14 July 2009

Amartya Sen on Justice

My friend Susan pointed out that today The Guardian ran this short essay on justice by Amartya Sen. Here is the punchline:
"The idea of justice demands comparisons of actual lives that people can lead, rather than a remote search for ideal institutions. That is what makes the idea of justice relevant as well as exciting in practical reasoning."
OK, I suppose. But in making comparisons of "actual lives" we (meaning not just Sen or I as analysts, but the people whose lives we are discussing) clearly need institutions to structure and coordinate those lives. And at a further remove we also need some institutional arrangement that will allow us to reflexively assess which institutions might we might rely on to best effect in different domains. This is not a plea for constructing ideal schemes - I have posted repeatedly about institutional experimentation, after all. So, while Sen is correct to reject contractarian approaches to questions of justice and injustice. He goes too far if he diverts attention from the importance of social-poltiical-economic institutions.

This essay is an advert of sorts for a forthcoming book in which Sen lays out his views on justice more expansively. The book is due out in September.

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