What is justice: A torch leading society on an earthy road towards concretized or even somewhat cracked utopianism from the musty and muggy world or an idea that hovers around merely having a society the root of which sprouts from the watered ground of happiness quotient of its individuals. But mythos of utopianism are too slippery to be caught by our hands so habitual of dreaming about pail or more ambitiously even pond of olive and happiness of late seems to have become as extrinsic a characteristic as intrinsic once it was.
For all our claims about the idea of happiness being a state of mind on the lines of famous maxim ‘adversity is inevitable but suffering is optional’ we can’t divorce our state of mind from two crucial factors. One, the society we live in and second the state of idea of justice in our society. However reclusive and ascetic I may be my years on earth will bear the stamp of my society and its socio-economic-political structure. So irrespective of justice being a torch bringing in light into darkness laden corners of my life or a teacher trying to have me smile amidst all the odds jostling me to be a thin line on a limited size paper I as a member of a society do care for the forms of justice with all their flaws my society has adopted. In this background sometimes it becomes imperative to think over what is just society and how far are we from attaining it.
The just society is wherein the ken of justice touches upon every conceivable aspect of society. If justice is being right and fair and sense of just encapsulates what is legally or ethically right, proper and fitting then what are the hiccups in our being right and fair ethically and legally and help our society become a just society. Don’t we witness the propounding of these values all the time around us right from our childhood? If we have a model like Gandhiji to lookup to for whom the thought of ‘right’ in all its forms was more captivating and important than just snatching away freedom from an imperious society what keeps us from realizing the dream of having a society based on justness of the causes.
The thought ‘everybody is fair to everybody’ is enchanting and seems like a potential fount for all the extrinsic causes of happiness. One primary impediment to this thought is the inequality prevalent in our society which in other words is the disparity that persists between various sections of the society paramountly along religious, economic and social structure lines. This inequality leads to inequity. The branches of these disparities are now so deeply entrenched in the fiber of the societies that wrenching any society free of them is a utopian idea in itself.
Societies in themselves are a conglomeration of myriad communities sharing different and multi hued relationship with one another. How far do these relationships go in imbuing the spirit of interdependence with humanity, reverence or otherwise formulates the framework that ultimately becomes the cemented structure we call society. With the passage of time these threads have grown so stronger and robust that every hand that tried to break these threads was made to shed blood unless it held a scissor of power of one form or another entangled in its fingers. This corollary brings us to the trenchant question. If just society is an equal society then how feasible is this idea to be realized.
If we go by what Michael Sandel says who has recently released his book Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? then a community describes not just what its members have as fellow citizens but also what they are, not a relationship they choose but an attachment they discover, not merely an attribute but a constituent to their identity. Though philosophically the concept of discovering one’s identity rather than choosing seems righteous but if the same principal is baked in social hearth of reality the result can be quite horrifying in the sense that not only it reinforces the divisions of the society along community lines but also absolves one of the responsibility of having to choose an identity.
One look at society as it stands today and the idea of equality based society too appears equally ignis fatuus. The idea of society as is prevalent today springs from the notion of Orientalism more than Occidentalism. The sense of collectivism in the east and the perseverance of individualism in the west both have it in them to create societies amenable to minimum and basic laws of humanity but the spirit of oneness sometimes at the cost of individualism that thrives in the east led to creation of society that had its root in the institution of family that was always larger than the immediate family of west. Samuel Huntington had insisted that west was west long before it was modern and the sense of individualism and a tradition of individual rights and liberties to be found in the west are unique among civilized societies. Though the question of individual rights and liberties demands attention and respect its might if understood wrongly may whip the idea of society.
Much as Orientalism had been criticized by likes of John Milton who referred to ‘Orient’ as a culturally infernal place and John Stuart and James Mill who described India as depraved, immoral world populated by lost souls it has succeeded in more ways than one keeping societies from falling apart. While the individualism of west made way for better chiseling of individual being and respect for views from other side and hence the anchoring of feet that contributed to the power of nation in oriental society as it cares amply for consent than righteousness the bonding had always been greater. The large chunk of survival of idea of India which according to western observers had always been doomed to dismemberment can be ascribed to this thought. Amartya Sen in his book The Argumentative Indian asserts this characteristic of Indians wherein they have learnt to have consent on not consenting and then moving on.
In A Theory of Justice (1971), John Rawls writes that in a well-ordered society, “everyone is presumed to act justly.” John Rawls claimed that one has no right to one’s talent and gifts. It is the community that comes first and individuality, the characteristic on which occdentalism is based comes later. He goes to the extent of asking us to shed our very personhood to be part of community. The spirit of Orientalism shines through Rawls’s argument. This Orientalism has two sides: one which binds us to our community and helps us buttress the bond and second, the idea of communityhood is so strong that it leaves no space for the characteristics which can help the community only if they get the area exclusively reserved for them to be blossomed.
