Ideas of Amartya Sen, by Theme

[Indian, b.1933, Professor at Harvard University]

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2. Reason / A. Nature of Reason / 4. Aims of Reason
What justifies reliance on reason? Is it just a tool? Why is it better than blind belief?
     Full Idea: What is the ultimate justification for relying on reason? Is reason cherished as a good tool, and if so, how does it differ from blind and unquestioning belief?
     From: Amartya Sen (The Idea of Justice [2009], 01 'Critique')
     A reaction: And can it answer the romantic charge of stunting a rich life? NIetzsche started this one, by asking the value of truth. Proposal: treat others rationally, and treat yourself intuitively.
2. Reason / A. Nature of Reason / 5. Objectivity
In politics and ethics, scrutiny from different perspectives is essential for objectivity
     Full Idea: I take reasoned scrutiny from different perspectives to be an essential part of the demands of objectivity for ethical and political convictions.
     From: Amartya Sen (The Idea of Justice [2009], 01 'Adam')
     A reaction: We should distinguish the nature of objectivity from ways of achieving it. Multiple perspectives don't guarantee objectivity. This is peer review in science, and publisher's readers of philosophy texts. What is objectivity? The same as truth?
18. Thought / A. Modes of Thought / 5. Rationality
Rationality is conformity to reasons that can be sustained even after scrutiny
     Full Idea: My main argument can be fairly easily understood in terms of seeing rationality as conformity with reasons that one can sustain, even after scrutiny, and not just at first sight.
     From: Amartya Sen (The Idea of Justice [2009], 08 'Rational' n)
     A reaction: We would need to say more about the 'scrutiny' before we had a really good account of rationality here. In Idea 20982 he emphasises the need for scrutiny by other people, and not mere self-criticism. The key may to be invite outside criticism.
23. Ethics / B. Contract Ethics / 9. Contractualism
A human right is not plausible if public scrutiny might reject it
     Full Idea: The force of a claim for a human right would indeed be seriously undermined if it were possible to show that it is unlikely to survive open public scrutiny.
     From: Amartya Sen (The Idea of Justice [2009], 17 'Scrutiny')
     A reaction: This is a public aspect of Scanlon's 'contractualist' approach to ethics. You can hardly disagree with the idea, though anti-racist legislation in a strongly racist society might be a good test case.
24. Political Theory / A. Basis of a State / 4. Original Position / a. Original position
The original position insures that the agreements reached are fair
     Full Idea: The original position is the appropriate initial status quo which insures that the fundamental agreements reached in it are fair. This fact yields the name 'justice as fairness'.
     From: Amartya Sen (The Idea of Justice [2009], 01.4)
     A reaction: I suppose it insures fairness on day one of the new society, but that might have all been wiped out in the next fortnight, when you find you are the least advantaged as a result of racism.
24. Political Theory / A. Basis of a State / 4. Original Position / b. Veil of ignorance
The veil of ignorance encourages neutral interests, but not a wider view of values
     Full Idea: The veil of ignorance is very effective for making people see beyond their vested interests and goals. And yet it does little to ensure an open scrutiny of local and possibly parochial values.
     From: Amartya Sen (The Idea of Justice [2009], 06 'Original')
     A reaction: Communitarians also make a similar criticism of Rawls - that people in the initial position simplify themselves into pure rational agents looking for 'basic goods'.
24. Political Theory / B. Nature of a State / 2. State Legitimacy / c. Social contract
A social contract limits the pursuit of justice to members of a single society
     Full Idea: The use of the social contract in the Rawlsian form inescapably limits the involvement of participants in the pursuit of justice to the members of a given polity, or 'people'.
     From: Amartya Sen (The Idea of Justice [2009], 02 'Relevance')
     A reaction: This relates to the criticism of contractarian ethics - that the weak have nothing to bargain with. One can either add international contracts, or appeal to natural human rights. Or we could just be nice to one another? Nah!
24. Political Theory / B. Nature of a State / 4. Citizenship
A person's voice may count because of their interests, or because of their good sense
     Full Idea: A person's voice may count either because her interests are involved, or because he reasoning and judgement can enlighten a discussion.
     From: Amartya Sen (The Idea of Justice [2009], 04 'Diversity')
     A reaction: Good. Inarticulate people may have strong interests, and articulate and helpful people may be wholly disinterested. But people may have unworthy interests, and may be articulate but not sensible.
24. Political Theory / C. Ruling a State / 2. Leaders / c. Despotism
Famines tend to be caused by authoritarian rule
     Full Idea: The history of famines has had a peculiarly close connection with authoritarian rules.
     From: Amartya Sen (The Idea of Justice [2009], 16 'Famine')
     A reaction: He cites the British Empire, the Soviet Union, China and Cambodia. There is unlikely to be a local famine if there is free movement of food supplies.342
24. Political Theory / D. Ideologies / 5. Democracy / a. Nature of democracy
Effective democracy needs tolerant values
     Full Idea: The formation of tolerant values is quite central to the smooth functioning of a democratic system.
     From: Amartya Sen (The Idea of Justice [2009], 16 'Minority')
     A reaction: There is presumably a brutal sort of democracy, if the majority in a polarised society agree to crush a minority.
24. Political Theory / D. Ideologies / 5. Democracy / b. Consultation
Democracy as 'government by discussion' now has wide support
     Full Idea: In contemporary political philosophy the view that democracy is best seen as 'government by discussion' has gained widespread support.
