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Theorising Justice

‘Justice’ and ‘Social Justice’ belong to that category of words which people use frequently and variedly. They have a vague sense of what they are talking about. But when asked to consciously define these words, they fail to articulate properly. ‘Nation’ and ‘luck’ are other such words. So how is a concept like Justice to be understood? Is the understanding similar for all people or is it fundamentally different? Is it constant or does it change with the context, region and time? Similarly, the concept of Social Justice also raises many questions like, is it as simple as understanding ‘social’ literally and then clubbing it together with meaning of Justice? In this essay, an attempt is made to bring about an understanding of Justice and Social Justice by using metaphors (mostly biological) and real-life examples. And I have tried looking at Justice from a chronological dimension too. All the concepts and claims presented, stance taken and assumptions made in this essay are personal unless the original thinker or source is explicitly mentioned. And to avoid confusion, the misspelled word Justise is used to signify this author’s understanding of Justice.
Usually, one cannot articulate with consistency and accuracy what justice is and if such an attempt is made, it most certainly will be in a negative sense. Our understanding of Justice is often through negations i.e. thinking in terms of not doing or doing something as constituting injustice. We deliberate more upon injustice rather than justice and what justice cannot be rather than what it is. This dual nature of our understanding of Justice is explored below to arrive at the concept of Justise.
Justice in modern popular usage can be split into two kinds. One, the reactive kind (which comes from a negative understanding and arises only in the context of injustice) and two, the proactive kind (which stems from a more positive perception). An example of the reactive kind of justice is the punishing of a criminal after the crime has the crime has been committed. This is not Justise. Injustice cannot be undone once it is done so Justise cannot be achieved in retrospection. The need for reactive justice arises only when there is some form of a conflict. This can be a conflict of interests between two parties or conflicting claims about the interpretation of the Constitution or, as is regularly found in today’s society, a conflict between caste groups in the context of historical discrimination of one by another. So avoiding conflict means avoiding injustice. Whereas proactive justice is Justise. It is the deterring of conflict and provision of contentment. Positive justice is the provision of a utopian state where everyone is satisfied & happy, with satisfaction being born out of the individual’s well-being and the chance given to them for the realization of their potentials or capabilities. Justise is limited to that. It is not something that can be evoked in the judicial courts to settle disputed claims or to call for convicts in a criminal case to be hanged or to provide positive discrimination for one section of the population at the expense of another. Proactive justice - or Justise – can be achieved in the real world through universal & uniform scientific education and health care for all. Traditional and religious education should be avoided to the extent that they cause conflict in the society.
A simple example of Justise would be the queue lines. One has to wait in the queue to get your tickets, irrespective of who he/she is. Here Justice is premised on time, or more precisely, the moment of time at which one arrives. The quicker one reaches the spot, the faster one will get the ticket. The person at the front of there queue is there by arriving before everybody else. This is a very simplified basis for showcasing how justice works. And it is also confined to that particular instanti.e. it doesn’t take into account the past & future nor does it take into account other considerations. If one was deliberately tripped on the way and so reached the queue later than he would have under normal circumstances – nothing is done to change the order of the queue to set this right. While in the real world accounting for such acts of individual malice would be impossible, there are a few equalisers to nullify the injustice the perpetrated towards a social group as a whole. Like having a separate queue for ladies. The rationale to have a separate queue could be that there might be a lack of decency towards women to let them jostle for tickets in a crowded place alongside other men. Or it may be done to avoid potential harassment of women. This is arriving at justice by avoiding injustice. A separate line for the elderly is another positive approach to justice, with the elderly people needing a separate queue because they are not as capable as the younger age groups. Similarly the disabled. They are at a disadvantage when compared to a fully fit person, through no fault of theirs. And hence they are allowed to form separate queues.
Tough there are various instances where Justice has been talked about as equality, funnily enough the system of Jurisprudence that most nations follow deems itself above the rest! This is evident from the act of shouting ‘All rise!’ when the judge walks into the courtroom (it can be assumed that it is out of respect towards the judge but respect can’t be sought by yelling at people to do something like it’s mandatory) and in matters like punishing someone for contempt of court. There is also the affair of interpreting the Constitution - one of the things that the modern societies are built upon. To beat the fundamentals of Constitution (or rather the court’s interpretation of it) there has to be a total revolt and restructuring of the society itself. So it’s really the judiciary – which is there to dispense justice – that is at the head of our society’s pyramid.
But this form of enforced awe of the Justice dispensing institutions may be necessary to avoid chaos (the state where everybody questions everything and everybody else– much like the state of Nature in Hobbes’s Leviathan). The Judiciary today acts as the wall preventing chaos from spilling over. Maybe judiciary and not the other organs of the State is the sovereign authority that scores of philosophers have talked about – from Plato to Hobbes to Locke. Much like every organ in the human body (i.e. the society) is an integral part but it’s the brain that controls all of them.
