Amartya Sen: The Dangerous Delusion

published on April 6, 2011
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.

Dr. Sen argues on the side of the second group. He takes issue with Rawls but also agrees with him in important ways. The book is impressive for its acknowledgements, an  8 page list (pps.21-28) of who’s who in Western academia. But as a philosophical work it is not rigorously argued (perhaps that was not the author’s intention !).

Whatever the niceties of Sen’s position the present writer will speak about those issues in some other venue. Here, we will concern ourselves with the important question for India, the dangerous delusion that Sen engages in while theorizing about the importance of reasonable accomodation in human conduct and political affairs, depending on any given situation.   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.’

Arjuna, as is well known, is in a dilemma before the battle with the Kauravas who are cousins and who had banished Arjuna (and the Pandavas) to the forest in order to seize their kingdom. This  was an unjust act and on their return after the period of banishment the Pandavas go to battle with the Kauravas. Arjuna’s dilemma is that he is not only engaged in the act of killing his kith and kin but also engaging in a general carnage of blood letting. In his anguish he turns to his mentor and advisor Krishna, who advises him to realize his Dharma and go to battle.

Hence, according to Sen, Arjuna’s dilemma is threefold:

1.Social Relevance : the significance of human lives. Hundreds of human beings will be killed in this war.
2.Personal Responsibility: he Arjuna is personally responsible for the act of destruction.
3.Positioned situation: he is killing those near and dear to him. Ethically speaking one has to be specially concerned with those nearest to us, such as one’s own family, children etc. (Ofcourse, here he is not killing children or one’s immediate family, but kith and kin and those, moreover ,who have been hostile to him and his own near and dear ones).

Dr. Sen calls all these three dilemmas a part of Nyaya or a broad based view of justice in human relations. Krishna, on the other hand, invokes a narrow Niti. Arjuna is a warrior and his duty is to defend Dharma (Sen oddly does not use this word, but that is the meaning). The Kauravas are engaged in adharmic conduct and should be defeated.

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’.

Instead he goes into a bizarre comparison of Robert Oppenheimer(who did his duty as a physicist and helped to develop the atom bomb to help his country) with Arjuna’s dilemma. Japan had surrendered and there was no need to have dropped the bomb, which was directly made possible by Oppenheimer’s actions.

The more relevant comparison would have been the second world war, where many       Arjunas, both inside Germany and outside would have anguished at the thought of 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

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