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The Ideal and the Real

The Idea of Justice

By Amartya Sen

(Harvard University Press, 467 pp., $29.95)

In his introduction to The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen asks the reader to imagine a scenario that will figure prominently throughout the book. Three children are arguing among themselves about which one of them should have a flute. The first child, Anne, is a trained musician who can make the best use of the flute. The second child, Bob, is the poorest of the three and owns no other toys or instruments. Clara, the third contender, happens to be the one who, with hard sustained labor, made the flute. Since philosophers try to reason about such distributive problems, each of the children can enlist support from a grand theory of justice that originated in what seems to be an impartial position in moral philosophy.

Utilitarians will opt for giving the flute to Anne, since their criteria for distribution is to give preference to the scheme that will maximize overall utility, thus granting the instrument to the individual who can derive the most pleasure out of it. Bob, the poorest child among the three, will be chosen by egalitarians, since the main concern of their distributive approach is to narrow social and economic gaps as much as possible. And libertarians, who emphasize rights-based ownership entitlements, will claim that Clara deserves the flute as the producer of the object, and that no other distributive concerns--egalitarian or utilitarian--can supersede her entitlement to what she naturally owns.

Since the publication of John Rawls’s monumental book A Theory of Justice in 1971, such grand theories of distributive justice have gained momentum and depth. Rawls himself defended an egalitarian position. He articulated it in his famous difference principle, according to which deviations from strict equality may be allowed only if such deviations will work for the benefit of the worst-off. According to Rawls, perfect equality should have been the rule, but rewarding capable people with differential income will create an incentive for them to raise the production of the sum total of goods, which in a system of fair distribution might end up benefiting the people who are at the bottom of the economic ladder.

The ultimate merit of Rawls’s work did not lie only in his own theory, but in the extraordinarily broad discussion that it generated. Rawls’s work provided a framework for a flurry of counter-theories, such as G.A. Cohen’s in Rescuing Justice and Equality, which challenged Rawls from the left and advocated a stricter egalitarianism; and Robert Nozick’s sophisticated libertarian response in Anarchy, State, and Utopia; and Michael Walzer’s development, in Spheres of Justice, of a communitarian approach to the problem. Now comes Sen’s magnificent book, which is dedicated to Rawls’s memory, but differs dramatically from the Rawlsian and post-Rawlsian conversations.

Sen rejects, as a matter of principle, the nature of Rawls’s project. The reader who seeks in this book yet another exercise in grand theory--another abstract discussion out of which the foundations for the institutions of a just society may be generated--will be disappointed. And the reader who wonders about the connection of all these abstractions about justice to the remedying of actually existing injustices will be glad. Sen questions the plausibility of such edifices of pure reason. His book quite radically attempts to shift the grounds of the conversation altogether. Its seeks to provide a counter-framework rather than a counter-theory. And this is only one of its many admirable ambitions.


According to Sen, a sustained and reasoned argument about justice should focus on a result-oriented comparative approach among different conditions, rather than on an attempt to formulate the philosophical conditions of a perfectly just society. We can confidently claim that a society that rejects slavery is more just than a society that endorses slavery. And such a sound comparison can be performed without actually having a clear-cut notion of what a perfectly just society would be like. Injustices are altogether easier to identify than the conditions of perfect justice. And injustices can be identified on the basis of various and competing grand theories, which may overlap in such actual comparative judgments. As Sen observes, we can assess whether a painting by Dalí is better than a painting by Picasso without making the claim that the Mona Lisa is the best or the most ideal painting of all. Constituting a perfect standard is not a necessary condition for the comparative work that has to be done in removing injustices. Nor is it a sufficient condition: we might have a clear conception of the perfectly just society and still find it difficult, or even impossible, to evaluate two options, two courses of action, that present themselves in real life. Each of these options, which will never be fully perfect, might be closer to perfection according to a different variable they each have.

Given the fact that having a perfect conception of the just society is neither necessary nor sufficient for the actual comparative judgments that are needed in real life, Sen concludes that such a project is quite redundant. To the redundancy argument he adds a deeper and philosophically more interesting argument for rejecting the very notion of the theory of justice. He argues that such an attempt is not feasible. Consider again that debate between the three children about the flute. According to Sen, each child makes a persuasive claim, and each of the grand theories that support such claims--utilitarian, egalitarian, libertarian--can withstand impartial scrutiny, and therefore each of them is right. There simply is no way to adjudicate between the rival grand theories that support different distributive schemes.

