Monday, September 15, 2014

Sen on democracy

Finishing Amartya's wonderful book The Idea of Justice - which for some reason I had a hiatus in reading of about 3 years.  There is so much wonderful thought in this that I cannot begin to do it justice - it really should be required reading for anyone interested in the philosophy of justice or politics.

One of his basic ideas is that we should not focus on the characteristics of an ideal society but ask instead how one can get agreement, through discussion, on how societies can become more just.

He also has some fascinating and very important things to say about democracy. Let me take this up at Chapter 15 with some of the gems:
  • The belief that democracy has not flourished anywhere in the world other than the West is widely held and often expressed. And it is also used to explain contemporary events; for example... the immense difficulties and problems in post-intervention Iraq.
  •  democracy is best seen as 'government by discussion'  (my emphasis)
  •  If the demands of justice can be assessed only with public reasoning, and if public reasoning is constitutively related to the idea of democracy, then there is an intimate connection between justice and democracy, with shared discursive features.
He doesn't at all agree that balloting is the essence of democracy, though of course it is important. He points out that whilst balloting began in Greece, public discussion has a much more widespread history.

He also points out wryly that to define Ancient Greece as "Western" is to presume that they have more in common with (say) the Visigoths "even though ancient Greeks, who were very involved in intellectual exchanges with other ancient civilizations to the east and south of Greece (in particular Iran, India and Egypt) seem to have taken very little interest in chatting up the lively Goths and Visigoths".
  • Some of the earliest open general meetings aimed specifically at settling disputes between different points of view... took place in India in the so-called Buddhist 'councils'... beginning in the sixth century BC... The last one happened in the 2nd Century AD in Kashmir.
  • early 7th C Japan... produced the ... 'constitution of seventeen articles' [which] insisted... 'Decisions on important matters should not be made by one person alone. They should be discussed with many.'
  • When ... Maimonides was forced to emigrate from Spain...[he] was given an honoured and influential position at the court of Emperor Saladin... By the 10th C the achievement of Corboda in Muslim-ruled Spain as being...'a contender... for the title of most civilised place on earth' was due to the joint influence of Caliph Abd al-Rahman III and his Jewish vizier, Hasdai ibn Shaprut.
He also discusses five reasons why "an unrestrained and healthy media is important" for a democracy. In summary (using Amartya's words):
  1. The direct contribution of free speech in general and of press freedom in particular to the quality of our lives.
  2. a major informational role in disseminating knowledge and allowing critical scrutiny.
  3. an important protective function in giving voice to the neglected and disadvantaged.
  4. informed and unregimented formation of values requires openness of communication and argument.
  5. a critically important role in facilitating public reasoning in general.
I'll blog about the next chapters over the coming days. But  it really is a great book, worth reading in full.

No comments: