Amartya Sen: The Idea of Justice

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The first thing you should know about Amartya Sen is that he was born in Shantiniketan, and was give his first name by Tagore. Click on the two links for more on Professor Sen and his Nobel prize.

His latest book, The Idea of Justice, is a serious re-examination of the foundations of justice from a global perspective. He speaks of the two definitions of justice in Sanskrit - niti (institutional justice) and nyaya (realized justice) - and how we are too often misled by the utopian vision of ideal justice, only to allow societal injustice all around us in our everyday lives. For Sen, justice must alleviate suffering.

Here's his lecture to the folks at The Carnegie Council (video here):

AMARTYA SEN: It is always an absolute delight for me to be back here at the Carnegie Council. I am very grateful to Joanne for being so kind and so welcoming. It's very nice to meet some old friends, familiar faces, and some new ones--Joel [Rosenthal] and other old friends, but a lot of new ones too. I am very grateful.

I am not going to go into the distinctions in the Indian epistemic and ethical literature so much, and will concentrate more on the European Enlightenment, but I will be very happy to go into those issues, which are discussed in the book, if it were to come up.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, the great philosopher, wrote in the preface to his first major book in philosophy, Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, published in 1921: "What can be said at all can be said clearly, and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent."

Wittgenstein would reexamine this austere view on speech in his later work. But it is really wonderful that, even as he was writing the Tractatus, the great philosopher was marvelously inconsistent and did not always follow his own exacting commandments.

In a remarkably enigmatic letter to Paul Engelmann, written in 1917, Wittgenstein said: "I work quite diligently and wish that I were better and smarter, and those both are one and the same." Really, one and the same thing, being a better person and a smarter guy? I couldn't help asking, "Who is Wittgenstein kidding?"

I am, of course, aware that modern American usage has drowned the distinction between being good as a moral quality, and being well as a comment on a person's health--no aches and pains, fine blood pressure, and such--and I have long ceased worrying about the apparent immodesty of those of my friends who, when asked about how they are, reply with manifest self-praise, "I am very good."

But Wittgenstein was not American, and 1917 was well before the conquest of the world by vibrant American usage. So what was this pronouncement about?

Underlying Wittgenstein's claim may be the recognition in some form that many acts of nastiness are committed by people who are deluded in one way or another on the subject. It has been argued that some children carry out odd acts of brutality to others, other children or animals, precisely because of their inability to appreciate and understand adequately the nature and intensity of the pains of others. There is, perhaps, a strong connection between being antisocial and the inability to think clearly.

We cannot, of course, be really sure about what Wittgenstein meant. But if that is what Wittgenstein meant, he was in the powerful tradition of the European Enlightenment that saw clearheaded reasoning as the major ally of making societies decent and acceptable.

The leaders of thought in the Enlightenment did not, however, speak in one voice. In fact, there is a substantial dichotomy, which has not received sufficient attention, between two different lines of reasoning about justice, that can be seen among two groups of leading philosophers associated with the radical thought of the Enlightenment period.

One approach concentrated on identifying perfectly just social arrangements and took the characterization of "just" institutions to be the principal, and often the only, identified task of the theory of justice. This way of seeing justice is woven in different ways around the idea of a hypothetical "social contract," a hypothetical contract that the populations of a sovereign state are supposed to be party to.

Major contributions were made in this line of thinking, first by Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century, and later by John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant, among others.

The contractarian approach has become the dominant influence in contemporary political philosophy, led by the most prominent political philosopher of our time, John Rawls, whose classic book, A Theory of Justice, published in 1971, presented a definitive statement on the social contract approach to justice.

The principal theories of justice in contemporary political philosophy--not just Rawls, also other friends of mine, Ronald Dworkin, Robert Nozick, David Gauthier, and many others I can think of--draw in one way or another on the social contract approach and concentrate on the search for ideal social institutions.

In contrast, a number of other Enlightenment theorists--Adam Smith, Marquis de Condorcet, Mary Wollstonecraft, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, for example, taking the Enlightenment to go into the 19th century too--took a variety of approaches that shared a common interest in making comparisons between different ways in which people's lives may go, jointly influenced by the working of institutions and people's actual behavior and their social interaction and other factors that significantly impact on what actually happens.

