Whose social justice is it anyway?

Sunday 31 October, 10.45am until 12.15pm, Upper Gulbenkian Gallery Keynote Controversies

20 years ago the UN published the first and hugely influential Human Development Report. Drawing on the work of philosopher and economist Amartya Sen, it had the ‘single goal of putting people back at the centre of the development process… going beyond income to assess the level of people’s long-term well-being’. Today the resulting measures are familiar: literacy, female schooling, urbanisation, equality and even happiness are argued to be at least as important as GDP and income. Last year, Sen’s Idea of Justice expanded on his view that it is human ‘capabilities’ - the range of things we can do or be in life - that is core to our notion of justice, explicitly rejecting the attempts of thinkers like John Rawls to develop an objective standard of justice based on things we can all agree on.

From the late 1940s to the late 1970s there was a broad consensus that development meant transforming poor rural countries into rich urban ones through increased industrialisation and economic growth. Often this went hand in hand with a belief that justice would be best served by affording people more freedom. Today, in the context of widespread acceptance of economic and natural limits, development more often refers to the alleviation of the most extreme forms of poverty and to reducing inequality. In the context of fast-growing middle-income countries like China, Brazil and India, there is great stress placed on the need for inclusive or harmonious development. In these countries, increasing prosperity seems to shine an embarrassing light on the persistence of social inequality, leading to demands for governments to redistribute wealth and ensure basic levels of provision.

The battle lines in the contemporary debate on social justice appear to be drawn between those who argue for a focus on felt injustices, happiness and lived experience, and those who insist on the relevance of statistical indicators, model building and transcendental abstractions like Justice. Between those who rail at the excesses of wealth in the hands of the few and those who believe more growth can still benefit the poor as well.

Is it right to focus our efforts on tackling what appear to be obvious and immediate cases of injustice? Poverty, disease, oppression? Lack of basic education and healthcare? Through redistribution of wealth and granting of entitlements? Or should we try to raise up the standards of all? Is the challenge to build capabilities in relation to actual material circumstances or to transform those material circumstances and maybe ourselves in the process? Must we become happy with our lot or let our unhappiness be a spur to get what we haven’t got? When we talk of justice do we need to ask, justice for whom?

INTRODUCED BY: Sujata Sen, director East India British Council, programme leader, projects related to Intercultural Dialogue and Literature


Listen to session audio:


Ann Bernstein
executive director, Centre for Development and Enterprise, South Africa; author, The Case for Business in Developing Economies

Sabina Alkire
director, Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI); author, Valuing Freedoms: Sen’s capability approach and poverty reduction

Anil Gupta
professor, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad; founder, Honey Bee Network; executive vice chair, National Innovation Foundation

Stewart Wallis
executive director, new economics foundation (nef); author, A Radical New Vision for World Trade

Bruno Waterfield
Brussels correspondent, The Times; co-author, No Means No

Angus Kennedy
convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination

Produced by
Claire Fox director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive
Angus Kennedy convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination
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