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Social justice: an ideal, forever beyond our grasp; or one of many practical possibilities? More than a matter of intellectual discourse, the idea of justice plays a real role in how—and how well—people live. And in this book the distinguished scholar Amartya Sen offers a powerful critique of the theory of social justice that, in its grip on social and political thinking, has long left practical realities far behind.
The transcendental theory of justice, the subject of Sen’s analysis, flourished in the Enlightenment and has proponents among some of the most distinguished philosophers of our day; it is concerned with identifying perfectly just social arrangements, defining the nature of the perfectly just society. The approach Sen favors, on the other hand, focuses on the comparative judgments of what is “more” or “less” just, and on the comparative merits of the different societies that actually emerge from certain institutions and social interactions.
At the heart of Sen’s argument is a respect for reasoned differences in our understanding of what a “just society” really is. People of different persuasions—for example, utilitarians, economic egalitarians, labor right theorists, no-nonsense libertarians—might each reasonably see a clear and straightforward resolution to questions of justice; and yet, these clear and straightforward resolutions would be completely different. In light of this, Sen argues for a comparative perspective on justice that can guide us in the choice between alternatives that we inevitably face.
In this intricate, endlessly thought-provoking book, Sen brings the full force of his formidable mind and his moral sense to show how specific questions—of chronic malnourishment, ill-health, demographic gender imbalance—must be analysed in terms of justice. Doing something about them is not a discretionary matter—it is a requirement of being human. Sen is the most sophisticated intellectual campaigner of our times—his arguments have shaped not just academic disciplines but the policies of governments and of global institutions like the World Bank.
— Sunil Khilnani
[Sen's] magnum opus on a line of work he's long addressed and now thoroughly re-examines: justice theory...In repeatedly bringing back into the discussion Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, Sen signals the need for justice theory to reconnect to realistic human psychology, not the phony formal rationalism that infects modern economics or the for-sake-of-argument altruism that anchors Rawls's project.
— Carlin Romano
Clearly the place to start for ascertaining how [Sen's] views fit together into a unique and inspiring position on justice.
— Samuel Moyn
Polymathic brilliance among scholars is now generally agreed to be a thing of the past. The advance of knowledge means that providing intellectual leadership in economics, political theory and philosophy, as John Stuart Mill did, is not possible...But someone forgot to tell all this to Amartya Sen.
— Richard Reeves
[Sen's] book quite radically attempts to shift the grounds of the conversation [about justice] altogether. It seeks to provide a counter-framework rather than a counter-theory. And this is only one of its many admirable ambitions...The repudiation of the economicist account of life is one of this book's most valuable achievements...The spectacle of an economist rejecting a purely economic understanding of the individual is delightful to behold. And this wise and deep position—focusing on a comparative, results-oriented approach, which is measured by the actual capabilities that it offers human beings—is not based on Sen's arguments alone, important and penetrating as they are. His position expresses also a larger sensibility that is anchored in his exceptional range of thought and his lifelong commitments. Besides what he describes as his love affair with philosophy, he is a world-renowned economist and one of the greatest public intellectuals of India, who has been a leading voice for social and economic reforms, breaking new ground in the analysis of gender inequality, famine, and illiteracy. Sen's range is amazing. His intimacy with the Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim cultures of India, which is beautifully woven into the book, gives him access to a far greater range of argumentation and reasoning than is common among philosophers who were educated exclusively in the Western analytical tradition. His knowledge of this vast cultural history, and his profound respect for it, is an important source of Sen's humility in recognizing the essential plurality of legitimate claims—in rejecting any sort of monism in the life of the mind...His work—in its simultaneous affirmation of the universal and the particular—serves as an eloquent and humane testimony to the power of reason, which respects (when it is honest and attends to the integrity of its arguments) the multiplicity of voices and traditions. Reason seeks truth wherever it may be found, and so, like the author of this genuinely important book, it travels widely, and may find support near and far.
— Moshe Halbertal
I depart feeling challenged, invigorated, and questioning after my encounter with one of the most remarkable thinkers alive today.
— Sholto Byrnes
Sen is one of the great thinkers of our era, and his writings range from discursive and luminous interventions on great modern questions, such as identity and famine, to major complex works on political philosophy. At a moment when many are wondering whether there couldn't be a better world than that preceding the credit crunch, and better lives to be led, Sen is publishing...The Idea of Justice, an attempt to construct a new way of understanding what a more just world might be like...If a public intellectual is defined by his or her capacity to bridge the worlds of pure ideas and the most far-reaching policies, Sen has few rivals... Sen's revolutionary idea is that of capability, the capacity that people have for living and choosing how to live a good life. A good idea of justice concerns enhancing capability.
— David Aaronovitch
Sen has given us a magisterial treatment of a moral and philosophical problem which touches us from the cradle to the grave. The work bids to replace John Rawls and his predecessors back to Hobbes and Locke as the model and paragon of theoretical analysis on the idea of justice...A compelling read.
— Bill McSweeney
Sen's whole book is a cornucopia of commonsense humane advice combined with analytical insight, and far wiser than those thinkers who try to derive all their recommendations from one usually questionable overriding value.
— Samuel Brittan
The Idea of Justice is...grand in the best sense of the word, taking on difficult subjects, and respectfully following centuries of philosophical debate while imaginatively rethinking them...[It] will undoubtedly set many future agendas for social research...The Idea of Justice marries economic and political analysis to moral reasoning, and this is among the most important elements of this volume...The Idea of Justice transcends political convention, expansively and elegantly. Read it front to back as a logical rethinking of classical political theory; read it back to front as an agenda of pressing, shared concerns. Either way, this is a volume worth its considerable weight and length. In an era typified by increasingly contentious politics, violent challenges to states and societies, and elusive (and often ignored) norms for global political engagement, The Idea of Justice is a call for civility in the best sense of the word, and a model of gracious intellectual engagement.
— Paula Newberg
In The Idea of Justice Sen orchestrates his many contributions and achievements into a distinctive position on justice...How the current revival of political philosophy will influence future generations is impossible to predict. But it's a safe bet that the debates will be of world-historical importance, and that Sen's ideas about justice, social choice theory, and the capabilities approach to assessing well-being will make a crucial contribution to them.
— Samuel Freeman
The must-read of 2009 is The Idea of Justice.
— Christopher Lee
Characteristically clear and powerful...This book is a distillation of so much that has come to be associated with Sen, and reading these new formulations is truly humbling. The intellectual clarity, the ability to create conceptually innovative distinctions, the broad range of historical learning from sources across the world, the powerful use of examples, but perhaps most importantly, the deep humanity and faith in a certain form of non-utopian progress all vividly shine through.
— Pratap Bhanu Mehta
An original contribution to political philosophy.
— Adam Kirsch