The analytical--and rather mathematical--discipline of "social choice theory," which has been actually my primary field of technical economic engagement, a theory which can be traced to the works of Condorcet in the 18th century, around the 1780s, but which has been developed in their present form under the leadership of Kenneth Arrow in the last century, belongs to this second line of investigation, in which I must admit I have been very involved. That approach, suitably adapted, can make a substantial contribution, I argue in this book, The Idea of Justice, to addressing questions about the enhancement of justice and the removal of injustice in the world today.

In this alternative approach we don't begin by asking what would a perfectly just society look like but asking, what remedial injustices could be seen on the removal of which there could be a reasoned agreement.

One of the limitations of the social-contract approach to justice--and there are many such limitations, but one of them--is the unjustified conviction that there could only be one precise combination of principles which forms the contract and, despite the implausibility of this assumption, this is needed for the social-contract approach to justice because it takes on the job of identifying uniquely a combination of ideal social institutions based on those principles.

In contrast with this rigid insistence in most contemporary theories of justice, the alternative of the social choice approach allows the possibility of a plurality of competing principles, each of which is given a status, after subjecting them all to critical examination. It is, of course, important--and I emphasize that point--to scrutinize critically all principles that are presented for our attention. Some principles may indeed get rejected after a searching probe, but more than one competing principle may actually survive on the basis of their reasoned justification.

For example, in my book I discuss a case in which three children compete for a flute--one demanding it on the ground that she alone can play the flute (the others had no clue how to play properly), another on the ground that she has no other toys to play with (while others are well supplied with amenities), and the third on the basis of the fact, which others don't dispute, that she had actually made the flute with her own labor. None of the claims are immediately dismissible, and a just arbritration has to weigh the claims of all these competing grounds. No mechanical priority of one ground, one principle, over the others may be convincing, and sometimes even at the end of the debate an element of arbitrariness may be left in the decision process.

Thanks to this plurality of surviving principles, we may not be able to resolve on grounds of justice alone all the questions about public policy that may be asked, for example, whether a 40 percent top tax rate is more just--or less just--than a 41 percent top rate. And yet, we have every reason to try to see whether we can get reasoned agreement on removing what can be identified as clear injustice in the world, such as slavery or the subjugation of women; or extreme exploitation of vulnerable labor, which so engaged Adam Smith, Condorcet, Mary Wollstonecraft, and later John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx; or gross medical neglect of the bulk of the population today through the absence of medical facilities in parts of Africa or Asia, or the lack of universal health coverage in most countries in the world, including, alas, the United States of America; or the prevalence of torture, which continues to be used with remarkable frequency in the contemporary world, sometimes practiced by the pillars of the global establishment; or the quiet tolerance of chronic hunger, for example in India, despite the successful abolition of famine.

I have so far been discussing the subject matter of public deliberation and justice. There is also an important question about participation. Whose voices should count in interacting public discourse on the demands of justice?

In the social contract tradition, the views that must receive attention, and only those, have to come from those who can be seen as parties to the social contract. Given the country-by-country and nation-by-nation structure of social contract, powerfully identified by Thomas Hobbes and pursued in mainstream contemporary political philosophy, the contractarian tradition tends to confine the discussion to members of a country or a polity or a state, in particular the citizens of each country who are engaged in deciding on the ideal institutions and corresponding values for that particular sovereign state. The need for impartiality in the treatment of different citizens within the country is accepted and celebrated, but there is no secure place in this formulation of deliberations of justice to go beyond the citizens of a particular state. This is called "closed impartiality," as I do in my book, where impartial consideration is confined and closed to the citizens only.

We can contrast this with Adam Smith's powerful insistence in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, but also in The Wealth of Nations and his Lectures on Jurisprudence, on the necessity to pay attention to the views of people from far as well as near. This can be called "open impartiality."

I should perhaps mention here that Penguin Books is publishing a 250th-year edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which I wrote a long introduction. This should come out, I think, in November. We will discuss that. The book was published in 1759. I argue why it remains immensely contemporary.

Smith saw that impartial consideration, which must be essential for justice, must demand going beyond the boundaries of each state.

There are two principal grounds for requiring that the encounter of public reasoning about justice should go beyond boundaries of a state or a region: (1) the relevance of other people's interests which may be affected by our actions, by what we do; and (2) the pertinence of other people's perspectives, their understanding, to broaden our own investigation of relevant principles, for the sake of avoiding our own parochialism based on the values and presumptions in the local community.

