Saturday, December 12, 2009

Moshe Halbertal reviews Amartya Sen's book on justice

Professor Moshe Halbertal reviews Amartya Sen's "The Idea of Justice" (Harvard University Press, 2009) in The New Republic:

"The Ideal and the Real"


"Following Sen, when we examine different grand theories we realize that each of them has a point, that there is an aspect - but no more than an aspect - of their respective claims that is convincing. Grand theories become perverse when they postulate themselves as exclusive, when they wish to solve all the complex issues with one decisive and final principle. Rights-based libertarians have a point, but their complete disregard of outcomes makes their position flawed. Utilitarians make an important contribution to the conversation, but their exclusive interest in outcomes is wrong. Egalitarians are deeply attractive for the principle that moves them, but their principle cannot withstand critical scrutiny when it is the only principle of justice there is." (.....)

"Sen’s range is amazing. His intimacy with the Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim cultures of India, which is beautifully woven into the book, gives him access to a far greater range of argumentation and reasoning than is common among philosophers who were educated exclusively in the Western analytical tradition. His knowledge of this vast cultural history, and his profound respect for it, is an important source of Sen’s humility in recognizing the essential plurality of legitimate claims - in rejecting any sort of monism in the life of the mind. This larger scope, I should add, enables Sen to teach - by example: he is not a preacher of any kind - a more nuanced sense of the complexity and the richness of Eastern and Islamic cultures. Though Sen is steeped in other traditions (some of which are, of course, his own traditions), his syncretism carries no threat of a clash of civilizations. Nor does it propound any kind of superficial harmony. Instead his work - in its simultaneous affirmation of the universal and the particular - serves as an eloquent and humane testimony to the power of reason, which respects (when it is honest and attends to the integrity of its arguments) the multiplicity of voices and traditions."

Moshe Halbertal is Professor of Jewish Thought and Philosophy at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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