Gifts and talents of one’s personality are useless unless they serve the society at large but in the absence of personhood they will be left with a blank to lean on and flower. The idea of communityhood makes us go gamboling around every time an individual or a group from our community or nation achieves a distinction and has us bow our head in shame at someone from amongst us bringing ignominy and sullying the image that we want to project as a group, society or community. The kind of shame that Indian Diaspora felt after Gujarat 2002 pogrom exemplifies this sense of communityhood even after being detached from the parent community geographically. Thereby the idea of belonging to a group larger than one’s immediate group in quotidian existence always enhances one’s view of his or her personality in terms of the space or sense of contribution the larger group is capable of eliciting but on flip side too much of sinking and osmosis and much emphasized latching onto one’s community acts against the very interests of community.
My excessive bondage to my community not only makes me blind to the virtues of other communities but also seeps into me an obsessiveness that sometimes manifests in fundamentalism the vices of which are far too many to counter the virtues of communityhood. So it is incumbent on our part to know the other but not at the cost of losing the identity. Only then will we be able to look at what is not ours or what is not made to our liking with dispassionate but curious eyes. Any ineluctable entanglement to certain set of beliefs that one has learnt from his community to the extent of loosing the personhood risks only sprawling and widening the venomous chasm between insider and outsider. I fear this notion may prove dichotomous for the larger cause the needs of which may have equally to do with individualism and sense of communityhood.
It is but natural that we follow we just discussed by casting our attention on one of the principal characteristics of a society. This facet of society draws its significance from the idea of just society and we call it Liberalism. Amartya Sen writes in his recent book The idea of Justice that it (liberalism) is trying to imagine how our ideas of justice might appear to people who don’t share our background, traditions or language. Another angle that creeps in the moment I talk about a community altogether alien to my customs, culture, cuisine, attire and religion is that of cosmopolitanism.
If I happen to be at a place that doesn’t share my beliefs what should I do? Which aspects of my personality between my personhood and communityhood shall I retain and which I shed to be able to alleviate the skin of outsider? Or is it proper for me to be an outsider as long as I am there? Commonsense suggests the idea of being an insider is always better than outsider if the stay lasts longer than usual. But how do I become insider? Sen argues in his book that we should adopt what Adam Smith called the perspective of the “impartial spectator”. He cites that what seems commonplace to an American might look quite barbaric to a European e.g. the absence of universal health care. What seems natural in some parts of Africa like female circumcision would be a violation of human rights elsewhere.
Once I come to terms with these disparities it becomes easy for me to see the truth as it is and seek my place in the new cauldron with my dignity intact. Any society that espouses the principles of heterodoxy and pluralism will always be an easy one for an outsider to find place in. The spirit of cosmopolitanism seeks an extension to liberalism in regards with one‘s view towards his or her society and society that is perceived as other. Only then the cosmopolitanism has in it to replace this otherism with commonism.
The dualism of culture that propagates thoughts like ‘culture that is ours and culture that is theirs’ will never transform into a uniformized idea and more so when distance plays the role in offering an objective view of what had always been a part until cosmopolitanism drew on the basics of heterodoxy and pluralism. The part that is indigenous will have to start looking at what is alien from their indigenous point of view to consolidate the spirit of indigenousness and hence cosmopolitanism too. No cosmopolitanism or libertinism is complete without the spirit of humanism.
In a lecture delivered after 25 years of the publication of his Orientism Edward Said had said, “by humanism I mean first of all attempting to dissolve Blake's mind-forged manacles so as to be able to use one's mind historically and rationally for the purposes of reflective understanding. Our role is to widen the field of discussion.” Said emphasized that there is nothing like an isolated humanist. Same can be said of a just society.
These notions of just society may be universal but it has equally to do with the idea of being in tune with nature and climate of the place.
One can’t help agreeing with Sandel when he says, “political philosophy cannot resolve our disagreements once and for all but it can give shape to the arguments we have, and bring moral clarity to the alternatives we confront as democratic citizens.”
That is the key. How we bring moral clarity to our thoughts while being member of a society that is still not ours. Though the theory goes only as far as we are sure of the serrated corners of morality.
Sen is right in saying that all what we can have is a progression towards a just society. That brings us to the truth that the idea of just if understood in the exacting context of a society is a chimera. The hierarchies and levels at which a society works may be undesirable but quite necessary for the normal functioning of the society. Every layer and level frame-worked within the defined laws and spirit of righteousness is like building housing a certain section of people. The demolition of this building will uproot the dwellers while at the same time giving them an opportunity to go in search of a better or worse place but what is worth noting is that neighbors too will to their chagrin or pleasure feel the change. Much awkward as it may sound a sweeper is as integral a part of society as the prime minister. We can’t escape the uncomfortable truth that inequality in terms of wealth, position, place, prestige and respect that flows from these inequities will keep confronting us with the idea of justice standing mute.