The first ground, related to the interdependence of interest, motivated Adam Smith to chastise the injustice of early British rule in India in the 18th century, describing the East India Company as being altogether unfit to govern its territory. In today's interdependent world, it is easy to appreciate the need to consider the interdependence of interests, whether we consider the challenges posed by terrorism or by global warming or by the world economic crisis that we are currently experiencing. Confining our attention to national interest only cannot be the basis of understanding the demands of justice. Also, AIDS and other epidemics move from country to country and from continent to continent. And, on the other side, the medicines developed and produced in some parts of the world are extremely important for the lives and freedom of people far away if they can afford to buy these medicines.

In addition to the global features of interdependent interest, there is a second ground I must emphasize, that of avoidance of the trap of parochialism to which Smith referred. This is accepting the necessity of taking an open approach to examining the demands of impartiality.

If the discussion of the demand for justice is confined to a particular locality--a country, or even a larger region than that--there is a possible danger of ignoring or neglecting many challenging counterexamples that might not have come up in local political debates or been accommodated in the discourses confined to the local culture but which are eminently worth considering in an impartial perspective.

Smith was particularly concerned about avoiding the grip of parochialism in jurisprudence and in moral and political reasoning. In the chapter properly entitled, "On the Influence of Custom and Fashion upon the Sentiment of Moral Approbation and Disapprobation" in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith gives various examples of how discussions confined within a given society can be fatally limited by parochial understanding.

I quote from Adam Smith, and it's a longish quote:

....the murder of new-born infants, was a practice allowed of in almost all the states of Greece, even among the polite and civilized Athenians... . Uninterrupted custom had by this time so thoroughly authorized the practice, that not only the loose maxims of the world tolerated this barbarous prerogative, but even the doctrine of philosophers, which ought to have been more just and accurate, was led away by the established custom, and upon this, as upon many other occasions, instead of censuring, supported the horrible abuse, by far-fetched considerations of public utility. Aristotle talks of it as of what the magistrate ought upon many occasions to encourage.... The humane Plato is of the same opinion, and, with all that love of mankind which seems to animate all his writings, no where marks this practice with disapprobation.

While Smith's example of infanticide remains sadly contemporary even today, though only in a few countries, in a few societies, some of his other concerns have relevance to many other contemporary societies as well. For example, it applies to Smith's general insistence: "The eyes of the rest of mankind must be invoked to understand whether a punishment appears equitable."

Scrutiny from a "distance" may be useful for practices as different as the stoning of adulterous women in Taliban Afghanistan; selective abortion of female fetuses in China, Korea, and parts of India; and plentiful use of capital punishment in China, or for that matter the United States, which by the way is the fourth country in terms of frequency of capital punishment, following China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

The relevance of distant perspectives has a clear bearing on some current debates in the United States; for example, that in the U.S. Supreme Court not long ago on the appropriateness of death sentence for crimes committed by a person in his juvenile years, whether such a person could be executed for a crime committed when you were a minor, but the moment you become major, whether you could be executed then.

The demands of justice being seen to be done, even in a country like the United States, cannot entirely neglect the understanding that may be generated by asking questions about how the problem is assessed in other countries in the world, all the way from Europe and Brazil to India and Japan.

The majority judgment of the U.S. Supreme Court, as it happened at that time, ruled by a 5-4 majority against the use of death sentence for a crime that was committed in juvenile years, even though the execution occurs after the person reaches adulthood--though the judgment would almost certainly have been different today, as we know from the newly elected, when I was writing the book, Chief Justice Roberts' opinion on the subject, who made it absolutely clear that American judges should not be influenced by judgments and legal debates occurring elsewhere.

In denying the appropriateness of capital punishment in this case, the majority of the Supreme Court did not simply--I quote from Justice Scalia, who wrote a then-minority report--they did not simply "defer to like-minded foreigners."

Scrutiny from "a distance" can be very useful for reasons that Adam Smith analyzed in order to arrive at grounded but non-parochial justice, taking note of questions and arguments that consideration of non-local perspectives can help to focus on.

