Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Idea of Justice

One strand I have been exploring recently is theories of justice and moral philosophy. If we want to talk about the purpose of the economy and what we want from it, it turns out I had to look more closely at discussions of how society ought to be set up. Assumptions about preferences, value and utility also underlie mainstream economics.

That means I pulled one book from my shelf which I've owned for a year or two but had not got around to reading yet: The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen (2009).

Sen is one of the giants of political theory - and also economics. He is a Nobel Laureate in economics, no less, and has taught at Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard.

His main aim in the book is to argue that we don't necessarily need conceptions of perfect institutions or an ideal social contract, as in much recent theory - especially Rawls.

There are several important points. First, since Rawls much of liberal political philosophy has revolved around "fairness". Just to clarify this first, he asks:

So what is fairness? This foundational idea can be given shape in various ways, but central to it must be a demand to avoid bias in our evaluations, taking note of the interests and concerns of others as well, and in particular the need to avoid being influenced by our respective vested interests, or by our personal priorities or eccentricities or prejudices. It can broadly be seen as a demand for impartiality. (p54)

The underlying rationale is what minimum fairness people can agree to when there is no consensus or purpose.

A basic question that Rawls addresses is how people can cooperate with each other in a society despite subscribing to 'deeply opposed though reasonable comprehensive doctrines'.

Here we have the heart of the idea of the state as a neutral, impartial arbiter.

Sen agrees with this impartiality, but also believes deducting neutral rules is not enough. He thinks it is often better to aim for a comparative ranking of situations, a partial ordering of justice, rather than focus on an ideal set of institutions and rules. Even a conception of perfect institutions and rules does not help with practical judgements in the here and now.

Moreover, even if we had perfect rules, people's actual behavior might not follow them. People might have agreed to the rules in the "original position", but they may act differently in practice. Rawls includes some limited incentives in his scheme, sure enough - the "difference principle" which says inequality is only justified to maximize the position of the least well-off - but there is little about actual behavior or incentives to behave properly in his scheme.

Sen also argues for an 'open impartiality' where outsiders and non-members of society's perspectives can be consulted in the interests of non-parochialism, an idea he traces back to Adam Smith's "impartial spectator."

Sen argues it is not enough to look at institutions and rules alone.
Should we not also have to examine what emerges in the society, including the lines that people can actually lead, given the institutions and rules, but also other influences, including actual behavior, that would inescapably affect human lives?

So what does all this mean? Sen is very much within the liberal theoretical tradition, of course. But he disputes some of the things that are taken for granted within it. I agree with him when he thinks actual emergent behavior and the lives people actually lead matters more than a system of rules.

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