A Review of Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice
The Irish Jurist, Vol. 45, 2010, 256-258
5 Pages Posted: 20 Nov 2012 Last revised: 25 Sep 2014
Date Written: 2010
In this book Amartya Sen diverges from the dominant theories of justice associated with Enlightenment thinkers such as Locke, Rousseau and Kant, whom he describes as ‘transcendental institutionalists in search of perfectly just institutions’. Sen’s focus is instead on clarifying how to address questions of enhancing justice and removing injustice and he writes under the influence of those Enlightenment thinkers who sought to advance the cause of social justice by taking a variety of comparative approaches that concentrated on societies ‘that already existed or could feasibly emerge’. Sen's ideas on justice are grounded in the work on welfare economics for which he was awarded the 1998 Nobel Prize for Economic Science and the core of this book is the conjoining of capability theory with the social choice tradition associated with Borda, Condorcet and Kenneth Arrow. This review suggests that the fundamental problem with the social choice approach is the extent to which it presupposes that society is an organization, and also that Sen’s account of rational choice theory unnecessarily conflates choice and subsequent reflection on choice. The review observes that Sen invokes an interesting and eclectic range of literary as well as philosophical, political, and jurisprudential sources and concludes that while his insistence on social choice theory is particularly problematic his comparative approach is preferable to the idealism of mainstream social justice theory. Overall, this book constitutes a very significant contribution to the broader dialectical debate surrounding different types of justice.
Keywords: justice theory, Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice, John Rawls, social choice, rational choice
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