Herbert Gintis on Amartya Sen

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 post.

Sen’s case for a capability approach is based on a critique of both Utilitarianism and Libertarianism. I think both Gintis and Sen will agree that utilitarian calculus is unfair inasmuch as 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 critiques Rawls for giving priority to liberty at the cost of economic needs. The prioritizing of liberty, Sen argues, 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 also suggests 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 resolve 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’s hard-nosed libertarianism as distinct from Rawls’s moderate one. As he puts it: “Rawls’s 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, the difference between Nozick and Rawls is chiefly that of formulation of liberty–with Nozick a bit more of a libertarian fundamentalist than Rawls–and 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, perhaps due to the Neo-Marxian streak to his work, is not content with such synthesis and seems to expect a much more radical critique of Libertarian theory of justice. 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 theories that call for distribution of wealth and income. I read this as merely inviting the readers to take stock of the actual behavior of voters and citizens. Presumably his reference is to voters and citizens in the United States. But even so, does this claim make sense? I must admit that I need 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 as a structural predicament. Accordingly, the focus shifts to ‘personal accountability and effectivity’ a lot more than to structural adjustments of the institutions and procedures.

So when he dubs Sen’s critique as anemic, I read him as arguing against a theory of justice that appears as a mere update of Utilitarianism and Libertarianism. I am not saying that Sen’s idea of justice is one such update. I need to understand it better. However, Gintis does seem to be reading it as one.

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

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