It is important, however, to recognize that to listen to distant voices, which is part of Adam Smith's exercise of invoking the "impartial spectator" in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, does not require us to be respectful of every argument that may come from abroad. That would be absurd. We may reject a great many of the proposed arguments, sometimes even all of them, and yet there would remain particular cases of reasoning that could make us reconsider our own understandings and views linked with the experiences and conventions entrenched in a given country or culture.

The interdependence of reasoning is part of the ground on which Martin Luther King Jr. said in "The Letter from Birmingham Jail" in April 1963: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

Acts of public agitation, news commentary, open discussion, are among the ways in which global democracy can be pursued, even without waiting for the global state. The challenge today is the strengthening of this already-functioning participatory process on which the pursuit of global justice will, I argue, to a great extent depend. It is not a negligible cause, nor, I would argue, is it beyond our reach.

Thank you.

Questions and Answers
QUESTION: I have two questions, if you will allow.

One is in international law there is the concept of jus ad bellum and just war. That, of course, is a very, very old concept. How would you talk about this in the 21st century? Some people will argue that with the current methods of warfare there is no more just war possible. And of course, the opposite point has also been made in several contexts.

My second question is: In the case of criminal justice, how would you see in a way the balance, because of course one dimension is the very strict application of rules that are laid down in legislation and in laws, and another dimension is the public perception that justice is done. I was born in Switzerland, in Zurich, where Roman Polanski was arrested last weekend. I think that the debate that is going on there is along those lines. What is justice in his particular case?

AMARTYA SEN: Difficult questions.

Let me give a general concept first. I think in each of these cases--for example, whether there is such a thing of just war--the approach I am trying to suggest is not whether in fact you accept certain things as just war and certain other things as not, but to say that if it is to be determined, it has to be determined on the basis of a reasoning as to whether it has reason enough to be counted to be a war that is just. Whether there will be any such war, given the nature of technology today, remains an open question. My guess would be probably not.

On the other hand, I am not closing this. It is not a public pronouncement book; it is a method book, to say there is something to discuss.

But it is not just today. One of the examples which I do discuss, a clearly just war, a long time ago, in the Indian epic Mahabharata, where a kingdom had been wrongly usurped by cousins who were quite naughty, and the just, those who can rightly rule the kingdom, the Pandavas, were trying to regain it. Arjun is the great warrior, the third brother, who would actually lead the forces, ready to fight and defeat the army on the other side. It was clearly a just war. The document called Bhagavad Gita is about that. Arjun says, "Is this right for me? Is this really a just war? Because, after all, it's true that they shouldn't have the kingdom, it's true we will win the war, it's true we will have the better rule; but how many people would actually die in this? Is it worth doing it? [inaudible]--this is a document from about 3rd century B.C.--and is this really just? Now, Krishna argues against, saying that you ought to do your duty. And as far as the religious document goes, it ends with Arjun saying that he accepts Krishna's argument, he would fight. He fights, wins, and the war is over.

On the other hand, if you look at the first part of the Gita--that is not part of the Mahabharata, it's a little bit of a very big epic, seven times the size of the Iliad and Odyssey put together--you find that there are strong arguments given by Arjun which are not fully rebutted by Krishna, as to why there is no such thing as a just war which involves a lot of killing, and your point is an extension of that.

And Mahabharata itself remains ambiguous, even the last scene. The right side has won, but there is a sense of pathos everywhere and as the brothers walk through the Indo-European valley they notice funeral pyres burning everywhere, women weeping for the men who have died in the battle, the bloody war. It doesn't end in a sense of triumph. It ends in a sense of profound confusion. So that it's not clear, even though from the religious point of view people have tended to say, including Mahatma Gandhi, that Krishna was completely the victim.

But it isn't clear that, in terms of argument, that argument is actually closed. I'm not saying that Arjun shouldn't have fought the war, but I am saying that the argument that you are presenting, of technology and brutality and death, is an extension. It remained valid then and it remains extremely valid now.

Now, whether at the end of it you come to the conclusion there is no such thing as just war, whether what is being waged in Afghanistan could be called a just war, given the likely consequence of what will happen if suddenly the war is ended and the Taliban comes back in power in Afghanistan, is a complex question.

