[In writing this piece, I am grateful to many intellectual arguments while sharing my thoughts on Amartya Sen’s Idea of Justice particularly with patient listeners like Stephen Mulhall, Lea Ypi, Michael Drolet, Marc Stears, Benjamin Jackson, Varun Uberoi, Niraja Gopal Jayal, Kanti Bajpai, Ajit Chaudhury, Alok Rai, Prasenjit Bose, Swagato Sarkar, Anish Vanaik, Jyotirmoy Bhattacharya, Arghya Sengupta, Anup Surendranath, Umar Azmeh, Indrajit Roy, Isra Jeelani Wani, Mahsa Khadem and Caesar Basu. However, the opinions expressed in this article are entirely personal, but nonetheless resulting from a collective enterprise of public culture of debates and discussions.]
Prof. Amartya Sen recently made a visit to the University of Oxford during 19-20 November, 2009. On 19th November, he attended an interactive session with a few Oxford economists and a couple of MPs from Conservative and Labour Party in UK. On the same day, he also delivered a public lecture titled The Pursuit of Justice in Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre followed by question and answer session with the audience. On 20th November, he interacted primarily with a few Oxford philosophers and political theorists, again followed by comments and questions from the audience. The focal point of his public lecture and interactive sessions was his new book The Idea of Justice that got published in July 2009. Sen, a Nobel Prize winner in Economics and a Lamont Professor of Economics and Moral Philosophy at Harvard University took an intelligent and pragmatic approach by pondering over the idea of ‘enhancement of justice’ by ‘removal of injustice’ instead of imagining an a priori perfect just society, or ‘identifying perfectly just social arrangements’ or ‘just institutions’ in his book. However, the book has several deficiencies, and in this article, we would try to point out those ontological, methodological and epistemological limits/problems of Sen’s idea of justice. As Sen has rightly pointed out in his book that ‘all disagreements need not to be overcome’, let us put forward some disagreements with his Oxford lecture and the book, following his call of ‘public reason’ and the progressive legacy of ‘public debates’. In the first place, before one starts with the question of theorizing about ‘removing injustice’ as Sen has tried to address in his book, it would be worth asking first about the ontological cum existential question of ‘injustice’ itself. That is to say, how injustices occur and exist in society? One can argue that injustices are the function of a certain kind of power relations in society, where the unjust conditions of plebs/underdogs/exploited/oppressed/underprivileged/exluded/discriminated are the result or consequence of certain policies of the power bloc. Hence, antagonism is a constitutive part of any hierarchical and differentiated society. In this respect, we cannot address the question of ‘justice’ while focusing on ‘removing injustice’ without addressing, analyzing and removing ‘antagonism’, prevalent in our society.
Secondly, Sen has given a call for ‘public reasoning’ and ‘public debates’ for alternative versions/visions of removing injustice and thus Sen’s idea of justice is pluralist in character with democratic engagement with varied positions on justice and yet we can arrive at certain common/collective outcomes. However, in this regard, one can ask the following questions: who would decide the ‘rules and regulations’ of public debates and public reasoning in a world market by corporate media? Who would win public debates in favour of ‘justice’ and against ‘injustice’? Can there be such an ‘ideal’ situation of democratic engagement between say ‘utilitarian’, ‘egalitarian’ and ‘no-nonsense libertarian’ as Sen has portrayed in his ideal scheme of things, or the pragmatic reality can be very different of an impossible dialogue precisely because the very different positions on justice fundamentally disagree with one another and has an inbuilt narcissism within each one of them, claiming: ‘our path is the right path’, based on their ‘reason’. In that case, ‘the idea of justice’ and ‘ways to remove injustice’ becomes a game of contesting positions struggling for hegemony. Therefore, setting the rules of such a game of contesting positions and the final outcome of such a game is depended on who wins and who loses the hegemonic struggle of contesting positions. Moreover, there cannot be any ‘neutral authority’ who can set the rules of ‘public reason’ and ‘public debates’ because authority by definition is linked with power and the historic experience of human existence shows us that ‘power’ is never innocent or impartial but has a motive to fulfill, and thus open to manipulation for such obvious parochial subjective