In a letter written to a friend in 1917 Ludwig Wittgenstein reported: ‘I work quite diligently and wish that I were better and smarter. And these both are one and the same.’ The notion that being a smarter human being and a better person are in the end the same thing is one that Amartya Sen, a Nobel prize-winning economist who has made fundamental advances in welfare economics and the theory of social choice, finds appealing. Citing Wittgenstein’s assertion at the start of the first chapter of The Idea of Justice and referring to it at several points in the book, Sen suggests that reason can do more than help people to achieve their goals. It can also enable them to criticise their goals, and in this way make them better people.
In Sen’s view, a smarter world is sure to be a better world. Unlike some rationalists in the past, however, he does not think we need a conception of an ideal world in order to improve the one we live in. One of the recurring themes of The Idea of Justice is to contest the assumption that a theory of ideal justice is either necessary or desirable. Much of the book is a critique of the work of the late twentieth-century American liberal philosopher John Rawls. While Rawls’s work has shaped academic discussion for over thirty years, it has had a negligible impact on political practice, and one of the reasons may be that his theory leaves so little room for politics. For Rawls, justice is a unique set of principles that reasonable people would choose from an imaginary initial position that ensures impartiality. Once these principles have been chosen all that remains is to set the right institutions in place. Conflicts about the scope of basic liberties and the distribution of resources will then be settled by applying the theory, which is a legal rather than political process.
It is a far-fetched view of how any society could operate, but Sen’s objection is not to the lack of realism in Rawls’s theory. It is the very idea of perfect justice that he questions.(…)