choice theory blends both welfare economics and voting theory. It is not surprising then that Rawls' and Sen's professional lives would intersect. Sen's The Idea of Justice is dedicated to the memory of John Rawls, but though The Idea of Justice is an appreciation of Rawls' oeuvre, it is not an endorsement of his Theory of Justice.

Rawls follows the social contract approach to political philosophy, building upon the work of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant, which embraces a thought experiment in which the individuals in a society are imagined to agree unanimously on a set of principles that determines their processes and institutions for governing themselves. The imaginary social contract relies heavily on the assumption that individuals will cast aside their cultural, historical, economic, and personal biases in favor of impartiality --- and either agree to cede some of their individual interests in favor of the collective interest, or in Rawls' case, agree to maximize the economic welfare of those who are worst off --- subject to the difference principle. In Rawls' imagination, this agreement is made under the "veil of ignorance," which secures impartiality, perhaps even more impartiality than Hobbes, Locke or Rousseau contemplated. Also central to Rawls' contract is that the individuals who make this agreement will agree that liberty and political equality are values that are central to building just institutions and processes.

Impartiality, liberty, and equality figure in Sen's approach to justice as well, but Sen departs from Rawls' "transcendental" thought experiment and social contract approach which leads to the development of just institutions, and he focuses on how, through what he calls "public reasoning," we identify injustices and make incremental adjustments to more just outcomes in the relationships among people. The story told by Mark Currides in Contempt of Court, which was the subject of the previous December 16, 2010 post, is a type of example of the idea of justice that Sen is talking about. "The need for an accomplishment-based understanding of justice is linked with the argument that justice cannot be indifferent to the lives that people can actually live," Sen writes. "The importance of human lives, experiences, and realizations cannot be supplanted by information about institutions that exist and the rules that operate. Institutions and rules are, of course, very important in influencing what happens, and they are part and parcel of the actual world as well, but the realized actuality goes well beyond the organization picture, and includes the lives that people manage --- or do not manage --- to live." Sen explains that we can understand the differences between these two approaches in two different words for justice found in Sanskrit literature --- niti and nyaya --- the former focuses on organizational and behavioral correctness, while the latter is tied to the world that emerges, not just the organizations and rules that society happens to have. Rawls' "theory of justice" fits with niti, Sen's "idea of justice" is an example of nyaya.

Important to Sen's public reasoning approach to justice is the role of the "impartial spectator," a role-player first conceived by Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. There are really two ideas here: self-scrutiny of our individual selves and self-scrutiny of our collective self. And for Sen, this scrutiny also contemplates that other voices --- even outsiders --- who are not part of the dominant culture, economic class, and political structure will be heard and listened to when there are opportunities to identify instances of injustice and take corrective action.

The public reasoning approach to justice leads to another departure from Rawls: it can be expected that it will not lead to unanimous consent for a single overarching principle or set of principles by which to identify injustice --- such as Rawls' "justice as fairness;" it is quite likely that the public reasoning approach will address injustice on many different grounds -- "a plurality of competing principles" such as utilitarianism, economic, political, racial, and religious egalitarianism, or radical libertarianism. And a society faced with competing principles that seeks to find the just solution to a given claim of injustice may only be able to achieve a partial resolution --- just as the United States Supreme Court's decision in United States v. Shipp, discussed in the December 16, 2010 post, represented only a partial resolution of racial injustice in 1906. The current public debate over universal health care access in the United States presents precisely this scenario. "We have good reasons for recognizing that the pursuit of justice is partly a matter of the gradual formation of behavior patterns -- there is no immediate jump from the acceptance of some principles of justice and a total redesign of every one's actual behavior in line with that political conception of justice. In general, the institutions have to be chose not only in line with the nature of the society in question, but also co-dependently on the actual behavior patterns that might be expected even if -- and even after -- a political conception of justice is accepted by all." If only Lenin had considered this approach to justice, he might have spared Russians from a half a century of misery.

Sen makes room for some occasional "agitation" in the pursuit of justice, but it is that kind of agitation that is familiar to democracy: "outrage can be used to motivate, rather than to replace, reasoning." Later, he adds, "The role and reach of reason are not undermined by the indignation that leads us to an investigation of the ideas underlying the nature and basis of the persistent inequities . . ." When we "try to determine how justice can be advanced, there is a basic need for public reasoning, involving arguments coming from different quarters and divergent perspectives that we must expect to be able to settle the conflicting reasons in all cases and arrived at agreed positions on every issue. Complete resolution is neither a requirement of a person's own rationality, nor is it a condition of reasonable social choice, including a reason-based theory of justice."

What I would like to see in another book on this subject whose landscape is as broad as that reviewed and covered by Sen is a discussion of what we are learning from neuroscience, social psychology, evolutionary psychology, and cultural anthropology about what makes us human, and what makes us particularly social animals. This blog has mentioned a number of recent works from these fields including Marc Hauser's Moral Minds, Michael Gazzaniga's Human, Marco Iaccoboni's Mirroring People, and Frans DeWaal's The Age of Empathy, just to cite a few. Sen's approach to justice could be further informed and enriched by this literature. For humans, our reasoning capabilities are not the only characteristic of the human mind (brain) that causes us to make the choices (both personal and social) that we make. The human brain still carries with it all the evolutionary features that formed the neurological system of preceding species, particularly those that relate to feelings and emotions. Sen, I believe, would be open to this inquiry, because how else do we enrich our knowledge of the kind of "moral sentiments" that were identified by Adam Smith, David Hume, and others whom Sen admires.

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