     From: Amartya Sen (The Idea of Justice [2009], 15 'Content')
     A reaction: The obvious worry about this is inefficiency in decision-making. Also the dominance of noisy stupidity. But citizens need to feel involved, and committed to the decisions.
Democracy needs more than some institutions; diverse sections of the people must be heard
     Full Idea: Democracy has to be judged not just by the institutions that formally exist but by the extent to which different voices from diverse sections of the people can actually be heard.
     From: Amartya Sen (The Idea of Justice [2009], Pref 'Public')
     A reaction: Depends what you mean by 'democracy'. Should the workplace and the school and the family be democratic, or just the choice of leaders? What can oblige leaders to listen to the people? Listen to, and then ignore?
24. Political Theory / D. Ideologies / 13. Green Politics
Eradicating smallpox does not impoverish nature
     Full Idea: The eradication of smallpox is not viewed as an impoverishment of nature.
     From: Amartya Sen (The Idea of Justice [2009], 11 'Sustainable')
     A reaction: You'd have to be a pretty 'deep' ecologist to defend the carrier of smallpox, or Dutch Elm disease. The idea is included for balance.
25. Social Practice / A. Freedoms / 5. Freedom of lifestyle
Capabilities are part of freedom, involving real opportunities
     Full Idea: Capability is an aspect of freedom, concentrating in particular on substantive opportunities.
     From: Amartya Sen (The Idea of Justice [2009], 13 'Well-being')
     A reaction: This is the 'capabilities approach' of Sen and Nussbaum. The key word is 'substantive' (as opposed to theoretical). We are all free to become astronauts, but....
Freedom can involve capabilities, independence and non-interference
     Full Idea: There is no embarrassment in accommodating several distinct features within the idea of freedom, focusing respectively on capability, lack of dependence and lack of interference.
     From: Amartya Sen (The Idea of Justice [2009], 14 'Capability')
     A reaction: This relates to Berlin's distinction between negative and positive rights.
25. Social Practice / B. Equalities / 1. Grounds of equality
All modern theories of justice demand equality of something
     Full Idea: Every normative theory of social justice that has received support and advocacy in recent times seems to demand equality of something.
     From: Amartya Sen (The Idea of Justice [2009], 14 Intro)
     A reaction: He mentions liberties, income, rights and utilities.
The need for equality among people arises from impartiality and objectivity
     Full Idea: The demand for seeing people as equals (in some important perspective) relates to the normative demand for impartiality, and the related claims of objectivity.
     From: Amartya Sen (The Idea of Justice [2009], 14 'Equality')
     A reaction: Either impartiality already contains (analytically) the concept of equality, or the principle of sufficient reason must be invoked. True impartiality removes any reason for preferring one person to another. But what if preference is 'to my taste'?
25. Social Practice / C. Rights / 1. Basis of Rights
Freedom from torture or terrorist attacks is independent of citizenship
     Full Idea: The human right of a person not to be tortured or subjected to terrorist attacks is affirmed independently of the country of which this person is a citizen.
     From: Amartya Sen (The Idea of Justice [2009], 06 'Exclusionary')
     A reaction: If rights can only be enshrined in a legal system, then I presume all systems of legal rights should ensure rights like these, irrespective of theirs nation. A universal charter of rights for tourists and alien residents?
25. Social Practice / D. Justice / 1. Basis of justice
You don't need a complete theory of justice to see that slavery is wrong
     Full Idea: It was the diagnosis of an intolerable injustice in slavery that made abolition an overwhelming priority, and this did not require a search for a consensus on what a perfectly just society would look like.
     From: Amartya Sen (The Idea of Justice [2009], Intro 'Classical')
     A reaction: This illustrates Sen's key points, that we should focus on injustices, which are obvious, and that designing a totally just society has little relevance to justice in practice (which is what matters). Well said.
Practical justice concerns not only ideals, but ways to achieve them
     Full Idea: A theory of justice that can serve as the basis of practical reason must include ways of judging how to reduce injustice and advance justice, rather than aiming only at the characterisation of perfectly just societies.
     From: Amartya Sen (The Idea of Justice [2009], Pref 'What')
     A reaction: Sounds simple, but this is Amartya Sen's revolutionary new idea - that justice is not just ideals and opportunities, but what sort of life people actually end up with.
If justice needs public reasoning, which needs democracy, then justice and democracy are linked
     Full Idea: If the demands of justice can be assessed only with the help of public reasoning, and that is constitutively related to the idea of democracy, then there is an intimate connection between justice and democracy.
     From: Amartya Sen (The Idea of Justice [2009], 15 'Content')
     A reaction: I suspect that he argued early on that rationality required many perspectives in order to later mount this defence of democracy.
Our institutions should promote justice, rather than embodying it
     Full Idea: We have to seek institutions that promote justice, rather than treating the institutions as themselves manifestations of justice.
     From: Amartya Sen (The Idea of Justice [2009], 03 'Institutions')
     A reaction: The best quote I can find for summarising Sen's view. He criticises Rawls and others for trying to design institutions that embody justice. Our legal system promotes justice. Do our schools and hospitals? The Department for the Promotion of Justice?
We must focus on removing manifest injustice, not just try to design a perfect society
     Full Idea: The demands of justice must give priority to the removal of manifest injustice, rather than concentrating on the long-distance search for the perfectly just society.
     From: Amartya Sen (The Idea of Justice [2009], 12 'Disability')
     A reaction: So the point is not to understand the world, but to change it? I'd want to put in a word for the theoretical and idealised project, which I see in terms of writing the perfect constitution. You can't just pick off injustices, perceived intuitively.