But these arguments matter. That is what I am trying to argue. And it has to be global reasoning--not the coalition of the willing, but a general public discussion. As you know, many countries in Europe were opposed, many other countries in Asia and Africa were opposed, and there was something to discuss, which was not discussed in this form. This was a declaratory war. That is what I am arguing against.

The second thing, on the criminal justice system, I think there are two things: One is whether the rules are just; and the other is what the perception of justice is in the population.

Now, Switzerland, of course, the perception of justice is very strong. I remember being very frustrated when I was trying to go to a restaurant rather late and the only place I could park my rented car had "no parking" in it. As I often do in England and in America, I thought I would leave it and pay the fine. But then as I was getting out somebody came and told me, "No, no, this is no parking." So I said, "I am parking." He said, "No, you don't understand, it's no parking." I said, "I'll pay the fine." He said, "No, no, but it's no parking, no parking."

So I think the perception of rule is very strong in Switzerland, which is a very positive thing. In this particular case, it had some negative things. I was hopelessly late to my dinner. I would much have preferred to have paid my $125, or whatever it is I would have been charged. But it didn't happen.

So I think we have to look at the perception of rules as well as the acceptability of the rules, and the same method, the argumentative method, in dealing with this issue.

QUESTION: Professor Sen, that was tremendously enlightening. I thought the distinction that you made between these two different lines of Enlightenment thinking was really illuminating. But of course, one of the appeals of the first line is that they provide you with a kind of machine for moral reasoning. So you take the categorical imperative or you take the veil of ignorance and you apply it to welfare reform and you have an answer.

So when you talked about the things that we can say are obviously unjust, from slavery to some people not having healthcare, given that you said these machines are much too blunt instruments, what is the means whereby you can come to the conclusion that these obviously morally unacceptable things are in fact obviously morally unacceptable?

AMARTYA SEN: A very good question.

I think what is interesting about the categorical imperative--as I discuss in my introduction to The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith was discussing that about 20 years earlier than Kant. In fact, Kant refers to Smith's work in his book on anthropology as well as in letters. One of them is to Markus Herz, about ten years before Kant wrote The Critique. Herz wrote to him, saying, "This guy, this Englishman Smith," as he described this proud Scotsman, "whose work you admire so much, et cetera."

This is really the argument about the impartial spectator. What happens in the case of Kant, he then uses this device, but uses it with a sophistication that is breathtaking, but then arrives at a strong conclusion, like the way people have tended to do in philosophy earlier, like Aristotle--there are different kinds of life and there is a gradation; the life of contemplation is the highest, and then the others.

Whereas Smith ends in each of these cases with there is something to discuss, something to argue about in these cases: "I am quite convinced, sitting in Kirkcaldy, on the shore of the North Sea in Scotland, of this, but is this the way it would look to the Chinese, to the Indians, and to the Africans, et cetera?" Adam Smith was actually one of the persons who took a great interest in Africa, which people often forget. I have something on that in the book.

I think what he is arguing there is that you would not really expect to get a complete agreement on these things, but--and this is the point--you will get agreement on many of these issues which are extremely important to us, like abolition of slavery, like the tremendous neglect of the education of the working classes. He was very concerned about that.

People often forget that Smith was--his science was extraordinary. He took the view, which was completely naïve, of course, that there is no difference between one human being and another; everything is due to nurture, 100 percent nurture. Whether or not that is correct, what he was certainly right in is that nurture makes a big difference, which is really the point.

So he said there are huge things to be agreed on on these subjects, but despite the fact that we have many different arguments to present, we will have such arguments. Now, he was not a mathematician. What he was dealing with is what in social choice theory we call a partial ordering. You will agree on a partial ordering, not on a complete ordering.

Now, Kant and Locke and Rawls, and Dworkin today and Nozick, they all have complete ordering, and Smith does not. So that's the point.

So I think, yes indeed, the blunt device of categorical imperative, ignoring all argument, will deliver those things. But you don't need such a blunt instrument. Even with a finer instrument, you will be able to agree on some things, and those things on which you cannot agree you have to leave behind because there is not yet any agreement on that. That is roughly the position that Smith took and it is roughly the position that I believe is correct.

QUESTION: I jotted down the phrase you just offered about global reasoning and general public discourse and your assumption that that would lead to a positive outcome, sort of what the previous questioner just raised with you. Could you explain further what you mean by global reasoning? Is this some institution that you expect to have come into the world or some institutions that exist now? How is this to proceed? That's my broad question to you.