There is genuine humility in recognizing the intrinsic limits of our reasoning and the essential pluralism of value. Sen’s conceptual sophistication is in the service of a rare intellectual modesty. Still, we must distinguish between two different interpretations of the rejection of the grand theory of justice, only one of which seems to me defensible. Sen, at different moments of his argument, asserts that indeed each of the proposed grand theories is right and has a strong case, and that we should therefore avoid the business of arguing about--and attempting to establish--perfect justice, because perfection can legitimately come in a variety of radically different forms. I think that such a view is implausible. There are some good arguments for rejecting libertarianism, and some of them are made by Sen in his book, and also in his previous works.

Imagine a slight shift in the parable of the three children. Let us assume that what is at stake for distribution is not a flute but a rare medicine that Clara, the brilliant and productive child, somehow managed to invent. She is willing to provide the medicine to Anne, who is very sick, but only for an outrageous compensation. If she does not get her coveted price, then Anne will die; and nobody--this is the libertarian claim--can take the medicine away from her, since she has ownership rights as a producer. In such a story, it seems clear that sticking solely to the libertarian approach to ownership rights, regardless of the outcome, is wrong. Even if we assert that there are such rights, surely they should not be absolute.

A serious argument can be made as well against the other grand theory--utilitarianism, the one that would have awarded the contested flute to the child who would get the most use out of it. In its sole interest in outcomes, utilitarianism tends to erase the individuality of people, as Rawls pointed out. In order to highlight this problematic feature of utilitarianism, let us once again alter the circumstances, and therefore the distributive stakes, of our parable. Let us assume that Clara needs a liver transplant and Anne a heart transplant to survive. From a strict utilitarian perspective, as a matter of principle, there is a justification for removing Bob’s heart and liver. (Assume for the sake of argument that Anne’s heart or Clara’s liver cannot be used for transplants.) But such a violation of Bob’s rights to the integrity of his body seems intuitively wrong. Moreover, the egalitarian approach is also vulnerable to serious criticism. If Clara is the only producer among the children, and everything that she produces is given by the egalitarian to the deprived child Bob, so as to minimize the social gaps, we can expect that Clara will stop producing altogether. And that will end up harming Bob, among others. (Rawls was himself concerned about this consequence.)

So it should be possible to state, and interpret, Sen’s argument in a slightly different and sharper way. The problem with grand theories of justice, we might say, is not that each of them is, in its own way, right, but that by aspiring to grandness and exclusivity they are, all of them, wrong. The very attempt to produce a total and ultimate theory for a perfectly just society will inevitably generate injustice. This is the reason why Sen, after realizing the limitations of each grand theory, wisely resists any temptation to produce one of his own.


Following Sen, when we examine different grand theories we realize that each of them has a point, that there is an aspect--but no more than an aspect--of their respective claims that is convincing. Grand theories become perverse when they postulate themselves as exclusive, when they wish to solve all the complex issues with one decisive and final principle. Rights-based libertarians have a point, but their complete disregard of outcomes makes their position flawed. Utilitarians make an important contribution to the conversation, but their exclusive interest in outcomes is wrong. Egalitarians are deeply attractive for the principle that moves them, but their principle cannot withstand critical scrutiny when it is the only principle of justice there is.

The best way of making comparative judgments is by considering multiple points of view as they are refined by different theories, and weighing the diverse claims that they make. By rejecting an ultimate theory of justice, we do not paralyze ourselves, or surrender our intention to improve the world. Quite the contrary. We liberate ourselves for the full complexity of the challenge before us, and equip ourselves with all the elements of comparative reasoning that the evaluation of an injustice requires. Only when philosophy is deployed in this patient and pluralistic way can we apply it usefully to real people and real conditions.

It is important to note also that Sen’s acceptance of the limited and relative force of each grand theory does not deteriorate into any kind of moral relativism. Pluralism is not relativism. Choosing between different approaches and policies is not an expression of taste or prejudice, a purely subjective effusion of passion. Such choice has a more general and objective and rational ground. In Sen’s view, truth may be secured intellectually without our being in control of a single absolute criterion. In this connection, he develops one of the deepest ideas of his book--the notion that he calls positional objectivity.