goals. In this respect, Sen does not engage with the concept of hegemony, which actually derives from the antagonistic nature of human society. We can further clarify by saying that the struggle to ensure justice or removing injustice to arrive at relatively more just conditions in Sen’s approach is intricately connected to the question of political struggle to win hegemony over the rest of the population in favour of justice. The population in a society can be politically convinced for a particular version of justice or ways of removing injustice by consultations, consent, democratic participations etc. If a particular version of justice is superimposed from top then hegemony nonetheless can be established, but with coercive mechanisms, which in a way can also invite a resistance/challenge to the hegemonic formation/power bloc and thus can limit its scope of operation. In that case, the very notion of a hegemonic idea of justice and its moral authority that is established through an authoritarian imposition from above than hegemonic formation from below with people’s consent and active participation in championing a version of justice can be questioned/collapsed with new possibilities of struggle for liberation from a repressive notion of justice. In the case of a repressive power, the normative idealism of ‘just society’ itself becomes relegated to redundancy with the emergence/prominence of realism, where only power, and ‘remain seated in power’ itself becomes an ideal. In such a case, the ‘promise’ and ‘hope’ of establishing a just society or removing injustices is a political project of the present, when the ‘promise’ of justice or removing injustice is made to the people at the current conjuncture (‘now’) for political mobilization at present to establish a relatively new just society in near future. Thus, ideals like justice or removing injustice in that case becomes only an illusionary veil to camouflage the hidden desire/goal of political act of achieving ‘power’. In fact, the history of human existence has so far shown that no society has been absolutely just and even after eventful political transformations like Spartacus slave revolt, English Revolution, French Revolution, Russian Revolution, Chinese Revolution, Iranian Islamic Revolution, National liberation and decolonization, and post-war welfare state to the retreat of the welfare state with the emergence of neoliberal consensus, justice has not been ensured to significant sections of population in those societies and indeed we found new forms of injustices haunting the plebs. However, it can be definitely argued that some of the above mentioned political transformations have made some advancements in making societies relatively more just, while eliminating some injustices like abolition of slavery, disbandment of private armies of propertied classes, concentrated focus on social sectors like health and education. On the other hand, in the current neoliberal dispensation, we find just concerns for environment but at the same time, new forms of injustices with financial crisis, the retreat of welfarist policies etc. Since, Sen’s book is written for our times, he does not offer us any solution how we can make societies relatively just in the midst of neoliberal hegemony. Rather his arguments can well be sufficient to sustain a neoliberal hegemony as we will see next on the question of imperialism.
Thirdly, in page numbers 408 and 409 of the book, Sen argues that United Nations, NGO’s and parts of the news media have a positive role to play in ensuring a ‘global democratic state’ characterized by ‘global reasoning’. Now, it is not an ontological question at all, rather an ontical cum empirico-factual question that the UN, NGOs and media are more often than not, sold to corporate interests and has been the vehicles of US imperialism for quite sometime now, and how these are going to facilitate a ‘global democratic state’! In this sense, Sen’s idea of justice cannot be plural but partial, since the prevalent conditions of several forms of antagonism expressed in the phenomenon of poverty, inequality, illiteracy, health hazards, undemocratic international (dis)order are consequences of corporate model of neoliberal capitalism. In fact, institutions like UN, NGOs and media that Sen has so much hope and trust on them, have themselves contributed in sustaining the current unjust imperialist system. Thus, it can be argued that Sen’s vision of global democratic state is not only partial and unjust but basically overlaps with the project of American empire. To be very precise, one can hear the sounds of the logic of empire in Sen’s intellectual argument since his global democratic state would be mediated through imperialist agencies like UN, NGOs and corporate