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Adjusting injustice

Amartya sen doesn’t care for Utopian notions. Instead, he talks to Indrajit Hazra about justice as diminishing injustice, public reasoning — and the curious evolution of anti-smoking laws.

books Updated: Aug 07, 2009 23:14 IST
Indrajit Hazra

The Idea of Justice
Amartya Sen
Penguin/Allen Lane
* Rs 699 * pp 468

Amartya Sen is justifiably perturbed. “Is PNR an Indian thing?” asks the man who knows a thing or two about the Pareto optimum in welfare economics but simply can’t find the Passenger Name Record of his plane ticket. The last time he called the Singapore Airlines office, he was put on hold indefinitely. “This could be the Indianisation of Singapore,” he mutters into the phone that no one answers.

In India to promote The Idea of Justice, Sen is keen to establish the fact that the book is a philosophical work and not a handbook on enhancing jurisprudence or tackling injustices. “The idea had been in my mind for the last 25 years,” he says. Influenced by John Rawls’ seminal 1971 book, A Theory of Justice, Sen however departs from the American philosopher’s emphasis on investing in institutions of justice; instead, he argues for a more empirical approach, the aim of which is to ‘reduce injustices’. “Rawls’ theory applies to an ideally just State. That’s a Utopian idea. I needed a theory of justice that deals with this world.”

He explains the basic difference of the two approaches by citing the two words for justice in classical Sanskrit -- niti (organisational correctness) and nyaya (an overarching concept of realised justice, how people’s lives actually go).

Sen’s inquiry utilises the idea of nyaya, where the “behaviour of people” is a prime object of the philosophical investigation. But doesn’t that then introduce ‘the irrational’ that comes into play when dealing with people’s behaviour? “Public opinion, even that of a lynch mob, is based on reasoning, wrong reasoning, but reason-based thinking nonetheless. There are people who believe that one race is superior to another, or a caste is worthy of disdain. These beliefs aren’t irrational; they arise from bad reasoning and have to be counteracted by good reasoning.”

In the course of attempting to lessen an injustice, one may have to deal with consequences. Sen cites the Bhagavat Gita in which Krishna urges Arjun to do his duty — waging war and in the process killing even those he has no enmity against — for a greater purpose. “Like [Immanuel] Kant, Krishna too talks about duty. Arjun hesitates about the consequences, but then proceeds.” Sen understands, even appreciates, this dithering, even as he also understands Krishna’s insistence on ‘duty’.

But doesn’t the notion of what is just and what is unjust vary? “Much is made of attitudinal differences. But these differences often arise from a lack of adequate reasoning and knowledge,” he says. Sen, however, notes that the effectiveness of a strategy to tackle injustice does vary and has to be dealt with accordingly. “If less restrictive constraints don’t bring about the intended outcome of, say, stopping people from smoking in the presence of those who object to passive smoking, then more exacting demands are made until the desired effect takes place. Which is what’s happened in [practically no-smoking] America.”

If reducing injustice is Sen’s idea of firming up justice on Earth, why not engage in any strategy — good, bad or ugly — for the purpose? “That will involve lying and that is in itself a bad thing. [The ‘WMD episode’ in Iraq, for instance.] Also, when your lie is found out, your reputation will be lost and no matter how just a cause yours might be, you won’t be believed next time.”

The doorbell rings. Sen is expecting development economist Jean Dreze to turn up and give him a lowdown on the proposed Right to Food Act. But it’s someone else asking whether he should restock the mini-bar.

For Sen, in between lecture tours and back-to-back interviews — not to mention phone calls made that no one picks up — tackling injustice in the real world once again will have to wait for a bit longer. “I haven’t touched the mini-bar,” he says.

He genuinely sounds innocent.