Reviewing Amartya Sen’s book, The Idea of Justice (Allen Lane)
Courtesy of NĒTHRA Volume 11, No. 1; ISSN 1391-2380.
The Bhagavad Gīta section of the Mahābhārata records a timeless debate between two epic heroes: the great warrior Arjuna and his Chariot driver – who is none other than Krishna. The occasion is the battle of Kurukshetra.
Arjuna does not doubt that their’s is the right cause, and that they will definitely win the battle. But he is concerned that so many people will die in the battle. He wonders if it might not be the lesser evil to concede rather than fight. Arjuna is disturbed that these deaths will also become his doing (as he leads the army), and he is also moved by the fact that many of those killed, on both sides, are persons with whom he has some affinitive connection. Krishna counters, and eventually prevails, with the certain conviction that justice is on their side and Arjuna must simply do his duty, no matter what the consequences. The epic is certainly a great tussle about the demands of right action and the concerns of justice.
In the run-up to May 18, 2009, when the Sri Lankan military was facing off the LTTE with about three hundred thousand civilians trapped in between (and held as a human shield by the LTTE) – a similar debate simmered beneath the surface of Sinhala society. Even though the Krishna-esque government view was what prevailed and got the most airing, the moral instincts of many resonated with those of Arjuna and his three part concerns (1) The relevance of what happens to actual human lives in the process, not just the end result in terms of “winning the war” or “defeating the offending army”. (2) The recognition that tragedy inflicted on so many civilians would be inflicted by “our” representatives, making Sri Lankans represented by its army personally responsible in a special way (in contrast to the burden of responsibility had the same been done by “other” non-representative actors). (3) The relational concern that came from personally knowing those who would likely be killed.
In May 2009, ICES hosted a discussion on this issue between myself and Michael Roberts titled “Killing Civilians in War: an Analysis of Moral Reasoning”. There, Michael Roberts took up a Krishna type argument, but a nuanced one – where the deontology (obligations of duty) was derived from the projected tragedy on future human lives, if the LTTE was not “finished off” right then and there (in effect, a Utilitarian argument for the “lesser evil”). The differences between the voices of Krishna, Arjuna and the Utilitarian bent of Michael Roberts, are an indication of the plurality of moral reasoning that can govern the choices of a society.
After I had taken some pains at this debate to explain the importance of differing moral reasons, I was accosted by an editor of an English weekly demanding that I pin myself to just one position. The whole point of my presentation had been missed! If Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice (2009) had been published then, I would have pointed it in his direction. Because, if there is one thesis that is foundational to The Idea of Justice, it is that, with regard to decisions of justice and right action, there can be a plurality of reasons to which we should pay attention, both as individuals and as a society – without idly burying our commitments to justice in singular reasons which might be severely parochial.
The Idea of Justice is fundamentally a framework for navigating this plurality of moral reasoning that impinges on the question of justice. In developing this framework, Sen draws not just on the story of Arjuna and Krishna, but on a wealth of justice enhancing ideas and actions through time and space: from the Indian Ruler Asoka in third century B.C. E (who sent the message of Buddhism to Sri Lanka through his son and daughter: Mahinda and Sanghamitta), to the Muslim Emperor Saladin in twelfth century Cairo; from Athens of ancient Greece to South Africa of Nelson Mandela; from the Asian Buddha to the Middle-Eastern Jesus; from the classical Indian philosophy expressed by the likes of Kautilya and the Mughal Emperor Akbar, to the modern liberal tradition expressed by the likes of John Rawls, Robert Nozick and Thomas Scanlon.
Sen sees this available plurality as largely positive, enabling us to enrich the reasons of each other from different social and cultural positions; but he also recognises the limitations: that there may be much upon which we could reasonably and yet irreconcilably differ. The most widely cited illustration of this book is on this last point: there are three children and one flute, who should have it? Depending on our priorities and which child we heard, we may be swayed by the claim of the first who is the only one who can play the flute; or the second who has never had a single toy, whereas the others have always had plenty; or the third, who is the one who actually made the flute. Quite reasonable arguments tending towards economic egalitarianism, utilitarianism, or strict libertarianism can leave us with very different resolutions.