media. To balance such accusations of a pro-imperialist text, Sen difficultly tries to make a happy harmony, arguing in favour of a ‘global dialogue’ between imperialist power bloc alliance of Washington, London, Paris and Tokyo with ‘anti-globalization protests’ (p. 409). However, such a ‘global dialogue’ is impossible precisely because of antagonistic nature of global power relations and can only exist in the fancy imaginations of an idealist thinker, who ironically is not interested in providing a transcendental just perfect society. Even Sen’s criticisms of US invasion to Iraq as ‘mistaken’ (p. 3) and American response to 9/11 ‘affecting hundreds of millions…in Afghanistan’ (p. 402) carefully avoid using the term ‘imperialism’ which has perhaps now become old-fashioned in liberal intellectual circles because it embarrasses the imperialist power bloc. On the question of Taliban and 9/11, Sen in fact forgets to mention that it was America’s own Frankenstein created as a strategy of Cold war politics, which is now haunting the empire. So, America has to account for much of the present crisis in the wake of ‘global terrorism’. Similarly, Sen also does not assess America’s unjust historic wrongs, most crudely expressed in decimating Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atom bombs, its military interventions and CIA sponsored coups in parts of Latin America and the Muslim world, and its proselytization of several third world nation states with Fund-Bank market led economic policies that only sustained the problems of poverty, inequality, unemployment, lack of educational opportunities and health hazards. Today, this neoliberal consensus is facing a crisis of legitimacy owing much to the discredited economic agenda of global power elites in the face of a massive financial crisis in the West. In this context, Sen as one of the respected public intellectuals of our time stops short of advising the imperialist power bloc to ‘reform’ itself, and not to repeat its mistakes of historic wrongs and injustices to the world population. As a gentleman with liberal orientations he is also not telling the imperialist power bloc, ‘look, you have no right to intervene in other’s matters, nobody has given you that moral right or authority to bully and harm others, and your peeping tendency in other’s houses is a violation of courtesy and can be seen as indecency, offensive and bad manners!’ In other words, Sen is soft on the question of imperialism and avoids to vehemently criticizing it as a system of injustice. To summarize the above three fundamental disagreements with Sen, we can say that the questions of antagonism, hegemony and imperialism are absolutely missing in his book and one cannot comprehensively understand the notions of justice and injustice without addressing those issues.
Sen’s book however, holds merit on a different count because it only seeks to find/search for an idea of justice rather than answering ‘what is justice’ and does not make a grand claim that ‘this is justice’. Sen’s approach as we have noted earlier is not to provide an ‘ideal perfect just society theory’ but to look at alternative ways of ‘removing injustices’ in comparative approaches as he claims in extending the legacies of Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Marquis de Condorcet, Mary Wollstonecraft and Karl Marx while differing with the ‘transcendental institutionalism’ of ‘contractarian theorists’ like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant and John Rawls. According to Sen, the contractualists believed in an ideal perfect just society theory on the basis of transcendentalism as an approach to find perfectly ideal just social arrangements while the theorists on the side of comparative framework were more interested in ‘removing injustices’ in varied ways. Now, we can notice sharpness in making an opposition between ‘transcendental institutionalism’ and ‘comparative approaches’ in Sen’s idea of justice, but why these are or needs to be essentially different in Sen’s approach is not clear. Moreover, Sen is rather focussing more on ‘institutionalism’ than the notion of ‘transcendental’ and in this case, an important question might be: why the idea of ‘transcendental’ is not valuable worth defending for Sen? Now Sen might not have anything against ideal theories and certainly not against ideal theories of justice portraying an ideal just society. Rather his approach is just to do things differently, and albeit exploring alternative ways of removing injustice is a different approach than to build imaginary castles in air by providing an ideal just society theory, which increasingly gets identified with ivory tower philosophy, losing connectivity with the ground level ‘real’ political praxis.
