Amartya Sen and His Ideas of Justice

A review of 1998 Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen’s Idea of Justice and Basic Ideology

Image from. Amartya Sen :)

Imagine a scenario where three children, Anne, Bob, and Carla, are fighting over a flute. Anne claims it on the utilitarian-hedonistic notion that she is the “only one who can actually play it” Bob claims it on economic egalitarian grounds by pointing out that he is the only one who “is so poor that he has no toys of his own”[1]. Carla claims it on libertarian claims by stating that she had spent months making the flute only for it to be taken away by the other two children. Based on these claims, who is the most just candidate to win the flute?

The story of the three children forms the basis of Amartya Sen’s discussion on the complexity of achieving a just state. Sen, born in 1933, is an Indian economist [2], philosopher, and Nobel laureate in economics in 1998[3]. Sen’s political philosophy primarily focuses on how to bring about a just society and ultimately a just world.

Sen started his philosophical career under the mentorship of American political philosopher, Dr. John Rawls. While Sen follows Rawls’s fundamental definition of justice as fairness, Sen rejects Rawls’s delineation of a perfectly just arrangement of major political and social institutions in a society and he disagrees with the possibility of creating the blueprints for a perfectly just society. As in the three children’s story, Sen argues there is no perfectly fair, and subsequently no perfectly just, resolution without the use of some arbitrary means to decide which of the three children gets the flute. Instead, Sen focuses on diagnosing and treating the fixable injustices in society and aims to reach agreements that can be widely accepted as not unjust.

Sen’s solution to creating such a world encompasses realization-focused comparative approach, the acceptance of different, coexisting principles and the use of true democracy to reach agreement[4].

Sen’s philosophy is first and foremost composed of a realization-focused comparative approach. The first part of this term stems from his belief that “justice cannot be indifferent to the lives that people can actually live”[5]. This contrasts his theory from arrangement-focused ideologies that view “justice [as] conceptualized in terms of certain organizational arrangements”[6]. Rather than focusing on developing just institutions and governments, Sen’s work concerns the reality of people’s day-to-day lives.

This leads him to establish his widely influential Capability Theory where social realizations are determined based off of the capabilities that people have rather than in terms of their utilities or happiness. The Capability Theory also dictates that individual advantages are “judged in terms of opportunity rather than a specific ‘design’ for how a society should be organized”[7]. This feeds into his rejection of the contractarian method of drafting a list of rules that institutions must enforce and follow in order to reach perfect justice and the acceptance of the comparative method.

The comparative method, which works through “making comparisons between different ways in which people’s lives may be led, influenced… by people’s actual behavior, social interactions and other significant determinants” is significantly more effective, according to Sen, as it is “non-limiting”[7], eliminates redundancy, and proves effective for the future. While the contractarian method relies on a strict set of rules geared toward relevant topics, the comparative method works regardless of time or situation.

This comparative method has also given way to Sen’s adaptation of social choice theory onto his theory of justice. Sen promotes the need for critical and impartial scrutiny and reasoning in his comparative approach. He states, “The actual disagreements that exist [between the varying principles of justice] may be removed through reasoning”[7] and frames reasoning through social choice theory. The social choice theory, developed by Marquis de Condorcet in the 18th century and revived by Kenneth Arrow in the mid-20th century, discusses the utilization of a group of individuals to collectively select a decision. Sen utilizes this to conduct “comparative assessments of social alternatives on the values and priorities of people involved”[7]. In the example of the three children fighting over a flute, “the acceptance of a diversity of considerations does not entail that an impasse would necessarily arise… there can be a congruence of different reasons in many particular cases”[7] that would lead to favoring one child over another.

However, using social choice theory can still lead to the plurality of different principles with different values. This means that there can be multiple right answers in situations that only allow for one answer. This, concludes Sen, must be resolved with true democracy, which he refers to as “a basic need for public reasoning, involving arguments coming from different quarters and divergent perspectives”[7]. Sen defines true democracy as “open-minded engagement in public reasoning”[7] — a system which consists not only of voting and electing, but also of discussion.

Returning once more to the flute example, if the children were to get together and fully present their individual reasoning for winning the flute, Sen believes that they will ultimately reach an acceptable consensus. It is important to note that Sen’s encouragement of discussion indicates that Sen believes that an increase in information leads to a better agreement. The encouragement of open discussion portrays Sen as a progressive philosopher.
The impact of Sen’s work is directly comparable to that of 18th and 19th century political theorists, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and Karl Marx. Much of Sen’s work has had far reaching effects in today’s world. More specifically, the United Nations Development Program has used Sen’s capability theory for work in human development. Sen’s philosophy of justice is well accepted in the field and several political theorists, namely Sabina Alkire, Reiko Gotoh, Ingrid Robeyns, and most prominently, Martha Nussbaum, are currently carrying on Sen’s theory. Sen’s Idea of Justice has also been called the revival of Rawls’s, A Theory of Justice, bringing the discussion of justice back into the spotlight. More elegantly said, Paula Newberg, from The Globe and Mail says, “Read [Sen’s summative work, The Idea of Justice] front to back as a logical rethinking of classical political theory; read it back to front as an agenda of pressing, shared concerns.”


[1] Amartya Kumar Sen, The idea of justice (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 2011), 12.

[2] Sen was inspired to pursue economics when he was just 9 after witnessing the 1943 Famine of Bengal. He strove to redefine poverty and find economic solutions to poverty with his work

[3] Sen won the Nobel for his contributions to welfare economics. “Amartya Sen,” BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE, accessed December 18, 2017,

[4] Sen’s primary theories are summarized in his magnum opus for his political philosophy, The Idea of Justice.

[5] Amartya Kumar Sen, The idea of justice (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 2011), 18.

[6] Amartya Kumar Sen, The idea of justice (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 2011), 10.

[7] Amartya Kumar Sen, The idea of justice (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 2011).

Works, Observations, and Thoughts | Student at UPenn