Herbert Gintis’ review of The Idea of Justice

I just read a review of Sen’s book The Idea of Justice  on written by Herbert Gintis and thought the readers of this blog may find it interesting.  I have yet to lay my hands on the Sen’s book though.

Herbert Gintis is co-author with Samuel Bowles of Schooling in Capitalist America. Published in late 1970s, the book has assumed the status of a mini classic on American education.

Gintis’s review follows:

Amartya Sen, recipient of the Nobel prize in Economics in 1998, is a very special economist. He has first-rate technical skills, he is a fine interpreter of the empirical evidence on the causes of famine and poverty around the world, he has a deep commitment to egalitarian social change, and he is a looming figure in modern political philosophy. Sen is a key contributor to the current movement towards integrating the insights of the various social sciences towards better understanding of society and increasing our capacity to improve social policy interventions in to economic and political life.

The Idea of Justice is a large, meandering book that is accessible to the novice in social theory and political philosophy, and includes most of the ideas Sen has championed in his long and productive career, plus a new idea that leads him beyond such established contemporary political philosophers as John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin.

In much the same way as German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, Sen’s commitment to freedom and democracy is based not on distributional issues, but rather on a deep understanding of the importance of communicative discourse and public debate in making the good society. This commitment fits well with Sen’s major contribution to welfare economics, which is providing an alternative to the selfish and materialistic Homo Economicus of standard neoclassical economics. For traditional economics, well-being is a function of the goods and services and individual enjoys. For Sen, well-being is a function of how fully and vigorously an individual exercises his human capabilities. Democracy, then, is less about who gets what, and more about how people come to craft both their personal life-meaning and their collective destiny through political participation and discourse.

As an indication of the power of Sen’s reasoning, he shows clearly how a commitment to a capabilities orientation to human welfare helps understand why income and welfare are conceptually and factually distinct and only somewhat correlated. Sen treats poverty as an inability to develop and exercise one’s personal capacities. Thus, a family in the United States can have much higher income than another in a third world country and yet suffer from poverty while its third world counterpart does not. This is because the US family may be socially dysfunctional, or may live in a community that fails to provide the social relations and cooperative institutions that allow people to develop their capacities even though lacking in income.

Sen’s innovation in this book is to critique the “transcendental institutionalism” of such traditional moral philosophers as Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant, Dworkin and Rawls, who seek to define a set of social institutions that foster “perfect justice,” Sen argues that perfect justice is not capable of attainment, and it is better to focus on how society can be improved from its current state, give its actual pattern of injustices.

I have two major criticisms of this book. The first is that Sen has not updated his model of the individual or his critique of the neoclassical model of economic man since his important contributions of thirty or forty years ago. You would not discover by reading this book that there has been a virtual revolution in economic thought concerning human nature starting in the 1980’s with behavioral game theory, experimental economics, and more recently, neuroeconomics. We can now go far beyond Sen’s rather diffident and anemic argument that people are not always completely selfish. Perhaps Sen considers this new research deficient in some way. Or, perhaps such empirical findings do not belong in the same league as the venerable Western and Indian philosophers he quotes so liberally. We simply do not know what Sen thinks about this, or what his motives were to ignore this rich vein of research of obvious relevance to his argument.

My second problem is a bit more fundamental. I am extremely skeptical concerning the whole approach to justice that has dominated analytical philosophy since Rawls’ seminal A Theory of Justice. Sen critiques John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, G. A. Cohen and other left-liberal thinkers on grounds of the impossibility of perfect justice. However, the real problem with these thinkers is that they believe justice is a matter of the distribution of wealth and income. This is not at all what justice means to most voters and citizens, who rather follow Robert Nozick in believing that justice consists in individuals getting that to which they are entitled by virtue of legitimate production, exchange, and inheritance. Serious thinkers must find the idea that ideal justice consists of complete social equality to be deeply repugnant.

In this view, justice is not fairness at all. Nevertheless, we can accept an entitlement view of justice and yet recognize that poverty, not some abstract inequality of income and wealth, is a real enemy of social wellbeing, not because it is unfair but because it is a preventable disease, like malaria, that we should not permit to inflict the young and innocent. Full social equality, then, is not a lamentable unattainable ideal state, but rather a thankfully unattainable monstrosity because it presupposes the absence of personal accountability and effectivity.

Sen’s critique of the Rawlsian tradition is anemic and trivial. For this reason I find this book deeply disappointing. It is altogether too genteel in dealing with a philosophical tradition that deserves to be bitterly criticized, not gently reproached for its excessive zeal in the pursuit of an unattainable ideal.

via Herbert Gintis’ review of The Idea of Justice.

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

3 Responses to “ Herbert Gintis’ review of The Idea of Justice”

  1. I think Gintis misunderstands Sen on the equity issue. His critique certainly takes him to a place that makes me uncomfortable: I’m sure, for example, Saif Al Islam also has an idea that inheriting Libya from daddy is justice. I’ll go with Sen and pragmatic distributional justice any day.