The Idea of Justice insists on this realism: that we have little hope of agreeing on any holy-grail of perfect justice or perfect reasons. In the absence of “perfect solutions”, the failure to communicate and understand our differing reasons is often the source of divisiveness within society, and over time can loosen the bonds of social cohesion with violent consequences. Recognising this difficulty and danger, Sen sets out to demonstrate constructively a path by which we may still make progress on advancing justice and reducing injustice, which is a pressing and practical need in the world.
Justice: Concerned with the Consequences on Human Lives
Epic debates, as between Arjuna and Krishna, codes of morality and theories of justice are ever present, throughout history, in diverse societies and cultures. As Sen notes in the closing chapter “the general pursuit of justice might be hard to eradicate in human society, even though we can go about that pursuit in different ways” (p. 415). In this treatise, Sen identifies the analytical underpinnings of this widespread concern for justice as having two broad approaches – also reflected in the debate between Arjuna and Krishna. One is an arrangement focus: concerned with having the right institutional, organisational and deontological arrangements, and the other is a realisation focus: concerned with the actual lives that people manage to have. This is a distinction Sen finds reflected in the Sanskrit terms niti and nyaya of Indian intellectual debates.
The position of Krishna is also reflected pithily in the fierce and famous maxim of Ferdinand I, the Holy Roman Emperor in the sixteenth century, “Fiat Justitia et pereat mundus” (Let Justice be done, though the world perishes); and it is against this arrangement-focus to justice – inadequately attentive to the actual lived consequences on human lives (the three concerns of Arjuna) – that The idea of Justice makes its first foundational argument.
Many theories of justice emerging from the enlightenment project in Europe are arrangement-focused. Sen calls them transcendental theories because they aim to describe the nature and rules of a perfectly just society. Sen’s critique of these theories is not just that they are too focused on the institutional arrangements, to the exclusion of lived-outcomes, but that such descriptions of perfect justice may be of little help in deciding between the merits of actual available alternatives: “the fact that a person regards the Mona Lisa as the best picture in the world does not reveal how she would rank a Picasso against a Van Gogh” (p. 101).
On 6 June 2007, first the city of Colombo and then the country woke up to an extraordinary act of hubris by the defence establishment of Sri Lanka. Tamil people born in the war zones of the country and residing in temporary lodgings of Colombo had been summarily rounded up in the wee hours of the morning and packed off in buses, back to the war-zones from which they had extricated themselves. Ostensibly, the bureaucrats were not satisfied that these people had a “good reason” to be in Colombo. Remarkably, the bureaucracy couldn’t even recognise that these people, at the very least, certainly had a “good reason” to be outside of the war-zone. This humiliation of citizenry identifiable by a particular ethnic-category and spatial-geography raised united cries of “foul” from the full spectrum of social and political groups in Sri Lanka: from the opposition UNP to the government aligned JVP, from the rural poor to the urban rich, from liberal ideologues to ultra nationalists. The government action echoed the shameful incarceration of Japanese Americans by the US government in the pre-world war II era, and it was mostly the government sponsored mouthpieces and their paid lackeys – the regime-mercenaries (some of them masquerading as “independent journalists”) – that tried to defend the brazen act of irresponsible government.
It was not necessary to argue against this action on the basis of theories about the freedom of movement or Human Rights. In fact, it may not even have helped to do so. Many who objected to this action would not have supported the transcendental claims of such theories. The widespread objection to this action drew, instead, on plural values within Sri Lankan society. There was a convergence of assessment from plural standpoints that this bureaucratic action was manifestly unjust. The positive focus of The Idea of Justice is to explore the means by which such manifest injustice is confronted and reduced – even while any notion of perfect justice might continue to elude, as it always does.
As I complete the final editing of this article barely two weeks since the Presidential election of 2010 in Sri Lanka, the losing candidate, General Fonseka, has been arrested by the military with the threat of military Court Martial. The government has argued for the rightness of its actions on the basis of niti. They have claimed, though it is impossible to verify (and indications are to the contrary), that proper investigative and administrative procedures have been followed and that the arrest can be reasonably explained in terms of “due process”. The importance of the nyaya focus is explained by Sen in terms of the Indian legal theorists who spoke about the overwhelming importance of avoiding matsyanyaya (the unpleasant reality of “justice in the world of fish” – where big fish can devour small fish at will). The central recognition of this tradition, also reflected in the mounting public protests against the current government of Sri Lanka, is that justice must be seen in the outcomes that emerge. It cannot be defended simply by the claim that institutions are functioning properly – even if they were.
