Amartya Sen’s Concept of Justice: Rahul Kumar

Amartya Sen’s Concept of Justice

Author: Rahul Kumar

Pursuing L.L.M from Chanakya National Law University, Patna

ISSN: 2582-3655


Amartya Sen, a world-renowned economist and Nobel laureate, has not only made significant contributions to the discipline of economics, but his work has also transformed public discourse on poverty, development, and social justice. His capability-based approach to material concerns confronting our modern environment provides a unique and transformative perspective. This study attempts to use his donation to a social justice cause. The study opens by providing an overview of the most popular social justice proposals, including utilitarianism and John Rawls’ proposal. Sen’s awareness of each of these propositions is discussed later in the work before proposing his capability approach. The paper highlights the capabilities approach’s core generalities and examines the most important investigations. Finally, the study argues that, while Sen’s gift isn’t a thesis in and of itself, his generalizations provide a worldwide framework for the inverse of social justice.


What is the definition of justice? What does it mean to live in a just society? What principles should we use to get there? These issues have filled an entire tradition – the dominant tradition – of political philosophy, led by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant, as well as John Rawls and Robert Nozick among current philosophers. However, if you ask Amartya Sen, he will tell you that these are the wrong people to ask. He argues in his most recent book, The Idea of Justice, that traditional political philosophy, which seeks to identify ‘the just,’ or a single set of just principles that can then be used to design perfectly just institutions for governing society, reveals little about how we can identify and reduce injustices in the world.

The dominant approach, which Sen refers to as ‘transcendental institutionalism,’ is burdened by two primary challenges, according to Sen: the problem of feasibility and the problem of duplication. The first stems from the difficulty, if not impossibility, of arriving at a single set of principles that can guide us in selecting just institutions through a process of unbiased reasoning. It is stated that Rawls’ two lexically ordered principles of justice would be unanimously picked by an impartial choice method – through the hypothetical originating position employing the veil of ignorance’ device – in his theory of justice. In the ‘legislative stage,’ these concepts are subsequently used to select actual institutions. Clearly, much hinges on the premise that Rawls’ two justice principles are those that would emerge from the original stance. Sen, on the other hand, is skeptical.

In reality, according to Sen, there are several principles that can pass the impartiality test. He initially illustrates this idea with an example about three toddlers fighting over the allocation of a single flute. One child claims that they should be given the flute because they are the best flautist; another claim that they should be given the flute because they are the poorest of the group; and a third claims that they made the flute without the help of the others. The three reasons are founded on utility, economic equality, and the right to the results of one’s own unaided work, in that order. Strong, unbiased arguments can be used to defend each. Returning to Rawls, it is also conceivable to give solid arguments for choosing Harsanyi’s utilitarian principle over Rawls’ maximin principle as the basis for resolving distributional concerns in a circumstance comparable to the original one.


The phrase “social justice”[1] was first coined by Italian philosopher Luigi Taparelli in the mid-nineteenth century. The term ‘social justice,’ according to Taparelli, referred to both the principles inherent in a just society and the distribution of rewards and liabilities within that society. By the twentieth century, the concept of social justice’ had gained popularity in political philosophy’s theoretical discourse. As a result, a slew of theories and approaches to the equitable distribution of resources, rights, and opportunities arose, all attempting to define and conceptualize social justice.

Each theory and approach has its own ‘informational basis of judgment'[2], which entails including (and rejecting) important information while forming judgments about the justice and appropriateness of various social circumstances. Amartya Sen, while offering an alternative method to social justice, emphasizes the significance of first investigating and evaluating the virtues and limitations of existing theories’ informational bases before presenting his own. To contextualize and comprehend Sen’s contribution to social justice, it is necessary to first examine the merits and limitations of the informational foundations of some of the most influential theories of social justice, namely the influential utilitarian perspective and John Rawls’ dominant theory.

