Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," wrote Martin Luther King. That premise of a world without boundaries, a world in which the question of justice is always staring you in the face, is taken up seriously by Amartya Sen in his massive new book The Idea of Justice. Questions of justice, truth and fairness are central to every civilization and intellectual tradition, and so there is no shortage of work on the subject either in Western or Indian thought. It is Sen’s ambition as a thinker and a synthesizer—his skill at rubbing contrasting viewpoints against each other, reviving neglected traditions, or gently overturning that which is lazy or superficial about our thought—that has led him to take on such a big subject, although one can easily see how the question of justice has been central to his work all his life.

Last word: The Nobel laureate addresses a gathering of industrialists and economists in Delhi in 2004. AFP

Readers should be warned that The Idea of Justice is often quite a technical book. These are not a philosopher’s lofty meditations, but a scholar’s reasoned disputations. Almost every thought is qualified by a clause or caveat, and then leads to a parade of citations. A bewildering array of social scientists, economists, academic philosophers, mathematicians, and even writers and poets are given walk-on parts on these pages, and show the extent to which Sen has had what he calls a “dialectical education". The two figures who, after Sen himself, loom largest on these pages are John Rawls (whose seminal 1971 book A Theory of Justice is the standard text in the field) and Adam Smith, while the virtue that is most often cited as central to justice is that of reason.

Sen argues that, although each one of us has a moral sense that leads us to think upon problems of justice, and though our desire for justice is often motivated by the emotions we feel—horror, outrage, or pity—at gross injustice, the process of justice itself is intimately linked with that of reason, even when the reasoning of different people may lead to different conclusions. Indeed, one of the main stresses of his book is that there is no one predetermined or correct road to justice, nothing like “discussionless justice".

There can be a number of reasons for any course of just action that either support or even clash with each other, and this is not something that should disturb us. In contrast to more combative scholars, Sen holds that “there is no compulsion, as is sometimes assumed, to eliminate every reasoned alternative except exactly one". Reason for him is paramount, but also plural; its operation should be seen not as a battle, but as a quest.

But must a theory of justice ignore the emotions? Is it rational to base a theory entirely upon the working of reason, when human beings are typically so unreasonable? What “reasons" can persuade those unreasonable people who would hold that all members of a sex are intellectually inferior, or that all adherents of a particular religion are terrorists? But, argues Sen, “unreason is mostly not the practice of doing without reasoning altogether, but of relying on very primitive and very defective reasoning", so even unreason is a kind of reasoning, and may be answered by better reasoning.

Similarly, it would be foolish not to take into account our feelings and emotions in our search for justice, as often these instinctive responses have a moral content, and can be an ally to reason in our search for justice.

Sen’s book applies its mind to all kinds of situations, from justice in interpersonal and societal situations to justice in matters such as our approach towards the environment and towards sustainable development. Although his mental home, one feels, is in the world of thinkers of the European Enlightenment such as Locke, Hume and Smith, he is marvellously adept at a kind of trans-spatial and trans-historical reasoning.

An arcane philosophical debate suddenly takes wing when explained through the dispute between Arjun and Krishna in the Gita, and a parallel for a thought made in Adam Smith’s A Theory of Moral Sentiments may be discovered in the world of ancient Sanskrit jurisprudence. He seems to have read everything—it is possible that at his age he actually has—and his book opens up a vast treasure house of ideas and concepts by other minds, some articulated around 2,000 years ago and others asserted in a book or paper written as recently as 2009.

Don’t pass up this chance of a close, even though demanding, encounter with one of the greatest and most subtle minds in the history of Indian philosophical thought.

Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of Arzee the Dwarf.

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