Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Dworkin sharply criticises Amartya Sen's book on justice

In his new book "Justice for Hedgehogs", Ronald Dworkin sharply criticises Amartya Sen's book on justice.

Dworkin writes:

"Sen's own work in developmental economics has been enormously important and useful. His views on the causes of famine has been particularly influential. He has brought a wealth of Eastern, particularly Indian, history, literature, and philosophy to the attention of Western readers; his latest book is particularly rich in such information. However, The Idea of Justice does not support Sen's claim of a departure in normative political philosophy: in fact he offers less help in real-world judgment than do the theories he means to depart from. His comments on particular political issues are either uncontroversial - he condemns slavery - or noncommittal. He appeals to a variety of standards for comparative judgment of existing structures, but at far too abstract a level to be useful in comparative judgment. He endorses the spirit of Adam Smith's "impartial observer" test, which recommends the decisions that an ideal and impartial judge would reach. But that test, unless construed in a utilitarian way, lacks bite: it does not tell us what theory a beneficent spectator would deploy to decide issues now controversial. Sen says that policy should focus (though not exclusively) on promoting equality in what he calls "capabilities".... But he concedes the wide variations in people's rankings of the importance of these capabilities and does not recommend any way of choosing among the rankings in the face of serious disagreement. He believes that free democratic discussion among ideally public-spirited citizens would be helpful to comparative judgment. He does not say how this thought is helpful in real communities that include a great many followers of, say, Sarah Palin. It is not helpful, in the world of real politics, only to call for due consideration of a large variety of factors that everyone concedes relevant without also offering some overall scheme to suggest how these different factors should be weighted in a practical decision about a controversial issue." (p. 577).

See also Sen's critique of Dworkin in "The Idea of Justice" (Harvard University Press, 2009) pp. 264-68. Sen here informs us that he and Dworkin jointly taught classes for ten years at Oxford University.

See my previous post on Ronald Dworkin's new book here.

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