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Amartya Sen is a scholar well known to have contributed in numerous ways toward the advancement of the humanities and social sciences. Aged 76 at the time he completed the nearly 500-page The Idea of Justice, this book is surely the author's last great work, though there is disagreement whether it may be counted among his best.
It is at least a great one in every sense: capacious, innovative, expansive, multidisciplinary, comprehensive, pioneering, captivating, and – like this description – wordy. It is also Sen's definitive and final break with the Rawlsian approach to political philosophy, which, as he correctly points out, is hugely influential in contemporary (especially Anglo-American) academia. Sen had been under the influence of Rawls (to whom the book is dedicated) for decades, although he has critiqued aspects of Rawls' thought all along – till now, though, those were always immanent critiques, attempts to critically contribute to the basic idea of justice as conceived by Rawls and within the liberal framework. Now, however, Sen substitutes an altogether new conception of justice (rather, an altogether old one, as becomes apparent through discussions of classical Indian philosophy) and abandons the Rawlsian equipment by the side of the road.
While Sen identifies several deep problems with the Rawlsian theory of justice, the central and most fundamental one seems to be that it is transcendent and pursues perfection. Given the indisputable and widespread presence of intolerable injustice, Sen argues that the transcendent theorization of justice is functionally redundant in the current global context, where persons from around the world seek to redress specific problems of (in)justice in an effective manner. He thus proposes a 'comparative' rather than perfectionist theory of justice, one that is grounded in actual and relevant circumstances rather than transcendent of all politics. Working out the constituents of this comparative theory of justice, Sen articulates each in contrast with Rawls' (or Rawlsians') own components: Sen seeks a comprehensivist (and thus necessarily consequentialist, though not utilitarian) account, not a deontological or purely principled one; he seeks an approach based on open impartiality (here favoring Adam Smith's 'impartial spectator' rather than Rawls' 'veil of ignorance', which he calls 'closed' impartiality, since only members of the polity being constructed are considered); he borrows from social choice theory and reconstructs his own capabilities approach as elements of his theory of (evaluative/comparative) justice, in contrast to Rawls' traditional conception of 'primary goods';—and above all, he draws from his decades-long experience as a uniquely global(ized) intellectual to insert into the heart of his theory of justice not just a possibility for conceiving of justice at the global level (which Rawlsians debate), but the requirement of global justice.
And this brings us to what I believe to be the real motivation behind and virtue of this book: it is not just a theory of justice, it is a theory of global justice.
Although some Rawlsians (e.g. Sebastiano Maffettone) and post-Rawlsians (e.g. Thomas Pogge) have made heroic attempts to stretch the Rawlsian fabric enough to cover the possibility, if not the plausibility, of global justice, the definitive statement of the impossibility of global justice in the Rawlsian theory comes from Thomas Nagel's 2005 essay 'The Problem of Global Justice', wherein Nagel concludes that 'the idea of global justice without a world government is a chimera' (cited by Sen on page 25). As Sen agrees with Nagel's interpretation of Rawls, and as it follows from this interpretation of Rawls that global justice is a chimera, Sen is forced finally to choose between either a Rawlsian approach or global justice. A half-century after Rawls' 1958 essay 'Justice as Fairness' laying out the basics of his theory of justice, an essay that had inspired and motivated Sen's vocation, the world has changed too much for Sen to be able to blind his eyes toward the urgent need for global justice – thus he breaks with Rawls definitively, in this great work dedicated to his memory.
In the growing critical and secondary literature on Sen's recent work, there is seldom mention of what I have claimed to identify as its central motivating feature. However, to read The Idea of Justice as a theory of global justice rather than simply a theory of justice is hermeneutically advantageous in many respects. For a start, it provides the opportunity to understand Sen's abundant use of Indian literature, history and philosophy as methodologically consistent with his attempt to formulate a non-parochial theory of justice that can operate at the global level rather than, as often snidely remarked, merely the eccentricity of an author who is ethnically Indian. Moreover, such a reading also provides centripetal organizational force for coping with the multi-disciplinary and chromatically themed essays, from epistemology (Chapters 5 & 7) to sustainable development, obviously a global issue (Chapter 11) and – again, global – human rights (Chapter 17), from reflections on famine prevention (Chapter 16), to a full chapter (Chapter 10) devoted to an interpretation of the ancient Indian epic, the Bhagavadgita, to a restatement on the capability approach in economics (Chapter 12 & 13), and so on. Everyone knows Sen is a polymath, but that alone is not sufficient grounds for such a display of knowledge as appears in this book, much of it superfluous toward a simple theory of justice. Readers may therefore read this work as a particularly prolix break-away liberal theory of justice, but I think it is more accurate to read it instead as the very first, experimental, searching sketch of a comprehensive theory of global justice.
Truth be told, critics have not been too impressed by Sen's book. People see it as his last major work, but lacking in comparison with his best ones. While this may perhaps be true, it neglects to take into account that Sen's book is not just a mediocre ending work when evaluated against his oeuvre; rather, when evaluated against what (little) the rest of us political philosophers are doing in the current context of the global justice debate, Sen's The Idea of Justice is surely a profound and most welcome beginning.
© 2010 Aakash Singh
Aakash Singh is a Research Professor at the Center of Ethics and Global Politics, Luiss University, Rome.