Rare are intellectuals who both achieve a leading status in their field and relentlessly pursue knowledge that seeks to better the lives of ordinary people. Amartya Sen is one. While economics has climbed itself into mathematical abstraction, Sen has, over the course of his career, sought to make a difference in the world. He has challenged economists to see that rationality involves not only instrumental reason but also reasoning about ends. He has shown that democratic governance is the best prophylactic against famine and taken on the claim that authoritarian government and policies are necessary for economic development. Perhaps his greatest contribution, achieved in collaboration with philosopher Martha Nussbaum, is his argument that economic development should not be measured simply by aggregate Gross National Product but also by a nuanced array of human capacities. It is this drive to change the world and not just to understand it, to paraphrase Karl Marx, that earned Sen the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1998.
This same drive motivates the sweeping, career-culminating compendium of his thought, The Idea of Justice. The book’s scale and sophistication place Sen in conversation with major philosophers in the liberal tradition like John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, Thomas Scanlon, and Robert Nozick. These thinkers are not only Sen’s interlocutors but also his foils. His opening move is to reject what he calls “transcendental institutionalism,” the effort to reason about justice by constructing a model of the perfectly just society and then measuring actual institutions and policies against it (7). Sen considers the standard-bearer of this view to be the late philosopher John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971), which Sen credits with reviving political philosophy and reorienting it around principles of impartiality, freedom, equality, and fairness.