By Anjum Altaf
I started reading Amartya Sen’s latest book The Idea of Justice in which he suggests we reduce injustice in the world we live in rather than attempt to create an ideally just world – he characterizes the contrasting perspectives as ‘realization-focused’ versus ‘arrangement-focused’ approaches to justice. For South Asians, the parallels are two different concepts of justice from early Indian jurisprudence – niti and nyaya. The former relates to ‘organizational propriety as well as behavioral correctness’ whereas the latter is concerned with ‘what emerges and how, and in particular the lives that people are actually able to lead.’
The distinctions, and Professor Sen’s preference, are quite clear and one can agree or disagree with his choice. Here I am concerned with the example that Sen uses to motivate his argument and to explain why I find it puzzling. I would like readers to reflect on the example and to comment on its appropriateness.
Sen uses an illustration called ‘Three Children and a Flute’ to make the point that it is not possible to find an unambiguous principle of justice that everyone can agree upon. The illustration asks the reader to decide which of three children – Anne, Bob and Carla – should get a flute about which they are quarreling. Anne claims the flute on the ground that only she knows how to play it; Bob on the ground that he is the only one among the three who is so poor that he has no toys of his own; Carla on the ground that she has been working diligently for many months to make the flute with her own labor. None of the individual claims are contested.
The argument Sen makes is that these are competing claims for justice and that there are no obvious reasons for preferring any one over the others:
The general point here is that it is not easy to brush aside as foundationless any one of the claims based respectively on the pursuit of human fulfillment, or removal of poverty, or entitlement to enjoy the products of one’s own labor. The different resolutions all have serious arguments in support of them, and we may not be able to identify, without some arbitrariness, any of the alternative arguments as being the one that must invariably prevail.
What puzzles me is the following: Why does Sen pose this problem in terms of an issue of justice? To me it comes across much more as a problem of distribution that is made complex by the fact that we need to allocate one discrete commodity among three contenders. It is this discreteness of the commodity that turns the problem into one of choice, which then calls for a principle to govern that choice.
It is not clear to me why we should have our hands tied by the discreteness of the flute. If we relax this artificially imposed constraint we could consider a number of other solutions to the problem. For example, the flute could be sold and the proceeds distributed amongst the three claimants. This would not resolve the problem completely – Sen would surely ask for the principle that would govern the distribution of the proceeds – but it would certainly make the solution more tractable.
But even the limitation of discreteness need not preclude alternative solutions. The three contenders could agree that in the absence of any prior claims or rights, a just solution could be a fair lottery. Or they could agree on a cooperative solution in which each would get to keep the flute for a period of time with the order of the rotation determined by a fair lottery.
My argument is that this is not an issue of justice since no manifest injustice has been done to any of the three individuals. It is a simpler problem of distribution and it seems possible to find a cooperative solution if we do away with the stumbling block of the discreteness of the flute either by converting it into a divisible commodity (money) or by dividing its use over time. Once we do that we might even be able to find a single principle of fairness, e.g., egalitarianism, to govern the allocation of the divisible commodity. (This need not be the most efficient allocation. The more ambitious might try for allocations that make each claimant equally happy or maximize total happiness but these would again open up the debate over the merits of rival claims.)
I even do not see how the nature of prior claims, a dimension Professor Sen has ignored in his illustration, adds to the complexity of the problem. If Carla has made the flute and owns it, the other two have no claim to it. If Carla made the flute as a gift for the father who has left it as an inheritance, either the father’s will or the rules of inheritance would govern the allocation. Such rules vary across societies but in general have legitimacy amongst members of a society or there are accepted rules to resolve disagreements.
My question is as follows: Did Professor Sen choose a good illustration to motivate his argument? Should he have specified the source of the quarrel amongst the claimants? Is some prior information necessary to understand the context of the problem and its relevance to justice?
See Ten Unacceptable Things for our ongoing exercise based on Professor Sen’s suggestion.