First published as Amartya Sen, in 2019, Lawrence Hamilton’s explainer of Sen’s ideas now appears with a new preface and a new title, How to Read Amartya Sen. A selective but wide-ranging intellectual biography, the book presents Sen’s contributions under five heads – choice, capability, freedom, justice, and democracy – highlighting how his ideas transform the prevailing intellectual milieu in each field.
Hamilton delivers his subject as both an economist and a philosopher, but moreover, as someone who unites these fields with politics and governance in order to make a practical difference to the lives of the most overlooked and excluded sections of society.
The following are excerpts from the Preface and the chapter titled “Justice” of the book.
The best way to ‘read’ Amartya Sen, I suggest, is as a series of courageous theoretical and practical innovations regarding how better to solve instances of injustice via the support, revitalization and reform of democracy, especially in India.
India, the largest democracy on the globe and the oldest in the developing world, is rightly proud of its postcolonial achievements in terms of formal democracy. Yet, this record has not translated into substantive democracy, that is, the kind of achievements in quality of life across the board that would empower all of its residents to take advantage of both its growth in GDP terms and the successful maintenance of formal democracy.
The Covid-19 situation in India is a powerful illustration of this lack of empowerment. India’s associated abrupt and severe lockdowns have accentuated the inequalities and deprivations of its massive population. Although the highest infection and death rates are still in the wealthier megacities of Mumbai, New Delhi and Chennai, the virus is now spreading fast in more rural areas in the east and south of the country. And it is the urban and rural poor who feel the full force of the three-pronged crisis. The abrupt loss of livelihood due to associated job losses is creating a very dangerous mix of viral spread and impoverishment. The poor, migrant workers, for example, who make up a huge proportion of the Indian population and economy, come from historically disadvantaged classes and castes and work very low-paying jobs without legal contracts. They live hand to mouth. The original decision to abruptly lockdown India left them marooned far from home, without shelter, work and sustenance, bar the incomplete coverage provided by the public distribution system (PDS) and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). Overnight, this generated a mass migrant exodus, which has been compared to the great migration during Partition (Deshingkar 2020). And, as the disease spreads east, for example, it is those who eke out basic subsistence in the poorest states, such as Bihar and Jharkhand, with high population density and much weaker medical infrastructure, who will be under the most severe threat of food insecurity and infection (Drèze 2020).
All told, the poorest, most precarious and least powerful sections of India’s population have been largely abandoned by the Indian state in their time of need. The arrogance and indifference to the plight of these lower caste, uneducated, labouring people brings into sharp relief the extreme inequities Sen has fought for more than half a decade to overcome (Mander 2020).
There are at least four distinct notions of justice that concern moral and political philosophers, social justice activists and ordinary citizens. First, ‘just’ designates that which accords with existing legal codes. Second, ‘just’ accords with what we – which ‘we’? – think ought to be the enforced legal code. Third, ‘justice’ is used to refer to ‘all the human excellences together’, as Aristotle (1980 : 1129b – 30a) argued – what he called ‘universal justice’. ‘Just’ here in this third notion refers in a rather indeterminate way to that which is ‘socially excellent, desirable, and so on’ (Geuss 2014 : 157). It is important not to confuse this third sense with the second sense as there might well be things we think are socially desirable that we also think cannot be formulated in a legal code. Take, for example, gratitude: it is precisely an important part of the value of gratitude that it is exhibited and linked to those from whom I might receive benefits without it being legally required or associated with sanction (Geuss 2014: 157; cf. Robeyns 2017: 148). Fourth, there is a conception of justice that focuses on questions of distribution. Although there has been theoretical disagreement about what should be distributed – goods, welfare, opportunity, possibilities of agency, rights and so on – and about whether the principles of distribution should be some version of equality (goods distributed equally to each) or proportionality (goods distributed according to a person’s perceived merit or contribution), over the last half-century there has been considerable consensus around the idea that the theoretical study of politics is (or at least ought to be) about the realization of the ideal of distributive justice. At the end of this chapter I assess whether this recent myopic view of justice is a good or bad thing. The important thing to note for now is that it is out of this tradition that Sen’s views on justice emerge; and also, as we shall see, the extent of his critique of the fountainhead of this tradition – the work of John Rawls – does not necessarily mean he escapes some of the problems associated with it.
More exactly, there are two main versions of this last view of justice – the view that reduces justice to questions of distributive justice – and they are both avowedly liberal: ‘justice as mutual advantage’ and ‘egalitarian justice’ (Robeyns 2017 : 149). Their liberalism is based in a strict recognition of the diversity of views of the good life, which a just society should respect by concentrating on the means to enable individuals unimpeded choice as regards the leading of their diverse conceptions of the good (or good life). In essence, this constitutes a view of state power: for these (and similar) thinkers, the question is not so much who should rule but rather the extent of state power, that is, from which spheres of life should state power be excluded (Geuss 2001). It is partly as a result of this that the two main representatives of these liberal theories of distributive justice – Rawls and Dworkin – posit a highly constrained view of justice. The core of Rawls ’ s view is the fair distribution of benefits of social cooperation, that is, that the rules of justice he proposes (or that would emerge as part of a specified kind of contract) would ultimately be more beneficial to everyone than if they were to pursue their own advantage by themselves (Rawls 1973). The premise of Dworkin’s view is the idea that people should be treated with equal respect and concern (Dworkin 2000). The basic main claim of both theories is that each person should be treated as being of equal moral worth (Robeyns 2017: 150). This chimes well with Sen’s critique of utilitarianism, which shows convincingly how utilitarianism does not hold to this strict dictum. But then this basic claim is true of a wide range of theories of distributive justice, as is the fact that they are all concerned with the equality of something (as Sen famously argued so succinctly in EW). The main difference between them arises around the idea of what kind of equality of opportunity they defend – entitlement (Nozick 1974), primary goods (Rawls 1973), resources ( Dworkin 2000 ) and so on (for other, related kinds of equality, see Barry 1995; Van Parijs 1995). Very few in this tradition defend the idea of equality of outcome in material terms, given that people have different needs, circumstances and capacities to make use of opportunities. Even from very early on in his career, Sen was most concerned with liberal egalitarian theories of justice, in particular the version proposed by John Rawls.