Objectivity, Sen insists, is not omniscience, or a God’s-eye view of things, or a view from nowhere. After all, we are always somewhere, in a specific position, with particular constrictions of perception and understanding. Yet we still can mentally correct for the limitations of our cognitive situation and make a rational judgment in choosing a policy and opting between alternatives. We do this--we arrive at objectivity--by means of a thorough examination of diverse points of view. This is also the procedure of democracy, which Sen likes to call government by discussion. In a true democracy, we are open to ideas and methods that originate outside our own cultural and political traditions. It is through such an examination of the relative weight of different arguments that we can approach a consensus about the truth of a matter, without claiming to possess any perfect or ideal or absolute standard.

Sen makes a powerful argument for adopting a particular standard in ranking and comparing the various approaches to proposed policies or states of affairs. In making such assessments, he says, we should consider the standard of capabilities, and their distribution across a society. By capabilities, he means the actual effective power that people have to develop their human potential and to act in the world. Such a scale measures relative conditions such as health, literacy, and freedom, which all combine together to measure the relative condition of people for the fulfillment of themselves and their community. In measuring capabilities, we must understand that sometimes the broadening of agency and effectiveness may bring about a decline in happiness. Deprived people with no choice might be happy about their condition, since happiness is often a function of limited expectations; and with rising expectations comes the revolution that bears their name, and also the possibility of disappointment and defeat. And yet, Sen insists, we should opt for agency and freedom rather than for sheer happiness.

In his emphasis on capabilities, Sen rejects two other measures of the condition of individual agency: income and well-being. Income is too narrow a criterion, since the capacity to convert income into actual freedoms and possibilities differs between people of similar means. If someone is limited by an illness or a handicap, his capacity to make use of a certain income will be very different from that of a healthier person. According to Sen, we should also avoid using well-being--which is very commonly supported among economists who deal with social choice--as a criterion for our approach to justice. The adoption of welfare, well-being, or happiness as the standard is based on an assumption that people are self-interested creatures who seek the fulfillment of their desires, and that the rational approach to assessing a social situation is measuring to what degree it offers maximization of self-interest. Well-being, in other words, is just a softer name for self-interest and egotistical harshness.

The repudiation of the economicist account of life is one of this book’s most valuable achievements. People seek not only their own well-being but also the well-being of others, and often they are willing to make sacrifices so that others will benefit. In measuring their situation, therefore, we should consider also the degree to which they have the capability to contribute to others. Theorists who support the self-interest picture of “economic man” claim that this kind of altruism is actually reducible to egoism. In this economic view, people seek the good of others because it will make them happy. There is no essential difference between an altruist and an egotist--they both wish the fulfillment of their desires, but the altruist happens to have a desire that benefits others.

Such an argument is a reversal of the actual causal order. People do not seek the good of others because it will first make them happy. They are happy as a result of the help, the happiness, that they give to others: they wish to help for its own sake. The gratification that they receive from helping is hardly the primary reason for their help. Even more, Sen argues, the very capability and power to affect the lives of others for the better is the source of our moral obligation.

The spectacle of an economist rejecting a purely economic understanding of the individual is delightful to behold. And this wise and deep position--focusing on a comparative, results-oriented approach, which is measured by the actual capabilities that it offers human beings--is not based on Sen’s arguments alone, important and penetrating as they are. His position expresses also a larger sensibility that is anchored in his exceptional range of thought and his lifelong commitments. Besides what he describes as his love affair with philosophy, he is a world-renowned economist and one of the greatest public intellectuals of India, who has been a leading voice for social and economic reforms, breaking new ground in the analysis of gender inequality, famine, and illiteracy.

Sen’s range is amazing. His intimacy with the Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim cultures of India, which is beautifully woven into the book, gives him access to a far greater range of argumentation and reasoning than is common among philosophers who were educated exclusively in the Western analytical tradition. His knowledge of this vast cultural history, and his profound respect for it, is an important source of Sen’s humility in recognizing the essential plurality of legitimate claims--in rejecting any sort of monism in the life of the mind.

This larger scope, I should add, enables Sen to teach--by example: he is not a preacher of any kind--a more nuanced sense of the complexity and the richness of Eastern and Islamic cultures. Though Sen is steeped in other traditions (some of which are, of course, his own traditions), his syncretism carries no threat of a clash of civilizations. Nor does it propound any kind of superficial harmony. Instead his work--in its simultaneous affirmation of the universal and the particular--serves as an eloquent and humane testimony to the power of reason, which respects (when it is honest and attends to the integrity of its arguments) the multiplicity of voices and traditions. Reason seeks truth wherever it may be found, and so, like the author of this genuinely important book, it travels widely, and may find support near and far.

Moshe Halbertal is a professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University and the Gruss Professor at New York University School of Law.

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