We all have heard that no occupation is smaller so long as it doesn’t involve unlawful means. But given the complexities and lack of perfection in terms of growth of human mind thanks to dismal state of education one always tend to have prejudices. In addition to these all pervading prejudices are the natural human ills that beset our societies. All these combined made for the need of a system that could help those in need of justice. With the passage of time the idea of justice that had arisen from disputes gave way to a more fundamental thought which was equally concerned with welfare of humans.
So quite paradoxically inequality though an indispensable need for society breeds injustice. And so long as injustice is there justice will have to feature in the working of a society. The challenge before a just society is to ensure perfect justice which as said earlier is a concept divorced from truth. Even in Ram Rajya, the most impeccable form of just rule queen Sita had to bear hardships for no fault of hers though in the name of justice. The idea of society is integrated with idea of injustice and hence justice too. That makes us accept the reality. To 20th-century American jurist Learned Hand justice was not greater than the tolerable accommodation of the conflicting interests of society. The closest we can go towards creating a just society is by trying to remove and eliminate all the visible, tangible and invisible and intangible forms of injustices with vigor.
The concept of democracy and secularism that our nation adopted after the independence does encompass in it the broader tenets of a just society but is still found wanting in the precision and finer details. Democracy in our country couldn’t prevent oppression and regressive thought. Though poverty is a curse afflicting our country but that is something a democratic country will always have to live with at least in modicum for myriad reasons but what is objectionable is the way democracy has come in the way of idea of justice for the simple reason that sometimes majoritarianism is in conflict with justness of a cause.
Just is what is right and democracy allows the right to be called wrong if it is said so by maximum majority. A democratic society may go for death penalty even though the idea of justice may not be in sync with the thought. Same way a just society may not have a criminal as their leader but as we are witnessing democracy allows such a situation to exist. This conflict of democracy with justness of society can be solved to some extent by having a liberal and pluralistic majority the genesis of which lies in an erudite and educated society.
The disparity in a society on accounts of caste, class, religion, creed, gender, sense of communityhood and even color has long existed. Of all the struggles that have been waged over the centuries to either stamp out these disparities or mitigate their effect on the collective psyche of the society only those which were a direct conflict between two absolute dissimilar groups like Asians and Europeans were able to make some dent into existing conventions and modus vivendi.
Most often whenever the disparity had been challenged by a smaller group with in the larger group the rate of success had always been much lower than satisfactory or the degree of effort and sacrifices required was much greater comparatively. As a result of which it was much easier to obliterate color divisions than caste or class divisions. In color division the striving was most often between two altogether distinct groups. Unfortunately to whack our newly found beliefs we have seen a revisit to color barriers once again in the form of racial attacks in Australia.
In class and caste the nature of barriers is such that if a low caste citizen so perennially at the mercy of other castes somehow becomes high class by dint of hard work or in the days of reservation a reserved class it would want to maintain the status quo rather than demolishing it. With the rise in education and affluent Indian middle class we can hope that may be half a century later a significant chunk of caste barriers will fade away behind class barriers (more formidable than caste barriers) at least in the Indian middle classes. Everyone who has access to education through financial means regardless of the caste now can afford to rise up the social mobility and two or three generations later can even afford to forget the downtrodden past. Recently in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruvannamalai district Dalits were permitted to pray in a temple breaking age old taboos.
Akbar held that it is the pursuit of reason not reliance on tradition that has in it to address the difficult social problems. Akbar told his friend Abul Fazal, a formidable scholar in Sanskrit as well as Persian:
“The pursuit of reason and rejection of traditionalism are so brilliantly patent as to be above the need of argument. If traditionalism were proper the prophets would merely have followed their own elders and not come up with new messages. Akbar was so enamored with his thought that he called it the path of reason (Rahi Aql) and insisted on the need for open dialogue and free choice.”
The attitude of questioning various paradigms of thought not only opens before us the new avenues of possibilities but also takes us to the paths leading us to those possibilities and in turn to new modern world comparable to what had been existing. Not every thing new needs to be a complete departure from old but weighing of old and new will help us comprehend the finer distinctions between at least as perceived-by-our-reasoning right and wrong and justice and injustice with greater credibility and more précised thought. Those chariots of democracy which are driven only with the leash of majoritarianism without the stick of reasoning are bound to stray off the right path and make the charioteer lose his way.
Philosopher Robert C. Solomon, author of A Passion for Justice (1995) suggested “the sense of justice emerges as a generalization and eventually a rationalization of a personal sense of injustice.” Society as we call it had never been an idea to be influenced by an individual. The day society began to be influenced by an individual or a group to see its amorphousness be shaped in a manner appealing to intellectual senses was the beginning of its journey towards making itself just and taking in the idea of justice for a cause that was integrated with the idea of a society. This journey is an interminable journey.