AMARTYA SEN: It's a very good question, too.

I think if you are looking for the institution to be set up first and then public discussion to take place, I don't think we will get anywhere. I think there is a kind of interdependence between them. Institutions come into being on the basis of public discussion, and then sometimes public discussions are useful even without the institution.

Let me give you an example. The Human Rights Commissions of India and South Africa, which carry a lot of the public discussion--they were, for example, at the lead of indicting the Hindu extremists in Gujarat. The Human Rights Commission played a big part. They are recognized legally in India. They are legal bodies.

In Pakistan there is a Human Rights Commission which is just an NGO. So institutionally it is not there yet. And yet, because of the fact that they can skillfully use public discourse, they could make a huge impact on public policy. And indeed, it has played a big role under the really visionary leadership of Asma Jahangir and Raman. It played that part.

One of the latest examples was that it is through them that some person in Swat Valley, when under the Taliban, this young woman was being caned for having done something that went against the Shariah, he managed very courageously to videotape it while pretending to make a telephone call. This is where modern technology came into it--not an institution, but the technology. It's only when that was put on the Pakistani television, GEO first and then all the others, and the Pakistani newspapers, that this sudden groundswell of opinion happened, which ultimately made the military move against the Taliban and against the conflict in Swat Valley.

So that happened through what I would describe as public reasoning--namely, presenting facts and argument to the public in a situation where the institution is utterly underdeveloped. There is no protection. Actually, my friend Asma Jahangir is under a death sentence from the Taliban, that anyone who kills her will be blessed.

So in this enormously courageous way people carry on dialogue. I am not looking for--you know, obviously it would be good to have a better system, and I prefer the Indian system whereby the Human Rights Commission can move even the Supreme Court. On the other hand, even if it doesn't exist, it is not a question of saying, "We are not there, give up." I mean in every situation, we try to do what we can to make a change.

And similarly in Iran, I think if you take the approach that I am doing, that the big way of thinking about how things might change in Iran would be to see how you could bring out the dissent that is already expressing itself in a bigger way, engaging that. And then there is always the fact that any intervention, even though American, has a dual effect: on one side it might frighten the government; on the other side it strengthens them by making the protestors look like American stooges.

So I think one has to look at all that picture and give public reasoning the recognition that is needed both in foreign policy as well as in our day-to-day activity.

When you talk with some of these people, when I used to be with Oxfam--I didn't do very much for them; actually they still say I am with them but I am not; I was for three years--I was really impressed by the way people in very adverse circumstances courageously were continuing.

When the American forces went into Afghanistan, we had 18 people of Oxfam operating within Afghanistan, at great risk to themselves. I remember the next morning--I am very active in the Nuclear Threat Initiative set up by Sam Nunn; it's a big group now, but he is the president of it--I remember being very impressed. Normally, I just listen to what Lugar or Sam Nunn has to say. But there was one occasion when suddenly I had more information because there were 18 of our kids in Afghanistan. I just had a morning call. I remember telling Ted Turner, who is actually the financer of that organization, "I know something which none of you know. Why? Because I happen to be connected with an NGO that's active and playing a hugely important role."

So that's the way, the amorphous way, in which public reasoning takes place across the world.

QUESTION: My question is about means and ends. It seems to me the conversation, both globally and in countries like this, is often about means. Globally we talk about aid or free markets to end poverty. Here in America we talk about the role of government or insurance to deal with healthcare. This emphasis seems to de-emphasize ends--namely, the necessity of just outcomes, the necessity of the quality, the necessity of dealing with poverty.

First of all, do you agree with that observation? Secondly, how do we promote an emphasis on ends, on the moral necessity of justice, and indeed the practical necessity of justice, because inequality and unjust outcomes in all kinds of political and economic ways promote instability?

AMARTYA SEN: Well, first of all, I agree very much that the focus on ends--not just in terms of health outcomes, but also the health freedom, namely whether you have the freedom to go and seek medical help when you need it; you're not obliged to seek it, but you have the freedom to do it. If you take freedom as the central concept of what capabilities you have, then you would like to look at how does the world work, what happens in the world, and what happens in the world are exactly the things that you want to emphasize and judge.