The utilitarian perspective

For more than a century, the utilitarian perspective was the most influential theory of justice, emphasizing a person’s total ‘value.’ The term ‘utility'[3] refers to an individual’s measure or function of happiness or pleasure. The utilitarian perspective’s primary doctrine is that happiness is the only desirable thing, hence it is an end in and of itself, while everything else is merely a means to that end. As a result, the informational foundation of this method emphasizes the crucial importance of weighing the repercussions of all choices. As a result, every institution, law, or action must be evaluated in terms of the utility it generates – or the amount of pleasure and satisfaction it provides. Choices and behaviors are ‘good’ if they promote happiness, and ‘wrong’ if they cause the opposite impact of happiness, as Mill describes. As a result of the exclusive focus on utility, other important issues such as the fulfillment or violation of human rights and duties receive little to no direct attention.

Another feature of this perspective’s informational foundation is the necessity of maximizing a society’s aggregate utility. That is, every action or choice is evaluated in terms of the total number of utilities generated. As a result, injustice in a society would be defined as an “aggregate loss of utility compared to what could have been obtained,” resulting in a society’s individuals being much less happy than they need to be.

Sen’s critique of the utilitarian perspective

Sen agrees with some of the utilitarian approach’s principles and arguments. When analyzing social systems, one of the primary principles he promotes is the need of considering the repercussions or “results.” He also emphasizes the importance of considering each individual’s ‘well-being’ while assessing social systems. These two characteristics of the utilitarian perspective provide Sen with insights that he incorporates into his own approach. Nonetheless, Sen criticizes and fundamentally disagrees with certain features of the perspective. Furthermore, he contends that the ‘handicaps’ or ‘defects’ of the perspective are related to the informational base’s narrowness.

The use of utility as a criterion for assessing well-being is the first of these ‘handicaps.’ Sen contends that utility is insufficient as a guide to disadvantage and deprivation because it ignores other key non-utility traits like claims to rights and freedoms, which are critical in allowing people to approach the world with freedom and select the lifestyles they have reason to value. Sen further claims that the ‘utilitarian calculus’ fails to recognize discrepancies in a society’s distribution of well-being and enjoyment. Because the focus is on a society’s aggregate utility, the distribution of that utility across individuals is overlooked. This flaw in the perspective is significant because a theory of social justice must be able to identify the distributional inequalities that exist in a society. Finally, Sen believes that focusing solely on an individual’s mental traits, like as happiness, is an inadequate and restrictive foundation, particularly when comparing inter-personal well-being. It is restricted, he believes, because of the processes of ‘adaptation’ and mental conditioning,’ in which people change their wishes and wants to make life bearable under such terrible circumstances.

This study will evaluate John Rawls’ theory of justice, noting its strengths and weaknesses, after identifying the limitations of the utilitarian approach to social justice.

John Rawls’s Theory of Justice

A Theory of Justice[4] by John Rawls has been called “the most important and influential work in the area of political philosophy in the twentieth century”[5]. As a result, practically all theories of justice have functioned inside the framework defined by Rawls[6] since the 1960s. This paradigm for justice arose from Rawls’ disagreement with the utilitarian approach, which he claimed failed to “accommodate the needs of justice.”

The informational foundation of Rawls’ theory of justice revolves around the idea that “fairness is the essential idea in the concept of justice”. As a result, he rejected the concept of desert or merit as a foundation for a theory of justice, opting instead for the old political philosophy tradition of a social compact. The social contract is defined as a custom that, among other things,

…represents justice in social arrangements as a matter of agreement between the individuals who participate in them. …The point of the contract is to represent a moral idea about the relationship between the members of a society…all [of whom] are sovereign individuals bound to share their sovereignty by their obligations to one another[7]

This hypothetical social contract is made by a group of self-interested and rational contractors who sit in an “initial position” and behind a “veil of ignorance,” according to Rawls. The veil of ignorance obscures each contractor’s understanding of his or her “generational membership,” “natural endowments,” and “social class background,” making it impossible to predict what obligations and advantages will befall him or her once the veil is lifted[8]. As a result, these contractors would agree on principles and criteria for benefit distribution and obligations in the society in question Furthermore, by being in the ‘original position,’ the agreed-upon principles of justice would be unbiased, assuring fairness for everybody.

