Tuesday, July 28, 2009

“I am on Left,” says Amartya Sen

"I am on Left," says Amartya Sen Hasan Suroor
There is no such thing as "perfect" justice, he argues

Everyone is interested in justice as they see it

The stress should be on removing more visible forms of injustice

LONDON: Amartya Sen has called for the Indian Left to regard him as a friend saying that his criticism of the Left parties over their stand on the India-U.S. nuclear deal did not detract from the fact that he was very much a man of the Left.

"I am on Left and if Left want me I'm delighted," he said noting good-humouredly that he was criticised in India for questioning the Left's fury over the nuclear deal when, in his view, there were more pressing issues such as poverty and malnutrition to be furious about.

His inspiration

Speaking about his new book, 'The Idea of Justice,' to a full-house at the London School of Economics on Monday, Prof. Sen repeatedly referred to leading Marxist thinkers — including, of course, Marx's own writings — while presenting his alternative approach to mainstream theories of justice that he challenges in his book.

He said he was not claiming to break new ground by offering a comparative theory of justice and mentioned Adam Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft and Karl Marx among those whose works represented different versions of comparative thinking. Instead of looking for a "perfectly just society" they were more interested in the removal of "manifest" injustices from the world. His own idea of justice was inspired by their thinking.

Prof. Sen said that people often asked: "Who's interested in justice?" And, yet, the fact was that at some level —consciously or subconsciously — everyone was interested in justice as they saw it.

"I remember my son when he was three complaining that his sister was not being 'just' to him!" he quipped.

As in his previous lectures on the issue, the Nobel Laureate argued that there was no such thing as "perfect" justice; that justice was relative to a situation; and that instead of searching for "ideal" justice, the stress should be on removing the more visible forms of injustice such as subjugation of women, poverty and malnutrition.

Effective approach

For example, if U.S. President Barack Obama was able to push through his healthcare reforms, it would mean removing a massive manifest injustice that affected more than 40 million Americans who didn't have access to health. This was a far more effective approach to fighting injustice than getting bogged down in the idea of "institutional justice"— the belief that once "just" institutions were created justice would follow.

'Niti' and 'Nyaya'

Prof. Sen said Indian philosophy made the distinction between institutional justice and the actual "realisation" of justice. This was denoted by the two Sanskrit words "niti" — the principle of justice; and "nyaya" meaning delivering justice on the ground. His book is an argument for "nyaya."

"The idea of justice demands comparisons of actual lives that people can lead, rather than a remote search for ideal institutions. That is what makes the idea of justice relevant as well as exciting in practical reasoning," Prof. Sen says in his book.

In a wide-ranging speech and during his interaction with the audience, Prof Sen dealt with a host of issues, including the meaning of human rights, equity and fairness — and inevitably recounted his favourite story about three children who quarrel over a flute all arguing that their claim was the most ``just."


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