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Getting the sense of 'perfect justice' from Amartya Sen

Aug 27, 2009

Nobel laureate Dr Amartya Sen maintains that the theory of justice must be more concerned with the elimination of removable injustices rather than engaging itself with a hypothetical ‘perfectly just society’. He finds it appalling that India has not done enough to eliminate hunger, deprivation and gender inequality.

Dr Amartya Sen was in India recently for the release of his latest book The Idea of Justice which constructs a new theory of justice not based on abstract ideals or emanating from perfect institutions but rather, dealing with this complex issue in both its historical sense as also how the system of justice works at a practical level.

It is for this reason that the book makes a distinction between neeti and nyaya. Neeti, the book emphasises, is about appropriate rules and institutions and nyaya is about their realisation.

Sen argues in his book about the importance of public reasoning and argues that a system of justice should require the agreement not just of the community which is making laws, but of outsiders who might be affected, or who might have valuable perspectives to offer.

The methods and conclusions of the book have implications in a wide spectrum of intellectual activity.

Sen is Lamont University Professor and Professor of Philosophy and Economics at Harvard University. He won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1998.

Rashme Sehgal: In your book, you repeatedly make a distinction between niti and nyaya.

Amartya Sen: Neeti is about rules and institutions and nyaya is about their realisation. To cite an example, caste policy is driven by neeti whereas I believe that we need a more nyaya-based perspective while dealing with caste distinctions as with other issues as well.

Reservations as a policy cannot be justified on grounds of redressing the past. It would be justified in terms of improving the present. Therefore we have to judge reservations as a niti in the light of what it actually does rather than what it is theoretically expected to do.

Nyaya is not just a slogan, it means that we realise all the different aspects of human life and take into account all the relevant factors.

RS: How exactly do you define justice?

AS: Justice is a complex idea, which has everything to do with everyone being treated fairly. But the theory of justice must be concerned with the systematic assessment of how to reduce injustice in the world, rather than concern ourselves with what a hypothetical "perfectly just society" would look like.

There may be no agreement on the shape of perfect justice but we can still have reasoned agreement on many removable cases of manifest injustice, for example, the presence of widespread hunger and deprivation, or the lack of schooling of children, or the absence of available and affordable healthcare. If we do not eliminate removable injustices, then we are living without justice in a more practical sense. In India, we need to concentrate on removing all manner of injustices.

It is extremely shocking that we have not done enough to eliminate gender inequality. The widespread maternal undernourishment that leads to foetal undernourishment – this deprivation goes back to the womb. I have always maintained that gender deprivation, gender inequality, and child deprivation all go back to the deprivation of women. These are the big injustices, which we need to pay attention to.

RS: Do the middle class and the educated elite need to engage to a greater extent with these injustices?

AS: All I would like to say on this is that there is a need for every Indian citizen to think of whether he or she is sufficiently concerned about the interests and needs of the most deprived sections. The extent and number of people who think and concern themselves about these deprived sections should indeed become much larger.

RS: Do you think the government is doing enough in terms of providing food security for the poor?

AS: This area requires much more detailed knowledge than I am aware of …there are a lot of people including Jean Dreze who are much better informed on this subject than I am. I have not studied the proposal but those who have say it should be more comprehensive. Of course, this is not to deny the significance of how important the right to food might be.

RS: Do justice and human rights go hand-in-hand or are they different ends of the spectrum?

AS: The idea of human rights is being invoked by activists these days, often with admirable effect. However, critics argue that the idea of such non-legal rights is lacking in foundation. A frequently asked question is: where do human rights come from and what gives them force? One of the aims of the book is to show in what sense – and in what way – human rights have a strong foundation through public reasoning, and how that foundation relates to the basic analysis of social justice, which too is very dependent on the opportunity of public discussion. It is not so much that the concept of justice has come only to mean human rights but that the two related ideas go together.

RS: Do justice and democracy go hand-in-hand?

AS: Democracy and the real practice of democracy do assist in the advancement of justice. But this is not to say that if you do not have democracy, there is no way that you can advance justice because that can still be done. Many countries, which are not democratic, have done so.

RS: So we have degrees of justice and degrees of injustice?

AS: All practical debates on justice speak about enhancing justice so there must be degrees of justice. But it is a strange irony that while practical debates about justice stress the need to enhance it, the theory of it is all about perfect justice. The two seem to belong to two different universes.

RS: What kind of justice should be provided to a terrorist or terrorist group, especially in India, which is at the receiving end of terrorism?

AS: It is not so much a question about delivering justice to a particular person. That's a legal matter. But how do you ensure that we enhance justice rather than reduce it in context of dealing with terrorism.

The position that I have argued for is that there is no case for torture in any circumstances, even in those of terrorism. That is partly because it is a very bad way of pursuing information. It is also ineffective because studies of torture across the world over the centuries have shown that people under torture would give any answer that they thought would be pleasing to the interrogator. So you do not get very much information.

RS: How should a terrorist like Ajmal Kasab, who is presently lodged in a Mumbai jail, be dealt with? Public opinion would have him hanged at the earliest. Do you agree with capital punishment?

AS: Well, the lynch mob situation exists. But the right lesson would be to fight it. Ultimately, that is what Martin Luther King won on, that's what Mandela won on and Gandhiji won on. I'm opposed to the death penalty in general and wouldn't want it given to Ajmal Kasab or anyone else. There is a need for prevailing practices, including capital punishment, to be scrutinised by public reasoning.

RS: Are you disappointed with the Left in India? You have publicly criticised them as having gone against their ideology?

AS: It is important for the left to read the lessons of the general election. They have to ask what has changed and why. Like all political parties, the CPI (M) has also made some mistakes and I think to some extent they have paid for it. I don’t want to be seen to be ostracising the Left. My hero is public reasoning and I would like everyone across all parties to engage more with it.

Source : Infochange
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