Amartya Sen’s wrong idea of justice

Social justice is not justice, and it is dangerous and wrong to conflate the two

It’s not out yet, but we are at imminent risk of being drenched by a book on the principle of justice written by an celebrated expert on…economics. Now, no one would give too much credence to a book on nuclear physics written by a professor of English literature,if not for the Law of Indian Expertise (LIE). That law says that an Indian who has achieved distinction in one area is immediately considered an expert in all others. If you have a Booker or a Nobel, you will immediately be taken seriously by many people on almost anything…including nuclear physics.

According to the Times of India Amartya Sen’s latest book, “The Idea of Justice”, is “his most ambitious book yet.” When Rashmee Roshan Lall asked him to summarise his key argument, Dr Sen’s response was incomprehensible.

Justice is a complex idea (I was not surprised that it took me 496 pages to discuss it), but it is very important to understand that justice has much to do with everyone being treated fairly. Even though that connection has been well discussed by the leading political philosopher of our time, John Rawls, I have argued that he neglects a couple of important connections. One neglect is the central recognition that a theory of justice has to be deeply concerned with systematic assessment of how to reduce injustice in the world, rather than only with the identification of what a hypothetical “perfectly just society” would look like.

There may be no agreement on the shape of perfect justice (and also perfect justice will hardly be achievable even if people did agree about what would be immaculately just), but we can still have reasoned agreement on many removable cases of manifest injustice, for example, slavery, or subjugation of women, or widespread hunger and deprivation, or the lack of schooling of children, or absence of available and affordable health care. Second, analysis of justice has to pay attention to the lives that people are actually able to lead, rather than exclusively concentrating only on the nature of “just institutions”. In India, as anywhere else, we have to concentrate on removing injustices that are identifiable and that can be remedied. [TOI]

Hasan Suroor’s report in The Hindu is more helpful. It says Dr Sen has argued “that there was no such thing as “perfect” justice; that justice was relative to a situation; and that instead of searching for “ideal” justice, the stress should be on removing the more visible forms of injustice such as subjugation of women, poverty and malnutrition.”

It is unjust to criticise Dr Sen’s book before reading it. But it is not unjust to criticise what he says about its contents.

Going by what Ms Lall and Mr Suroor write, he is engaged in the dubious enterprise of conflating “justice” with “social justice”. This is a dangerous argument: for delivering justice is the basic function of the state, and to do this efficiently, a parsimonious definition of justice is necessary. The simplest definition of justice is the redressal of a violation of rights. On the contrary, Dr Sen’s definition is expansive—covering everything from gender inequality to poverty to malnutrition. The more you ask a justice delivery system to do, the less efficiently it can do it, everything else being the same. Since Dr Sen professes to be concerned with practical delivery of justice, he contradicts his own objective by enlarging the scope of what justice should mean.

Then comes his reported contention that “justice is relative to a situation”, which is slippery and dangerous. Justice is the response to an objective evaluation of a deviation from a normative code—for practical purposes, a written or an unwritten constitution. In a rule-of-law environment, justice cannot be “relative to a situation”, but rather, has to be uniform across situations. If violation of rights is objective, how can the redressal be relative and just at the same time? (It’s like saying that justice should be, as a norm, different for a poor burgler caught stealing from Mukesh Ambani’s house and well-fed burgler caught stealing from mine.)

Dr Sen’s line is dangerous because it threatens to reduce the importance of individual rights and freedom, and supplant them with the discourse of social justice. It is dangerous because the premise of justice being relative befits an environment where the law of the jungle prevails, where the more powerful can make subjective decisions that the less powerful have to accept as justice. In a rule-of-law enviroment, the more powerful might still violate the rights of the less powerful, but it can’t be passed off as “justice”.

Related Post: Dandaniti, Arthashastra and Andre Béteille’s observation on Indian constitutional morality

34 thoughts on “Amartya Sen’s wrong idea of justice”

  1. I am not very sure about the exact definition of Justice & I wouldn’t say that I did not liked a particular opinion rather I loved what Amartya Sen said and I really loved the way Ms Lall and Mr Suroor observed it. I feel that Justise and Social Justice although different terms but in most of the cases related to each other. If we observe them widely there have been acts of injustice that have helped Poverty, Inequality, Malnutrition etc to grow.

