Amartya Sen and the Idea of Justice

In a world of two ceilings, how do we decide what is just? This is one of the themes of Nobelist economist Amartya Sen most recent book, The Idea of Justice.

The book takes issue with one of the prevailing notions in political philosophy, which is to assume that reasonable individuals in societies can essentially contract for idealized just outcomes. This notion was captured by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1762 treatise on the social contract, and versions of it persist in more recent work, like John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice.

According to Rawls, the demands of fairness dictate what is just. Fairness in turn is defined in relation to “The original position,” when people are stripped of their social context and institutions are constructed based on the rankings of these idealized individuals. The two principles of justice that will emerge from this deliberative dreamworld are, first, basic liberties for all, and second, inequalities can be acceptable if they are attached to offices to which everyone has access under fair equality of opportunity, and they must be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society. The latter principle is evaluated on the basis of an index of “primary goods,” essentially a basket of means to accomplish ends in life.

Sen terms this general approach “transcendental institutionalism.”

Generally speaking, Sen is more interested in the realization of more just outcomes and the reduction of unjust outcomes, rather than comparing decision-making to an idealized deliberation against which any actual process come up short.

To show the shortcomings of the Rawlsian approach, Sen invokes the scenario of Anne, Bob and Carla – three children fighting over a flute. Anne could claim the right to the flute on the grounds that she is the only one who knows how to play it, so would generate more  and better  output. Bob could claim the flute because he is the poorest and has no toys, so the flute would at least give him something. Carla, for her part, argues that she made the flute, so has a right to the fruits of her labor. Perfectly reasonable utilitarians, egalitarians and libertarians could pick the side of Anne, Bob or Carla, respectively. There is not a perfect deliberative framework that can help decide which approach is optimal.

As it happens, this debate does have a fair bit of relevance for life in the global economy, where we encounter lots of situations where one nation’s decisions have negative externalities outside their own borders/polis. Many Rawlsians, with their focus on perfect institutions, are pessimistic about  the wisdom or feasibility of having democratic governance structures at the global level – apparently, the only scenario that could produce real justice. (See Thomas Nagel, here, for instance.)

Sen is more optimistic that we don’t need world government to produce more just outcomes – we can accomplish this “through public discussion” (page 26). He takes the transcendental institutionalists to task for fetishizing institutions, and for not being able to link reason to consensus on ideal institutional arrangements (especially when actual behavior is often at odds with reason). Sen feels that there is actually much to be gained from perspectives “outside” the border of the ideal deliberating state, because of the inevitability of non-internalization of all decisions’ costs outside the borders, and because comparative work can uncover the “factual presumptions that lie behind behind particular ethical and political judgments” (page 71).

I wonder what Sen would say about institutions like “investor state dispute settlement“. If such a system worked well, it could form a substitute role for world government, where reason helped guide the settlement of disputes. Indeed, it could become a sort of global deliberative role where externalities are internalized. But is the system reasonable or unbiased? Even if there is no fault in the arbiters themselves, would the faithful application of often problematic positive treaty law help enhance justice?

I’ll be expanding on Sen’s work in a number of upcoming posts, and examining its implications for life under two ceilings.

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