Monday, September 14, 2009

Two winds- Ideas and Justice

Political science professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta reviews Sen's new book The Idea of Justice in the current Outlook issue. Some excerpts:

  • “A theory of justice should draw on social choice techniques and aim at partial rankings of states of affairs.
  • Indeed, the book is not so much about an idea of justice as it is about the vast range of legitimate considerations that have to be taken into account in a theory of justice. And finally what institutional arrangements might best embody a move towards greater justice will crucially depend on circumstances; perfect institutional structures are no guide to how we might proceed.
  • …ideas like liberty and equality. Even each of these concepts has several dimensions. Liberty is both a process and an opportunity. Equality invites the question: Equality of what? There are several plausible and conflicting answers to this question. It is here that the strength of the book is also, in an odd way, its weakness. The capabilities approach—an approach that focuses on enhancing people’s capabilities—is so supple that you are left wondering exactly where Sen stands.

R Jagannathan writes in DNA:

  • “The book does not say anything Amartya Sen has not already said before. He has criticised our excessive preoccupation with building "just" institutions instead of a "just" society. The latter would include good institutions, but one would monitor outcomes of actual societal behaviour and keep making course corrections. Debates over what constitutes a just order are also less important than adopting a common-sense approach to reducing gross injustices through public reasoning.
  • The best part of Sen's jargon-filled book is where he explains his ideas through examples. This is where Ashoka, Akbar and Arjuna figure in large doses. Through Sen's lens, all three emerge as one-dimensional heroes, reasoning automatons, not real people.
  • Amartya's Ashoka, Arjuna and Akbar are great historical characters who contributed to India's cultural nationhood, but he has reduced them to cardboard characters of dubious authenticity. He hasn't done them or Indians much justice.”

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