I would add to it the fact that the public discourse also sometimes misses out means in a big way. I mean of course here, as you know, the debate, the vilification of the European system, describing it as that no one has any choice of doctors, et cetera, was of course completely mistaken. But that is mistaken at a very simple level.

But at a more sophisticated level I think the American public discussion on healthcare has suffered far too much--I did try to write something in the New York Review of Books on that [see Capitalism Beyond the Crisis (March 2009)and Health Care, Elsewhere: An Exchange (July 2009)]--by concentrating on Canada rather than Europe, because the big difference is that in Canada you cannot have private insurance for other than some very limited purpose--dentistry, optometry, prescription medicines, and a private room--that's it.

Whereas in Europe you can buy private insurance. Now, you may debate whether it is good that people with money could buy private insurance. That is something to be discussed. On the other hand, (a) I don't think any system is going to be acceptable in America unless you allow that option; and (b) there is an ethical issue. If a rich person is absolutely free to spend his or her money in buying a yacht and going to Acapulco and blowing the entire world with expenditure, why is it that a person can't buy insurance which covers him for optional surgery and so on?

So, bearing all that in mind, the natural thing would have been to look for a European alternative, which--the debate seems to always miss it--which is not the case. It is single payer, but it doesn't exclude private insurance. Everyone has the right to go and have that insurance, which has that feature, and at the same time you could buy private insurance. Many of the universities and many of the employers do it. I have private insurance, in fact, despite the fact that I am also entitled to the National Health Service.

There is no contradiction in that. There may be a general contradiction as to whether the rich should have a great advantage. We could have a debate on that. But I think this is just the kind of Smith territory--you may not agree on that, but you could agree on everyone being covered by a system like the National Health Service, which gives everyone entitlement. Whether on top of that you allow, like in Britain, private insurance or, like in Canada, no such private insurance except for optometry and dentistry, that is a further debate. But we need not resolve that debate in order to outline the importance of having healthcare guaranteed for all that you are referring to.

I'm glad you asked the question because I have been very frustrated by the way the public debate has gone. When I wrote the New York Review piece, the attacks came mostly from people who are so besotted with the Canadian system. A couple of my Canadian friends in Toronto wrote to me, "Are you turning anti-Canadian?" My point is that there is something that is not quite acceptable.

By the way, in Canada too it would be a very different situation if the United States went like Canada, because the options that are open--Canadians can buy American insurance, Blue Cross and so on, if they want to--those options will go.

So there are a whole lot of things to discuss. But that doesn't cloud the point that you were making, that ends are extremely important to discuss. But then again, we need also clarity and more information on the means.

QUESTION: You have mentioned and you cited the U.S. Supreme Court in your excellent remarks. I wonder if you think that the general system of high courts is a model that comes close to your ideal of a social contract, this ultimate dispenser of justice. For example, we have a court that is thoroughly governed by legal and constitutional mandates, it would seem. The British, on the other hand, not having had a constitution, have no high court other than the Lords of Justice.

AMARTYA SEN: But they are setting up one now.

QUESTIONER: They seem to get along rather well with their Crown judges. How has this general system of high courts, that model, in your view carried out justice?

AMARTYA SEN: I believe--this is just my personal view--that I think having a high court like the Supreme Court serves a purpose which the United Kingdom does miss out on.

It occurred to me, for example, many years ago actually, a friend of mine, a colleague at All Souls College, Lord Wilberforce, gave a big judgment that if the immigration officer thinks or suspects that you have been trying to illegally enter the country, he can on the basis of that suspicion detain you, and then you will be taken to the remand center, and you cannot move a court, because, although you are on British soil you have not been admitted, and therefore you cannot move British law to protest against this. So you could be held, incarcerated.

This was ultimately changed. But for two or three years the Wilberforce ruling--actually his ancestor did a lot to free the slaves, but his own position was rather conservative on this kind of issue. It seems to me that it's a subject, that if it had been the United States, could have moved the court. Anyone could say that there is a Supreme Court in this country. If a guy is here, it would be for the Supreme Court to decide can we hear this.

But I think the United Kingdom recognized this. You have probably been reading about this in the papers. They have been setting up something rather similar. We have to see how it goes. So there are these methods.

But the other point to note is that the Supreme Court alone is never going to do it, as this example indicates. The Supreme Court has to listen to the argument that is going on.