The contractors in the original position, according to Rawls, would agree on two principles. The claim to a completely adequate structure of equal basic liberties is the ‘first principle’ of justice, which takes precedence over all other principles. The ‘second principle of justice is divided into two parts: the first is the equitable distribution of societal primary goods, and the second is the ‘Difference Principle,’ which states that any deviation from equality should assist the least fortunate. As a result, in contrast to the notion of merit-based distribution, Rawls contends that the principle of equality is more important.

Whereas utilitarians prioritized primarily utilitarian goods, Rawls emphasized the value of social primary goods. Primary goods, according to him, are those things that “every sensible man is believed to seek” in order to achieve his goals, such as “money and prosperity,” “fundamental rights,” “freedom of movement,” and “self-respect.”[9] Instead of relying primarily on one principle, such as utility, Rawls argued that the social goods should be listed in linguistic order. According to Rawls, the claim of equal liberty should take precedence over all other criteria of justice, which should be followed, in linguistic order, by need and then utility.

Sen’s critique of Rawlsian justice

One of Sen’s focal evaluates of Rawls’ hypothesis of equity is his elite spotlight on, and lexical request of, essential social products. Beginning with freedom, Rawls’ need standard of equity, Sen questions the outright priority of freedom over different privileges and needs. He contends that in certain examples this chronic request should be qualified, particularly in instances of destitution where the focusing on monetary requirements can prompt “matters of life and death”. Although Sen concurs with Rawls that essential products are a way to seek after the various people’s thoughts of the upside, he contends that like pay, essential merchandise is frequently “worried about beneficial things rather than with how those beneficial things treat individuals”[10]. Sen explains this distinction as demonstrated underneath.

Sen clarifies that due to the variety of humankind, the change of essential products to people’s ideal finishes are shifted in two ways. The first variety connects with the distinctions in quite a while. That is, a similar heap of the merchandise might be utilized altogether contrastingly by two unique people, contingent upon their needs and needs. The subsequent variety connects with the varieties in individuals’ capacity to change over essential merchandise and wages into wanted targets, or ‘opportunities’. A portion of these varieties and contrasts in capacity, he contends, can be controlled. Different contrasts anyway are either outside our ability to do anything about them or are extremely challenging to modify. Sen records these distinctions as including “individual heterogeneities” which incorporate age, orientation, handicap and ailment; “ecological varieties” which comprise of climatic conditions, presence of sickness and contamination; “varieties in a friendly environment” which incorporate the commonness of wrongdoing and viciousness, the idea of local area elements and social capital; “contrasts in social viewpoints” which alludes to the varieties of standards and customs between and inside networks; and in conclusion, “appropriation inside the family” which might be portrayed by balance or inclination.

Thus, Sen contends that on the grounds that Rawls centers exclusively around the equivalent dissemination of the means, and on the grounds that he doesn’t consider the between private varieties in individuals’ capacity to change over those implies, his hypothesis neglects to consider the degree to which these opportunities can be figured it out. A similarity that Sen uses to show this point is that of a handicapped individual and a physically fit individual. He portrays how albeit a handicapped individual might have an equivalent bin of merchandise as a capable individual, the individual might have to a lesser degree a shot at seeking after all of their goals, than a healthy individual. Besides, regardless of whether the crippled individual’s products were expanded, the individual might in any case not have the option to carry on with a daily existence equivalent to that of the healthy individual who has less merchandise. Thus an emphasis only on essential products is inadequate and requires a more extensive enlightening base, as presented by Sen.


Sen’s key criticism of the utilitarian approach and Rawls’ theory of social justice is the limited use of utility or primary goods as indices of well-being for the purposes of justice, as previously noted. Sen proposes the ‘capacity approach,’ which focuses on the relationship between people’s resources and what they can do with those resources as an alternative to these limiting measurements. As Sen claims,

[A]ccount would have to be taken not only of the primary goods the person respectively holds, but also of the relevant personal characteristics that govern the conversion of primary goods into the person’s ability to promote her ends.

