Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Emotion Reason Justice Law and Human Rights

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen is in Kolkata to talk about his new book The Idea of Justice. I read about the launch of the book in the UK and it was reported to be a phenomenal success. Yesterday's The Telegraph has his interview on some of the ideas he discusses in this book.

I have never seen him in person. That's a shame because he came to my school to give a lecture but I didn't go. All those who went or asked me to go was excited because "he is definitely going to get a Nobel prize". That must not have proved to be a sufficient motivation at that age.

Meeting him is one of the things I would like to do before ... well ... him and a few other people that I am slightly crazy about.

Emotions can be very murky in the court of law. But it would be wrong to blatantly ignore its satanic powers (in the context of justice). I liked his response to the question What is the place of emotions in your theory of justice?
I don’t regard emotion more important than reason, but we do have reason to take emotion seriously.
I wish I had studied about human rights and justice and related matters to be able to see through some of the things he talked about. But as I was reading the interview, I sort of saw 3 different pillars, slightly leaning against one another, that the idea of rights stands on.

(Human) Rights, Justice and Law.

Following is my 5 minutes reflection on these ... what I would have said should the interviewer have asked me.

Human rights are, at least roughly, the rights a person has just for being a human being. The other rights are given to her/him by some law, and that makes HR so special. Think about it ... the concept is amazing yet so simple ... as amazing as Dubito, Ergo Cogito, Ergo Sum.

Law is a technical gadget, like the belt that the skinny dude is wearing to protect his modesty. It lacks novelty but boasts of necessity.

Justice is by far the most complicated of the trio. Syntactically it means being just. The fuzziness comes from how to measure justness. I think most people would share the same opinion as A.S., which is also what comes naturally to my mind, that justness is what a bunch of people, in a relatively fair and free way, accepts. There is a lot of unspoken detail here. The interview mentions two classical theories about justice - one by John Rawls (author of A Theory of Justice) who requires the people to be local and the other by Adam Smith whose requirement is based on an impartial spectator (I guess the spectator needs to be a human being ... no kidding ... seriously, rowing the waters of the initial years of The Age of Synthetic Thinking with robots and machines, it is time to think about when does 'an orga become a mecha' (*) ?).

I am more inclined, as much as I could be in 5 mins at work, towards the former idea which is similar to the jury of peers idea popular in the USA. The impartial arbitrator who can, for purpose of argument, appear from thin air and disappear after delivering his verdict, does not interest me, not because it is unrealistically idealist, but because often different communities have different notions of right and wrong. Of course, I agree that human rights are something independent of the community but there is often a tendency to interpret other rights as cousins of some human right just to give it a greater edge.

(*) Spielberg's A.I. - highly relevant for the text in the brackets.