Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Amartya Sen: The Dangerous Delusion

Amartya Sen: The Dangerous Delusion

Dr. Vijaya Rajiva

Nobel Prize winner (Economics, 1998) Amartya Sen’s new book The Idea of Justice (2009) is an interesting work, written in a chatty latter day Wittgensteinian style. It seeks to deal with the age old controversy in Western thought between Contract Theorists (in the Lockean tradition) and the situational ethics of thinkers such as Adam Smith, Condorcet, Karl Marx et al. In the former camp is the late John Rawls whose major work
The Theory of Justice (1971) became important not only for its continuation of classical liberal theory but its advocacy of distributive justice.

In essence he is advocating an abstract rationality in politics(unintentionally!) and he does this in an interesting but somewhat distorted way by engaging with the dilemma that Arjuna faced in the battle of Kurukshetra. This part of his book is only a few pages long, but is internally connected with the arguments of the entire book.

Arjuna, as Sen sees it ,stands for nyaya, while Krishna stands for niti. Nyaya is easily understood as justice and niti can be understood as custom or tradition . Sen does not use the word Dharma which is the best word to use in the context of the dialogue between Sri Krishna and Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. Dharma is not only custom and tradition but encompasses a whole set of ethical and moral values that are not simply considered by Sen. He dismisses them as coming under the rubric of ‘religion.’

Sen, does not clarify whether Arjuna was right in going ahead with the battle or whether he himself would have called on Arjuna to withdraw from the battle. This ambiguity in Sen’s presentation of the debate is telling. But the entire thrust of the philosophical arguments of the book point in the direction of favouring a withdrawal.

What then would he advocate when India finds itself in a situation of dire threat ?
Can reasoning with the enemy help, even though one would like that outcome ?
Can India roll over and play dead when terrorist strikes are imminent, for instance?

Or should Indians prepare themselves for any eventuality ? Sen does use the phrase the ‘just war’ but does not elaborate on the more relevant (for the Indian situation) ‘defensive war’.

For Indians, their Dharma (however narrowly interpreted) is clear : they have to be prepared for any eventuality, and the defensive war, if and when it comes, must be fought without hesitation, to defend the Motherland. Had Indians in the past, clearly realized their Dharma , the two major Occupations (the Islamic and the British) could have been avoided.

Arun Shourie put it well when he said : we did not ask for it, but it has been imposed on us.

Vande Mataram !

(The writer is a Political Philosopher who taught Political Philosophy in a Canadian