Sen’s prime concern is not to construct a theory of perfectly ideal just society based on transcendentalism but how injustices can be minimised in different ways and how we can have a dialogue between varied points of view on the question of removing injustice. But then Sen’s model itself is tied up with a normative ideal notion/position, where ‘removing injustice’ itself becomes an ‘ideal’ and thus can be transcendental as well. We would argue that since, ‘removing injustice’ is a central idea(l) for Sen, it has an implicit/subtle transcendentalism. Let us assume that in a society of A, we are witnessing injustices like ‘poverty’, ‘inequality’, ‘unemployment’, ‘illiteracy’, ‘health problems’, ‘tyranny’ etc. Now, Sen’s approach would be to ‘remove’ some or if possible, all those injustices prevalent in the Society A without having a prior agenda of what would be an ideal perfect just society or how a perfect just society would look like. However, if we are successful in eliminating/eradicating some or if possible, all those injustices, then Society A loses its unjust identity and transforms itself into a different society, say Society B, by getting a new identity. Now, Society B is fundamentally different from the unjust conditions of Society A, and thus cannot be identified anymore with Society A. Therefore, after removing the injustices from an original unjust society, an altogether different society is waiting at the end of this journey from an unjust Society A to a relatively more just Society B. This particular journey or transformation from unjust Society A to relatively just Society B with Sen’s approach of ‘removing injustices’ cannot be distinguished from the approach of transcendentalism. So, even if Sen distance himself from the idea of ‘transcendental institutionalism’, if we actually take ‘institutionalism’ out of it, then the indivisible remainder of ‘transcendental’ is very much present in Sen. Thus, it is a fundamental methodological problem in Sen’s approach that what Sen differentiates between ‘transcendental institutionalism’ and ‘comparative approach’ is actually intertwined on the question of transcendental(ism).
One can also ask Sen about the duality of political versus practical utility of Sen’s approach and whether we can argue for a distinctive political utility for just society. If we can argue for such a case, then what would be the feasibility of any theory of justice? How do we address the gap between academic philosophy and political practice, which in a way, Marx tried to resolve the issue? Sen might argue that Marx’s communism is not feasible and Marx treats humans as animals, than humans while Sen values ‘reason’ and treats human rationality as an important tool in dealing with both philosophy and practice of removing injustice. In this respect, particularly Sen’s reading of Marx as a comparativist than an ideal perfect just society thinker is a misreading of Marx and therefore there is a profound epistemological problem in Sen’s thesis. The reading and placement of Marx by Sen among the comparativist framework, who is more interested in removing injustice than having an ideal just society is a selective reading. It is not clear from Sen, why he decided to frame Marx, not as an ideal perfect just society thinker and rather chose to pose him as a thinker who is more interested in removing injustices? In his Bengali book, Jibonjatra O Arthaniti (Life and Economics), Sen has copiously quoted Marx’s The German Ideology (1845), where Marx argues about his ‘communist society’ and ‘true socialism’. Then we know about Marx’s idea of distributive justice in a communist society: ‘from each according to his ability to each according to his needs’ in Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875), which can be seen as Marx’s own justifications of perfectly ideal just social arrangements. Marx’s ideal of communism can be seen in his several works but particularly elaborated as a desired ideal just society in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844), and The Communist Manifesto (1848). Sen’s treatment of Marx in Capital Vol. I, Grundrisse, Critique of the Gotha Programme as a thinker interested in removing injustice is true/correct but as we all know, Marx was also interested in establishing an ideal just perfect society in his vision of communism. In this respect, we can call Marx as a quasi-transcendental thinker rather than a pure transcendental or a comparativist one that Sen has tried to argue. Marx had both the tendencies of constructing an ideal perfect just society and at the same time, he was also interested in removing the prevalent injustices of society, and these two approaches are complementary to each other and not necessarily mutually exclusive as in the case of Sen. Now, on the question of gap between theoretical and philosophical premises/promises with that of practical political performances in ground realities at the grassroots, and how we can overcome this gap between academic engagements and real political activism, Sen’s solution of a global democratic state mediated through UN, NGOs, media etc. as we have discussed earlier is unimpressive. Although Sen argues in favour of activism but keeps short of telling us what kinds of activism and in which direction—whether political activism in favour of an imperialist status quo would ensure a relatively more just society by eliminating injustices or political struggle against the very form of imperialist (dis)order would do the same.
