Amartya Sen on The Idea of Justice

Nobel Prize-winning economist Prof Amartya Sen is in Belfast to pick up an honorary degree from Queen's University Belfast.

The university was kind enough to extend invitations to me and about 20 other Amnesty members to attend a small lecture and Q&A session with Sen last night.

The discussion was based on Sen's latest book The Idea of Justice. I haven't read it (yet), so will wisely refrain from trying to summarise it beyond quoting the blurb from Amazon:

"At the heart of Sen’s argument is his insistence on the role of public reason in establishing what can make societies less unjust… Sen also shows how concern about the principles of justice in the modern world must avoid parochialism, and further, address questions of global injustice. The breadth of vision, intellectual acuity and striking humanity of one of the world's leading public intellectuals have never been more clearly shown than in this remarkable book."

I asked Sen if he thought that government attitudes to economic justice had changed much since the sixties when Martin Luther King Jr (whom he had mentioned in his remarks) was vilified, when he moved on from campaigning for civil rights to campaigning for economic and social rights and against poverty.

Sen thought that things had advanced a little and noted Obama's recent moves on extending healthcare provision in the United States – despite much public and political opposition. He added that he thought that King's campaign for economic justice would ultimately be vindicated and that in the same way we now look back at racial injustice and shake our heads at how long it was tolerated, by the end of the century people will look back in wonder at how long we tolerated such economic injustice.

Northern Ireland Justice Minister David Ford was among the guests last night. At the private dinner after the lecture, he too admitted to not having read Sen's book but promised to the work to his summer reading list. With chronic problems in the Northern Ireland prison system, and with the Public Prosecution Service and a more general need to improve accountability, transparency and human rights compliance in the criminal justice system, the Minister will need all the inspiration and commitment to justice he can find.

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