Sen argues for theory of comparative justice


Amartya Sen

On Tuesday, September 23, Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate and Lamont University Professor at Harvard, spoke at the Law School about the “idea of justice,” a topic developed further in his forthcoming book. The lecture was delayed slightly since the speech had to be moved to a venue large enough to accommodate the enormous crowd that had turned up to hear Professor Sen.

In welcoming Professor Sen to the Law School, Dean Kagan noted that his first name in Sanskrit means immortal and said that Professor Sen’s many contributions to economics, development theory and political philosophy had indeed ensured his immortality in the academic world. Describing him as an “intellectual giant of the last century,” Dean Kagan highlighted the substantive impact of Professor Sen’s work on policy making in countries across the world and institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations. In particular, she stated that his work with the UN had resulted in the commencement of the publication of the annual Human Development Report.

Professor Sen began by outlining two approaches that Enlightenment thinkers had adopted towards understanding justice. The first approach, which he called “Transcendental Justice,” adopted by classical writers like Hobbes and Rousseau and developed by contemporary thinkers like Rawls, Nozick and Dworkin, focuses on distinguishing between the just and the unjust and creating institutions that would ensure a just society. The second approach, which he characterized as a comparative approach to justice, espoused by thinkers as diverse as Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, Condorcet, Mary Wollstonecraft and Karl Marx focuses on the actual realization of justice in society by evaluating social injustices in a comparative setting. The primary concern of the “transcendentalists” is the creation of institutions that would ensure a perfectly just society, whereas that of the “comparativists” is to ensure improvements in society by removing specific injustices. For the comparativists, the idea of justice is not about achieving a perfectly just society, but to produce as just a society as is possible given the circumstances. Noting the strong bias in contemporary political philosophy towards “transcendental justice,” Sen said that his book attempts to develop the idea of comparative justice.

Borrowing from an ancient Sanskrit text, Sen explained the contrast between the two approaches to justice as the difference between “niti” and “nyaya.” “Niti,” translated as “organizational propriety and correctness,” refers to the institutions that should be created in order to have a just society. “Nyaya” on the other hand, translated as “a comprehensive idea of realized justice,” is inescapably linked to the world and the lives of the people. Sen stated that the idea of justice in Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I’s claim that justice ought to be done even though the world may perish, is that of “niti.” However, justice done at the expense of a catastrophe in which the world may perish does not result in “nyaya.”

Sen stressed that his idea of justice is not merely consequentialist. In fact, his idea of justice encompasses a comprehensive way of looking at both processes and outcomes. He illustrated this by referencing the famous debate between Krishna and Arjuna in the Bhagvad Gita, a holy Hindu text. Arjuna, a renowned warrior, hesitates on the brink of battle even though he is on the side of good and justice because he does not want to kill his cousins who are on the other side. Krishna encourages Arjuna to do his duty regardless of the consequences. This debate is often characterized as a debate between the deontological and consequentialist positions with Krishna representing the former and Arjuna the latter. However, Sen argued that Arjuna is not a mere consequentialist, in that he is not just concerned about the fact that many people will be killed in the battle that he is hesitating to engage in but also that he will be killing people for whom he has some affection.

Shifting focus to theories of global justice, Sen stated that the kind of comparative approach that he was articulating for achieving global justice would fail to interest Hobbesian institutionalists who believe that we need a sovereign global state before we can talk about issues of global justice. Transcendental justice philosophers like Thomas Nagel and John Rawls would respond to such a claim by saying that even in the absence of a sovereign global state we can nonetheless still talk about what global justice will involve.

But the content of such an idea of global justice would be limited to general principles of humanitarian behavior or the institutions necessary for the creation of a perfectly just society. However, Sen argued that when people across the world agitate for global justice, they are neither clamoring for minimal humanitarianism nor for a perfectly just society. They are seeking the removal of some outrageously unjust facts or rules in the national or global society. For instance, those seeking reform of patent laws to make drugs easily available to the poor and the needy are targeting the injustice of people dying for want of necessary medications while drug companies make huge profits. Their action is calibrated to achieve a narrow goal. It is not anticipated that the removal of this injustice will result in the creation of a perfectly just society.

Responding to questions, Sen accepted that even adopting a comparative theory of justice would involve making choices and consequently would require consensus on those choices. This would in turn require a judgment as to what the definition of consensus is. He argued, however, that it is far easier to arrive at a consensus on a particular social issue rather than issues of what would constitute a perfectly just society, a topic for which inquiry is neither useful nor necessary.Sen concluded by articulating that even the nature of institutions is not independent of the behavioral norms of society and that therefore even the Rawlsian/transcendentalist inquiry is not completely independent of the comparative approach to justice.