    Gintis describes full social equality as an “unattainable monstrosity”; is he reacting here more to the failed communist experiment of last century than Sen’s idea of justice? Sen’s notion of capabilities is central to his idea of justice and pivotal in his critique of Rawls. Rawls’s idea of justice requires an unequal distribution of social resources through progressive social policy to “level the playing fields” and give young people a more equal chance. This is what Sen considers to be utopian for it will take more than a better distribution of resources to create an society that is open to all in any fair or practical sense. Sen’s notion of capabilities, as far as I understand it anyway, recognises the internalised cultural and social factors that limit individuals or spur them on. These are linked in complex ways to gender, ethnicity, caste and class, among other things; these things are enduring and they are not adequately addressed by arrangements for a more just resource distribution, essential as this may be. Transforming these things would require deliberate effort, political consciousness, social activism, a transformative education system…and time, at least.This is why Sen wants social policy to concentrate on remediable instances of injustices: “pick your battles”, in other words. So what is monstrous in this? No one is talking about a politically and socially enforced equality such as Pol Pot, perhaps attempted, and the likes of Stalin and Gaddafi only pretended to. These were truly monstrous.

    Gintis’s ideas have some appeal otherwise, he needs to watch the knee jerks.

  2. Sen’s case for a capability approach is based on a critique of both Utilitarianism and Libertarianism. It seems like both Gintis and Sen will agree that utilitarian calculus is unfair—it neglects rights and freedoms and other non-utility concerns and it ignores the element of adaptation and mental conditioning. As Sen says: “The utility calculus can be deeply unfair to those who are persistently deprived…The deprived people tend to come to terms with their deprivation because of the sheer necessity of survival, and they may, as a result, lack the courage to demand any radical change, and may even adjust their desires and expectations to what they unambiguously see as feasible. The mental metric of pleasure or desire is just too malleable to be a firm guide to deprivation and disadvantage.” (Development and Freedom, p. 62).

    Sen also critiques Rawls for giving priority to liberty at the cost of economic needs. The prioritizing of liberty, Sen argues, and trumps economic needs. In his words: “why should the status of intense economic needs, which can be matters of life and death, be lower than that of personal liberties?”
    Sen says that we do not really have to choose between personal liberties and other goodies such as incomes, utilities and so on. The question he poses and attempts to resolves in his capability approach to development is whether the significance of liberty for the society is adequately reflected by the weight the person herself would tend to give it in judging her own overall advantage. Overall advantage reflected in the capabilities of the individual, that is!
    Before reflecting on Gintis’s review of Sen, it would also be pertinent to note Sen’s brief mention of Robert Nozick brand of libertarianism as distinct from Rawls. As he puts it: “Rawls own formulation of this priority [of liberty] is comparatively moderate, but that priority takes a sharp form in modern libertarian theory, which in some formulations (for example, in the elegantly uncompromising construction presented by Robert Nozick) puts extensive classes of rights—varying from personal liberties to property rights—as having nearly complete political precedence over the pursuit of social goals (including the removal of deprivation and destitution).

    So if I read him right, for Sen’s the difference between Nozick and Rawls is chiefly that of formulation of liberty not of its priority for a theory of justice which is a constant across both theories.

    Sen’s capability approach, then, [inasmuch as I have been able to (inadequately) understand it so far] consists in taking the goodies from both Utilitarianism and Libertarianism, and creating a theoretical system which privileges actual advantage of the individuals in particular societies without downgrading either utility or liberty.

    Gintis—being a Marxist that he is—should presumably not be content with such a synthesis and expects a critique of Rawls to be more radical I guess. In his review, he argues that Nozick’s comprehensive libertarianism captures the expectations of ‘voters and citizens’ from a system of justice a lot more than Rawls and others who think that justice is about distribution of wealth and income. I read this as merely inviting the readers to take stock of the actual behavior of voters and citizens. I would think his reference is to voters and citizens in the United States. But does this claim make sense to others? I must admit that I would like to understand it better.

    Also, as he argues, when we come to accept the entitlement—and not redistributive—view of justice [and which is the way the ‘voters and citizens’ mostly view it] then poverty appears more as a preventable disease than a structural issue. The focus shifts to ‘personal accountability and effectivity’ and not to structural solutions.

    So when he dubs Sen’s critique as anemic, I read him as arguing against a theory of justice that is appears as a mere update of Utilitarianism and Libertarianism.


  1. Herbert Gintis on Sen | Just questions! - 30/08/2011

    […] by Irfan 0 Comments Recently I had come across Gintis’s review of Sen’s idea of justice on Amazon and posted it on the blog.  A comment prompted me to read it again. I did and hence this […]

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