Amartya Sen, recipient of the Nobel prize in Economics in 1998, is a very special economist. He has first-rate technical skills, he is a fine interpreter of the empirical evidence on the causes of famine and poverty around the world, he has a deep commitment to egalitarian social change, and he is a looming figure in modern political philosophy. Sen is a key contributor to the current movement towards integrating the insights of the various social sciences towards better understanding of society and increasing our capacity to improve social policy interventions in to economic and political life.
The Idea of Justice is a large, meandering book that is accessible to the novice in social theory and political philosophy, and includes most of the ideas Sen has championed in his long and productive career, plus a new idea that leads him beyond such established contemporary political philosophers as John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin.
In much the same way as German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, Sen’s commitment to freedom and democracy is based not on distributional issues, but rather on a deep understanding of the importance of communicative discourse and public debate in making the good society. This commitment fits well with Sen’s major contribution to welfare economics, which is providing an alternative to the selfish and materialistic Homo Economicus of standard neoclassical economics. For traditional economics, well-being is a function of the goods and services and individual enjoys. For Sen, well-being is a function of how fully and vigorously an individual exercises his human capabilities. Democracy, then, is less about who gets what, and more about how people come to craft both their personal life-meaning and their collective destiny through political participation and discourse.
As an indication of the power of Sen’s reasoning, he shows clearly how a commitment to a capabilities orientation to human welfare helps understand why income and welfare are conceptually and factually distinct and only somewhat correlated. Sen treats poverty as an inability to develop and exercise one’s personal capacities. Thus, a family in the United States can have much higher income than another in a third world country and yet suffer from poverty while its third world counterpart does not. This is because the US family may be socially dysfunctional, or may live in a community that fails to provide the social relations and cooperative institutions that allow people to develop their capacities even though lacking in income.
Sen’s innovation in this book is to critique the “transcendental institutionalism” of such traditional moral philosophers as Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant, Dworkin and Rawls, who seek to define a set of social institutions that foster “perfect justice,” Sen argues that perfect justice is not capable of attainment, and it is better to focus on how society can be improved from its current state, give its actual pattern of injustices.
I have two major criticisms of this book. The first is that Sen has not updated his model of the individual or his critique of the neoclassical model of economic man since his important contributions of thirty or forty years ago.
You would not discover by reading this book that there has been a virtual revolution in economic thought concerning human nature starting in the 1980's with behavioral game theory, experimental economics, and more recently, neuroeconomics. We can now go far beyond Sen’s rather diffident and anemic argument that people are not always completely selfish. Perhaps Sen considers this new research deficient in some way. Or, perhaps such empirical findings do not belong in the same league as the venerable Western and Indian philosophers he quotes so liberally. We simply do not know what Sen thinks about this, or what his motives were to ignore this rich vein of research of obvious relevance to his argument.
My second problem is a bit more fundamental. I am extremely skeptical concerning the whole approach to justice that has dominated analytical philosophy since Rawls’ seminal A Theory of Justice. Sen critiques John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, G. A. Cohen and other left-liberal thinkers on grounds of the impossibility of perfect justice. However, the real problem with these thinkers is that they believe justice is a matter of the distribution of wealth and income. This is not at all what justice means to most voters and citizens, who rather follow Robert Nozick in believing that justice consists in individuals getting that to which they are entitled by virtue of legitimate production, exchange, and inheritance. Serious thinkers must find the idea that ideal justice consists of complete social equality to be deeply repugnant.
In this view, justice is not fairness at all. Nevertheless, we can accept an entitlement view of justice and yet recognize that poverty, not some abstract inequality of income and wealth, is a real enemy of social wellbeing, not because it is unfair but because it is a preventable disease, like malaria, that we should not permit to inflict the young and innocent. Full social equality, then, is not a lamentable unattainable ideal state, but rather a thankfully unattainable monstrosity because it presupposes the absence of personal accountability and effectivity.
Sen’s critique of the Rawlsian tradition is anemic and trivial. For this reason I find this book deeply disappointing. It is altogether too genteel in dealing with a philosophical tradition that deserves to be bitterly criticized, not gently reproached for its excessive zeal in the pursuit of an unattainable ideal.