Pip was right: nothing is so finely felt as injustice. And there the search beginsThe idea of justice calls for comparisons of actual lives and iniquities rather than a remote quest for ideal institutions
Amartya Sen guardian.co.uk, Monday 13 July 2009 23.30 BST
Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote in the preface to his first major book in philosophy, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, published in 1921: "What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent." Wittgenstein would re-examine his views on speech in his later work, but it is wonderful that even as he was writing the Tractatus, the great philosopher did not always follow his own exacting commandments. In a remarkably enigmatic letter to Paul Engelmann in 1917, Wittgenstein said: "I work quite diligently and wish that I were better and smarter. And these both are one and the same." Really? One and the same thing – being a better person and a smarter guy? Who is Wittgenstein kidding?
I am, of course, aware that modern American usage has drowned the distinction between "being good" as a moral quality and "being well" as a comment on a person's health (no aches and pains, fine blood pressure, and such), and I have long ceased worrying about the apparent immodesty of those of my friends who, when asked about how they are, reply with manifest self-praise: "I am very good." But Wittgenstein was not an American, and 1917 was well before the conquest of the world by vibrant American usage. So what was this pronouncement about?
Underlying Wittgenstein's claim may be the recognition, in some form, that many acts of nastiness are committed by people who are deluded, in one way or another, on the subject. It has been argued that some children carry out odd acts of brutality to others – other children or animals – precisely because of their inability to appreciate adequately the nature and intensity of the pains of others. There is perhaps a strong connection between being antisocial and the inability to think clearly. We cannot, of course, be really sure about what Wittgenstein meant, but if this is what Wittgenstein meant, he was in the powerful tradition of the European Enlightenment that saw clear-headed reasoning as a major ally of making societies decent and acceptable.
The leaders of thought in the Enlightenment did not, however, speak with one voice. In fact, there is a substantial dichotomy between two different lines of reasoning about justice that can be seen among two groups of leading philosophers associated with the radical thought of the Enlightenment period. One approach concentrated on identifying perfectly just social arrangements, and took the characterisation of "just institutions" to be the principal – and often the only identified – task of the theory of justice.
Woven in different ways around the idea of a hypothetical "social contract", major contributions were made in this line of thinking by Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century, and later by John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant, among others. The contractarian approach has become the dominant influence in contemporary political philosophy, led by the most prominent political philosopher of our time, John Rawls – whose classic book of 1971, A Theory of Justice, presents a definitive statement on the social contract approach to justice. The principal theories of justice in contemporary political philosophy draw in one way or another on the social contract approach, and concentrate on the search for ideal social institutions.
In contrast, a number of other Enlightenment theorists (Adam Smith, Condorcet, Mary Wollstonecraft, Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill, for example) took a variety of approaches that shared an interest in making comparisons between different ways in which people's lives may go, jointly influenced by the working of institutions, people's actual behaviour, their social interactions, and other factors that significantly impact on what actually happens. The analytical, and rather mathematical, discipline of "social choice theory" – which can be traced to the works of Condorcet in the 18th century, but has been developed in the present form under the leadership of Kenneth Arrow in the last century – belongs to this second line of investigation. That approach, suitably adapted, can make a substantial contribution, I believe, to addressing questions about the enhancement of justice and the removal of injustice in the world.
In this alternative approach, we don't begin by asking what a perfectly just society would look like, but asking what remediable injustices could be seen on the removal of which there would be a reasoned agreement. "In the little world in which children have their existence," says Pip in Great Expectations, "there is nothing so finely perceived, and finely felt, as injustice." In fact, the strong perception of manifest injustice applies to adult human beings as well. What moves us is not the realisation that the world falls short of being completely just, which few of us expect, but that there are clearly remediable injustices around us which we want to eliminate.
This is evident enough in our day-to-day life, with inequities or subjugations from which we may suffer and which we have good reason to resent; but it also applies to more widespread diagnoses of injustice in the wider world in which we live. One of the limitations of the social contract approach to justice, which is so pervasive in contemporary political philosophy, is the unjustified conviction that there could only be one precise combination of principles that could serve as the basis of ideal social institutions. In contrast with this rigid insistence, a social choice approach allows the possibility of a plurality of competing principles, each of which is given a status, after being subjected to critical scrutiny.
Thanks to this plurality, we may not be able to resolve on grounds of justice alone all the questions that may be asked: for example, whether a 40% top tax rate is more just – or less just – than a 41% top rate. And yet we have every reason to try to see whether we can get reasoned agreement on removing what can be identified as clear injustice in the world, such as slavery, or the subjugation of women, or extreme exploitation of vulnerable labour (which so engaged Adam Smith, Condorcet and Mary Wollstonecraft, and later Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill), or gross medical neglect of the bulk of the world population today (through the absence of medical facilities in parts of Africa or Asia, or a lack of universal health coverage in most countries in the world, including the US), or the prevalence of torture (which continues to be used with remarkable frequency in the contemporary world – sometimes practised by pillars of the global establishment), or the quiet tolerance of chronic hunger (for example in India, despite the successful abolition of famines).
The idea of justice demands comparisons of actual lives that people can lead, rather than a remote search for ideal institutions. That is what makes the idea of justice relevant as well as exciting in practical reasoning.