Notes from Amartya Sen’s chat on Global Justice @LSEpublicevents last week

Sen was great. Like a mischievous imp, but in 77yr-old Harvard professor form. Lots of jokes about ties. Indeed, just lots of jokes.

And the following thoughts, which he offered simply as ‘thoughts’ on global justice, rather than any defined argument. He and the audience often referred to his most recent work: ‘The Idea of Justice

  • Global justice faces a problem in an unwillingness to look beyond borders
  • A challenge to global justice is in the two conflicting understandings of justice: (1) Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau & Kant’s understanding of justice as an ideal; relating to nations, institutions (a state of ‘just-ness’ which is arrived at)  (2) Adam Smith, Wollstonecraft and Sen’s understanding of justice as a comparative thing; something that you could rank
  • Smith criticised early British Empire as not taking account of the interests of non-Brits and used the Greek infanticide example to show that understandings of justice change over time 
  • Thomas Nagel said that global justice may be a chimera
  • Democracy as public reasoning is an important idea (propounded by JS Mill and Walter Bagehot), but that justice and democracy aren’t completely interdependent
  • There always has to be a reason, so there is never a total absence of thought/argument [though the space can be confined, and you can’t force people to engage?]  
  • On global warming, China and India must forget the past (of the West causing climate change), and help solve the problem; but this requires more balance in the (global?) reasoning process: COP15 showed a failure of reasoning. Good argument takes time!
  • The removal of injustice is the key. Less concerned with what justice is. We can identify a perfect state, but that doesn’t help solve the problems of the imperfect or unjust. 
  • A definition of justice is unnecessary: we won’t agree, and it won’t help.
  • The global ‘public reasoning space’ [I made that up] is improving. Networks like Al-Jazeera have increased the number of voices. [missed an obvious point to sing the praises of the internet here?]
  • Jesus Christ asked ‘Who is the neighbour?’ – it was the Good Samaritan. We need to start defining neighbourliness beyond locality. With globalisation, we have relations with people all over the world: ‘the boundaries of justice are ever wider’.
  • UN is great, but has its limits, such as funding. Doesn’t really have a role in ‘justice’, but its work on gender and human development all contributes.
  • Center for Disease Control in the US (CDC) is an amazing thing – not it’s purpose, but it does have an impact on injustice. 

For reviews of the Idea of Justice, there’s a short Times article and Guardian article.

For more on Sen, he wrote a mini-autobiography for the Nobel website in 1998. The sort of humane, brilliant, witty chap you want to be when you grow up.

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