As a result, Sen advocates for a metric that not only identifies a person’s ‘functionings,’ or what he or she has actually accomplished but also defines the person’s freedom to do so. As a result, he presents the concept of ‘capabilities,’ which he defines as “different combinations of functionings that [a person] is capable of achieving.” He goes on to say that capabilities are essentially “substantive freedoms” since they enable or capacitate a person to live a variety of lifestyles.

Sen claims that being able to distinguish between functionings and having the freedom to do or have anything one wants is crucial to a conception of justice.[11] Economists and social scientists who have tried to empirically apply the capacity approach have found it far easier to look at people’s achieved functionings rather than their freedom to function, according to Alexander. Sen, on the other hand, claims that the goal of the capability approach to social justice is not to simply identify people’s functionings, but to take note of the people’s capabilities people’ degree of freedom, and to create conditions in which all persons can improve their liberties and enjoy equal capacities.

Sen’s argument for focusing on capabilities rather than achieved functionings is evidently driven by the fact that focusing on capabilities allows one to learn more about the choices and options accessible to them than focusing only on achieved functionings. Sen provides an example that aids with this distinction. He compares a man who has opted to fast to someone who is penniless. Despite the fact that both functions in terms of feeding, the man who is fasting has both access to food and the ability to choose. The wealthy person has the ability to choose whether or not to eat, whereas the poor person does not. As a result, as Sen would argue against Rawls’ theory, it is not just about possessing the goods or rights, but also about having the freedom to have and use them in a way that is valuable to the person.

Another rationale for avoiding focusing primarily on functions could be to avoid adopting a “paternalistic mentality,” in which people are forced to perform or be something they don’t want to accomplish[12]. Individuals, on the other hand, are given the freedom to choose whatever functions they value by focusing on capacities. This could be interpreted as a sign of respect and concern for each individual’s personal ideals.

Although Sen is hesitant to endorse a list of skills that would serve as a basic norm for all societies, he does highlight five instrumental freedoms that he believes contribute to people’s total freedom to conduct their life as they desire. ‘Political freedoms,’ which include civil and political rights; ‘economic facilities,’ which include opportunities to use economic resources for the purpose of production or exchange; ‘social opportunities,’ which include both public and private services; ‘transparency guarantees,’ which prevent corruption and financial irresponsibility; and ‘protective security,’ which provides social security.

The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights enshrines many of these liberties. Despite the fact that human rights and human capabilities appear to share a ‘same motivation,’ a closer examination uncovers significant discrepancies. While outside the subject of this essay, Sen’s study of and contribution to human rights directly addresses the issue of social justice. As a result, it seems reasonable to examine the two’s relationship briefly.

Both the ‘intrinsic’ and ‘instrumental’ parts of human rights are valued in the capacity approach. As a result, each right is valued not only for itself but also for the procedures and opportunities it facilitates. Furthermore, Sen claims that human rights are “rights” or “entitlements” to specific freedoms. The human rights framework, in other words, can be utilized to “defend and promote basic capabilities.” Sen says that a community should aim for two important aims in order to ensure the protection and promotion of basic talents. The first is that each individual right holder should be allowed to set their own conditions. The second is that every right should be accompanied with a responsibility on the part of others to aid in the realization of that freedom.

As a result, Sen believes it is insufficient to assert that society is socially just because all citizens have the right to private property, for example. Only if measures are taken to ensure that the ability to realize such freedom is encouraged, such as through redistributive justice or the provision of social security, can it be regarded so. As a result, governmental policies and social institutions can only be judged as just insofar as they assist people in realizing their rights and expanding their talents and freedoms.

