Doing Justice to an Idea
This piece is part of an ongoing response to Amartya Sen’s book that continues the discussion of reason, emotion and ethics from the seminar I taught last year.
Introduction. Amartya Sen’s “The Idea of Justice” (IOJ from now on) is arguably the most awaited and critically acclaimed work of ethics of the twenty first century. In IOJ, Sen has combined sympathy for those who suffer injustice with an impressive analytic framework combining philosophical argument with social science theory. Throughout the book, Sen defends the role of public reasoning while drawing inspiration from emotional sources such as compassion. Sen walks a tight rope between deductive theories of justice that start from transcendental axioms and moral relativism that doubts the existence of universal principles. Sen’s approach is robustly “this-worldly;” he would rather reduce actual injustice than defend a theory of perfect justice.
Sen argues that we are better off looking at relative, comparative and localized conceptions of justice that improve freedoms rather than articulate a state of absolute freedom. In Indian terms, it is Dharma rather than Moksa that is the proper topic of theories of justice. Through his reasoned defense of this-worldly justice, Sen has set a high bar for his opponents, both transcendental theorists in the Rawlsian mould and relativists who believe that there is no hope for a universal theory of justice. Of these two, Sen’s main opponent throughout the book is the ethical transcendentalist.
As the title of the book suggests, Sen’s book is an extended response to John Rawl’s “A Theory of Justice.” Consequently, Sen’s primary focus is on principles and institutions that govern human relations in the realm of justice. In his attempt to walk the tightrope between transcendentalism and relativism, Sen introduces several important theoretical ideas such as the impartial spectator and the role of public reasoning. Sen uses these concepts to argue that we can achieve universal ends without transcendental means, while still remaining open to the possibility that there might not be a unique set of universal ends.
I find these theoretical concepts important, but feel that he hasn’t taken them far enough, i.e., that the scope of this-worldly reasoning is much larger than Sen’s response to Rawls. This essay is not a critique of Sen’s main argument against Rawls or his defense of public reasoning as a bulwark against relativism. My response to IOJ does not start with Sen’s positive arguments; instead I want to understand what he has omitted and why. In particular, I want to understand why Sen, despite mentioning the Buddha’s call for mercy to animals twice, has written a book that is almost entirely about the human world. Further, I believe that this-worldy ideas, suitably modified, provide a framework for addressing injustices against the non-human world. Human beings can be impartial spectators not only when it comes to evaluating other humans in other cultures, but also in evaluating the treatment of non-humans by humans. Neither geography nor biology is a rationally defensible barrier to justice.
A Summary of Sen’s Arguments. Sen has two guiding principles that he uses throughout the book: plurality and locality. Plurality is the notion that when it comes to practical reasoning, there is no single justification for an act or event, and neither is there is a hierarchy of reasoning that leads to a “best structure,” which, in the Rawlsian case will be the best institutional arrangement for a just society. An event of justice or injustice can have several rational arguments in its favour, as he shows when he cites Burke’s arguments for impeaching Hastings. Similarly, the evaluation of justice claims can have competing, well founded and irreconcilable reasons, as he shows in the example of the three children.
Locality is the notion that considerations of justice are always located in a time and place, in a particular society and relative to the demands of particular groups of people, the last of which he expands later in his exposition of positionality; positionality being a particular form of locality. Locality also leads to other consequences; it motivates a comparative approach to justice because, one set of justice claims can be evaluated with respect to a similar set of justice claims in societies that are co-located. Similarly, the locality of justice claims can be used to motivate the impartial spectator, a spectator who sits on the fence between different bounded domains (that might be societies, communities etc) and evaluates their practices objectively.
Public reasoning and rational defences of ethical intuitions helps us dislodge parochial assumptions, not only about other people and cultures but also about other species. The important part of public reasoning is that you should be able to reason it out with anyone, even those whose assumptions are different from yours (which can be particularly important if the public includes everyone in the world, and not just those from your culture). Public reasoning can quickly lead to interesting ethical situations. Consider the following situation:
Suppose there is a community X that believes girls should not be educated beyond class 10th, for two reasons tied to marriage. First, highly educated girls have fewer marital prospects since they have fewer choices of grooms. Second, if a girl does not get married by age 15, she will rapidly lose customers in the marriage market. Consider a girl G and an imagined dialogue between the father of the girl (FG) and an outsider (O):
O: You should let her study further.
FG: But she needs to get married now or else she will never get married. A very good family has made an offer. We can’t afford to ignore such offers.
O: But what about her own aspirations? Why can’t she do what she wants?
FG: But she doesn’t know what she wants. She is good at studies, but she also knows that she will lead a much better life in the family that has made an offer than if she chooses to pursue her studies.
