Saturday, November 20, 2004

Sen on Buddhism, China and democracy

Amartya Sen's Passage to China (New York Review of Books, 2 Dec) shows he has more time to reflect in his semi-retirement, and to read Joseph Needham among others, which is nice.

Sen makes as good as case as you are likely to find of the relevance of the Buddhist tradition to democracy:

Insofar as reasoned public discussion is central to democracy (as John Stuart Mill, John Rawls, and J├╝rgen Habermas, among many others, have argued), the origins of democracy can indeed be traced in part to the tradition of public discussion that received much encouragement from the emphasis on dialogue in Buddhism in both India and China (and also in Japan, Korea, and elsewhere). It is also significant that nearly every attempt at early printing in China, Korea, and Japan was undertaken by Buddhists...

As a religion, Buddhism began with at least two specific characteristics that were quite unusual, its agnosticism and its commitment to broad discussion of public issues.

...in the third century BC, [the Emperor] Ashoka also tried to codify and circulate what must have been among the earliest formulations of rules for public discussion—a kind of ancient version of Robert's Rules of Order. He demanded, for example, "restraint in regard to speech, so that there should be no extolling of one's own sect or disparaging of other sects on inappropriate occasions, and it should be moderate even in appropriate occasions." Even when engaged in arguing, "other sects should be duly honored in every way on all occasions."


In covering so much ground, Sen is inevitably sweeping. But it's worth it (as as it was in his 2000 piece for the same magazine, East and West: The Reach of Reason). In the concluding section he joins battle on familiar ground - development and freedom, with specific regard to public health:

China's life expectancy of seventy-one years is now lower than that in some parts of India, notably in the state of Kerala, which, with its 30 million people, is larger than many countries; Kerala has been particularly successful in combining Indian-style multiparty democracy (including public debates and widespread participation of citizens in public life) with improvements in health through state initiatives of the type that China undertook after the Revolution.

The advantage of that combination shows itself not only in achievements in high life expectancy but also in many other fields. For example, while the ratio of women to men in the total population in China is only 0.94 and the Indian overall average is 0.93, Kerala's ratio is 1.06, exactly the same as in North America and Western Europe. This high ratio reflects the survival advantages of women when they are not subjected to unequal treatment. The fall in the fertility rate of Kerala has also been substantially faster than in China, despite China's coercive birth-control policies.

Democracy and political freedom are not only valuable in themselves, says Sen; they also make a direct contribution to public policy ... by bringing failures of social policy under public scrutiny.

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