It has been stated that the capabilities method is more precise in some areas than the human rights approach and hence has a stronger impact on examining and analyzing social fairness in nations. Sen’s capabilities approach, for example, has aided in the development of the “long-awaited” Since 1990, the United Nations Development Programme has issued an annual Human Development Report to examine development issues in both poor and wealthy countries.[13] In addition to the annual reports, Sen has been instrumental in the development of instruments and indicators that track certain aspects of the economy. Development and justice are two fields that I’m interested in. The Human Development Index (HDI) and the Human Poverty Index (HPI) are two examples of indicators that provide a “practical manner of judging governments and societies’ performance in social justice problems.” As a result, his approach to social justice encompasses more than just questions of distribution and redistribution. Rather, it refers to issues concerning human rights, poverty, and development.

Sen’s link between the public and private sectors of society is another of his important contributions to a theory of social justice. Previously, social justice researchers have overlooked the impact of private disparities, particularly gender inequality, on the creation of social justice. Rawls, for example, neglected to address important distributional issues for women, such as justice and family distribution. Sen, on the other hand, has not only started a conversation on the effects of gender inequality on social justice but has also conducted an extensive study in the topic. Furthermore, his work has made a significant contribution to increasing awareness about gender inequities and developing measures to measure them. The Gender-Related Development Index (GDI) and the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) are two indicators that were created using this method.


Regardless of Sen’s priceless commitments to the hypothesis of civil rights, his methodology isn’t without analysis. This segment features and examines a portion of the predominant investigates of Sen’s methodology. To start with, it thinks about the issue of operationalization. Second, examines Sen’s hesitance to embrace a rundown of fundamental capacities. Third, it questions whether the opportunity is truth be told a “general universally handy social great”, as Sen infers. Fourth, consider his origination of public talk and thinking in investigating abilities. Fifth surveys the connection between the gathering and individual necessities, lastly, it finds out if Sen’s methodology can indeed be viewed as a hypothesis.

Maybe the most studied part of his methodology is the trouble in making an interpretation of his hypothesis into an operationalized estimation file. All the more explicitly, a typical inquiry and study is the manner by which his abilities can be converted into something quantifiable. As examined before, there is an inclination to gauge functionings rather than abilities. By lessening the attention and estimation on functionings, it has been contended that the ability approach can be compared to a reproduction of the Basic Needs approach – and accordingly not mirror Sen’s aims.

Firmly connected with the issue of ordering is the issue connected with Sen’s hesitance to embrace a particular rundown of fundamental capacities, with given needs. Sen accepts that a rundown would lessen the space of public thinking and vote-based pondering. Additionally, he questions how such a rundown would be picked and gauged, and he communicates worries that such a rundown would be seen as being fixed, finished and immortal, and henceforth would not permit space for additional consideration. Martha Nussbaum then again unequivocally advocates for a rundown of need capacities. Therefore she has advanced a rundown of ten fundamental capacities which she contends are all-around fundamental commitments to human turn of events and which ought to be considered similar to the base record of civil rights for some random society.

Despite the fact that I concur with Nussbaum that it is vital to recognize specific essential capacities, particularly as it helps with considering states responsible and guaranteeing a base norm of civil rights, I question the suitability of underwriting one general rundown, particularly as such a rundown risk being socially harsh and time-bound. This worry is reflected in Laderchietal’s portrayal of Nussbaum’s rundown as addressing a “Western, late-20th century origination of easy street”. Subsequently, I would concur with Sen that despite the fact that there are a few principal capacities that should include in each rundown, each rundown should comprise of abilities straightforwardly connected with a particular time, reason and setting, for example, the HDI which is simply planned to gauge a base essential personal satisfaction, and that’s it.

Nussbaum scrutinizes Sen’s viewpoint that opportunity is a “general universally handy social great”. This unhindered point of view of opportunity neglects to consider the way that a few opportunities limit the opportunities of others, while different opportunities are simply decidedly terrible. I would concur with Nussbaum that a few opportunities must be restricted to ensure the opportunities of others. For instance, the respected male privilege, or ‘opportunity’, of a man’s on the whole correct to engage in sexual relations with his significant other whether or not she assents or not, should be limited as it is a ‘opportunity’ which forces direct damage on the opportunities of ladies. Henceforth, I would contend as opposed to Sen that opportunities are not in every case great and that society needs to guarantee that those opportunities which are essentially terrible are limited.

