Reality Check India

The idea of social justice

Posted in Uncategorized by realitycheck on August 9, 2009

Amartya Sen is all over Indian TV channels promoting his new book titled “The Idea of Justice“. I am just writing this post from observing the various interviews he has given to TV channels like IBN and NDTV.

In the true spirit of the “Argumentative Indian”, it is hard to really get to the core of what he is trying to say. He is like a dragonfly, you approach it with great stealth, your fingers ready to snap it, you are almost certain you have it but it flies off to land a feet away.

Take the following example :

Three children — Anne, Bob and Carla — are quarrelling over a flute: Anne claims the flute on the ground that she is the only one of the three who knows how to play it; Bob demands it on the basis that he is so poor that — unlike others — he has no other toys to play with and it would therefore mean a lot to him if the flute were given to him; and Carla says that it belongs to her because she has made it with her own labour.

The important thing to note here is that none of the claimants questions their rival’s argument but claims that his or hers is the most persuasive. So, who deserves the flute?

Should it go to the child for whom it represents the only source of entertainment as he has no other toys to play with? Or to the one who can actually make practical use of it; or to the child to whom it must belong by virtue of her “right” to the fruits of her labour?


To the common man, the question of who should have the flute can be easily adjudicated. It is as simple as this. Who has current ownership of the flute. We have evolved to a point where the words ‘current’ and ‘ownership’ are fairly clear. Dissent at this basic level will be met with, ‘What the f— is he thinking’. If you find something unclaimed first, you have a ownership right over those who only found it in your possession.

If Carla (the child who made the flute) has not yet traded her ownership rights (i.e sold it ) she owns it. Bob (the poor child) has no rights unless he found the unclaimed flute first. Similarly, Anne (the child who knows to play  it) has no rights unless she too found the unclaimed flute first.

I do not think any reasonable person, including die hard socialists really dispute the simple ownership scenario described above.  It is helpful to remember that socialism never promises an absolute equality, it only promises an undefined greater equality.  The soup called ‘something better’ can easily be sold to the masses under various brands.

The scenario described by Amartya Sen is not about justice but about social justice. It could be better phrased as the following.

Imagine that a government had resources to produce exactly one flute, and it was decided that it had no choice but to produce a flute. Who among Bob, Anne, Carla should get that flute ?

See how smoothly we are able to transpose a scenario of ownership into a scenario justifying a central power deciding competing claims.Mr Sen is simply saying that this central deciding power must be compassionate and hold judgement in favour of eliminating the most obvious forms of injustice. Mughal emperor Akbar is portrayed as the ideal here. It is hard to argue with this theme because we are instantly presented with an example of how hard it is to teach a starving student. The real problem in the Indian context is that there are multiple such ‘obvious forms of injustice’ so the problem comes down to assigning weights and evaluating claims of being a victim of an ‘obvious injustice’.

This is the well tread social justice trail.

The book should have been called the ‘The Idea of Social Justice’.

Also check out Acorns take on it.

7 Responses

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  1. AG said, on August 11, 2009 at 9:09 am

    Well written and lucid, as always.

    Tangential question: why does gasbag amartya use carla, bob, anne?

    Why not raghu, ravi and neeta? Oh i see, that may “limit” the appeal of his book and amartya rothscild is too smart for that.

    On the other hand, if he’d called the kids raghu, rahim and john, … oh dear, the mind boggles!

  2. amar said, on August 11, 2009 at 9:17 am

    Thanks for the comments RC. Insightful as always.

    The use of Anne, Bob and Carla may have something to do with the notation in Computer Science Game theory or Cryptography where the protagonists/antagonists in the game have the names Alice, Bob and Charlie and so on. Just placeholders for A, B, C and so on. Refer to this wiki link for more details.

    Hope this helps!

  3. reason said, on August 12, 2009 at 6:41 am

    The key sentence in a page full of c*ap he wrote is ‘rivaling/competing claims to impartiality/justice’.

    It is a wonder that he worked both impartiality and justice into a single sentence. These are the subtle plays.

    i will suggest a easy way so we can quit pretending.

    Let us get actual names. The Kid who made the flute is Anand Sharma. The Kid who is very poor is Anwar. The Kid who can play the flute can remain Anne.

    Let us also frame some questions, NCERT style, around the story.
    1. How did Anand Sharma get to have the resources and skills to make a flute, that had been denied to others for centuries?
    2. Why is Anwar being kept in poverty for thousands of years?
    3. Why is Alice denied the skills to make a flute for centuries, even though she can play a flute splendidly?

    Based on these, the right answer is “Ask Anand Sharma to make two flutes using his resources and time. Give the two flutes to Alice and Anwar”

    The keyword is ‘redistribution’. You are evidently late to the party.

  4. reason said, on August 12, 2009 at 6:46 am

    Look at the use of verbs. Anne ‘claims the flute…’. Bob ‘defends his case, so poooor’. But Carla ‘complains about the expropriators ‘

    now, who is the whining loser preventing the socialist state from doing a little redistribution based on merits?

  5. reason said, on August 13, 2009 at 6:55 am

    pls read this and let us know what you think.

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