  2. i would agree that relative justice is not only injustice,it tends to negatively impact the very foundations of society, but to condemn an economist’s thoughts on justice on the basis of LIE is,in my humble opinion, an overstatement of a case…after all, economics, especially macroeconomics grapples with issues of justice (well…equity or social justice,which is a form of of justice,nevertheless)…but to argue that dispensing of justice is the role of the state (in the form of judiciary,i presume) is rather limiting the argument- that would translate to the provision of negative incentives to those not following the laws of the land- which is not necessarily justice (arguments and examples abound-when the state was enforcing the now sanitized article 377,was it dispensing justice-just to cite one).

    i would prefer justice be defined not in terms of legalese, but more in terms of etics, which would then make dispensing of justice the role of society itself, and not delimit it to the state.

    none of which justifies any interpretation of Dr Sen as an authority on justice-maybe social justice taken as equity,in macroeconomic terms,yes-but not justice.but we do acknowledge that he is an acute thinker, and perhaps his views on what is essentially a philosophical topic, might be worth reading before rebuttal,no?

    (Pardon any typos or formatting errors that remain…written in a hurry on a busy day. Would like to frame my aguments more coherently and reargue the case soon) 🙂

  3. I am not de rigueur either commenting without reading Sen’s book, but, Nitin, did you really expect anything different from him?

    Besides, it’s not very useful throwing the “violation of rights” definition of justice at Sen and his fellow engineers. You’ll get a throw back on the definition of rights. To them, equality before law, even with the inclusion of Rawlsian economic and social rights, falls far short of their Utopian dreams of an egalitarian society. For a sample of the cornucopia of rights envisaged by these fellows read my Top Ten Rights at the India/World Socialist Forum 2006 🙂

    If we started with the assumption of a natural right to equal distribution of material wealth which is seen by the Mitras, the Roys and the Sens of the world as the common property of the society, any scheme that does not guarantee the realization of that right will not be acceptable as just. Attempting to make sense of Sen through the eyes of Nozick cannot get us very far.

  4. I agree Nitin. Mr. Sen’s concern about the relativity that he desires to be considered while dispensing justice can be and in fact is better addressed by the legislature which amends the laws to reflect the ever changing societal norms. The enforcement of these laws, however, cannot have an element of relativity in it. That’s what the rule of law represents and the introduction of any ambiguity in the concept of rule of law cannot augur well for anyone.

    I think what he was getting at was that each law must have some normative content in in for it to be acceptable rather than the mere promulgation of a set of rules by the legislature. Again, there is a lot of ambguity in defining this normative content.

  5. Oh, and to add further. I am in complete consonance with you regarding the ‘speculative expertise’ provided by most Indian/Indian origin authours in areas which are ill-suited to benefit from their talents that lie in another area. With all due respect to Amartya Sen, the Argumentative Indian was one of the worst books I’ve ever read and it was then that the notion of an economist writing about political science brought to fore the absurdity of the whole venture. This should be no different. With all due respect.

  6. Well, looks like our courts, apart from delivering judgements on cases, should also engage in fighting poverty, malnutrition, gender equality and child labour from now on.

    By saying that we have to concentrate on removing cases of “manifest” injustices, that are “identifiable” and that can be “remedied”, Sen is asking us to merely cure symptoms.

    By the looks of it, in his book I dont think he goes into why injustices come up in the first place. Injustice exists primarily when the state neglects its basic responsibility to protect individual rights and freedoms and worse, when the state itself becomes party to violation of individual rights and encroachment of freedoms. For example, injustice can be said to happen when the state, without regard for the right to equality, twists the playing field to favour some groups or individuals over others, for whatever reason.

    Going by this line of reasoning, “reducing” injustice would then begin with the simple – but admittedly practically difficult – task of ensuring that individual rights and freedoms are strongly protected. Only then can the additional task of removing cases of “manifest” injustice can assume any importance.

