Amartya Sen spoke at John Jay College near the Time Warner Center last night, and I went along to listen. I read Sen's recent book, The Idea of Justice, and wrote about it here.
One reason Sen is so interesting is he argues against universal ideas of justice based on one perfect set of institutions or rules - in other words, very much against the prevailing mindset of liberalism, which David Goodhart was complaining about in my last post just below. Sen says we can compare different states of justice without having a perfect grounding conception of universal justice.
Ideas can take a generation to seep from faculty common rooms to the broad educated public. Broad elite opinion is still processing the sort of universal liberalism represented by Rawls in 1971. Approaches like Sen's could take many years to seep into received opinion as well - but it will be conventional wisdom a decade from now.
It is always interesting to see people in the flesh. He read his lecture, focusing last night on his indian ethical concepts of niti and naya, mostly with his head down in his notes hunched over the podium. He seemed a tiny figure for such an epic academic career and reputation. But he has an exquisite upper class Indian courtesy, with fifty years of high table conversation layered on top. He got his Ph.D in 1959, I believe, another era, another world, one many universes different from the auditorium at John Jay College.