Amartya Sen in Edinburgh

Princes Street at dusk
Princes Street, Edinburgh, at dusk

I had the chance to see the great economist and social philosopher Professor Amartya Sen at the Edinburgh Book Festival on the 29th of August. I use the word ‘see’ not to imply that I had a personal meeting with him, but because he actually said disappointingly little at the large public event in which he took part.

He only said a few brief words about his new book, ‘The Idea of Justice’, and then the floor was open to questions from the moderator Brian Taylor of BBC Scotland and the audience. I admit that I haven’t read this book, although I regard his previous work ‘Development as Freedom’ as one of the most important I have read. From a review of the book by John Gray it seems however that what Professor Sen did say amounted to a fair summary of the main argument.

His view is that theoretical ideas of justice and the search for ‘ideally just’ institutions are less useful than more focused attacks on the particular injustices that we see around us, and for which it is easier, he claims, to find reasoned agreement on tackling. Indeed he observes that such a concept as ‘global justice’ is impossible without a global state to implement it.

I fear that on this occasion, to seriously mix my metaphors, Professor Sen may have picked on something of a straw man and thrown the baby out with the bath-water. While I think he is absolutely right to say that a reasoned agreement in the light of all available facts is always better than some rule imposed by a theory, I don’t see how agreement can be reached on tackling any injustices without some prior agreement on concepts and interpretation of facts. This agreement is the baby; the straw man is the idea that those holding ‘theoretical’ ideals of justice generally expect them to be the sole drivers of achieving justice.

In his review John Gray, as is his wont, rejects both the power of ideals, and the power of rationality to find agreement on specifics. I believe the realistic, but not pessimistic, view is that we can get so far with some ‘theoretical agreement’, observe the improved outcome and hope this convinces a few more that our ideals have merit and should be taken further. In this way slow but steady progress can indeed be made toward justice.

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