Moving on to ‘Social Justice’, before the birth of the phrase, the discourse on justice had by default involved the whole of society. But over time, there has been a social evolution from holism towards individualism, which has its effect on the discourse in Justice too. This evolution can be understood through the following metaphor. Society is the human body. Social Justice is akin to a microbial life form like bacteria. In the pre-modern-medicine periods, whatever problem the bacteria caused within the body, the symptoms, like stomach ache or sickness or fever, were identified and the whole body as such was understood to be ill. But modern medicine isolates the problem. It diagnoses the problem and zeros it down to the specific issue, like amoebiasis or diarhhoea. The understanding of Social Justice has evolved in just the same way. In the Ancient period when people talked about Justice, it was either universal or for a particular category of people (in which case, the remaining categories were simply ignored). Plato for instance talked about symmetry and justice based on abilities. He talked only about the citizens while nothing was said about the non-citizens. Unlike the present day, at that time, neither was the human population so large nor were there as many different societies. But now, there are individual groups who fight for Social Justice (whose size varies just as the size of the organ affected or the extent of infection caused by the bacteria varies). These groups are mostly identity based and ‘social’ here is not the whole human race but a part of the much fragmented human race, fragmented along caste, race, gender and class lines. Earlier, the society was considered above the individual and the justice sought was sociological justice – i.e. what was considered good for the society was considered good for the individual and the concept of justice was built on this premise. But later on, we have people like John Locke prioritising the individual over the society, leading to the ironical situation where we talk about Social Justice today, with the word ‘social’ connoting not the human race as a whole but individual identity based groups.
An interesting character of Social Justice can be depicted with the help of the same metaphor of human body as the society. Infection in the lungs or a brain haemorrhage is a very serious complication. The very survival, and the nature of it, depends on how they are treated. Whereas, there are not so serious issues like an appendicitis. One just gets the inflamed appendix removed and everything in just normal. These two scenarios are comparable to situations where the Dalits or other downtrodden social groups and middle-class groups fight for Social Justice. The former situation is very troublesome and a political hot potato. Like provision of reservations for Scheduled Castes. There are many groups clamouring to claim the status of SCs (for reasons which are irrelevant here). These agitations are handled with utmost care. Whereas the middle class agitations can be and are brushed away with some diplomatic manoeuvring. Whatever be the reason, the injustices that they claim to have faced/suffered, like corruption and unemployment, are just not treated on par with the injustices that the Dalits have faced, like caste based discrimination.
Social justice involves two dimensions in its most general understanding. One is social equality and the other is economic which is distributive in the Marxian sense of the term. Distributive is now called ‘redistributive’. In the redistribution model of wealth, the rich are taxed more than the rest and the money is ‘redistributed’ to the poor. Even if a rich person is earning a high salary legitimately, he/she is being taxed more to help the not so fortunate person who is not earning much. A distinction has to be made here – the rationale of this model is to help those deprived of opportunities to earn a livelihood i.e. those who were left out of the original distribution of wealth and not the ones who are lazy to work (but they do benefit from such a system and that is a different matter).
Social Justice, like bacteria, can be both harmful and useful. Bacteria is used to for many things ranging from treating Polio to manufacturing bread. Similarly, Social Justice is used to fight discrimination in the society, seek equal job opportunities for all, safety for the vulnerable, etc. But bacteria is very harmful too. It encourages vigilante forms in the human body, like the White Blood Cells. Until the count of the WBCs is low it’s fine, they fight foreign infections. But when the count rises abnormally, they become cancerous. Social Justice also enables the rise of vigilante groups like the heads of the caste based social groups like those in the Khap Panchayats. These vigilantes view justice through their caste tinted glasses which have the least regard of the law of the land. Another character of justise can be drawn from same metaphor. Whenever some bacteria has to be treated or gotten rid of from ones body, the medicine to be taken is developed for an entire class or category of bacteria, not just for the singular kind which is present in one’s body. In the same way, although justise is for the individual, it can only be delivered in the context of the social group that the person belongs to.
What constitutes Justice is being diluted these days. It is being increasingly applied to way too many trivial and some serious but irrelevant issues. Justise is much like fear. If one wants to believe that there’s someone standing at the door staring at him/her while he/she sleeps, one will certainly feel someone standing at the door. Justise is very much like that. If one wants to bring something under the ambit of justise or injustice, one will find a way to build an argument to do so. Because the universally common ground of the understanding of the concept is so little. But to me Justise is a very narrow concept. But not everything falls under the ambit of Justise or Injustise. If ones pens runs out of ink in the middle of the examination or one is sitting by the window and the sparrow’s chirping disturbs him/her and one score less than their peers, it’s just bad luck. Not unjust!