Social justice is not justice, and it is dangerous and wrong to conflate the two
It’s not out yet, but we are at imminent risk of being drenched by a book on the principle of justice written by an celebrated expert on…economics. Now, no one would give too much credence to a book on nuclear physics written by a professor of English literature,if not for the Law of Indian Expertise (LIE). That law says that an Indian who has achieved distinction in one area is immediately considered an expert in all others. If you have a Booker or a Nobel, you will immediately be taken seriously by many people on almost anything…including nuclear physics.
According to the Times of India Amartya Sen’s latest book, “The Idea of Justice”, is “his most ambitious book yet.” When Rashmee Roshan Lall asked him to summarise his key argument, Dr Sen’s response was incomprehensible.
Justice is a complex idea (I was not surprised that it took me 496 pages to discuss it), but it is very important to understand that justice has much to do with everyone being treated fairly. Even though that connection has been well discussed by the leading political philosopher of our time, John Rawls, I have argued that he neglects a couple of important connections. One neglect is the central recognition that a theory of justice has to be deeply concerned with systematic assessment of how to reduce injustice in the world, rather than only with the identification of what a hypothetical “perfectly just society” would look like.
There may be no agreement on the shape of perfect justice (and also perfect justice will hardly be achievable even if people did agree about what would be immaculately just), but we can still have reasoned agreement on many removable cases of manifest injustice, for example, slavery, or subjugation of women, or widespread hunger and deprivation, or the lack of schooling of children, or absence of available and affordable health care. Second, analysis of justice has to pay attention to the lives that people are actually able to lead, rather than exclusively concentrating only on the nature of “just institutions”. In India, as anywhere else, we have to concentrate on removing injustices that are identifiable and that can be remedied. [TOI]
Hasan Suroor’s report in The Hindu is more helpful. It says Dr Sen has argued “that there was no such thing as “perfect” justice; that justice was relative to a situation; and that instead of searching for “ideal” justice, the stress should be on removing the more visible forms of injustice such as subjugation of women, poverty and malnutrition.”
It is unjust to criticise Dr Sen’s book before reading it. But it is not unjust to criticise what he says about its contents.
Going by what Ms Lall and Mr Suroor write, he is engaged in the dubious enterprise of conflating “justice” with “social justice”. This is a dangerous argument: for delivering justice is the basic function of the state, and to do this efficiently, a parsimonious definition of justice is necessary. The simplest definition of justice is the redressal of a violation of rights. On the contrary, Dr Sen’s definition is expansive—covering everything from gender inequality to poverty to malnutrition. The more you ask a justice delivery system to do, the less efficiently it can do it, everything else being the same. Since Dr Sen professes to be concerned with practical delivery of justice, he contradicts his own objective by enlarging the scope of what justice should mean.
Then comes his reported contention that “justice is relative to a situation”, which is slippery and dangerous. Justice is the response to an objective evaluation of a deviation from a normative code—for practical purposes, a written or an unwritten constitution. In a rule-of-law environment, justice cannot be “relative to a situation”, but rather, has to be uniform across situations. If violation of rights is objective, how can the redressal be relative and just at the same time? (It’s like saying that justice should be, as a norm, different for a poor burgler caught stealing from Mukesh Ambani’s house and well-fed burgler caught stealing from mine.)
Dr Sen’s line is dangerous because it threatens to reduce the importance of individual rights and freedom, and supplant them with the discourse of social justice. It is dangerous because the premise of justice being relative befits an environment where the law of the jungle prevails, where the more powerful can make subjective decisions that the less powerful have to accept as justice. In a rule-of-law enviroment, the more powerful might still violate the rights of the less powerful, but it can’t be passed off as “justice”.