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Amartya Sen and 'The Idea of Justice'

Dr. Amartya Sen, winner of the 1998 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.
by Jeff Tompkins
15 March 2010

SAN FRANCISCO, February 24, 2010 - "The theory of justice must be more concerned with the
elimination of removable injustices rather than defining a perfectly just
society," said Nobel Prize-winning economist Dr. Amartya Sen at an
event hosted by Asia Society Northern California.

Speaking at the India Community Center to a 300-plus
audience, the economist and Harvard professor engaged a wide range of topics, including the
concept of justice, ancient and modern political thought, equity in India's
affirmative action policy, and the need to recognize the lineage of democracy in
countries like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Commenting on the topic "Demand for justice in India," a
theme of his latest book The Idea of Justice, Sen pointed out that
theorizing about justice often leads to concerns about the prevalence of

"In India, the prevalence of injustice is at several levels—in the form of widespread malnutrition, lack of affordable health care, and
education and gender inequality," he said.

Dealing with a complex issue like justice and its relevance
in the practical sense, Sen suggested that one might revert back to the ancient
Hindu thought which examines the concept of Niti and Nyaya. Niti
in Sanskrit legal thinking deals with just rules and institutions, while Nyaya
is about their realization. Niti is an abstract exercise that, if
implemented completely, would result in maximum public welfare and justice. Nyaya, on the other hand, relates to the enforcement of laws and regulations.

Addressing the issue of affirmative action in India, Sen
explained that Niti drives the policy, whereas it should be a Nyaya-based
approach. He noted that there is only so much one can achieve by affirmative

With regard to affirmative action's being extended on the basis
of religion, Sen argued, "Categorization does not have to be based on the basis
of religion. It should be based on social deprivation, and for that you need a
more sophisticated theory of affirmative action."

He also noted that often religion-based affirmative action
policies can have unintended negative consequences for the poor of certain

"It is a miscarriage of the intention of affirmative action
if low-caste, poor Hindus are favored more than Muslims who belong to the
corresponding social strata and are often not entitled on grounds of not being
a Hindu," he said.

Responding to a question from the audience about India's
Maoist insurgents and their increasing use of violence, Sen pointed out
that the problem is most severe in eastern states of India, where the movement
is becoming particularly strong. These states are dominated by their tribal
populations and also sidelined by the country's development agenda.

"Neglect of tribals is a huge spot on India's pursuit of
justice. I very much rebel against the view saying we ought to do something
about it otherwise they would join the Naxalites. The reason we should do
something about them is precisely because it's matter of justice," Sen said.

He added that the issue with such extremist movements—including fundamentalist religious groups like Hindutva Islamic groups—is that each of groups has a clear vision of what society would look like in
the future according to their goals.

"Unfortunately, that vision of future has gradually been
replaced to a great extent by kind of glorification of violence as a shining
path, and I think that ultimately gives us a reason for being critical of their
position," said Sen.

In regards to the current war in Iraq and Afghanistan and
the pursuit of democracy in these countries, Sen noted that democracy in its
full institutional form is a recent development in the world, having been
established in the 18th century. But he also noted that these
countries have a heritage of democracy and are fully capable of reliving that
chapter in their history.

In his concluding remarks Sen said, "My job as an economist
has been about identifying injustice, and I am concerned with developing human
freedom and capabilities as tools, and not just relying on institutions."

Reported by Neha Sakhuja, Asia Society Northern California