    No analogy is perfect but – if you have an itch, the doctor may prescribe both an antibiotic (to remove the underlying cause of the itch) and an antipruritic (to reduce itching – the symptom.) But if Sen were a doctor, he’d never cure his patient of the itch for he’d keep on giving the antipruritic (and feel very large hearted about it), never bothering to even think about the underlying cause.

  7. Oh, I haven’t read the book either but I heard Sen speak on BBC, hot on the heels of Michael Sandel’s, Reith Lectures.

    I took his thesis to be part of a new wave of thinking from the chattering classes in the USA – a zeitgeist if not hegemony that is nonetheless refreshing given the general jadedeness of life in the “West”.

    I heard him (and haven’t read the book yet) argue for a new form of morality that looks at immediate consequences rather than general principles and for action to ameliorate the effects of our pursuits – however right they may be on paper.

    When heard against lending the banks 60% of the GDP of the 7th richest country in the world, against investigations of MI6 complicitiy in torture, against the revelation of average salaries in UK (suprising they were not known) – it makes sense.

    I’d better read the book. . .

  8. Amartya Sen is a stooge who will spout whatever his handlers tell him.
    Even his vaunted ‘kerala model of economic developnment’ is a lie.
    He’s won the nobel for being a rothschild.

    There is a reason his initialssound like the abridged version of a mammal similar to a horse.

    Ergo his neighing — like that of the horse-like mammal, is best ignored.

  9. Sorry to nitpick.

    but Amartya Sen does not have an actual Nobel prize.

    per wiki

    The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel (Swedish: Sveriges riksbanks pris i ekonomisk vetenskap till Alfred Nobels minne), often referred to as the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences and it is identified with the Nobel Prizes, although it is not one of the five Nobel Prizes (in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, and Peace) which were established by the will of Alfred Nobel in 1895. The Prize in Economics, as it is frequently referred to by the Nobel Foundation, is a prize established and funded by the Bank of Sweden, in memory of Alfred Nobel. It was instituted in 1968 on the 300th anniversary of Sveriges Riksbank (the central bank of Sweden, sometimes called the Bank of Sweden or the Swedish National Bank).

  10. I wonder why bloggers have so much more clarity on such issues than celebrated, laureate, tenured professors? maybe because bloggers dont get royalty income from obfuscating the obvious. Not to mention lecture circuit fees..

    >>Dr Sen’s line is dangerous because it threatens to reduce the importance of individual rights and freedom, and supplant them with the discourse of social justice.

    Hasn’t that been the mission of every left wing idealogue since the last 150 yrs?

    Re: LIE — you seem to be taking a rather provincial view.. how about krugman, chomsky, nussbaum, susan sarandon(?)… but then again, they are probably not taken as seriously as dr.sen.

  11. Nitin,

    With due respect, your post appears quite juvenile. The meaning of justice has bothered philosophers since the dawn of civilization and can hardly be done justice in a single post. All your arguments are questionable.

    I do not quite understand what you mean by uniform. Particular practices are associated with injustice even if they would be perfectly acceptable when examined in isolation or under a different set of circumstances, for example manual scavenging by untouchables which would mean something quite different from a hospital janitor cleaning a bedpan. The justice of such a practice has to be judged in light of its social meaning and implications. A system with de jure segregation is not very different from one with de facto segregation (whether on caste or race or some other ground) even if the latter is merely the outcome of facially neutral laws. Laws ought to be and are designed taking these facts into account.

    If you happen to have read any of the vast literature on discrimination and civil rights, you would know that the individual rights paradigm has considerable shortcomings when it comes to undoing entrenched discrimination. The successful effort to desegregate the American South did not come about owing to Barry Goldwater’s libertarian ideas of individual rights and freedom (not just states rights which was also part of his plank); it came about through change thrust forcibly on the offending states by the US federal government through the Civil Rights Act and various judgments of the US Supreme Court. Also, theories of justice are not concerned solely with formal laws but with informal social structures as well and how to alter them for the better.

    Social justice and individual rights are not mutually exclusive. They both concern individual autonomy and how to optimize it. There is absolutely nothing exceptionable about Sen’s remarks. Of course the merits of his suggestions may be debated when we know more about his thoughts on how to approach these questions.