This takes us to one more mark of analysis which concerns Sen’s accentuation of the significance of public talk and thinking in investigating abilities. Sen contends that for the general public to settle on which opportunities and abilities ought to be focused on, there should be a public conversation. Albeit on a fundamental level I concur with this thought, particularly as it advances cooperation and diverse exchange, I really want to address how this can really be converted right into it, and assuming that it is operationalized, how powerful it will be in giving a voice to the most defenseless. Sen seems to accept that the state is an ‘impartial entertainer’ who looks to understand the ‘public interests’; but actually states frequently try to understand the interests of the ‘predominant social classes’. Thus, if the most powerless are not occupied with the conversation, it is impossible that their necessities will be heard, bringing about the propagation of business as usual. Along these lines, it is my perspective that for the way to deal with really encourage civil rights locally, it is fundamental that there is dynamic interest from all layers of the local area.

From a traditional liberal and freedom supporter viewpoint, Sen is investigated for being deficiently individualistic, that is, his methodology is censured for giving an excess of consideration to public talk and conversation, and sufficiently not enough to the individual organization. Then again, a bunch of scholars contends that Sen’s methodology is excessively individualistic. Researchers, for example, Chimni contend that Sen doesn’t put sufficient accentuation on a bunch and cultural abilities and opportunities, nor does he focus on aggregate activity or social developments. Actually, I believe that despite the fact that Sen centers dominatingly around the individual and the acknowledgment of their opportunities, he puts adequate consideration on recognizing the significance of society in choosing the needs of capacities, just as setting out the open doors to understanding those opportunities.

At long last, there are progressing discussions worried about whether Sen’s capacity approach can truth be told be viewed as a full hypothesis of equity. Because of this pondering, Sen himself has expressed that his methodology is a commitment to the talk of civil rights and not a total hypothesis.


Finally, there is no doubt that Sen’s approach has had a significant impact on the discussion of social justice. Despite the objections mentioned above, and despite the fact that his viewpoint is not a theory in and of itself, the depth and scope of Sen’s capability approach are obvious in the large quantity of research that his work has sparked. Sen’s work examines questions of social justice from the individual and societal perspectives. Furthermore, his approach goes beyond social justice to include economics, development, and human rights. I find it impressive how he has been able to blur the barriers between disciplines by posing issues that necessitate input from diverse domains. Finally, I feel that the capabilities approach has generated an element of hope in the discourse of social justice as a conceptual framework; a requirement that allows the global discourse to develop and spread.


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[1]  T. Behr ‘Luigi Taparelli and Social Justice: Rediscovering the Origins of a “Hollowed” Concept’ in W. D. Harrison (ed) Social Justice in Context vol 1 (2005)

[2] A. Sen Development as Freedom (2000) at 55-58.

[3] J. S. Mill ‘Utilitarianism’ Fraser’s Magazine (1879)

[4] J. Rawls A Theory of Justice (1971)

[5] D. D. Raphael Concepts of Justice (2001)

[6] H. Brighouse Justice (2004)

[7] Brighouse op cit note 17

[8] J. Rawls A Theory of Justice (1971)

[9] J. Rawls ‘Priority of Right and Ideas of the Good(1988) 17 Philosophy and Public Affairs

[10] A. Sen ‘Equality of What?’ (1979) The Tanner Lecture on Human Values delivered at Stanford University

[11] A. Sen ‘Human Rights and Capabilities’ (2005) 6 Journal of Human Development 2

[12] An example of an approach that has been criticised as being patronising is the Basic Needs Approach as it    allegedly does not allow individuals to choose for themselves what they consider to be a ‘basic need’ and are instead told what is important to have and be, S. Reader ‘Does a Basic Needs Approach Need Capabilities?(2006) 14 The Journal of Political Philosophy 3

[13] P. Vizzard ‘The HDCA Approach and Human Rights’ (2006) Briefing Note, Human Development and        Capability Association

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