The Idea of Justice: Amartya Sen

Security is important and we will make sure we do our best to have a safe and uneventful meeting, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said when asked if he expected any disruptions during the upcoming Apec meeting. Unlike the IMF/World Bank meeting, Apec has no arrangement for engagement with civil society groups and the rules for civil society and for public demonstrations in Singapore are not going to change for the meeting, he said.

Ordinary people like me also don’t want any trouble. The government is right in maintaining the tightest security in view of the terrorist threat.

Amartya Sen
Amartya Sen

The Nobel Prize winning Indian economist Amartya Sen, however, expresses a different view in his new book, The Idea of Justice. In the concluding chapter, Justice and the World, he writes in the section, Justice, Democracy and Global Reasoning:

Active public agitation, news commentary and open discussion are among the ways in which global democracy can be pursued, even without waiting for the global state. The challenge today is the strengthening of this already participatory process, on which the pursuit of global justice will to a great extent depend. It is not a negligible cause.

Singapore is not alone, of course, in tightening security for the Apec meeting. PM Lee recalled Australia spent $300 million building a fence surrounding “the whole of the centre of Sydney” for the Apec meeting there in 2007 and declared a public holiday “so all Sydneyans could leave town and leave us there in solitary splendour”. “We’re not going to do quite that, but we hope to have a peaceful meeting,” he added.

Everyone wants peace. Sometimes it takes unusual forms, though.

Sen recalls the reaction of two famous British thinkers, James Mill and David Ricardo, during the drought of 1816.

In The Idea of Justice, in the chapter, Justice and the World, Sen writes:

In the troubled English summer of 1816, James Mill, the utilitarian philosopher, wrote to David Ricardo, the great political economist of his time, about the effects of drought on agricultural output. Mill was worried about the misery that would be an unavoidable result of the drought, “the thought of which makes one’s flesh creep on one’s bones — one third of the people must die”… “It would be a blessing,” Mill wrote, “to take them (the starving population) into the streets and high ways, and cut their throats as we do with pigs.” Ricardo expressed considerable sympathy for Mill’s line of exasperated thought, and like Mill (James Mill, I hasten to add, not John Stuart) expressed his disdain for social agitators who try to sow discontent with the social order by telling people, wrongly, that the government can help them. Ricardo wrote to Mill that he was “sorry to see a disposition to inflame the minds of the lower orders by persuading them that legislation can afford them any relief”.

David Ricardo’s denunciation of inflammatory protests is understandable given his — and Mill’s — belief that people threatened by famine resulting from the crop failure of 1816 could not, in any way, be saved.

But such protests cannot be ignored by policy makers, according to Sen. He writes:

First, what “tends to inflame the minds” of suffering humanity cannot but be of immediate interest both to policy-making and to the diagnosis of injustice. A sense of injustice must be examined even if turns out to be erroneously based, and it must, of course, be thoroughly pursued if it is well founded. And we cannot be sure whether it is erroneous or well founded without some investigation. However, since injustices relate, often enough, to hardy social divisions, linked with divisions of class, gender, rank, location, religion, community and other established barriers, it is often difficult to surmount these barriers to have an objective analysis of the contrast between what is happening and what could have happened — a contrast that is central to the advancement of justice. We have to go through doubts, questions, arguments and scrutiny to move towards conclusions about whether and how justice can be advanced. An approach to justice that is particularly involved with the diagnoses of injustice, as this work is, must allow note to be taken of “inflamed minds” as a prelude to critical scrutiny. Outrage can be used to motivate, rather than replace, reasoning.

Second, even though David Ricardo was perhaps the most distinguished economist in Britain of his time, the arguments of those whom he took to be mere instigators of protest did not deserve such prompt dismissal. Those who were encouraging the people threatened by starvation to believe that government legislation and policy can mitigate hunger were actually more right than Ricardo in his pessimism about the possibility of effective social relief. Indeed, good public policy can eliminate the incidence of starvation altogether.

Can each country pursue its own idea of justice?

No, says Sen, not in this globalized world where events in one country can affect others.

Sen writes in the same chapter in the section, Justice and Open Impartiality:

There are two  principal grounds for requiring that the encounter of public reasoning about justice should go beyond the boundaries of a state or a region…

The first ground… is easy enough to appreciate. How America responds to the barbarity of 9/11 in New York affects the lives of many hundreds of millions elsewhere in the world — in Afghanistan and Iraq, of course, but well beyond these direct fields of American action. Similarly, how America succeeds in managing its present economic crisis (the crisis of 2008-9) will have a profound effect on other countries that have trade and financial relations with America and still others who have business relations with those who have commerce with America…

The interdependences also include the impact of a sense of injustice in one country on lives and freedom in others. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” said Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, in April 1963, in a letter from Birmingham jail. Discontent based in one country can rapidly spread to other lands: our “neighbourhoods” now extend across the world. Our involvement with others through trade and communication is remarkably extensive in this contemporary world… and make it hard for us to expect that an adequate consideration of diverse interests and concerns can be plausibly confined to the citizenry of any given country, ignoring all others.

This idea of interdependence expressed by Sen has come to be accepted by governments around the world.

That is why the world is moving towards common laws and agreements.

Apec, Asean, the European Union, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations, each is a reminder we are living in a globalized world.

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