This is however not to deny/denounce the merits of Sen’s approach to justice, which makes a distinguished contribution by differing with Kant’s notion of ‘perfect justice’, Aristotle’s ‘universal justice’ and Harvard school’s preoccupation with justice and ‘moral rights’, by avoiding the question of ‘transcendental’. For Sen, Justice is not the only virtue but it seems that he gives priority to justice as a virtue. In this regard, it would be a valid question that why Sen has only engaged with the enlightenment thinkers in dealing with the question of justice despite the fact that justice has been a concern for and a continuous search of political philosophy right from the days of Greco-Roman tradition. Greek Sophists were one of the first ‘individualists’ in political philosophy tradition concerned with the problem of justice. Stoics believed in ‘justice’ as one of the four cardinal virtues apart from ‘wisdom’, ‘courage’ and ‘temperance’. Then we find Socrates discussing justice in Plato’s Republic. We also know how Roman senator Cicero valued justice as a ‘glorious virtue’. What we get from Sen is a complete silence on these ancient thinkers of justice. Sen does not even engage with Plato, who has a classic theory on justice and instead refers to Plato only on two occasions and that too via Adam Smith’s illustration (p. 130) and quotation (p. 404). Also, Sen does not engage with the theological traditions of justice. This theological tradition offers a concept of justice in the everyday affairs of human world besides having parochial interests in the ‘Judgment day’ in Life after death, particularly in monotheistic religions. In this regard, Sen does not even engage with medieval Christian theological tradition of justice as best articulated by St. Thomas Aquinas nor does he take the Islamic view of justice which prescribes certain rules, regulations and practices to ensure justice in society or in a way organising just social arrangements. Even if Sen’s interest to look at non-western sources for a theory of justice and particularly his engagement with ancient Indian schools of nyaya and niti, sources like Bhagavatgita (Gita) and Mahabharata, and with illuminating Indian personas like Gautama Buddha, Kautilya, Ashoka and Akbar has merits, his disengagement with ancient European and Islamic traditions on justice only limits his scope of inquiry. On that count, what Sen alleges about the attention towards contemporary western ‘pursuit of political philosophy in general and the demands of justice in particular has been…limited and to some extent parochial’ (p. xiv) can be also true in his case precisely because of his disengagement with ancient European and Islamic commentaries on justice. Furthermore, what Sen calls ‘our global heritage’ (pp. xiii-xvi) by trying to bridge a dialogue between ancient Indian philosophy with modernist European enlightenment thinking, effectively defies/denies the global ancient and theological heritage with the exclusion of ancient Greco-Roman and medieval theological traditions on justice in Sen’s book. There is no convincing justification from Sen, that why the starting premise of The Idea of Justice is the European enlightenment and then situating some selected Indian thought on justice by contrasting and complimenting the Enlightenment legacy while excluding the ancient European thought on justice and different theological traditions of justice.
‘Justice’ for Sen is a relational concept. That is to say, we cannot comprehensively address the question of justice without relating it with other normative concepts like ‘liberty’, ‘equality’, ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’, ‘capability’, ‘reason’ etc. But for Sen, justice can be also relative, as he demonstrates about the three children and the Flute story discussed in the introduction of his book while illustrating that relative notion of justice can disagree on utilitarian, egalitarian and libertarian grounds. For the readers, the story in brief is of the following: “[W]hich of three children—Anne, Bob and Carla—should get a flute about which they are quarrelling. Anne claims the flute on the ground that she is the only one of the three who knows how to play it (the others do not deny this), and it would be quite unjust to deny the flute to the only one who can actually play it…In an alternative scenario, it is Bob who speaks up, and defends his case for having the flute by pointing out that he is the only one among the three who is so poor that he has no toys of his own. The flute would give him something to play with (the other two concede that they are richer and well supplied with engaging amenities). If you had heard only Bob and none others, the case for giving it to him would be strong. In another alternative scenario, it is Carla who speaks up and points out that she has been working diligently for many months to make the flute with her own labour (the others confirm this), and just when she had finished her work, ‘just then’, she complains, ‘these expropriators came