Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Under-scrutinized parochialism

All the books by Amartya Sen have a common thread, and this is going beyond Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem. I have recently re-read substantial parts of his books on justice and on identity, I read in summer his partial autobiography, and I have always handy the re-edition of his book on Social Choice. Arrow reached the somewhat pessimistic result that from a set of individual rankings of social outcomes, it was not mathematically possible to reach a collective ranking that fulfills a minimal number of reasonable properties (such as transitivity). One example of this is that there is no voting rule that is not vulnerable to breaking one of a few such reasonable criteria. Sen took this result not as a final destination, but as a starting point for a research program to explore partial possibilities that could deliver imperfect but practical solutions. This could be in terms of voting rules, measurement of economic well-being or other aspects of social organization.

In “The Idea of Justice” he applies this notion to the exploration of a comparative theory of justice, where the objective is not to reach a perfect ideal of justice, but to correct injustices in a practical way, not focusing only on institutions, but also on social outcomes ("what happens to people"). He connects this program of practical justice to the notion of “Democracy as public reason.” That is, the possibility of deliberation and discussion allows societies to uncover injustices and correct them. Sen’s sentence that “Outrage can be used to motivate, rather than to replace, reasoning,” which was perhaps written fifteen years ago, resonates today very loudly.

Once we understand that democracy goes beyond ballots and elections, one key aspect to be confronted is that a danger for democracies is to remain trapped in local interests and prejudices. Arguments may be enriched by a global impartial spectator or more practically by the view of others in other lands. This is for two reasons: one is that the interests of people in different societies, countries or regions are more and more interconnected. One decision in one country affects what happens in another country. In other words, there are significant externalities. Another reason has to do with perspectives and ideas. Others may have thought about something that affects us. I see that in communities (like mine) that are over-exposed to nationalist rhetoric: we could learn a lot not only from a better knowledge of our own history, but also from a better knowledge of the (mostly tragic) consequences of nationalism elsewhere.

Other examples come from the US: knowledge from what happens and what is discussed in other countries could help that particular democracy to understand why the death penalty, or the reluctance to embrace public health, are very exceptional among developed democracies. 

Similarly, why phenomena such as famines are not the same as sectarian identity conflicts, makes it possible to understand why the manipulation of identities poses such a threat to democracies and especially to the respect of minorities or the respect of voiceless majorities. In a famine, the non-affected majority can feel empathy for those that suffer, once they are exposed to the relevant information. However, in a sectarian conflict, one community may not feel any empathy for another one, even when they are confronted with the relevant facts and data.

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