Though, like any other person, my mental image of Amartya Sen has always had the element of awe associated with it, not in the least because of the Nobel that he was awarded. In all my attempts at reading his works there arose a consistent feeling of warmth, in part due to the genteel manner with which he address even the scathing criticisms levelled against him and in part due to the overwhelming presence of a uniform train of thought that concerns itself for the betterment of humanity. Both these characteristics of his writings, combined, made his writings a pleasure reading for me. His writings as a philosopher has always had the strand of reasoning that appealed to the rational me making this book a must read for me. Clearly, as he himself has acknowledged in his several other writings, his education and exposure to the worldly ideas at Shantiniketan, ran by Rabindranath Tagore, has had a great impact in moulding his views. His outlook is global and inclusive at the same time. In a way this book can be seen as a culmination of the broad outlook of ideals that defined his works throughout. For me to peer into one of such greatest mind of contemporary times through his writings is invaluable in its own self. Hence it is with great enthusiasm, which I generally do not associate myself with, that I started reading this book.

Though not a fortuitous happening, Sen, being a contemporary of philosophers like Rawls et al, seems to have enthused by their writings and his encounters with them during his years at Harvard and Oxford clearly has nudged him to explore his own philosophy of what the nature of perfectly just society and its constituent just institutions. Driven by his own conceptions about aspects of a just society he proceeds to expound a possible alternative possibility of a perfectly just society to which a society can work its way to.

Evidently, the Rawlsianism cannot be unlodged as the primary interpretation of justice in the political philosophy in any time soon. Rawlsian theory of justice in effect defined the landscape of debates in 20th Century political philosophy and it continues to serve as the template upon which any further or even different form of understanding of the concepts of Justice is attempted. In this book, invariably, Sen’s exploration of his idea of justice begins with identifying his ideas within the overall construct of Rawls. In fact the first few of the chapters proceeds merely as a criticism of Rawlsian theory of justice. In a condensed form I have tried to produce here only the vital points of criticisms that he mounts up against Rawls

  • The Transcendency of Form: While doubting the very fact that multiple and competing principles of justice while surviving the critical scrutiny can simultaneously claim the impartiality after their emergence from the primordial form of ignorance, as is claimed by Rawls, Sen’s argument takes a unique turn when questions its practical redundancy. His reasoning is that the identification of a perfectly just social arrangement and institutions cannot be done by the emergence of a solitary reasoning rather than a comparative assessment of possibilities. Moreover, according to Sen, identification of a transcendentally perfect arrangement in no addresses the problem one faces while making choices. The vital aspect of this line of reasoning, which is to be noted, is that he posits an approach with the help of relative assessment and raking of available social choices in a decision making process. With this he sows the arguments in support of the setup that expounds in the subsequent chapters.
  • Accounting Differences & Behaviour: Under the Rawlsian perfect society, people are expected to behave justly and are expected to make such choices that are in line with the choice that stands made by them under the veil of ignorance (a primordial state of unknowingness). This according to Sen restricts the possibility of choices without accounting for actual behaviour of members of the contract (for Rawlsian just society is established primarily through a social contract). In all fairness there can exists multiple social choices that are impartial and can compete with the reasoning of just institution that already stands identified in the contract. The inherent flaw that is present with Rawlsian principles is that the members of a social contract may make a choice, even after agreeing upon a just social mechanism that could withstand critical scrutiny of rationality, which may not necessarily align with the contract. This possibility comes across as an inherent contradiction when one takes into account the elementary importance that Rawls accords to liberty.

This assumption of a spontaneous emergence of a universal reasonable behaviour on the part of all members of a society comes directly in contradiction to still a large question about how the chosen institutions would work in a world in which everyone’s actual behaviour may or may not come fully into line with the identified reasonable behaviour under the Rawlsian contract. This is one off shoot of the problem of transcendency in Rawlsian approach.

  • Parochial Interpretation of Society: While the followers of Rawls has attempted to expand the horizon of his approach to make it more cosmopolitan, it still reeks of the parochial interpretation of society in terms of traditional nation-state theories. This according to Sen restricts the reach of justice in this form for it cannot take into account the effects of a social choice made by a particular set of people over others, i.e. the trans-boundary and external effects of a social choice. Moreover, this also denies the choice makers the information that can make the choice so made is sophisticated than what it is.

With these, one might even tempted to brand this work of Sen as another attempt to overcome the alleged deficiencies in   Rawlsian construct and a further extension of it. However, Sen distinguishes himself from those rhetorics with his suggestion of a just social arrangement that is eminently practical, rather than the ‘detached from realities’ arrangements as suggested by Rawls and his followers.

After establishing firmly the deficiencies and inadequate reach of reasoning of Rawls, Sen builds up the case for his conception of justice. There is palpable departure by Sen in his approach to the setup of a just society and the process of decision making towards such a setup itself. His exposition stands more grounded and practical in its implementation than the transcendental –teeming with multiple infeasible– approach of Rawls. He posits a process wherein all the social choices available are graded according to their relative merits and demerits rather than identification of a singularly just principle that is expected to govern universally all the choices that are made, without any scope for flexibility. Sen, Rather than confining himself to mere identification of a just principle, he evinces considerable reasoning for the comparative questions about justice and their social realisations.

