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Rec Room: Joel Whitney: The Idea of Justice

Joel_Whitney-small.jpg If you have a reasonable tolerance for density, I recommend Amartya Sen’s latest, The Idea of Justice. Sen is remarkable for a number of reasons. He brings together vast scholarship in philosophy, economics, and history to weigh in on everything from democracy to development to international affairs. He thinks expansively toward universals.

In past books, Sen has argued that democracy is not solely a Western affair. Pointing to his native India as “the world’s most populous democracy,” he defines democracy broadly, as John Rawls did, as “government by discussion.” From this vantage, there are democratic traditions rooted in cultures around the world, not imposed from without, but discovered within, where tribal or community members or national or regional representatives come to decisions by vigorous debate. Indeed, voting, by this definition, is a symptom, it can be argued, and not a cause of democracy. Sen loves to point to Ashoka and Akhbar, Indian rulers who promoted discussion between stakeholders with different interests and values, and set rules for religious tolerance.

In The Idea of Justice, Sen works Rawls’s definition of democracy forward by contrasting ideal institutional justice with comparative justice. Sen prefers the latter, where there is no lofty template to be set up, but constant comparisons between imperfect scenarios. The argument is persuasive. To tell ourselves that perfect justice looks like X, Y or Z is a way of being intellectually lazy. The just is always found in comparing the reality before us, anticipating outcomes, and perfecting as we go. It takes work, not blind absolutisms pointing to one platitude or ideal—but rather hard prioritizing of values, rooted very much in the particular context of the case or conundrum before us. The work can be applied to so many debates going on around us, which Sen wisely leaves to us.

Bio: Joel is a founding editor of Guernica. His last article, an “interview with Noam Chomsky”:, appeared in Guernica’s November 2009 issue. Read his last recommendation “here”:

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