On the point that Scalia made and Roberts made and Thomas made, namely that there is no argument for listening to foreigners, that is not the position of the American public. That was not the position of Jefferson. He was ready to listen to many of the Enlightenment figures. The American public has been willing to listen to foreigners from Jesus Christ to Edmund Burke, again and again, without saying, "They're foreigners; they have nothing to offer in this case."

So I think as long as we don't regard the Supreme Court to be just supreme but as a part of the discourse, then I think we are moving into the Smithean direction I would like to push them in. That is what I would suggest.

I think it is a better structure. Personally I think it can focus argument. I think the Europeans have come to accept that now.

But on the other hand, it's not alone. The institutions never will deliver you. You have to bring in the behavioral features, and that's why The Moral Sentiments of Smith is so concerned with behavior, not just institutions. It's a dual feature.

That, by the one, is one of the parting of ways between Kant and Smith, that behavior remains extremely important. Whereas ultimately Kant says it's quite clear that you have these categorical imperatives you must follow, institutions aside--if everyone is following categorical imperatives, what will be the best institution?--Smith argues that is not the right question. A lot of people want it. What kind of institution do you need here and now, taking into account the variety of people and their precommitments?

QUESTION: How would you apply your approach to current issues of global governance, both in terms of institutions and processes, for example, to the greater voice of developing countries in various institutions like the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO, and so forth, or the arguments about greater policy space for developing countries in designing their economic, particularly macroeconomic, policies?

AMARTYA SEN: I think one of the gentlemen raised the issue of what the ends are. The end is to have a much more open public discussion. But you are not going to get it everywhere.

Along with Camdessus and others, I was one of the members of the IMF Governance Reform Committee, chaired by Trevor Manuel.

We did ask for a better representation. But it wouldn't be a representation of all countries, but rather those countries which are IMF-wise quite important. Similarly, I welcomed the move from G-8 to G-20. These are moves in the right direction. If I was a person only looking for perfect justice, then that is not there yet. But I think one has to welcome the changes going in that direction.

But then again, you have to also emphasize that is not there. For example, take G-20. It gives a much bigger voice to China, to India, to Brazil, to South Africa. But when the Doha Round was busted a little over a year ago, a year and a half ago, that was really driven by the interests of India and China. They did not want that basically. I'm sorry. Forgive me, Ambassador. I'm a very loyal Indian citizen.

I think the African countries had achieved something in that deal, if it had gone through. I think it is to the disgrace of the United States and Europe that they were not accepting the demands that were being made by the Chinese and the Indians and Brazilians. But nevertheless, I think by busting it, what these more powerful, more dynamic developing countries did has not served the interests of the less dynamic, in many ways more stuck-in-the-mud, poorer countries in Africa.

So I think one has to bear that in mind. Ultimately, whether we go to a G-100 or G-200 is not the question. The question is how can those voices come in. That is the way I would tend to look at global governance.

The wrong way to look at it, as of course is often seen even among philosophical colleagues whom I respect, is how to have a global government involving all the social contacts of the world. I think that is absolutely getting us nowhere whatsoever.

It's a question of how we can change the institutional structure. IMF will be harder to bend than the UN. The World Bank may be somewhere coming in between. So it's a question of seeing what we can do.

And a lot of things which are not institutional--the media, the public discussion. I think the media's role is enormously underestimated in the world. Even when people think about how to improve voices--and I have been seen the position of newspapers in many countries, from Uganda to India--pretty much all the dissenting voices are cash-strapped. They have very little money. And they are really trivial sums of money in comparison to the amount of aid going around. But while you can easily justify feeding the hungry, it becomes very difficult for these organizations to justify supporting the institutions.

Then it takes the form, as it did at one stage for UNESCO, you may remember, when the head of UNESCO wanted to achieve equality by simply shutting out the Western papers, like BBC, which, after all, provide about the only information that may be available in some places like Iran and Afghanistan today.

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Book reviews worth reading:

- Book Of The Week: The Idea of Justice, By Amartya Sen The Independent

- Book review: The Idea of Justice Financial Times

- The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen Times Online

- "I Prefer To Fight Today's Battles" interview in Outlook India

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This page contains a single entry by Christian Sarkar published on October 19, 2009 6:19 AM.

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