Social Choice is not just Majority Rule
Locating the concern for justice around a realisation-focus allows the means of advancing justice to be guided by insights of social choice theory, the principle area of Sen’s contributions in economics. Despite its enormous usefulness, social choice theory has generally escaped popular recognition – due perhaps to the extensive use of symbolic logic in how it’s written down. The approach of social choice theory is concerned with comparative assessments. It is a relational rather than transcendental framework, concerned with guidelines of practical reasoning for decision making within a group. Adopting this framework enables decision making without demanding agreement on all the underlying principles. This is important, because, for example, while it is very hard for any society to decide exactly what collection of things should count as a full specification of Human Rights, it is quite easy to agree that people have a right not to be brutalised or assassinated for voicing criticism of their government. While it is hard to agree on the full set of freedoms that should be guaranteed to every member in society, it is quite easy to agree that for the large numbers of civilians confined to IDP camps, the restriction on the freedom of movement had to be removed as soon as possible. The social choice route of comparative assessments allows progress on questions of enhancing justice and removing injustice without being over-burdened and side-tracked by the quite separate task of describing the requirements of perfect justice.
In Sen’s description, it would be quite wrong to think the social choice route to justice as underwriting a crude idea of majority rule. Majorities do invariably exert a major influence in a framework of social choice. But formulations of social choice, if they are to advance justice, must consist of means that enable people to be concerned for more than their private interests, to be tolerant of different preferences, and to have some degree of ethical objectivity – the ability to see things from others’ points of view and justify their decisions to those who are in a different position. In other words, a society marked by democratic values.
In the absence of democratic values, majority decisions are in fact a very poor route to achieving justice. In his seminal work The Impossibility of a Paretian Liberal (1972), Sen proved that majority rule can be inconsistent with even minimum space for individual liberty. The point of such illumination is not to argue against majority decision making (what should we replace it with, a dictator?), but to recognise the various factors needed for majority decisions to be consistent with minority rights and justice. It would be a serious mistake to think that a decision is correct or justifiable simply because it is the decision of the majority.
To take an example from Sri Lanka, in 1989 the then elected President Ranasinghe Premadasa was ruling Sri Lanka with the majority support of the population. Yet, in that year, the methods used to suppress JVP uprising against the government were utterly repugnant and illegal. It was common to line the streets with dead bodies of people arbitrarily executed by illegal paramilitary operations, and also to kill and float bodies of potential JVP supporters on public rivers. The numbers killed in this way, with majority support, have been estimated at an astounding sixty thousand. The actions and consequences could not be justified either in terms of niti or nyana, but only in terms of the narrow self-interest of the class of people who found their life styles protected and preserved through such brutality. In any situation of such illegality and brutality towards a minority, that the protected classes are in the “majority” does not take away from the fact of manifest injustice.
Democratic Values through Social Choice
When Sen won the Nobel Prize for economics in 1998 the major work cited in favour of the prize was his thesis on famine published in the 80s. There he showed that famines had never occurred in functioning democracies. The evidence showed that famines were symptomatic not of an absolute shortage of food, but of a structural crisis of access and distribution – and therefore, it was quite within the power of responsive governments to avert famines. Typically, famines affect at most only 10% of a country’s population – often, far less. Therefore, government responsiveness (“democracy”) based simply on majority rule could well afford to let famines run their course – the dead, in any case, don’t vote; except sometimes (with well organised malpractices) in favour of the government. The reason famines are prevented in a functioning democracy is not just because of majority rule, but because of the attendant public outrage of those who are not starving. That is: the tendency of the many to be upset by injustice to the few; the tendency of the strong to be concerned for the weak; the tendency of those who can, to speak out for those who can’t. Without such tendencies of care and decency any form of majority rule reduces to a form of tyranny.
