Reason must always come before identity, says Sen

A powerful plea urging us inot to reject a sense of universal justice in favour of individual perceptions of morality, was delivered by Professor Amartya Sen in the Romanes lecture at the Sheldonian Theatre on 17 November.

Professor Sen (pictured left), Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, took as his starting point the fact that in recent years there had been a world-wide upsurge of interests in `the politics of identity'.

From the attempts of Francophone Quebecois to secure independence, to Asian governments insisting on the validity of their non-Western moral views and political institutions, the idea that there are universal standards of justice and universally valid human rights has repeatedly been challenged.

In his lecture, `Reason before Identity', Professor Sen presented a critique of the view put forward by Communitarians that identity is something that is only detected and not determined, or changed, upholding instead a reinvigorated Rawlsian view.

He refuted the notion that morality is parasitic upon social identity, arguing instead for the necessity of reasoned choices in determining our identities and our understandings of justice.

`In a political context, the prioritising of identity over reason has the effect of rejecting ideas of cross-cultural dialogue' he said.

Professor Sen discussed the `tendency to split the world up into little islands' rather than see it in terms of moral norms. He said that Communitarian theories tried to rival liberal justice by suggesting that we are defined by our cultural identities.

These identities can jeopardise our rational moral understanding of problems: `Human society does need more than justice, but it does need justice', he noted.

Going on to discuss the absurdity of many of our perceptions of identity, he noted the Communitarian approach seems to hold a persuasive power, putting cultural identity before reasoning.

But, he argued, in fact it is hard to believe that we do not have a choice in determining our identity.

Sen gave the example of Gandhi who positively chose his identity as an advocate of independence over his identity as a barrister.

`It is the mistaken belief that we have no choice about our identity which leads people to fall into the trap of sectarianism' he said. `Choice is possible and an important decision'.

Amartya Sen was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1998. He was Drummond Professor of Political Economy at All Souls (1980–8).

Professor Sen is credited with refuting the intuitive notion that scarcity of food is the primary cause of famine. His best known work is probably Poverty and Famine: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Clarendon Press, 1981).

The 1998 Romanes Lecture is to be published by OUP in February 1999.

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