Pakistan Institute of Development Economics



Amartya Sen. The Idea of Justice. London: Penguin Books Ltd. 2009. 468 pages. Hardback. £ 25.00.

Justice is comparative in nature and may have plural impartial dimensions. Provision of justice, in an ‘ideal sense’, is non-pragmatic and is therefore impossible to deliver, argues the Nobel Laureate, Amartya Sen. He divides the existing theories of justice into two categories: the transcendental institutionalism and the Comparative School. The transcendental institutionalism, led by eminent enlightenment philosophers like Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau and Kant holds that a just society can be maintained by ensuring justice in the ‘ideal sense’. The provision of ‘ideal justice’ is based on the notion of either right or wrong. To provide justice in the ‘ideal sense’ the society must enjoy access to ‘just institutions’. John Rawl, the more recent contributor to transcendental tradition, came up with his theory of ‘justice as fairness’ in the mid twentieth century. The comparative school of justice propagated by Adam Smith, Marquis de Condorcet, Carl Marx and Stuart Mill lays emphasis upon looking at ‘justice’ in a comparative sense and on the basis of what the society is actually able to realise.Sen, disagreeing with both the schools of thought, however, is seen leaning towards the comparative school. The author gives the example of three children and a single flute to demonstrate how the ‘ideal justice’ and the ‘comparative’ school fail to hold water in certain situations. Three children—Carla, Anne and Bob, claim their right to a specific flute on different but competing principles. Carla manufactured the flute, Anne is the only one among the three who can play the flute, while Bob is the poorest of the three and does not have any toy to play with. Sen questions how ‘ideal justice’ may be provided with the transcendental approach, or how the ‘comparative assessment’ would lead to an impartial and non-arbitrary solution, in the case of the ‘three children and a flute’. Despite his disagreement with both the schools of thought, Sen aligns himself with the comparative school. However he believes that for provision of ‘impartial justice’ competing principles need not essentially be unique; these could be plural as well. The plurality of competing principles is the essence of Sen’s ‘idea of Justice’.