Social Justice

What is Justice?

In ancient Indian Society, Justice was associated with dharma& maintaining dharma or a just social order, was considered to be a primary duty of Kings.

In 4th century B.C. Athens (Greece), Plato discussed issues of Justice in his books “The Republic”. The young people ask Socrates why we should be just. They observe that people who were unjust seemed to be much better off than those who were just.

Socrates reminds these young people that if everyone were to be unjust, if everyone manipulated rules to suit their own interests no one could be sure of benefitting from injustice. Nobody would be secure & this was likely to harm all of them. Hence, it is in our own long term interest to obey the laws & be just.

The idea that justice involves giving each person his due continues to be an important part of our present day understanding of justice. According to German Philosopher Immanuel Kant, human being possess dignity. If all persons are granted dignity then what is due to each of them is that they have the opportunity to develop their talents and pursue their chosen goals. Justice requires that we give due & equal consideration to all individuals.

Equal treatment for Equals

All individuals share certain characteristics as human beings. Therefore, they deserve equal rights & equal treatment. Apart from equal rights, the principles of treating equals equally would require that people should not be discriminated against on the grounds of class, caste, race or gender. They should be judged on the basis of their work and actions and not on the basis of the group to which they belong.

Proportionate Justice

However, equal treatment is not the only principle of justice. There could be circumstances in which we might feel that treating everybody equally would be unjust. Provided everybody starts from the some base line of equal rights, justice in such cases would mean rewarding people in proportion to the scale and quality of their effort. Most people would agree that although people should get the same reward for the same work, it would be fair and just to reward different kinds of works differently if we take into account factors such as the effort required, the skills required, the possible dangers involved that work, & so on.

Recognition of Special Needs

The principle of taking account of the special needs of people doesn’t necessarily contradict the principle of equal treatment so much as extend it because the principle of treating equals equally could imply that people who are not equal in certain important could be treated differently.

It is not always easy to get agreement regarding which inequalities of people should be recognised for providing them special help. Physical disabilities, age or lack of access to good education or health care, are some of the factors which are considered grounds for special treatment in many countries.

Different groups in the country might favour different policies depending upon which principle of justice they emphasize. It then becomes a function of governments to harmonize the different principles to promote a just society.

Just Distribution

Social Justice concerns the just distribution of goods and services whether it is between nations or between different groups & individuals within a society. If there are serious economic or social inequalities in a society, it might become necessary to try & redistribute some of the important resources of the society to provide something like a level playing field for citizens.

John Rawls’ Theory of Justice

If people are asked to choose the kind of society in which they would like to live, they are likely to choose one in which the rules and organization of society allot them a privileged position. We cannot expect everyone to put aside their personal interests and think of the goods of the society. So how do we reach a decision that would be both fair and just?

John Rawls has tried to answer this question. He argues that the only way we can arrive at a fair and just rule is if we imagine ourselves to be in situation in which we have to make a decisions about how society should be organized although we don’t know which position we would ourselves occupy in that society. Rawls argues that if we don’t know in this sense, who will be and what options would be available to us in the future society, we will be likely to support a decision about the rules & organization of that future society which would be fair for all the members.

Rawls describes this as thinking under a ‘veil of ignorance’. It would make sense for each person, acting in his or her own interest, to try to think of rules of organization that will ensure reasonable opportunities to the weaker sections. The attempt will be to see that important resources, like education, health, shelter etc., are available to all persons, even if they are not part of the Upper Class. The pertinent thing however is that when they choose under the ‘veil of ignorance’ they will find that it is in their interest to think from the position of the worst-off.

It would be in the interests of all that society as a while should benefit from the rules & policies that are decided and not just any particular section. Such fairness would be the outcome of rational action, not benevolence or generosity. Rawls therefore argues that rational thinking, not morality, could lead us to be fair & judge impartially regarding how to distribute the benefits & burdens of a society.

Pursuing Social Justice

A just society should provide people with the basic minimum conditions to enable them to live healthy & secure lives and develop their talents as well as equal opportunities to pursue their chosen goals in society.

How can we decide what are the basic minimum conditions of life needed by people? It is agreed that the basic amount of nourishment needed to remain healthy, housing, supply of clean drinking water, education & a minimum wage would constitute an important part of these basic conditions.

A debate is currently going on in our society, as well as in other parts of the world, about whether promoting open competition through free markets would be the best way of helping the disadvantaged without harming the better-off members of a society, or whether the government should take on the responsibility of providing a basic minimum to the poor.

“A just society is that in which ascending sense of reverence & descending sense of contempt of a compassionate society.”                                                                                 B R Ambedkar

Free Markets versus State Intervention

Supporters of free markets maintain that as far as possible, individuals should be free to own property & enter into contracts and agreements with others regarding prices & wages & profits. They should be free to compete with each other to gain the greatest amount of benefit.

However, not all free market supporters today would support absolutely unregulated markets. Many would be willing to accept certain restrictions, for instance, states would step into ensure a basic minimum standard of living to all people so that they are able to compete on equal terms.

Arguments can be put forward on both sides of the debate but free markets often exhibit a tendency to work in favour of the already priviledged. This is why many argue that to ensure social justice the state should step into see that basic facilities are made available to all members of the society.

“Justice implies something which it is not only right to do and wrong not to do; but which some individuals person can claim from us as his moral right”.                                J.S.Mill

1 Comment

ISHA THAKUR · July 15, 2020 at 7:24 am

Very well written! 🙂

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