The delivery of justice

The great economist Amartya Sen's focus is on fighting injustice – not defining it. But we still need an ideal concept of justice

My first attempt at a philosophy essay was on the theory of justice.

At the time, I took from the exercise a valuable lesson in the correct application of the epithet "dog's breakfast". But the intervening 20 years have taught me that it wasn't just me who had problems with the idea of justice. Indeed, justice is an example of what philosophers, since a famous lecture by W B Gallie in 1956, have become used to calling essentially contested concepts; concepts, in other words, on the existence and normative force of which we are all agreed but on the definition of which we are bound to disagree.

In his long and distinguished career, the economist and philosopher Amartya Sen has steered admirably clear of dogs' breakfasts, preferring to take his nourishment at the high table of Trinity College Cambridge and suchlike. When it comes to justice, like a genteel diner on a strict diet, he prefers to push this tasty but indigestible morsel discreetly to one side and concentrate on enjoying what he knows he can enjoy, like getting rid of injustice. Injustice is like justice in being impossible to define, but unlike it in possessing a "we know it when we see it" quality. And given that the perception of injustice in situations is more or less innate, we should spend our time better trying to put this natural motivation to good use than attempting to trace its conceptual delimitations.

That, at any rate, was one of the underlying thrusts of a talk on "Power and capability", delivered by Sen on Monday night at Demos's annual lecture, just as it is an underlying thrust of Sen's recent book, The Idea of Justice.

But Sen's primary concern, of course, isn't with defending a theory of justice so much as rendering the concept applicable in political practice. As he put it on Monday night, "the task of the theory of justice, in this approach, is not that of speculating – and dreaming about – a perfectly just world, or even about perfectly just institutions, but using public scrutiny to arrive at agreed diagnoses of manifest injustices on the elimination of which a reasoned agreement could emerge."

To this end, Sen's career has been marked by the successful effort – for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for economics in 1998 – to introduce genuinely human qualitative indicators into the language of economics and public policy, for instance in contributing to the establishment of the Human Development Index as more subtle counterpart to straight GDP analysis. Part of his concern on Monday night was to reiterate the way in which, following the implementation, ideas of freedom and moral autonomy can still be made to operate within the largely ends-oriented framework of contemporary policymaking and finance.

As a thinker engaged in the public sphere, Sen deserves undiluted praise in immodest heaps. But as a thinker tout court, one has to wonder whether the essential difficulty of concepts should really place them beyond the reach of inquiry. Indeed, the property of being "essentially contested" applies, in fact, to the majority of our ideals, and yet our lives are still enriched by being partly given to the effort to realise them. Imagine an artist, for instance, whose life's work consisted in the effort to cover up ugliness rather than create beauty. Is justice, in many ways as shapeless a concept as beauty, really so different? The simple fact that we are unlikely ever to live in a perfectly just world doesn't mean that the effort to envisage such a world is necessarily a waste of time. Perhaps Sen, who after all spends a respectable amount of his time quoting Karl Marx, might well agree.

There is a deeper problem with Sen's theory of non-injustice, as it might be called, which concerns the crucial aspect of motivation and its relation to "capability", a term which Sen describes as reflecting "the actual opportunities a person has to do this or be that – things that he or she may value doing or being."

"Capability" is understood as one of the key identifiable and ameliorable characteristics in an unjust situation: one of the things that define victims of injustice as such, in other words, is precisely their lack of power to alter their situation. Redistributing not just wealth but also capability, the theory goes, will therefore not only allow the downtrodden to perceive the injustice of their situation, but to act in such a way as to diminish it.

But what about societies, such as ours, in which injustice on the scale witnessed by Sen in the Bengal famine of 1943 has by and large been eradicated? Through an abuse, effectively, of the surfeit of capability most of us enjoy today, our ability to perceive injustice along the emotional lines delineated by Sen has by and large long since dried up. That is to say, we can see it, but our mindedness to do something about is strictly limited (why else do we keep our aid budgets so low?). Thus it is in precisely such situations that we need concepts of justice to which we can appeal where practical motivation is lacking. Or to reduce it ad absurdam, the more just a society becomes in itself, the more necessary does it become for it to furnish itself with an ideal concept of justice.

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