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Rawlsian Relay

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Amartya Sen declares the Ideal State useless. But four months on, its resilience as an idea begins to intrigue

People speak of justice delayed as justice denied. But in the world of ideas, there is a danger of premature articulation. There are ideas whose time has come and one supposes there are ideas whose time hasn’t. Similarly, there’s something about a book you could say before others have read it, and there’s something you should say after they have. So if you have finished Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice, or have reached page 402 in the original hardback Allen Lane edition, please don’t turn this page yet. Read it—as slowly as possible.

Amartya Sen already has a Nobel Prize for the rescue he staged of welfare economics, but he takes on a stiffer challenge still in this brainblock-buster of a book. Not only does he want the emphasis shifted from theorised frameworks of justice to actual realisations of justice (from niti to nyaya), he wants this done by ripping apart the first principles of justice. Under critique here is John Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness, the ‘original position’ , in which you blur the face and endear the base: the ideal way to be fair to all, according to Rawls, is to make group choices under an imagined ‘veil of ignorance’ of identities and interests. Think of a random reshuffle. Nobody knows who is who, and you don’t even know who you yourself are. From this, Rawls draws his two famous principles of how we should all live together. First, everyone should be equally free to the extent nobody else’s freedom is nipped. Second, inequities can be justified only on two conditions: (i) That they stem from jobs which are open to all, and (ii) That the worst off have the most to gain.

So far, so fair? Ah, but it’s of little help in the real world. Trying to balance conflicting claims of equity is hard enough in an economy, let alone efficiency. This casts doubt on the whole point of envisioning an Ideal State, argues Sen, which in any case is neither sufficient nor necessary for achieving just outcomes. ‘A no-nonsense transcendental theory can serve… as something like the grand revolutionary’s one shot handbook... [but] the diagnosis of injustice does not demand a unique identification of the just society.’ So long as you are clear about what’s not okay, and this point of precedence is what enlivens this book ultimately, you need not wait for any idealisation to prove itself valid. You can act. Sure, some issues demand a nuanced approach. But even here, instead of having the responsibility of justice being assigned ever and ever upwards, aam reasoning by open minds can combine with comparative information on people’s well-being (as in welfare economics) to give us a better world: one where justice rhymes with reason.

It’s convincing alright. Yet, yet and yet. I chance upon an elderly gentleman talking of the ‘Rule of Law’ in a pucca Punjabi accent, and I begin to wonder if the Rawlsian Veil is made of lycra—more resilient under stretched conditions than Amartya Sen suspects. After all, it’s not something that must survive scrutiny in its original form no matter what. It’s not the First Principle of Justice. In a sense, it’s what you could call a derivative, an egalitarian fantasy that gains appeal only once socially moulded notions of supremacy are brought to nought.