Amartya Sen

Call for Papers: On Sen's "The Idea of Justice"

Mark D. White

The open access, online journal Rationality, Markets and Morality has issued the following call for papers:

Amartya Sen's recent book The Idea of Justice is put forward as a challenge to what Sen holds to be the predominant approach to justice in contemporary philosophy and marks as 'transcendentalism'. Justice is a matter of reason, but, argues Sen, there is no and cannot be a reasoned agreement on the nature of perfect justice. Moreover, no ideal conception of 'spotless' justice will help us solve the numerous problems of injustice easily identified in the real world. So Sen promotes a different 'comparative' account of justice whereby societies, practices and states of affairs are judged against actual and possible alternatives drawing on a plurality of views and conceptions of the good as expressed and argued for in public debate. Thorough economic and political analysis is at the heart of such moral reasoning. In expanding on and arguing for his conception of justice Sen expounds and integrates many of his well known ideas about welfare, capabilities, equality and liberty, democracy and human rights.

The Idea of Justice has immediately attracted the attention of the scholars in the field. Without doubt, it is an exceptionally resourceful and important contribution to the philosophy of justice. It is most instructive and illuminating but there is also plenty to argue with.

More details at the journal's website (linked above).

What is “development”?

Jonathan B. Wight

A student of mine is finishing up her Honors Thesis on substantive measures of development. One measure she examines is cell phone ownership as a proxy for infrastructure.  One can argue that in a rural areas without land lines, access to cell phones enables one to live a life of greater affiliation and connectedness to those you love (e.g., many husbands migrate and may return only once a year). Having the capability of communicating with loved ones can be considered an important aspect of human development.  What do you readers think?

Amartya Sen writes provocatively about substantive measures and his book, Development as Freedom (1999) offers great insights. 

But Paul Krugman’s quote still captures the issue most succinctly:  

     “Feudalism with cell phones is still feudalism.”

Anyone want to share other pithy quotes on this subject?


Symposium on Sen's philosophy at Erasmus

Mark D. White

Erasmus University in Rotterdam is hosting Amartya Sen for a public lecture and symposum on June 30 (lecture) and July 1 (symposium).

Lecture: "On Global Justice"


Ann Cudd (University of Kansas, USA):
Commitment and Explanation: Sen’s Philosophy of Social Science

Mozaffar Qizilbash (York University, UK, and Lahore University of Management Sciences, Pakistan):
Amartya Sen’s Criticisms of Utilitarianism

Henry S. Richardson (Georgetown University Washington, USA):
Mapping out Improvements in Justice Comparing vs. Aiming

Ingrid Robeyns (Erasmus University Rotterdam, the Netherlands):
Equality of Root Capability

Amartya Sen (Harvard University, USA): Discussion

New book on capabilities and justice

Mark D. White

Measuringjustice Just discovered a new book about capabilities and justice: Measuring Justice: Primary Goods and Capabilities, edited by Harry Brighouse and Ingrid Robeyns, published by Cambridge (2010).

From the Cambridge website:

This book brings together a team of leading theorists to address the question ‘What is the right measure of justice?’ Some contributors, following Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, argue that we should focus on capabilities, or what people are able to do and to be. Others, following John Rawls, argue for focussing on social primary goods, the goods which society produces and which people can use. Still others see both views as incomplete and complementary to one another. Their essays evaluate the two approaches in the light of particular issues of social justice – education, health policy, disability, children, gender justice – and the volume concludes with an essay by Amartya Sen, who originated the capabilities approach.

• Introduces theoretical discussions which are accessible for non-specialists by incorporating debates about particular sectors of justice

• Includes a contribution from Thomas Pogge which has previously been difficult for scholars to obtain

• Introduction sets the terms of debate in historical context, providing a background for the reader


1. Social primary goods and capabilities as metrics of justice Ingrid Robeyns and Harry Brighouse; Part I. Theory: 2. A critique on the capability approach Thomas Pogge; 3. Equal opportunity, unequal capability Erin Kelly; 4. Justifying the capabilities approach to justice Elizabeth Anderson; 5. Two cheers for capabilities Richard Arneson; Part II. Applications: 6. Capabilities, opportunity, and health Norman Daniel; 7. What metric for justice for disabled people? Capability and disability Lorella Terzi; 8. Primary goods, capabilities, and children Colin MacLeod; 9. Education for primary goods or for capabilities? Harry Brighouse and Elaine Unterhalter; 10. Gender and the metric of justice Ingrid Robeyns; Part III. Concluding Essay: 11. The place of capability in a theory of justice Amartya Sen.

Sen on Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations

Mark D. White

Thanks to Pete Boettke at Coordination Problem (formerly known as The Austrian Economists), I now know of a new edition of Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments from Penguin, featuring an introduction by Amartya Sen. According to Pete,

Sen argues that the consequence of this was not only that The Theory of Moral Sentiments was under-appreciated for the fields of ethics and philosophy, but that the interpretation of The Wealth of Nations was constrained and distorted to the detriment of economics. The neglect of the common framework between the two books resulted in a failure to appreciate the demands of rationality, the plurality of human motivations, the connection between ethics and economics, and the "co-dependent -- rather than free standing -- role of institutions in general and free markets in particular in the functioning of the economy."

This will not come as news to readers of this blog, of course, but it can never be said enough.

Also, I got a kick out of the cover, which is oddly reminiscient of Accept's 1985 album Metal Heart. But I'm sure I'm the not only one that noticed that either, right?  :)

TMS Metalheart

Amartya Sen's new book [updated]

I'm ashamed to admit that this one snuck up on me: Amartya Sen's new book, The Idea of Justice, just out from Harvard. Here's the synopsis from the HUP site:

Social justice: an ideal, forever beyond our grasp; or one of many practical possibilities? More than a matter of intellectual discourse, the idea of justice plays a real role in how—and how well—people live. And in this book the distinguished scholar Amartya Sen offers a powerful critique of the theory of social justice that, in its grip on social and political thinking, has long left practical realities far behind.

The transcendental theory of justice, the subject of Sen’s analysis, flourished in the Enlightenment and has proponents among some of the most distinguished philosophers of our day; it is concerned with identifying perfectly just social arrangements, defining the nature of the perfectly just society. The approach Sen favors, on the other hand, focuses on the comparative judgments of what is “more” or “less” just, and on the comparative merits of the different societies that actually emerge from certain institutions and social interactions.

At the heart of Sen’s argument is a respect for reasoned differences in our understanding of what a “just society” really is. People of different persuasions—for example, utilitarians, economic egalitarians, labor right theorists, no­-nonsense libertarians—might each reasonably see a clear and straightforward resolution to questions of justice; and yet, these clear and straightforward resolutions would be completely different. In light of this, Sen argues for a comparative perspective on justice that can guide us in the choice between alternatives that we inevitably face.

There's a very long and detailed review from Herbert Gintis on the Amazon site (first link above), which is characteristically insightful and honest. The book arrived from Amazon last week, but I have no idea when I'll have a chance to read it.

If anyone has any comments on this book which is sure to be essential reading among "our set," please let us know!

UPDATE (Oct 6): I just discovered an online reading group dedicated to Sen's book at the Public Reason blog.