  12. Bobcat:

    Without a theory of natural rights, theories of justice are on weak grounds. Let’s take your example of manual scavenging of dry latrines in India and manual emptying of pit toilets in a US national park, holding constant the social position of the persons who do the work – say a Brahmin and a White-Anglo-Saxon-Male, or an “untouchable” and an illegal immigrant from down under, respectively. Is the former practice somehow socially unjust, but not the latter? The situation is no different from forced labor in China or Philippino Christian women in Saudi Arabia. Imagine a state of equal rights for all, and a world where all cleaning must be done manually? Will there be scavengers in India? I assert that there will be, probably at a wage rate that is higher that what it is today.

    Barry Goldwater’s “libertarian” ideas may not have been the harbinger of desegregation in the South, but the ideas of liberty and equality (of fundamental rights) before law certainly precede the Civil Rights Act and the various judgments on discrimination in the US courts.

    Social justice and individual rights are not necessarily mutually exclusive, I agree, but even Sen would dispute that social justice and Pareto optimality are coincidental. And, coercive social justice schemes almost certainly will result in the misallocation of resources, as demonstrated by the failed Soviet system.

  13. Nitin,

    Excellent piece and kudos for instantly identifying the core issue.

    Fine grained relative justice is simply too much work even if we had the best of intentions.

  14. @bobcat

    Nitin is pussyfooting, beating about the bush, or being too polite.

    To put it plainly: Social justice is injustice.

  15. “The successful effort to desegregate the American South did not come about owing to Barry Goldwater’s libertarian ideas of individual rights and freedom (not just states rights which was also part of his plank); it came about through change thrust forcibly on the offending states by the US federal government through the Civil Rights Act and various judgments of the US Supreme Court.”


    There is this one fine, and extremely brave, lady called Rosa Park, who died recently, who may disagree with that. Or there was another this another fine young gentlemen called Martin Luther King Jr, who was assassinated when still young, who may also disagree with that. Legalese, although important, followed later.

  16. Amartya Sen has said he is a leftist and so his POV would be from “social justice” like all similar leftists and so no wonder he confuses justice with social justice!!

    Ignore him and go ahead with your regular chores!!

  17. >>it came about through change thrust forcibly on the offending states by the US federal government through the Civil Rights Act and various judgments of the US Supreme Court

    I doubt this. It is natural for the political class to claim credit for the change, even if that change is not something that they genuinely intended or for the reasons stated. The American Civil War is projected as an outcome of a principled stand by Lincoln to end slavery, but there were of course several economic issues underlying it, like for example the one that the industrializing North was eyeing the cheap labor that could become available if the slaves in the South were freed up.

    Even in India, economic forces (modernization, urbanization) have had a far bigger impact on caste segregation than Gandhi, Ambedkar and legislation combined.

  18. Rational Fool,

    I am not denying a system where everyone is guaranteed equal rights. Indeed that is the goal of all social justice discourse and I am sure that is what Amartya Sen wants as well. The question is how to get there from where we are which is where questions regarding how empower weaker sections and fight discrimination come into play.

    Ideas of liberty and equality existed in the US even before the civil rights era but they coexisted with racial segregation, women’s subjugation etc. In fact, they existed even before the civil war along with slavery.

    Pareto optimality can exist even under a feudal system with a vast gap between the rich and the poor. That does not mean it is the ideal or just society. The question is with redistributive policies is whether the trade-off is worth it. The Soviet example ought not worry us so much as democratic systems have a better ability to self-correct and handle dissent.


    Rosa Park’s defiance led to the US Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education and Martin Luther King’s efforts led to the enactment of the Civil Rights Act. They were both actions of the US Federal Government.


    There may very well have been economic forces at work in matters such as this – the South was economically weaker than the North East which allowed North Eastern liberals to force change down the throats of unwilling southerners. My point was that the political forces of the time brought change through the agency of the federal government rather than through direct action in the offending states. The entire federalism versus state rights issue came to the fore at that time.

