February 25th, 2020


My tweets


The Idea of Justice, by Amartya Sen

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Ashoka argued against intolerance and in favour of he understanding that even when one social or religious sect of people find themselves opposed to other ones, ‘other sects should be duly honoured in every way on all occasions’. Among the reasons he gave for this behavioural advice was the broadly epistemic one that ‘the sects of other people all deserve reverence for one reason or another’. But he went on to say: ‘he who does reverence to his own sect while disparaging the sects of others wholly from attachment to his own sect, in reality inflicts, by such conduct, the severest injury on his own sect’.1 Ashoka was clearly pointing to the fact that intolerance of other people’s beliefs and religions does not help to generate confidence in the magnanimity of one’s own tradition. So there is a claim here that the lack of smartness in not knowing what may inflict ‘the severest injury’ on one’s own sect – the very sect that one is trying to promote – may be stupid and counter-productive. That kind of behaviour would be, on this analysis, both ‘not good’ and ‘not smart’.
1 Italics added. These statements of Ashoka occur in Edict XII (on ‘Toleration’) at Erragudi; I am using here the translation presented by Vincent A. Smith in Asoka: The Buddhist Emperor of India (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909), pp. 170–71, except for some very minor emendations based on the original Sanskrit text).
Another in a series of philosophical works that I have been reading recently. I've never been hugely attracted to philosophy, not even political philosophy, and this book reminded me why not; the essential argument is that justice and fairness are crucially intertwined concepts, which I accept without feeling strongly about; and it is largely in reaction to Rawls' classic work, which I have not read and am not really persuaded to read.

There are some interesting insights. For Sen, "democracy" is not just about voting, but about having a plural political system where governments are under scrutiny (see my recent posts about Season 12 of Doctor Who). This also means that we should not get too hung up on developing perfect institutions, as the process is more important than the form of government.

Two bits did grab me. Chapter 7, "Position, Relevance and Illusion", starts with King Lear and ends with the Good Samaritan, and insists that to get a better understanding of justice (or indeed anything at all) we need to look beyond our social and cultural comfort zone and bring in insights from viewpoints that we do not ourselves know. It brief and well argued.

And the final four chapters, on Public Reasoning and Democracy, really spoke to me - a challenge to put principles into practice (including a nice section on "Wrath and Reasoning", why anger is an important part of discussions of rights), with plenty of references to India and the Middle East, and the failings of the so-called West.

So I got more out of it than I thought I would get from the opening chapters - a case where it was very much worth reading to the end. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book by a non-white author. Next on that pile (and on several others) is Small Island by Andrea Levy.