Liberty, Justice and Education: A Leaf from Amartya Sen’s ‘Development as Freedom’

The last post focused on the concepts of liberty.  Why did I even get there? All because of back and forth in response to an article written and posted on his Facebook page by my friend Faisal Bari.  The article was also posted on this blog and you can read it here if you haven’t already read it.  In one of the comments another friend referred to ‘rights,’ and their association with the notion of ‘negative liberty.’  In response to it, I raised a question that looked somewhat like this: “Would it make sense to say that Negative/Positive liberty [with first term associated more with the right to be free of coercion] is reincarnated in Private/Public, Individual/Collective and, to some extent, in Market/State dichotomies in the West?” Not knowing the answer to the question myself, I have only been trying to educate myself, and sharing this education with you in this space.

In the last post, I had talked about the previous use of the analytic of negative/positive liberties to describe the early divergent views on the desirability of state’s involvement in education.  The current post is my reading of Sen’s views on the precedence of liberty in formulation of a theory of justice.

The notion of liberty has been central to some widely accepted ideas about Justice. In the last post I had suggested that the distribution of negative liberties in a society might reflect its state of being just or unjust.  That is to say, if, in a particular society, if some individuals, a small group i.e., feel that they could do whatever they wished and get away with it with impunity, then it is obviously an unjust society. Negative liberty and the rule of law always go hand in hand or else only chaos can result.  The rule of law ensures that your liberty does not interfere with mine.

The recent London riots, which are by the way still raging as I write this post, are another example.  Some people, for whatever reasons, are taking out their anger on other people’s property.  Taking out one’s anger, the very act of taking out one’s anger, irrespective of the background of influences which force an individual into it, is an expression of a certain kind of desire, in this case that of burning and destroying property.  The rioters, almost by the very nature of the acts that they are engaged in, interfere with other people’s ability to freely do what they wish to do.  When the state speaks about its response to riots, the expression commonly used by the authorities is that the rioters will face the ‘full force of law.’ David Cameron indeed said it today in so many words. In terms of the categories we are using in this discussion, the state acts to not let one’s liberty infringe on another person’s liberty. So the liberties guaranteed to individuals are not granted without restriction. ‘Law enforcement’ is always about curbing individual freedom when necessary for public safety, national security, or the protection of the rights of others.

Lest we stray in another direction, let me tell you what I wanted to about the stuff that I read in Sen’s book Development as Freedom on the connection between liberty and justice. So here is just a leaf from his book on Rawls idea of justice.  Rawls formulation of theory of justice, as Sen reads it, prioritises liberty. What does this mean? In Rawls formulation, liberty is prioritized or treated as inviolable.  That is to say, in case of a conflict between liberty and any other principle, sacrifice everything else but preserve liberty.

With reference to this prioritizing of liberty, Sen has this to say:

…the precedence that these more limited rights receive is meant to be quite complete, and while these rights are much more confined in coverage than those in libertarian theory, they too cannot be in any way compromised by the force of economic needs.” (p.64).

It doesn’t have to be so, Sen argues. Some economic needs can be matters of life and death, he argues, and if so, why should their priority be lower than personal liberties under certain circumstances.  In his words: “If the “priority of liberty” is to be made plausible even in the context of countries that are intensely poor, the content of that priority would have to be…considerably qualified. This does not, however, amount to saying that liberty should not have priority, that form of that demand should not have the effect of making the economic needs be easily overlooked.” (p.64).

This needs some more explanation.  The way I read him, Sen seems more concerned about the consequences of the principles such as liberty. The critical issue according to him is “whether a person’s liberty should get just the same kind of importance (no more) that other types of personal advantages—incomes, utilities and so on—have. In particular, the question is whether the significance of liberty for society is adequately reflected by the weight that the person herself would tend to give to in judging her own overall advantage.  The claim of preeminence of liberty (including basic political liberties and civil rights) disputes that it is adequate to judge liberty simply as an advantage—like an extra unit of income—that the person herself receives from liberty.”

In other words perhaps the question is “do I value my liberty more than my income?”  Obviously, I cannot trade with liberty in the same way as with money.  This creates an obvious asymmetry between the liberty and what Sen refers to as other sources of advantage.

This is a longer conversation.  And I will just stop with some thoughts with reference to education.  Like liberty and income, education could also be viewed as a source of advantage to the individuals. Some people just privilege education for its own sake.  That sounds much similar to the ways in which, as Sen reads him, Rawls prioritized liberty.  Sen did not negate the importance of or prioritisation of liberty.  He just qualified this prioritisation further by raising a question about its possible weight in adding to the advantage of individuals in particular contexts.  This question leads him to state his formulation, not in terms of liberty, but in terms of functionings and capabilities [of these terms I will talk some more in a subsequent post].

A similar observation could be made about education.  It is with this in mind, I will mention the findings of a recent report by the Euromonitor that was sent to me by a friend yesterday.  The report was about the influence of English language education on the life chances of the individuals in Cameron, Nigeria, Rwanda, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

In the case of Pakistan, the report just highlights what majority of Pakistanis will know through their lived experience of living and working in Pakistan: That all official communication in Pakistan takes place in English, that private sector employers like to see competence in the use of English in their potential employees, and that in a weak and small labour market, English provides a competitive advantage to those who are proficient in it.  The report also found that English language proficiency significantly increases the chances of advancement and those who ‘spoke’ English well advanced quicker within the companies. To be sure, proficiency in English language is not an advantage the accrues from majority of public or the so-called affordable private schools.  We can have a lot of this kind of education, but if the findings of euromonitor make sense, it is unlikely, and also unfortunate, that education in mother tongues or urdu would be converted into economic advantage for individuals.  Needless to say, it would certainly not help them become socially mobile enough to offset the disadvantages associated with their socio-economic status.

Besides being good in and of itself, education, like liberty, also has value inasmuch as it adds to the advantage of the individuals who possess it.  This is a consideration that doesn’t show up much in talk about education in Pakistan.  Many concerned observers of education in Pakistan spend a lot of time and effort comparing the performance of low fees private schools with the public schools.  On the basis of such comparisons they argue that low fees private schools are more efficient than public schools.  But this discussion leaves out an important reference.  It does not refer to the deposits of real ‘advantage’ that such education is likely to bring to people who possess it.  The possibility that very little of it is likely to come from most of the low fees private or a great majority of public schools is often not examined.

Lest I be misunderstood, I am not arguing against education for its own sake, much like Sen was not arguing against liberty for its own sake.   I am just arguing, in the same spirit as Sen does for liberty, that education too needs to be seen in terms of advantages it brings to the individuals who receive it.  We do not perhaps have a full definition of educational justice.  We do, however, know what the educational injustice looks like.  For a sprawling majority in many developing countries, educational injustice takes the form of access to an education that is unlikely to help them break through the socio-economic disadvantage barriers.

About Irfan

I am an independent researcher and blogger interested in everything under the sun, but more so in the philosophy and history of education and education reform generally, and specifically in the so-called post colonial contexts


  1. What are London riots teaching us? | Just questions! - 09/08/2011

    […] of advantage barriers [or presence of disadvantage barriers] are not addressing much [Also this and this previous post].  When these ‘disadvantage barriers’ are crossed by other means, […]

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