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I Is Not Enough – Amartya Sen on the Utility and Moral Dimension of Thinking Beyond Ourselves

One of the reasons for this blog is to share different frameworks of thought that I’ve found helpful or interesting with others. I am the kind of person who really enjoys having a conceptual framework for why, what and how I go about doing just about anything.

In the introduction to his book, The Idea of Justice, the economist Amartya Sen makes an eloquent case for his attempt at crafting a theory of justice. What I love about the passage that follows is that you could replace the word justice for any number of things such as: nutrition, monetary policy, relationships, investing, meaningful work, and have a compelling argument for why we should strive to build a theory around our actions and the actions of others:

The identification of redressable injustice is not only what animates us to think about justice and injustice, it is also central, I argue in this book, to the theory of justice. In the investigation presented here, diagnosis of injustice will figure often enough as the starting point for critical discussion. But, it may be asked, if this is a reasonable starting point, why can’t it also be a good ending point? What is the need to go beyond our sense of the word justice and injustice. Why must we have a theory of justice?

To understand the world is never a matter of simply recording our immediate perceptions. Understanding inescapably involves reasoning. We have to ‘read’ what we feel and seem to see, and ask what those perceptions indicate and how we may take them into account without being overwhelmed by them. One issue relates to the reliability of our feelings and impressions. A sense of injustice could serve as a signal that moves us, but a signal does demand critical examination, and there has to be some scrutiny of the soundness of a conclusion based mainly on signals. Adam Smith’s conviction of the importance of moral sentiments did not stop him from a seeking a ‘theory of moral sentiments’. Nor from insisting that a sense of wrongdoing be critically examined through reasoned scrutiny to see whether it can be the basis of a sustainable condemnation. A similar requirement of scrutiny applies to an inclination to praise someone or something.*

As compelling as this is for me, there are, I’ve been told, some people who consider an intellectual framework to be superfluous, if not downright stupid. To such people, a theory is nothing more than an extra layer of unnecessary complexity around a problem. Instead of theoretical frameworks for action, such people assign value only to their intuition and unique personal experiences.

For example, people often dismiss the need for an intellectual framework in the context of weight-loss and exercise. They say things like, “If I want to lose weight,  I just eat less and exercise more.” or “If I want to get stronger, I just go to the gym and lift heavy weights.” And in some sense these people are right, they recognize that often it is doing simple and effective things that make real progress and over intellectualizing can be a waste of time and energy.

The problem with this type of thinking is that it runs a dangerous risk of oversimplification and ignores the role that generalizable framework plays in improving the lives of others.

I say improve the lives of others because meaningful lives are the result of good decisions (on average) and good decisions are the result of understanding how the world works. In light of that understanding, the failure to try and think beyond our own intuition and experience can be viewed a failure from a moral dimension.

The failure to attempt to think beyond ourselves is a moral failure because it means we never stop to ask if and how our experiences manifest the underlying reality of the world. Such an approach to life precludes the possibility of creating a generalized framework that can be communicated, tested and then shared to better the lives of others. 

That said, there are good reasons to be skeptical of theory. Sometimes theories are bullshit.1 But the failure of an individual framework is not the failure of the method. We should consider what works for I and then carefully, and incrementally attempt to discover why and how it will work for we.


*Sen, Amartya Kumar. The Idea of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard U, 2011. Print.

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