Book Review: The Idea of Justice


Published: 2009

Publisher: Allen Lane & Harvard University Press

Page count: 468

Genre: Non-fiction

Country: India

Political philosophy and criticism coalesce into a book of a daunting 414 pages of witty, engaging and philosophical arguments in Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice. The preface begins with a fitting quote from Great Expectations: “there is nothing so finely perceived and finely felt, as injustice”. Here, Sen talks of the inevitable correlation between the effort required for criticism and praise alike. He contributes his work to John Rawls and then proceeds to mete out an eloquent critique of the Rawlsian project of theorising justice, calling it a distracting and fruitless perception of social justice.

In arguing against the concept of just institutions, Sen expertly draws on the distinction between niti and nyaya as established in Sanskrit literature. He ponders over the marked difference in the treatment of ethics and jurisprudence between theorists like Rawls, Locke, Kant, Hobbes and Rousseau to that of Wollstonecraft, Bentham, Marx and Adam Smith, who according to Sen have taken a more comparative approach.

The book is divided into four parts: Part One, The Demands of Justice, where he talks of the need for a ‘comparitivist’ and ‘realization-focused’ theory of justice. In Part Two, Forms of Reasoning, he talks of the existence of disagreements about moral and political issues, stating the need for what Sen terms “positional objectivity” and reiterates the “impartial spectator” stance as told by Adam Smith. The third section of the book is titled The Materials of Justice, Sen takes a pluralist approach to liberty and equality. Public Reasoning and Democracy, marks the final section of the book, here, Sen’s recounts his ideas concerning the notion of democracy. He points out that the state, not individuals is the best mechanism to decide the realization, implementation and execution of the rights of the citizens.

Standing at the crossroads where ethics meets economics, Amartya Sen the Nobel Laureate for Economics who bleeds philosophy, makes a great case for the need for engagement of the society in reasoning for justice, to choose nyaya over niti and Smith over Kant.



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