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Ideas of justice

Lawrence Liang is disappointed with Amartya Sen’s ‘The Idea of Justice’, which seems to offer us a competing political theory, but not necessarily a competing political vision

In his parable about the risks of cartography, J L Borges speaks of an empire that attempted to create the perfect map that would coincide point for point with the actual space that it sought to map. The cartographers rapidly understood the folly of their ambition when they realised that the perfect map of the empire would have to be as large as the empire itself. Any attempt to review a book as ambitious as The Idea of Justice necessarily runs the risk of engaging in an unconscionable cartography of ideas. So rather than engaging with every aspect of Amartya Sen’s argument, it may be more useful to locate what the book is attempting to respond to and then focus on one specific aspect of the book. 

Let us be clear at the outset that despite its prominence in all popular bookstores, this is not a book that will have popular appeal. Unlike his previous work, The Argumentative Indian, a series of essays on culture and politics in India, which had a readership beyond the world of academia, The Idea of Justice is targeted at the academic community, and a specialised one at that. The book is located squarely within dense debates in liberal political philosophy which has its own conventions of analysis, argumentation and style. And like most genres, the mode of enquiry may be somewhat of an acquired taste. 

In particular Sen’s contribution is a response to John Rawls’ Theory of Justice -- a book which has stood colossus-like over the domain of normative philosophy. Sen’s departure from Rawls stems form his disagreement with the transcendental normativity that is at the heart of Rawls’ theory of justice. In particular, Sen argues that the overarching frame that has dominated debates on justice is an obsession with the definition of the perfectly just society, from which we judge institutional arrangements. Sen states that “If a theory of justice is to guide reasoned choice of policies, strategies or institutions, then the identification of fully just social arrangements is neither necessary nor sufficient”. Sen’s critique of the transcendental approach is both at the level of their feasibility as well as their redundancy. 

Rejecting the social contractarian obsession with the definition of the perfectly just society, Sen argues that it is injustice and not justice that should be our starting and end point. Distinguishing himself from the approach of ‘transcendental institutionalism’, Sen instead argues for the virtue of a social choice theory -- influenced significantly by the work of Kenneth Arrow, but also drawing from a tradition as diverse as Adam Smith, Marx and the utilitarians. 

Another clear departure in Sen is his critique of what he sees as a parochialism in the debate on justice. Sen argues that living as we do in a globalised world we cannot but think of justice as a global genre. He finds a lot of the existing theories, at their best too embedded within the concerns of the western world, or at their worst, ignorant of the reality of the wider world and the ethical demands that may be made in the quest for global justice. In attempting to remedy the epistemic parochialism that permeates these debates, Sen uses a range of sources from the Mahabharata to Akbar to the distinction between niti and nyaya. He says that the demands of global justice have to be distinguished from yet another attempt at creating a variation of a transcendental institutionalism, and it must be seen as the demands for the removal of the most blatant forms of injustice that exist. 

There are two ways in which we can measure Sen’s contribution. We can either see it in terms which are immanent -- ie to examine whether he actually manages to succeed in achieving what he has defined as the goal of the book. And this would have to be a test from within the grounds of liberal political philosophy. The other way is to examine the validity of his arguments from outside the framework of liberal philosophy. I will, given the limitations of space, merely gesture to how the book measures up on both counts.  

Let’s take the primary aim of The Idea of Justice as articulating a claim for justice, which is not dependent on either, the identification of transcendental principles nor on transcendental institutionalism. I agree with Sen that the focus on an abstract transcendentalism often creates a rhetoric of justice and rights which often tends to be vacuous. What I am less certain about is whether Sen actually manages to move away from a transcendental approach himself. A fundamental disagreement with Rawls’ transcendentalism does not guarantee that Sen will himself not fall into another form of transcendentalism. In speaking of global justice and in identifying principles such as public reason for the establishment of a comparative conversation on justice, it seems unavoidable for Sen to fall back into a transcendental universalism.  

Perhaps one way to look at why Sen fails in his attempt at escaping the transcendental trap is to compare his attempt with another attempt at reading Rawls. I am referring here to Stanley Cavell’s refutation of Rawls in his book, Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism. Cavell also begins with a similar premise of wanting to challenge Rawls’ transcendentalism, but the contrast for him is the Emersonian idea of moral perfectionism as a dimension of life in which an individual striving for perfection speaks to the larger question of political institutions. In Emerson, the possibility or necessity of transforming oneself and of one’s society are not distinct questions. 

Cavell demonstrates how Rawls’ concept of politics and moral relations assumes that moral relations have already broken down. This is a vice that Sen also shares when he identifies injustice as the starting point of our conversations. The remedial approach to the world often implies some kind of critical distance from it. In other words if one is to move away from a transcendental approach, one has no choice but to engage with motives and aspirations, or the entire world of sentiment. Sen does recognise other affective modes including anger as the basis for a sense of injustice, but too easily collapses them back into the world of public reason.  

Cavell rightly identifies what he calls ‘political mythologies’ that plague liberalism -- and the need for neatly worked out principles seems to be one of them. Cavell instead follows a different tradition in his understanding of what a conversation of justice may mean. He quotes Nietzsche’s idea that the individual should live his life as the highest exemplar of humanity -- ie the individual is the representation of the unattained but attainable possibility in each of us. This to my mind is a very different engagement with the limitations of transcendentalism than the replacement of social contract with social choice theory that Sen offers us. Cavell does not present us with a competing political theory, what he seems to offer us is a competing political vision, which is in turn dependent on a competing political sensibility, requiring us to answer the fundamental question of what it is to perceive ourselves as political beings. My disappointment with The Idea of Justice is that it seems to offer us a competing political theory, but not necessarily a competing political vision. 

(Lawrence Liang is a researcher at the Alternative Law Forum, Bangalore) 

Infochange News & Features, October 2009