    Economic forces have had an impact on segregation and there is considerable debate about how much change can be brought about through economic forces alone. Cass Sunstein and others have argued that this alone is inadequate while Richard Epstein and libertarians think this alone can bring change so long as the state does not intervene in either direction (the libertarian theory blames persistence of racial segregation on the state rather than society). I am personally not persuaded by Epstein’s view particularly in a democratic society where state and social preferences can be closely interlinked.

  19. @Nitin

    Without prejudice to what Amartya Sen thinks of justice, looking at your parsimonious definition:

    The simplest definition of justice is the redressal of a violation of rights.

    The problem, then, reduces to identifying what these rights are, and how the ‘redressal’ is done.

    IMO it is this normative nature of the problem that leads to a difference in opinion. For example, leftist ideologues (notably communists) frequently demand a ‘right to work’ or the ‘right to food’ to be part of law, which many of us may not agree to.

    In other words, answering the question ‘what is justice?’ fully requires an ideology, which, by definition, is not objective.

  20. The Law of Indian Expertise becomes international when applied to Nobel Laureates. I was recently at a meeting with 23 chemistry Nobel Laureates and many of them were asked to hold forth on climate change and possible solutions. Apart from one or two nobody had any good idea about the economics of climate change, yet people hung on to their every word.

  21. Bobcat,
    Just curious, but do you live in the United States ? Do you have any idea of the turmoil that the US went through and in some ways is still going through because of the Federal Government muscling the States into accepting segregation laws ?

    The successful effort to desegregate the American South did not come about owing to Barry Goldwater’s libertarian ideas of individual rights and freedom (not just states rights which was also part of his plank)

    Goldwater directly addresses the question of Civil Rights legislation in his seminal work “Consciencse of a Conservative” – his position was principled and one that put more faith on the American people than the American Government.

    Also the Southern States are a convenient pinyata to beat up on when it comes to issues such as segregation etc. I lived in the most segregated city in America for three years – it happens to be Chicago and not any town in the south.

    If anything segregation is now carried out on mutually acceptable terms – any one who has even a passing familiarity with the housing “projects” that the Government tried to come up with in Chicago to help find housing for low income Americans, or similar projects elsewhere in the country knows how segregated America is today.

    The white population practically fled to the suburbs beginning in the 70’s ( yes thats right, after the forceful way The Federal Govt tried to implement schemes likes “bussing”)

    Segregation is alive and well in America – it only happens now in mutually acceptable terms. Every one in Chicago knows who the NorthSiders are (hint 95% white) and who the SouthSiders are (hint non white)

    Heck, they dont even have common places of worship after all the desegregation that happened – Whites dont go to Black Churches and blacks sure as hell dont go to White churches. How could they? They all live in neighborhoods that are distinctly composed of one community only – there are very very few mixed neighborhoods.

    it came about through change thrust forcibly on the offending states by the US federal government through the Civil Rights Act and various judgments of the US Supreme Court.

    “Offending” states ?? Gee, no wonder you seem to prefer Sunstein over Epstein.

    No amount of laws will change how people feel about each other – and the silent but mutually agreed upon code of segregation of several cities in America is an open testimony of this.

    You have no idea of how the Federal Government tries to promote mixed race neighborhoods – some of the advertising they do is downright racist.

  22. Ashutosh,
    I applaud your ability to sit through “climate change” groupthink. You are a brave man!

    Whatever happened to the words “global warming” 🙂 is it no longer useful in ginning up enough anxiety/outrage ?

  23. I think there are 2 fundamental issues which might not have been taken into consideration while penning down this post…

    First is when we talk ‘Rights’ then we have to first answer that who is defining rights for Whom and on what basis? Simple answer is that it is Society which defining what is Rights or Violations or what stands for even word Justice… Because if left upto me then I’ll say Humans have been violating right of freedom of very ground under us. Whether it have consciousness or not is other question…

    Second issue that ‘Justice is Relative’ appears to me to be correct stand. Because for e.g. if for similar crime I impose heavy fine on poor man same as rich man then it is not actually justice. What I have done is following of rule book without paying attention to conscience of society. This punishment may be hard on poor man and very light on rich man.

