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The truth behind justice

Amartya Sen shows that the concept of justice cannot be moored to social contracts or ideal institutions but instead needs to be linked to the ground realities of society.

Amit Kapur | Print Edition: September 20, 2009

The world of justice in socio-economicpolitical thought is split between the puritantranscendental school pursuing institutions of a perfect-just society (niti) and the comparative socialchoice school seeking realisations of justice (nyaya). Amartya Sen brings justice out of its ivory tower into the real world of conflict, deleterious conduct and competing interests-equities. He rejects niti’s flaw in confusing the very existence of institutions as proof of existence of justice, which assumes compliant behaviour and ignores the real world. Sen’s “idea” is to remedy and minimise injustice—not to chase the chimera of the ideal, just society. As a result, this work has as much to do with governance and society as it has to do with law and justice.

The most attractive element of the work is its realism in accepting that there is no perfectjust society on the horizon—the idea being to chip away at the manifest injustices in moving towards an inclusive and relatively just society. Besides his own work, Sen draws upon landmarks in human history and thought: Arjuna and Krishna’s dialogue in the Bhagavad Gita; writings of Kautilya and Aristotle; current world challenges of the WTO, human rights, sustainable development and the US invasion of Iraq, as well as Akbar’s Din-e-Ilahi, the French revolution, the abolition of slavery and the struggle for women’s rights, amongst other things.

Sen’s emphasis on plurality is illustrated by the “Flute story” with its competing claims of three children: Anne (who knows how to play a flute), Bob (who is so poor that he has no other toy to play with) and Clara (who made the flute). No decision would be absolutely perfect since the outcome would depend upon the values held by the decision-maker. A utilitarian hedonist would support Anne, an economic egalitarian Bob, while a libertarian would uphold Clara’s claim.

Sen makes a strong case for an inclusive, tolerant society based on plurality and open, impartial, public reasoning while demonstrating that human choices are influenced by elements of social behaviour, ethics, sympathy, generosity and public spirit—and not by the singleminded pursuit of self interest. The kind of reasoning that embraces plurality with an openminded engagement alone can harness the angry divisive socio-economic-political rhetoric seen in recent years. Such engagement alone can restore stability amongst strident, competing claims of alienated groups in the fragmented world order since 9/11.

Several manifestations in modern India demand and justify this path: emergence of the voice of the backward castes and regional party leaders (Mayawati, Mulayam, Lalu); expanding citizen’s protections in fundamental rights to freedom of speech, expression and life with human dignity while imposing higher accountability of government and statutory institutions enforced by superior courts; imminent risk to the idea of one-nation posed by unresolved feeling of injustice resulting in need to mainstream alienated communities (Kashmir, North-East, naxals); failure to arrest periodic erosion of fiscal prudence by populism leading to distributive injustice and disastrous economic results; a consumer rights as well as a Right to Information movement.

This work is a part of a continuum, representing an inflection point for the dynamic pursuit of justice in context of the real world and changing needs of the times. It remains to be seen as to how many citizens will pick up the gauntlet and contest injustice in their respective spheres of influence. Perhaps this journey towards justice for present and future generations will begin afresh every morning.

The author is a partner at J. Sagar Associates

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