Random Thoughts

More Justice Problems

There is a Harvard course on Justice by Professor Sandel which is available free on the PBS.org website. The debate ranges from Libertarianism which advocates that each person should be fully entitled to all the fruits of his or her labor or talent and the state, society or government which takes away any of his or her earnings is guilty of an unacceptable offense of depriving life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. The argument against the above is that every individual derives substantial benefits from a society, its institutions, attitudes, preferences and also to some extent from mere chance, good fortune or serendipity, and thus should be obligated to contribute some of the rewards or earnings for general good. 

If one is a superb basketball player in India, it is not likely to lead to a zillion dollar annual salary from the US NBA and therefore a substantial portion of such a largesse is due to the great need, recognition and reward of American society. Similar advantages accrue from socioeconomic status of your parents, birth order, luck and chance. A Feng Shui specialist would starve to death in American society. A recent proposition for higher taxes on high earners and higher inheritance taxes was Bill Gates Sr.’s referendum in Washington state, which I believe lost.

Another view is the utilitarian view which takes the algebraic sum of the happiness and unhappiness of a given population and tries to formulate socioeconomic policies on that basis. The two problems with that are how many of us would want to live in a society where a substantial minority or even a single child or adult is purposefully, systematically and routinely deprived, incarcerated or tortured as the cost of general well being. Many may reject maltreatment of even a single child but we willingly overlook the exploitation of migrant seasonal farm workers or textile workers in the US Mariana and Samoa islands and blissfully ignore the discriminatory laws that the US Congress recently passed under the leadership of Tom Delay. We do it in another way by buying cheaper items from various discount stores that exploit foreign labor or do not pay American workers a living wage or health insurance premiums. We did the same things in the past by exploiting slave labor.

Emannuel Kant proposed that only those actions which are done because they are right and dictated by one’s conscience with no primary or secondary motivation of personal gain, deserve praise or reward. Such de-ontological action is reminiscent of “Karmanyeva Adhikarastu ma phaleshu kadachina” from the Gita (your only right is to act according to duty and not to expect the fruits thereof). Aristotle stresses that rewards should go to the deserving virtuous but he states that some persons deserve to be slaves. In this age and time no one is going to go along with that.

John Rawls comes up with the example that the person who cuts the cake must receive only the last piece after others have made their choice. He wants a consensus to be arrived at in a society where the legislators or participants who lay down the rules do it under a veil of ignorance. The two important conditions which Rawls says must be satisfied are –

  1. Each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties which is compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for all.
  2. 2)Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions. First, they must be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they must be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.

These conditions do not impress the US Congress. That is why many years ago the higher premiums for Medicare for high earners was repealed and the current animosity of the elderly to Medicare cuts in the recently passed Obama healthcare bill led to the Tea Party and the Republican victory in the 2010 midterm elections. This is also why Forbes wants a flat tax. Others want to repeal the estate tax and the preliminary report of the Commission to cut the deficit wants to increase the retirement age for Social Security benefits to 68 or 69, even though the real programs in trouble are Medicare and the killing expenditures are in wars and defense and not so much in other discretionary spending. Sen has some problems with Rawl’s differential rewards for different skills though he does not advocate uniform compensation for all skills or lack thereof.

Lastly an even newer debate is about capabilities and the example quoted by Madhusree Chatterjee in the review of Amartya Sen’s book “The Idea Of Justice” involves the three children. One made the flute out of a piece of wood, but can’t play music with it, the second has no toys at all and wants one and the third is adept at playing the flute and make good music. Sen states that each one has a right to it respectively on the basis of effort, deprivation requiring social justice and virtue of musical ability compatible with the very purpose of a flute. My opinion is that unless we are told that the maker of the flute has another spare one, to deprive him or her of his only flute which he made entirely with his own effort would set up a precedent of state dictated total confiscation of property (not graduated taxation) incompatible with the functioning of any society. I therefore think that this much touted and lauded hypothetical instance in the book review published at www.boloji.com and in the Financial Times does not really satisfy justice as implying equitable, righteous or fair.  


More by :  Gaurang Bhatt, MD

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Views: 3457      Comments: 3

Comment Thanks for your response. There was a significant typo in the second sentence of the second para in my posted comment dated 14 Nov below. The sentence should read: 'I have often wondered why down-and-outs in society don't do simple acts of mischief...' Though this sense is conveyed in what I conclude, unfortunately, you have interpreted it as my exonerating an act of vandalism. I apologise.

15-Nov-2010 15:54 PM

Comment The very first two paragraphs of my article stress that all achievements and rewards are significantly due to a society and its members and not mere individual prowess or talent. I have not only not missed the point, but have emphasized it. As Milton said in his poem and your quotation from John Donne implies, "They also serve who only stand and wait". But to count the vandalism that you describe as a positive contribution is too much. One can understand the motivation behind such vandalism in a society with skewed Gini coiffecient, but to justify it as a virtuous deed is stretching it too far.

gaurang bhatt
15-Nov-2010 07:22 AM

Comment I think what is overlooked in your analysis is that no man is an island, and on that basis, all achievement or its lack is based on others in the same society providing support, or its lack. So that never can it be said by anyone that he owes no one anything, pointing solely to his own efforts. The very tap he opens, the very kettle he switches on for his daily cuppa, is a service provided for him by others. There is simply no argument for independent achievement in society.

An example may suffice here. I have often wondered why down-and-outs in society do simple acts of mischief that would cost the better off dear. For example, on some benighted city street, lined with cars, to quietly walk along scoring the paintwork of each with a stone. This vandalism would be termed 'mindless' by society; and indeed we owe it to the down-and-outs that they think so too. You see even they contribute to society by exercising a communal conscience, something we tale for granted

14-Nov-2010 21:18 PM

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