Then what according to Sen can be a just social set up? To this end, he draws heavily upon the social choice tradition to construct his version of just society. Though he acknowledges the inherent deficiencies as found in Condorcet paradox and Arrow’s impossibility theorem, he relies on the informational broadened informational basis upon which a social choice is made in the social choice theory. Moreover, this conforms to his belief in non-confinement of reasonable and impartial choices that are potentially available for a decision maker while also not restricting the possibility of deviation in behavioural patterns of the people. As far as the process of deciding the rationality of the choices available itself goes, Sen invokes the metaphor of impractical spectator to invoke the concepts of impartiality and reasonableness of any choice. He finds the principles enunciated by Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments in this regard to be grossly underrated, which he has vented in an article published earlier as well.[1]

In summation form of justice as is conceived by Sen in this work can be simplified in the following terms

  •      Plurality of Choices: The central requirement for any approach to justice, according to Sen, lies in its recognition of multiple rational and impartial choices in existence. It is not necessarily axiomatic, as is claimed by Rawls, that only one ideal form of justice and social choice that can lead up to it can exist.[2] He reasons that as long as a choice, that is reasonable, survives the critical scrutiny of rationality is based on a possibly wide informational basis can co-exist with others. While the Rawlsian decision-making process, to the contrary, involves the decision to be made under a ‘veil of ignorance’, wherein decision makers are anonymous and do not know anything about their interests or its effects upon their own. This is an informationally starved decision, in comparison to Sen’s process, since here no one can possibly put forward any individualistic nuances that can possibly arise post the decision. Here Sen scores over Rawls without resorting to his elaborate setup of devised uncertainty. Rather than looking for a homogeneous virtue in terms of which all values that we can plausibly defend could be explained,[3] the plurality of reasons can be best judged when the competing principles of justice takes[4]on board the task of accommodating different kinds of reasons and evaluative concerns. The recognition that it is possible to order competition principles of justice, while accommodative their diverse qualitative considerations, and still be able to choose the best alternative as the situation demands is innate for any conception of justice.
  • Partial Resolution: Personally, this is the crucial contribution made by the author overall to the contemporary debates on justice. While stating that it is possible for partial qualitative ranking of available social choices, it is still more possible for a conflict to remain partially resolved with this partial ranking of choices. In his own words

“One implication of this line of reasoning is the recognition that a broad theory of justice that makes room for non-congruent considerations withinthe body of that broad theory need not thereby make itself incoherent, or unmanageable, or useless. Definite conclusions can emerge despite the plurality. When the competing concerns reflected in that plurality have far-reaching merits, on the relative strength of which we remain partially undecided, then it would make good sense to try to see how far we can go even without resolving completely the problems of relative weights. And sometimes we can go far enough for the theory to be of very considerable use in application, without sacrificing any of the rigorous demands of each competing line of argument.”

This rather than positing strictly just society envisages a situation where such steps lead to incremental enhancement of justice in the world. The relative advantage of this line of reasoning is the fact that even in case of non-resolution of conflicting situations does not necessarily make it unworkable there is always an ever existent flexibility for a change in the choice so made as and when informationally significant aspects comes to the surface, even after such choice is made.

All being said and done I still feel that there is an aspect that Sen has questionably left open. Ironically, this arises from the strongest of arguments put forward by him. While it is plausible for the recognition of partial rankings and any unresolved conflicts in a social choice, it still leaves the question of how to resolve such noughts that arises directly because of this. He does not in sufficient manner to explain this problem, while this has the potential to question his theory over all. One possible solution that I can reasonable locate within his line of thinking is as and when such seemingly irreconcilable situations arise we can broaden our informational perspective to further enhance the quality of available choices. This could reasonably serve as a solution for the limitations of Sen’s position.

Another limitation that I encountered in this book, though this does not necessarily involve his idea of justice, is his treatment of ethics. This I speak with specific reference to the chapter in which he discusses about human rights. While treating human rights as certain ethical claims that stand recognized in the form of legislations, he treats the ethical assertions as fountain through which the human rights legislations arises, all this while he does not in any manner exposit the true nature of ethics in itself, leaving it to our own subjective perception. This acquires certain significance when he bases is argument completely over the overarching importance of ethical proclamations in human rights discourse. Although this is inane as a shortcoming in terms of its impact in the overall argument put forward by the author it does comes across as a pebble in the shoe.

The limitations apart I would treat this as one of the most important contribution to the contemporary debate in the political philosophy post the Rawlsian era. With his innate and characteristic ability to infuse humanitarian reasoning this work stands out amongst the mechanical, elated and unnecessarily esoteric interpretation of justice that is prevalent in the debates. He stands as a maverick in this landscape for his reasoning in this field and this work is his true trophy.


[1] Adam Smith and the Contemporary World, Amartya Sen, Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics, Volume 3, Issue 1, Spring 2010, pp. 50-67.

[2] See in particular Chapter 9- Plurality of Impartial Reasons

[3] Theory of Justice, Amartya Sen, Pg:394

[4] Ibid Pg:395

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