The argument Sen makes, then, is that the social choice route to justice can be very productive, provided that the society can reflect the concerns and values of democracy. Sen sees these as universal and civilisation values that are deeply resonant in humanity, and which have a tendency to emerge and flourish in societies that manage to achieve the freedoms necessary for people to engage in informed public reasoning.
Sen’s optimism on the existence of such basic human decency is rooted in a wide variety of popular philosophy and moral teaching. He refers extensively to the teachings of Gautama Buddha. For instance, referring to the Sutta-Nipata, Sen argues that Buddha shows humans have some responsibility towards other animals precisely because of the enormous asymmetry of power between us, not because of any benefit that would result from it for the human race. A similar widening of concern beyond oneself, and one’s community, is cited by Sen through the story told by Jesus in response to the question “who is my neighbour?” The story known as “the good Samaritan” suggests that neighbourly feelings must not be confined simply to our family and relatives nor to our religious, ethnic and national communities, but to even those that might share in the identity of our enemies – to those in communities we have learned to suspect and despise.
The inspiration for widening our concerns beyond the “self” does not come only from religious traditions. The utilitarian case for widening our moral concern has perhaps been best defended by Peter Singer starting with his Oxford Ph.D. thesis in 1972. Kant’s codification of the moral imperative as “a commitment to act according to those principles that which we could will to be universal law” is an anchor point of European enlightenment philosophy. More recently, Timothy Scanlon has formulated What We Owe to Each Other (1998) as the “shared willingness to modify our private demands in order to find a basis of justification that others also have reason to accept” (p. 199).
The point is not that we must agree with the epistemic or metaphysical foundations of Buddhism, Christianity, Utilitarianism or any other philosophical tradition. But, that the prevalence of these diverse traditions all highlighting a need to widen our concern beyond the narrow confines of self-interest, presents a real opportunity to move forward in advancing justice, rather than postponing that project while we quarrel about the validity of the competing foundations.
Many theories of justice in the western liberal tradition have been based on the idea of “social contracts”. That is, instead of appealing to the natural human ability to entertain a wider concern beyond the self, they have appealed precisely to “self-interest” in order to support structures that allow the interests of others to be taken account of on equal terms. This is true of even the most popular treatise on justice from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to John Rawls. But Sen does not see the need to remain trapped only within those possibilities. The Idea of Justice does not depend simply on the power of such “notional contracts” supported by actual laws, but draws on the further possibility of evolving social norms to contain those wider interests – recognising that without those social norms laws can become meaningless or toothless.
There is a lesson here for Sri Lanka as well. From “ethnic power sharing” to “good governance” the attempts have largely been to change laws and constitutions at the very top in favour of positive change. And yet, from the 13th amendment to the 17th amendment to the constitution the lesson seems to be that these changes alone don’t deliver the goods, as they don’t seem to have the required support of a wide social consensus, and are thus easily subverted in the service of power politics. A culture of appreciation and respect across ethnicities in society may deliver more benefits to minorities than the formal sharing of political power, and basic professional values in public service may be greater protection against abuse of political power than the 17th amendment. Debates about implementing new laws and constitutions need to recognise these instruments not as an end in themselves but as means of evolving our social norms: formal sharing of political power with minorities in Sri Lanka must be also a stepping stone to a culture of respect.
The Role and Reach of Public Reason
Public reasoning is the foundation for advancing justice through social choice – because advancing justice cannot simply be about furthering the wishes of a majority, no matter how perverse or prejudiced those wishes might be. For instance, slavery and the denial of education to women, have, in their day, enjoyed wide support before being vigorously critiqued through public reasoning as being severely unjust. Indeed, overcoming the parochialism and partiality of “group-think” is the principal challenge for any initiative for advancing justice, whether it be through social choice or not. The efficacy of social choice as a means for advancing justice, therefore, is predicated on an environment that can support ethical objectivity through public reasoning – where the voices and concerns of some are not always arbitrarily prioritised over others, and there is an ability to get beyond the power of vested interests.
The problem of vested interests is illustrated by Sen through the words of Philip the Bastard, in William Shakespeare’s King John.
