Friday, March 12, 2010

Book Review: The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen

Nearly every theory of justice produced by Western philosophers has the same basic format: identify some hypothetical perfectly-just ideals, then apply them to create institutional arrangements.  If the philosophical reasoning is good enough, then adopting these ideal institutions will result in a perfectly just society.  In The Idea of Justice, Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen systematically departs from this worn-out endeavor. 

According to Sen, the pursuit of justice should be a comparative enterprise, concerning itself with picking alternatives that increase justice, rather than identifying transcendental ideals.  Additionally, the classical institution-based conceptions of justice are flawed.  Instead, scholars should incorporate social realizations, or how individuals actually behave within a system.  In this view, understanding incentives and individual preferences are critical to increasing the amount of justice in the world.

Determining where exactly The Idea of Justice fits into the existing scholarship is not immediately apparent.  This book is not a philosophical argument for a particular definition or version of justice.  Rather, it is a detailed study of the epistemological and methodological properties of theories of justice.  Naturally, Sen's technical analysis leads to some implicit conclusions about certain good and bad characteristics that theories of justice should and should not have.  For example, Sen concludes that multi-dimensionality and non-commensurability (irreducible diversity between distinct objects of value) exists, therefore any theory of justice based solely on one dimension of value, like happiness in the case of utilitarianism, is incomplete.  We must accept a 'plurality of reasons,' the possibility that several valid, defensible, and mutually-exclusive arguments may exist for a given topic, such as justice.  From this novel result, Sen concludes that open-minded and rigorous public reasoning is central to the pursuit of justice.

In The Idea of Justice, Sen is obviously attempting to unify his lifetime of scholarship from multiple academic fields into one single book.  The concept of justice is broad enough to allow such diversity while generally maintaining cohesion, yet at times Sen veers off onto tangents whose only purpose is seemingly to cite a few old academic papers.  In fact, Sen's lengthy endorsement of social choice theory as a tool for evaluating justice seems out of place.  Sen is a giant in the field, yet his arguments for its use in this setting seem to point more towards game theory, of which there is little mention.  Generally, this book serves as a wonderfully detailed primer for the study of justice, providing new angles for generating criticisms of existing theories, while also suggesting new avenues of research.  Sen argues convincingly that we should have a comparative theory of justice, yet states only that we should compare; he leaves it up to others to decide exactly what and how.  It is this interactivity that makes The Idea of Justice such a pleasure to read, and will probably secure it's place as a must-read within multiple academic disciplines.

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