The Idea of Justice

book by Amartya Sen

The Idea of Justice is a 2009 book by economist Amartya Sen.


  • What moves us, reasonably enough, is not the realization that the world falls short of being completely just – which few of us expect – but that there are clearly remediable injustices around us which we want to eliminate.
    • Preface
  • ...a theory of justice that can serve as the basis of practical reasoning must include ways of judging how to reduce injustice and advance justice, rather than aiming only at the characterization of perfectly just societies – an exercise that is such a dominant feature of many theories of justice in political philosophy today.
    • Preface
  • Even though in the approach presented here principles of justice will not be defined in terms of institutions, but rather in terms of the lives and freedoms of the people involved, institutions cannot but play a significant instrumental role in the pursuit of justice.
    • Preface
  • Democracy has to be judged not just by the institutions that formally exist but by the extent to which different voices from diverse sections of the people can actually be heard.
    • Preface
  • To what extent reasoning can provide a reliable basis for a theory of justice is, of course, itself an issue that has been subject to controversy.
    • Preface
  • Hugely engaging as this longing is for hope and history to rhyme together, the justice of transcendental institutionalism has little room for that engagement. This limitation provides one illustration of the need for a substantial departure in the prevailing theories of justice. That is the subject matter of this book.
    • Introduction
  • Being smarter may help the understanding not only of one’s self-interest, but also how the lives of others can be strongly affected by one’s own actions.
    • Ch. 1 Reason and Objectivity
  • Reasoning is a robust source of hope and confidence in a world darkened by murky deeds – past and present. It is not hard to see why this is so. Even when we find something immediately upsetting, we can question that response and ask whether it is an appropriate reaction and whether we should really be guided by it. Reasoning can be concerned with the right way of viewing and treating other people, other cultures, other claims, and with examining different grounds for respect and tolerance.
    • Ch. 1. Reason and Objectivity
  • No less importantly, intellectual probing is needed to identify deeds that are not intended to be injurious, but which have that effect...
    • Ch. 1. Reason and Objectivity
  • Rawls’s analysis of fairness, justice, institutions and behaviour has illuminated our understanding of justice very profoundly and has played – and is still playing – a hugely constructive part in the development of the theory of justice. But we cannot make the Rawlsian mode of thinking on justice into an intellectual ‘stand-still’. We have to benefit from the richness of the ideas we have got from Rawls – and then move on, rather than taking a ‘vacation’. We do need ‘justitia’, not ‘justitium’.
    • Ch. 2. Rawls and Beyond
  • To ask how things are going and whether they can be improved is a constant and inescapable part of the pursuit of justice.
    • Ch. 3. Institutions and Persons
  • Rather, it is the firmly ‘open’ outlook, which Smith’s ‘impartial spec tator’ invokes, that may be in some need of reassertion today. It can make a substantial difference to our understanding of the demands of impartiality in moral and political philosophy in the interconnected world in which we live.
    • Ch. 6. Closed and Open Impartiality
  • The force of a claim for a human right would indeed be seriously undermined if it were possible to show that it is unlikely to survive open public scrutiny. However, contrary to a commonly offered reason for scepticism and rejection of the idea of human rights, the case for it cannot be discarded simply by pointing to the fact – a much-invoked fact – that in repressive regimes across the globe, which do not allow open public discussion, or do not permit free access to information about the world outside the country, many of these human rights do not acquire serious public standing.
    • Ch. 17. Human Rights and Global Imperatives
  • When we try to determine how justice can be advanced, there is a basic need for public reasoning, involving arguments coming from different quarters and divergent perspectives. An engagement with contrary arguments does not, however, imply that we must expect to be able to settle the conflicting reasons in all cases and arrive at agreed position on all issues. Complete resolution is neither a requirement of a person’s own rationality, nor is it a condition of reasonable social choice, including a reason-based theory of justice.
    • Ch. 18. Justice and the World
  • When Hobbes referred to the dire state of human beings in having ‘nasty, brutish and short’ lives, he also pointed, in the same sentence, to the disturbing adversity of being ‘solitary’. Escape from isolation may not only be important for the quality of human life, it can also contribute powerfully to understanding and responding to the other deprivations from which human beings suffer. There is surely a basic strength here which is complementary to the engagement in which theories of justice are involved.
    • Ch. 18. Justice and the World

Quotes about The Idea of JusticeEdit

  • The approach presented in my book The Idea of Justice shares the general Enlightenment interest in relying on reasoning in general and public reasoning in particular, and in this respect there is something very substantially in common between the two alternative disciplines of reasoning that emerged from the intellectual climate of the Enlightenment period, that is, between the Hobbesian and Kantian reasoning (with its successors today, such as the Rawlsian social contract approach) and the reasoning of Smith and Condorcet (with its successors today, such as normative social choice theory).
    • Amartya Sen, “Values and justice”, Journal of Economic Methodology, Vol. 19, No. 2, June 2012, 101–108

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