10 July 2009

Moral Sentiments and a Theory of Justice

Went in to an interesting lecture last night given by Amartya Sen, the Indian Economist and Nobel Laureate, in TCD. Professor Sen was in Ireland to receive an honorary doctorate from Trinity, and spoke for over two hours between a prepared lecture and an engaging Q&A session.

While the subject of Professor Sen's lecture was nominally 'On Global Confusion', touching on the current economic meltdown, he really focused on two core intertwined areas, the quest for a 'fourth way', and a rescuing of Adam Smith from the hands of the neoliberal agenda. He began by examining the three main failed (in his eyes) economic systems, Capitalism, Socialism and what is currently being offered as a New Capitalism by Blair, Sarkozy and Merkel. Unfettered and unrestricted markets have failed, he suggested, and it is clear that some government management in key areas was necessary. Planned economies of the Soviet Socialist model had also failed, despite initial early successes productivity and personal motivation suffered enormously under an over bureaucratized system. Sen also rejected calls for a 'New Capitalism', saying rather than simply trying to tweak the current system why not throw it out altogether and start afresh with something new?

But what is this new "Fourth Way" (my term, emphatically not his)? On this he was unfortunately less clear, and chose to describe it in terms of a reevaluation of the early work of Adam Smith, particularly "The Theory of Moral Sentiments", to which Sen has just finished writing an introduction for the new Penguin edition. First published 17 years before "Wealth of Nations", it sets out the moral framework in which all of Smith's later works should be read, and begins by stating:
"How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it."
Sen argued that the modern capitalist is flawed when they use Smith to justify their belief in the unregulated and unfettered hand of the market as the ideal, that in fact Smith would have been appalled by the current US economic system as it operates in a moral vacuum.

Sen's "Fourth Way" seems to stem from an absolute moral imperative; in answer to a later question from Mary Robinson he categorically stated that individuals had the moral duty to speak out against violations of universal human rights regardless of whether those violations occurred in anther sovereign state or within a system that did not regard its actions as violations of human rights. In a similar way any economic system must have at its heart the promotion of human sovereignty and dignity, based upon an explicit acknowledgment of a universal morality.

Where he wouldn't be drawn, even after further prompting from Mary Robinson, was on naming or labeling his alternative economic model. He argued that society gets too caught up on trying to label and apply a narrow definition to ideas, thereby simplifying and restricting them. No doubt these ideas are fleshed out more in his new book "The Idea of Justice", but at the end of the lecture I will admit to being left somewhat unsatisfied, feeling that he wasn't as outspoken as he could have been (or has in the past been), and left quite a lot of his arguments unfinished. It was a very enjoyable two hours nonetheless.

Also worth mentioning was the first question in the Q&A session, posed by veteran Labour parliamentarian Michael D. Higgins, asking whether a strict adherence to the tenants of rationality as a doctrine has damned us all. The asking of the question itself took almost ten minutes, but was done so in such an erudite and engaging manner that Sen seemed genuinely delighted to answer (he disagreed with Michael D, gently suggesting that there was a lot of truth in his question, but like a little knowledge, a great deal of truth can still lead to the wrong conclusions). Michael D. identified himself as an academic first, and a parliamentarian second, and I found myself genuinely depressed that we do not have more parliamentarians of his intelligence, education and oratory skills, who are in office because of their abilities, and not their genes.

"The Idea of Justice" is out at the end of July in Europe, and the Penguin edition of "The Theory of Moral Sentiments" is out at the end of October.

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