    Finally we have to remember that when a Man fails it is not his failure but Society’s he stays in…

  24. Nitin – I have read your stuff from time to time. Sometimes it makes sense and I like what you have to say, other times it does not. I had not come here in some time but on reading the review in the Economist on this book and then searching, I came across this. I see two issues in your critique

    – You start off with a tirade against because a person is discussing a topic his is not supposedly an expert on. If I am not mistaken but did/don’t you not write on economics and foreign policy and politics. In any case, this is moot because expertise is not what your background is but what rigor one brings to the topic at hand and to what extent one trains/gets educated before commenting. What is not important is the background (though it definitely helps) but what you say and bring to the table. Thus, judging Dr Sen on his background is ill placed. Plus, a lot of his work has touched upon social justice issues and I think some work related to individual justice too. In any case, the point should be obvious.

    – Secondly, it is important to read the work before you criticize even you though justify it as criticizing what he is saying. Context matters and the depth of his work would not come across in an interview. If it did, then writing of the book would be futile, no? As for whether justice should be in the narrowly defined way as you claim or as Dr Sen equates social and individual justice, we’ll let the man make his case, and you should make yours after doing your bit and reading what he has to say.

    Lastly, some of the comments in support of this post seem quite juvenile – leftist, stooge,etc. Seriously guys, you don’t have much to say, do you?

  25. I do wonder if you’re barking up the wrong tree here, Nitin. Readers of this blog know you don’t particularly care for Sen or his ideas but most people don’t seem to think that social justice isn’t a form of justice. After all, Sen explicitly says that he is going to be addressing himself to justice in the same vein as John Rawls – it is but natural that that he will discuss social justice and that indeed, the primary sense of justice that he discusses will be social justice. Also – Sen isn’t really going outside his discipline since he’s equally well-regarded, both as an economist and as a philosopher. We don’t have to agree with what Sen says or his policy presciptions but really, jumping on him after reading an interview about his new book seems a bit much.

  26. So Sen’s thoughts should not be rubbished for being shallow and unrealistic and not in consonance with reality? What is he, some demi-god? just because he won some swedish award for economists who are responsible for the current global financial crisis. Sen’s fluffy-minded writing might get the knickers of the left-wing crowd all wet, but that does make any of this ideas of “social justice” anything other than mind-farts…some people call it “philosophy”.

  27. We have Indian courts that deal with justice, even if not as efficient as we like. if Amartya sen wants “social justice” he can do it without abusing the Indian justice system and on his own plentiful time and money.

  28. In our country, the Justice delivery system functions already less efficiently, and in many instances impotently and not by an objective evaluation. We don’t have to actually worry for fine grained relative justice but for our intentions. Our focus should be on the underlying cause.
    Although economic forces (modernization, urbanization) have had a bigger impact on caste segregation, it widened the inequalities. Economic independence through knowledge revolution is how the social justice for weaker sections can be delivered.
    We should develop a social capability platform (multifaceted, quality, real education) for individuals to help find a niche – to cope with injustices, misallocation of resources – to be treated fairly – to ensure individual rights and freedoms and to progress economically/socially through messy ways.
    To straighten the crooked timber of humanity, it should be given an opportunity to combine moral sympathy and knowledge power with humbleness.
    Sen is not asking us to merely cure symptoms.

  29. “We should develop a social capability platform (multifaceted, quality, real education) for individuals to help find a niche – to cope with injustices, misallocation of resources – to be treated fairly – to ensure individual rights and freedoms and to progress economically/socially through messy ways.”

    Really now? And who is supposed to be running the country, foreigners? Justice is delivered by the people for the people, not by some group of aliens living in India. Go join law school and become a lawyer and fight the powers that be instead of being a left-wing public nuisance like Amartya Sen.

  30. And who is supposed to bring about this “knowledge revolution”, someone other than the anti-social elements that Amartya Sen is encouraging to screw with the existing system?

  31. He is the Lamont Professor of Economics & Philosophy. Now, why was there snark in the first few lines?

    Of course none of Amartya’s own public statements mention anything about social justice. But I will wait to read the book.

  32. I think Prof. Amarty Sen’s Idea of Justice is very appropriate to the existing world situation. This would be one of the Possibilities in reaching out for Justice.

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