Well, whiles I am a beggar, I will rail
And say there is no sin but to be rich;
And being rich, my virtue then shall be
To say there is no vice but beggary (Act 2. Scene 1.612)
Vested interests are difficult to overcome even through reasoning not simply because that seems to be in the nature of the individual human condition, but because the interests are often vested not just in individuals but in groups; giving them the illusion of being objective points of view. The tendency for groups (either as the rich and the poor, or in Sri Lanka, as English, Sinhala or Tamil speaking) to look down on the other is symptomatic of what Sen calls positional objectivity (a point of view easily shared by anyone in that position – but not by those in other positions. eg. “the Sun is travelling around the earth”). A particular view, though thoroughly parochial, can nevertheless gain the illusion of being an objective view because of the wide agreement on that view amongst the cohort of association and communication.
Overcoming such position based “objective illusions” is an important part of progressing towards justice. An example from Sri Lanka, of such positional differences, is the oft-repeated claim and counter claims that “Tamil people face no discrimination in Sri Lanka” and “Tamil people are subject to severe discrimination in Sri Lanka”. Since such positional differences are also supported by vested interest, they can be doubly difficult to dislodge. The difficulty of positionally unbiased comprehension makes a strong case for paying attention not just to the perceptions of “my own eyes” but also to the “eyes of others”.
The test of ethical objectivity or fairness, therefore, is the ability of a view to stand up and be persuasive not only in the face of public reasoning but also in the face of public reasoning – that cuts across different social, economic and language groups. Public reasoning then is the primary restraint on partiality and parochialism in the pursuit of justice through social choice, even if these limitations may never be entirely overcome. The linguistic separation of reasoning communities in Sri Lanka is indeed a very serious impediment to expanding the reach of public reason, and as long as it remains the case, may result in constant roadblocks for the advancement of ethical objectivity and justice. The commitment of this Journal Nethra Review to review in English works written in Sinhala and Tamil attempts to increase the reach of public reason in one important direction – complementary efforts are needed in the other directions as well.
Open Impartiality: “Eyes of the Community” vs. “Eyes of the World”
The process of public reasoning, by exposing the positionality of particular view points, and the natural requirement of appealing to others on the basis of reasoning that they cannot reasonably be rejected, can take us a long way towards overcoming parochialism and vested interests and unearthing decisions that can be supported as being fair or impartial. Sen distinguishes between two kinds of impartiality: closed impartiality and open impartiality. The first form asks the reasoning process to address itself only to those “others” that are inside that political community. Much of political philosophy based on the notion of social contracts has this feature, including the notional contract of Rawls, which is situated behind the veil of ignorance, asking only for within-group agreement. Sen argues, however, for an open impartiality that allows reasons to be tested beyond the confines of one’s own community. This is the basis on which Sen pays attention to ideas and consideration emerging through history from all parts of the world.
The idea of open impartiality draws on the valuable contributions of Adam Smith, the father of modern economics. Adam Smith prefaced his ideas in economics with a Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), which remains under appreciated, much to the detriment of theory and practice in economics. The Smithian formula for ethical objectivity or fairness is based on the idea of an impartial observer – who is essentially an “outsider”, not a participant that will be affected by the decisions under debate. Introducing the perspective of an impartial observer adds an additional dimension to fending off parochialism and partiality. This widening of perspective from just the “eyes of the community” to include the “eyes of the world” gives public reasoning a constructive scope that can allow for a positive engagement and learning from the whole universe of human experience. When the Taliban in the 1990s cut off its ties with the world, they were able to forge local agreement with regard to extremely narrow minded actions such as destroying the Bhamian Statue of the Buddha. Approaches to public reasoning that are more open to the “eyes of the world” help to prevent such impoverishing parochialism.
Open impartiality can further help to overcome cultural blind spots. Consider the cultural tendency towards nepotism. People are in a special position towards their family members and as such, in their role as parent, child or sibling are expected to show special care and concern for their family. But when a person assumes public office, say as a Minister or a President of a country, he or she is expected in his or her role as public servant to treat all citizens equally – and not to confuse their positional obligations as family member with the positional obligations of public office. When this confusion is not overcome those in public office can become quite brazen about favouring kith and kin at the expense of others’ entitlements. As with religious intolerance, such confusion could also have cultural support; in which case, open impartiality can go a long way in shedding light on a blind spot that may not be detected simply by reasoning that is within the community only.