along to try to grab the flute away from me’…Having heard all three and their different lines of reasoning, there is a difficult decision that you have to make…[T]heorists of different persuasions, such as utilitarians, or economic egalitarians, or labour right theorists, or no-nonsense libertarians, may each take the view that there is one straightforward just resolution that is easily detected, but they would each argue for totally different resolutions as being obviously right. There may not indeed exist any identifiable perfectly just social arrangement on which impartial agreement would emerge” (Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice [London: Allen Lane, 2009], pp. 13-15). One can suggest an egalitarian notion of distributive justice to counter this problem of justice in the above example provided by Sen by arguing that the flute can be just simply shared among the three children with equal amount of time spend by them with the flute, lets say rotating eight hours of Flute to each one of the three: Anne, Bob and Carla in a particular day. To this solution, Sen can argue that this might not happen because each one of the children can argue that they have a ‘right’ to get the Flute and might not wish to share on the ground of their ‘right’ that comes from their reasoned claims. However, if we assume that we live in an ideal perfect just society of say Marx’s communism, then justice can be achieved on two grounds. First, as Erich Fromm in his analysis of Marx’s Concept of Man has shown that in Marxian philosophy, the transformation of society coincides/converges with the transformation of human being resulting into the transformation of human self who would emerge as different being, and a socialist man would be different from the bourgeois man of individualist-selfish character. Thus, a person in a communist society would be more favourable to the idea of collective sharing and would be devoid of envy. Even today, if necessary, an ideal communist would be more favourable to share things than claiming a monopoly over a certain thing. Secondly, Sen’s example deals with a society of scarcity (one flute but three claimants) whereas Marx’s communist society is a society of abundance. So, in Marx’s communism, each one of the three children would get their respective Flutes and can do whatever they like with their flute: Anne can play it while Bob and Carla would perhaps listen to her or get lessons how to play the Flute, while Bob might be sharing his happiness to both Anne and Carla that finally he got a toy to play, and Carla would be satisfied that she got the thing (flute), which she has herself made with rigorous labour efficiency and can give lessons to both Bob and Anne, how to make such a flute.
So, justice is ‘relational’ as well as ‘relative’ in Sen, but can justice be regarded as ‘necessary’ for human existence? Can ‘justice’ itself autonomously offer anything concrete and substantial? Can ‘justice’ be seen as an illusion but still a necessary political utopia/political myth, a kind of unsatisfied Lacanian ‘desire’ which is unachievable yet necessary for political mobilization? Can justice be regarded as both contented/value loaded and at the same time, content-lessabstract empty concept, which has nothing to offer except ‘hope’ and ‘promise’ and thus necessary for ‘justifications’ of either sustaining the status-quo or for a call of ‘transcendentalism’, and hence the rhetoric of ideal just society in both secular and religious ideologies as distinct as communism and Islamism? That is to say, a (neo)liberal status quo can justify, defend and sustain itself in the name of justice and thus it promises justice to the people and the people in turn might get politically convinced to defend and sustain the status quo, which is synonym to political mobilisation behind such a status quo. In an alternative situation, secular and religious ideologies like communism and Islamism might assert that the present state of affairs is unjust and hence can give a call for revolution, change or transform society into an ideal just one, which is a transcendental quest. Sen does not offer us any answers to these sets of questions, rather he avoids asking these questions which makes Sen’s Idea of Justice neither a Marxist reading of justice nor an existential reading of justice but unsophisticatedly ends up as a partial (neo)liberal bourgeois reading of justice which has potentialities/possibilities to justify the current injustices occurring in an imperialist world (dis)order. The imperialist system as the manifestation of global capitalism is currently immersed into ‘blood and dirt’, ‘dripping from head to toe, from every pore,’ to use Marx’s phrase in Capital Vol. I. It is a morally degenerated system, somewhat like the tale of the naked king, but unfortunately, a public intellectual like Sen, who has often claimed himself publicly, to be on the side of the Left, does not play the role of the innocent child as a ‘rational’ conscience keeper to speak up that ‘the king is naked’!