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Moment of Sen

Nakul Krishna

The Idea of JusticeAmartya Sen
The Idea of Justice
Allen Lane, 2009
496 Pages
ISBN 978-1846141478

Amartya Sen is that rare thing: a genuine polymath. Like the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore he so reveres, Sen’s excursions outside his specialty—economics, in which he won the 1998 Nobel Prize—have little in them of the dilettante, displaying a catholicity and seriousness uncommon in the modern discipline-bound academic.

Stricken with cancer of the mouth as a teenager, Sen underwent “a severe dose of radiation in a rather primitive Calcutta hospital” that “killed the bones in [his] hard palate”. This condition has never stopped him from being a voluble participant in public debate, particularly in his native India; street hawkers there peddle pirated editions of his books, including The Idea of Justice (2009), on which his recent public lecture at the Sheldonian Theatre was based.

An extended critique of what he dubbed the “transcendental institutionalism” of the theory of social justice advanced by the Harvard philosopher John Rawls, a former colleague and friend, Sen’s lecture proposed an alternative direction for political theory: a move away from the dominant “ideal theory” approach toward something more modest. According to Sen, this shift would allow us to make comparative judgments about the relative justice or injustice of states of affairs. This argument was interspersed with a moving tribute to the recently deceased Oxford philosopher G. A. Cohen, joking asides about the Latin grace at his old Cambridge college, and plugs for a new edition of Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759).

For a man “born in a University campus and [who] seem[s] to have lived all [his] life in one campus or another”, this visit was a return to an old stomping ground (1977-87) for intellectual repartee with the best in the business. Even from far up in the gallery, one could not miss the smile of a well-contented man.

Nakul Krishna is reading for a BPhil in Philosophy at Corpus Christi College. He is a contributing editor at the Oxonian Review.