Herein lies the problem. Let us see it as explicitly as possible. Let us call the community C, marriage M and Education E. Then, in the preference ordering of C, we have:
For women, M ≥ E
Now, given a particular G and FG, they have to make a decision about E versus M. Now there is a dilemma, which can be stated as follows:
For G, E ≥ M, i.e., other things being equal, G prefers education to marriage. However, she also knows that M will bring her more long term wellbeing (if you include the other dimensions of life, such as material welfare, social acceptability etc). Therefore, other things are not equal. Further, let us suppose that the collective welfare of all women in C is furthered if E ≥ M, i.e., if women as a whole are well educated. However, in a single case (G here) she might pay too heavy a price for bucking the system. What are G and FG to do? What is the right thing for the outsider, O, to say?
This brings us to the second point of public reasoning, which is positional objectivity, PO. A reasoner has to take into account the fact that only certain choices are available to her because of her being embedded in a time and place. While G and FG above might prefer if they had lived in a society where all women are encouraged to be educated, they actually live in a society where that is not the case. The PO reasoner is constantly juggling between the space of all possible choices and the space of choices actually available. Public reasoning is needed to make sure that the most objective decision is taken given the circumstances. Comparative evaluation of different societies can help us expand the scope of choice (hence increasing our capabilities) but the space of actual choices isn’t infinitely flexible.
The problem with public reasoning is that it is an elite activity; only a few have access to it, for it requires training, access to knowledge, and objectivity, all of which are often absent from those who are the most likely victims of injustice. A person whose house is set on fire is likely to feel the injustice keenly, but may not have the calm to reason about his fate objectively. Children, mentally disabled people and the entire non-human world are incapable of public reasoning. How can they represent their interests? The representation of non-humans necessitates a theory of asymmetric ethics; the impartial spectator and the public reasoner can both be incorporated into a theory of asymmetric ethics that helps us expand the scope of justice to non-humans.
The role of public reasoning in the analysis of justice is similar to the role of language in the analysis of emotions. A sympathetic observer of non-human emotions might be able to put in language what a dog or cat cannot do for himself. Similarly, a sympathetic observer of injustice to the non-human world should be able to articulate the injustice being done to non-humans. An opponent might say, why should we bother if the other species simply does not feel the injustice as we do? Is it OK to raze trees to the ground if the tree does not feel any injustice upon being cut down? Is injustice to trees a derivative ethical dilemma, dependent on the loss to human well-being caused by the razing of forests? An inquiry into these questions leads inexorably towards an analysis of the life-world of non-humans.
The Non-human Life-World. Some of the most powerful calls for justice have come when sympathetic human observers enter into the life-world of other cultures and other species. From slavery to genocide, the sympathetic outsider is an important catalyst for ethical change. Colonial rulers often assumed that the colonized peoples lacked an essential human capacity; sympathetic descriptions by western scholars started the process of questioning the cognitive and affective uniqueness of European people. I believe that non-humans are in a similar position now, in that a sympathetic human observer will recognize that non-humans have the capacity to make judgments of value, undertake practical reasoning experience emotions. In other words, they too inhabit a world of experience that centers around their own fullness of being. Ironically, exceptionally cruel experiments done on animals by Seligman and others have shown how non-human actions are based on how they evaluate the world with respect to their own welfare, and not based on purely bodily or physiological indicators. Further, these actions aren’t based on objective states of the world, but on the animal’s evaluation of the world. Similarly, subjective reports about animals by sympathetic observers who clearly try to enter into the animal’s perspective have shown that non-humans are ‘centres of experience’. Naturalistic observation are an accepted paradigm in evolutionary biology; if Darwin could argue his case for evolution using observations alone, why should we shy away from using similar observations to guide our ethical responsibilities?
It is true that there are challenges in understanding the non-human life world, a world in which they act out of a sense of their well-being. The problem is often compounded by the fact that we interact with non-humans in a situation where they have lost all control over their lives and they have given up all hope. Further, nonhumans, like human children, are rarely aware of their own goals etc, i.e., they lack awareness of how the world is valued by them and their lack of language prevents them from reporting on their goals. Nevertheless, the lack of reflexivity and language is not an impediment, as long as humans can use language to report nonhuman experiences faithfully. Given that scientific as well as literary language has been able to describe strings, black-holes and other equally remote entities in the objective realm, why should non-human experience be a fundamental block? We need a better phenomenological terminology than is currently available to describe the life-world of non-humans. A well-crafted and rationally defensible phenomenological taxonomy will be central to both the philosophical as well as the scientific enterprises of understanding the non-human life world.