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Past Issue • Jan-Mar 2010

The Idea of Justice

The modern theory of justice, expounded in the work of John Rawls and other social philosophers, has been dominated by the ‘transcendental institutionalism’ school of thought that focuses on identifying ‘just’ institutional arrangements for a society. In their quest to identify ideal institutional structures and formulate social contracts to determine acceptable norms of behaviour, they lose sight of the behaviour and motivations of people in the society, who ultimately determine the actual realisation of a society.

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Professor Amartya Sen, drawing upon his remarkable expertise in social choice theory, argues for a new theoretical framework for the idea of justice that is based on the tenets of comparative assessment of social alternatives and realisation-focused understanding of justice. Both are firmly enmeshed in the actual motivations and experiences that drive human behaviour rather than an institutional focus that assumes uniform compliance.

He departs from the classical disciplines of social justice, which trace their roots to European Enlightenment, when he engages the readers in a scholarly discussion of the evolution of competing theories of justice in different parts of the world. While discussing the ancient Indian forms of jurisprudence, he evokes the concepts of ‘niti’, which takes a stern view of following the letter of law under all circumstances, and ‘nyaya’, which takes a contextual view of a situation and is intent on realising justice. In doing so, he illustrates with critical commentary and masterful use of probing examples how the latter form of justice helps us in shaping just societies rather than merely just institutions.

Justice, as seen in different societies, is not perceived in absolute terms. When we see justice through the lens of positionality and rationality, we observe that the underlying currents unifying the dispensation of justice are far stronger than what separates them. Sen argues eloquently that while people’s relative position in society may colour their perceptions and hamper social understanding, we can overcome the shackles of positionality by redirecting our focus on comparative broadening of alternatives. The dominant force governing rationality in the recent decades has been the ‘Rational Choice Theory’, which espouses that people make rational choices only when they have a single-minded focus on maximising their self-interest. But Sen points out to the critical flaws in this exceedingly narrow view and lays out the case for a broader definition of self-interest and the important role sympathy and commitment play when people are making rational choices.

Moving to the larger canvas of democracy in societies, Sen argues that while the elaborate institutional form of democracy has its merits, the broader idea of governing by actively promoting public reasoning is critically important to the practice of justice. Elections and ballots may take the centre stage in contemporary discourse on democracy but free speech, minority rights, freedom of dissent and respect for civil liberties are far more important to the promotion of public reasoning which in turn helps in realising true democratic societies.

Breathtaking in its scope and rigour of intellectual inquiry, Sen’s latest treatise makes an erudite case for us to challenge our existing notions and imagine a new paradigm for justice.

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