There is no such thing as perfect justice

But Amartya Sen believes there can be a reasoned agreement in a society on outcomes which are unjust

Published: Aug 18, 2009 08:46:10 AM IST
Updated: Aug 18, 2009 08:58:19 AM IST

When Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen says something, everyone listens. So when he pens what is touted as his most ambitious book till date, everyone sits up and takes notice. In the book, The Idea of Justice (Penguin Allen Lane), Sen says that putting in place the right institutions and entitlements is a step towards a more just society. The key thing is whether our institutions are able to deliver justice in their sphere. He also underlines the importance of conversations as a tool to resolve conflicts and arrive at a more just outcome.

During a whistle-stop tour of India for the launch of his new book, Sen took out 25 minutes from his extremely hectic schedule to speak to Forbes India.

Image: Amit Verma
Why is justice so intriguing to you?
Mainly it’s the face of injustice we see in our day to day life that makes us feel what we can do to make things better from the point of view of justice. If I walked around in India or any other country today and were not invaded by a sense of injustice, then there is something to be explained there. There is nothing to be explained about why one is invaded by a sense of injustice because it is there. So much inequality. So much lack of freedom, tyranny and denial of liberty on one side and inequality and deprivation, and denial of substantive opportunity on the other.

In the Indian context post 1991, there has been a remarkable change in the lives of people. Would you say that India as a society or as an economy is more just today?
I wouldn’t even try to bring about an overall judgment. Do I think there are many unremoved injustices in India? Yes. Have some of the unremoved injustices been tackled reasonably well? I would say yes. There have been changes. The percentage of illiteracy has gone down. That’s one way of putting it. But the percentage of illiteracy is still unacceptably high. That’s also true. So the overall judgment is far less interesting than the detailed assessment of what the society is like.

Is there really a way to measure justice?
The question that you are asking — is there more injustice or less injustice. That’s an excellent question. The answer isn’t 37 as opposed to 51. That ranking is the basis of measurement we have known for at least a hundred years. The basic measure to look at is a ranking. Then everything else follows from it. And it’s the ranking that justice is concerned with, not a numerical measure, I think. The debates are all about rankings.

Take the issue of land acquisitions in SEZs. There are several stakeholders. A villager would feel it’s unjust to take his land. A company would feel their taking the land is justified because it would add to economic activity. Are there mechanisms to deal with issues like that?
I wasn’t so much saying that justice means different things to different people. There are different ways of looking at justice. Sometimes the same person can take different views. In the flute case, I think I can give an argument for all three of them and I see merit in each of them.
[Note: In the book, Sen describes a problem of divergent views on justice in which you have one flute and three children who want it. One child wants the flute because she knows how to play it, the second one wants it because he is poor and doesn’t have toys, and the third one says she made the flute, so she should get it. Who do you give it to?]

The main point is that there can be different reasonable positions not that different people must have different positions. It’s not related to difference between persons. It’s related to difference between arguments and reasoning. That’s the first thing. On SEZs and land acquisitions, I am not going to make any statement because every time I have made some statement everything else has gone and the headline will be on it. One thing I have learnt is not speak on these subjects if you want the headline to capture anything else in the book. Not that I don’t have any view.

Are there mechanisms that can deal with differences between persons?
Yes there are mechanisms. It is called conversations and meetings.

In the recent past the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) has approached social security in a different manner by giving entitlements. So are those entitlements the way to go for delivering justice?
That’s one way to go. If you are dealing with gross injustice in a country where lots of people are hungry, lots of people are very poor, lots of people don’t have the opportunity to get educated, lots of people don’t get the chance of getting medical treatment when they are ill, you need different kinds of organisations for different problems. You might need an employment programme, you might need some targeted food programme, you might need some non-targeted food programme, you might need a school programme, some other actions on right to education, mid-day meals, you might need a right to healthcare and so forth. The idea that there will be one “the” way of delivering justice in India will not work.

In terms of the way forward for a country like India, is it to make sure that we have entitlements in all those areas where gross injustice exists?
I think you are still thinking in terms of a niti or some kind of a regulation. The combination of actions and regulations that you choose has to be done in terms of what it does to the people. Are they less hungry, indeed ideally not hungry at all? Are they actually getting an education even if schools exist? It may turn out that having a lavatory in the school is a very important thing especially for a young girl student and their parents might worry about that. Having one teacher who is absent may be a very big worry for the parents. So all these considerations will come in. And so you have to judge it not just by well meaning arrangements — whether PDS [Public Distribution System] is a good thing or whether NREGS is a good thing — but what it is actually doing. And then if it’s not doing enough, then how to change it. And if it is doing enough, then how to solidify that…. And so you have to judge it in terms of its consequences. As to what it is doing. What opportunities or freedom or well-being is being created by the system. Not whether one system is inherently superior to another. We have to judge it against what it is doing to the lives of the people.

Is the key impediment in arriving at justice, the lack of discussion and the general debate about topics?
General debates can draw attention to the injustices in the world. You can’t say that the injustice is arising due to lack of conversation. Supposing you have been locked up in a room. And you later complain that you were stuck there for four hours, no one came and took you out. And one of the persons who helped you eventually says well, we were not in a position to help because you were not shouting. If you were shouting, we would have come and opened the door. That would mean that your not shouting played a part in your remaining incarcerated but to say that you were jailed or you were shut up in that room because you were not shouting would be a mistake. So conversation, public argument, political agitation, public meeting, debate, discussion, media reporting, all these are ways of remedying an injustice. But that doesn’t mean the injustice is caused by the absence of those initiatives.

What about the role of institutions in delivering justice?
Well there are three things here. First institutions are, of course, very important in delivering justice. The second thing is that you cannot judge the success of your system by what institutions you have. You have to see how they work and that depends on human behaviour and human action. We may have lot of democratic institutions but if they don’t work very well, it doesn’t provide the kind of achievements for which you want democracy. And third, as far as India is concerned, we have some good institutions, some not so good ones and some absent ones.

That said, would you give an example of justice? More so perfect justice…
There is no such thing. The idea of perfect justice drives to a mistaken route. If you believe that any judgment has to be examined through public agreement, reasoned agreement, it’s my submission that
a) We won’t have agreement on the nature of a perfectly just society. But very likely, we will have agreement, reasoned agreement, on a variety of arrangements, outcomes, social states which are unjust and should be removed.
b) Secondly, even if we succeeded in identifying a perfectly just society on which everybody agrees, that’s not what we are debating about. No one expects we can have a perfectly just society in the foreseeable future. Our policies don’t depend on it. So why waste your time on a question which is probably unanswerable and certainly redundant.

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(This story appears in the 28 August, 2009 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Parmesh Rudra Joshi

    Sen is a Man Whose Ideas Needs Instant Execution At Every Level Of Governance.

    on Aug 20, 2009
  • Karavadi Raghava Rao

    Yes. There is no perfect justice. Creation is itself imperfect and unequal and Metaphysics says that the Creation is a movement towards perfection out of many change and pass.Trouble less society is an UTOPIA which never existed or going to exist. The position of the common Man has improved a lot in these 62 years. The problem now is all want easy money without hard work. That is the problem.

    on Aug 19, 2009
  • Satyabrata

    Writing "The Argumentative Indian", "Identity and Violence" and now "The Idea of Justice" to quote the Indian PM Manmohan Singh,in retrospect, are Amartya Sen's "forage" into unspecialist areas of scholarship. To my mind he should have called it a day after publishing his "Development as Freedom" and "Rationality

    on Aug 19, 2009