The potential wealth in the “outsiders” perspective is underscored by Sen in the following anecdote (which illustrates also the easy, entertaining and accessible style in which Sen communicates rigorous and demanding ideas in this highly readable book):
As Alexander the Great roamed around north-west India in 325 BCE, he engaged in a series of battles against the local kings in and around Punjab and won them all. But he was not able to generate enthusiasm among his soldiers to take on the powerful Nanda imperial family that ruled over the bulk of India from their capital city Pataliputra in eastern India (now called Patna). Alexander was not, however, ready to return quietly to Greece, and as a good student of Aristotle spent some considerable time holding relaxed conversations with Indian philosophers and theorists – religious as well as social.
In one of the more vigorous debates, the world conqueror asked a group of Jain philosophers why they were neglecting to pay any attention to him. To this question, he received the following broadly democratic reply:
“King Alexander, every man can possess only so much of the earth’s surface as this we are standing on. You are but human like the rest of us, save that you are always busy and up to no good, travelling so many miles from your home, a nuisance to yourself and to others!… You will soon be dead, and then you will own just as much of the earth as will suffice to bury you” (p. 87).
Alexander the Great was more able to appreciate a good argument than be changed by it. But opening channels of communications between “insiders” and “outsiders” – the essence of open impartiality – can go a long way towards not only advancing justice, but also towards cultural vitality, as has been the case for much of the world.
The Importance of Democracy and the Media
While it can rightly be claimed that the institutional aspects of democracy owe their genesis to social and political innovations in a handful of western countries, Sen demonstrates that the deliberative, discussion based, public reasoning aspect of democracy – clearly the more foundational aspect – cannot be likewise culturally or geographically sequestered. Even before elected representation in local government was adopted in Ancient India – Greek influence arriving there (with some help from the exploits of Alexander the Great) before taking root in the “west” – there was a history of public reasoning and deliberation: quite famously in the so-called “Buddhist Councils”, beginning with the sixth century BCE, where the adherents of alternative points of view got together to argue out their differences. In discerning the diverse cultural roots of democracy, Sen also cites Nelson Mandela from his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom (1995), where Mandela recalls how impressed and shaped he was as a young lad, by seeing the nature of the local meetings that were held:
Everyone who wanted to speak did so. It was democracy in its purest form. There may have been a hierarchy of importance among the speakers, but everyone was heard, chief and subject, warrior and medicine man, shopkeeper and farmer, landowner and labourer… The foundation of self-government was that all men [the likely exclusion of women may have remained a cultural blind spot] were free to voice their opinions and equal in their value as citizens (p. 332).
In the first of its series called Dialogues on Democracy, ICES hosted in Kandy an exchange between Sumanasiri Liyanage and Arjuna Parakrama, at which I also presided with some summary remarks. I took from the fascinating analysis of Sumanasiri Liyanage the valuable point that it was important not to allow democracy to be merely a vehicle of neo-liberal capitalism – and the concerns of government need to be more sharply focused on the problems of poverty in Sri Lanka. I disagreed, however, on the suggestion that there might be a trade-off between more democracy and more concern for the poor. This latter suggestion has gained some currency in Asia, with oft repeated and poorly constructed analysis making anecdotal reference to authoritarian periods in some countries that experienced high economic growth. Sen, however, examines and rejects this view as being a case of “muddled thinking” that is neither historically, empirically nor analytically sustainable.
At the same discussion Arjuna Parakarama argued against equating democracy with symbolic practices, insisting instead that the nature of democracy should be evaluated on the lived reality of an “enabling space”. This argument resonates profoundly with Sen’s position in The Idea of Justice; prefaced with the concern for niti (realisations) and not just nyaya (arrangements). Sen contrasts these understandings of democracy as the exercise of “public reasoning” and the exercise of “public balloting”. Democracy cannot be claimed on the basis of institutional arrangements, which widely miss their mark with regard to the realisation of a democratic space – where decisions arise from informed, deliberated, inclusive public reasoning.
On the day of the Presidential elections in Sri Lanka, in January 2010, the hugely dominant state television networks ran a misinformation campaign, suggesting that the main opposition candidate was not eligible to contest the elections, because he had not been registered to vote. The election commissioner’s rejection of this point was not carried by that network, but by a single private channel that had limited coverage, and that too, only minutes before polling closed. It was a case where the exercise of public balloting became an occasion for undermining, with misinformation, the exercise of public reasoning. Without space for public reasoning, public balloting becomes a largely meaningless exercise. As Sen states:
Balloting alone can be thoroughly inadequate on its own, as is abundantly illustrated by the astounding electoral victories of ruling tyrannies in authoritarian regimes in the past as well as those in the present, for example in today’s North Korea. The difficulty lies not just in the political and punitive pressure that is brought to bear on voters in the balloting itself, but in the way expressions of public views are thwarted by censorship, informational exclusion and a climate of fear, along with the suppression of political opposition and the independence of the media, and the absence of basic civil rights and political liberties… Indeed, a great many dictators in the world have achieved gigantic electoral victories even without any overt coercion in the process of voting, mainly through suppressing public discussion and freedom of information, and through generating a climate of apprehension and anxiety (p. 327).
A false concept of “Asian values” is sometimes used to justify repressive political climates, when in fact, Sen makes the point, the functioning of such societies are better understood as the workings of modern authoritarianism (p. 337).
A fuller public reasoning view of democracy, rather than the anaemic public balloting description, implies that a free and vibrant media is central to the practice of democracy. Sen outlines four ways in which the media plays an essential role in preserving democracy and advancing justice:
First, is the direct contribution to the quality of human life, in a society where the ability to freely communicate and understand each other is adequately protected. A high GDP can be a means to a higher quality of life, but less so when basic freedoms are eroded. Second, it has an informational role in disseminating knowledge and allowing critical scrutiny. It enables discovery and accuracy about facts, without which public reasoning becomes confused and misled. Third, it has a protective function because it gives voice to the disadvantaged and the neglected, from which the rulers of a country tend to be insulated. Fourth, it enables the unregimented formation of values, which arises from open communication and argument. It is open public discussion that allows individuals and societies to benefit from “the eyes of the other”, and be affectively moved by concerns of justice and consequences that are outside of themselves.
Fascinatingly, Sen also finds an unlikely defender of the dual importance of democracy and the media, in Chairman Mao speaking in his later years to a gathering of 7,000 cadres of the communist party, in the aftermath of much failure and famine in the failed Great Leap Forward:
Without democracy, you have no understanding of what is happening down below; the general situation will be unclear; you will be unable to collect sufficient opinions from all sides; there can be no communication between top and bottom; top-level organs of leadership will depend on one-sided and incorrect material to decide issues, thus you will find it difficult to avoid being subjectivist; it will be impossible to achieve unity of understanding and unity of action, and impossible to achieve true centralism.
Chairman Mao’s defence of democracy is limited to the informational role and protective function – which are unlikely to be achieved without also a functioning and free media – but it is, nevertheless, a decisive recognition of its value and importance for society – not least with regard to ensuring justice to those whose voices are suppressed by the absence.
The incongruence of the proclaimed US project of building democracy in Iraq was seen not only in the actions surrounding the military invasion, but also in the way that Iraq became a most dangerous place for journalists, and independent media were thoroughly manipulated and suppressed in the aftermath. In recent years Sri Lanka has also achieved the status of becoming a country that is amongst the most hostile in the world to independent media and journalists. Government media has effectively become the private propaganda outlets of those in power. Alternative news websites are blocked at will, over 10 journalists have been killed since the last parliamentary elections, and many more have been abducted and beaten within inches of death – with a chilling effect on the rest of the profession. The Press of independent Sunday Leader was torched, and the main studio of the private broadcaster, MTV, was destroyed with explosives in a commando style attack. The functioning private media does so with periodic reinforcements of a clear message – that its independence ends where the nose of the ruling regime begins.
Re-launching itself in this unfriendly media environment, it is the intention of Nethra Review to be a space that opens up a small chink in this suppressed environment of communication and thought. To open its readers, through reviews and through commentary, to the “eyes of others” and to the “eyes of the world”. If Sen’s analysis is right, such “openings” are important not just for the expansion of freedom, for better public reasoning, and for the practice of democracy; but through all that, it is vitally important for the fundamental goal of building a healthier society and for achieving practical improvements in justice.
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