Is Justice Conditional?

The relative meaning of justice is to be derived from institutions and mores of any society, and of course, the state’s moral and political philosophy.

Amartya Sen writes in his bestseller The Idea of Justice—“There are remediable injustices around us which we want to eliminate”. For Sen, the idea of justice is more than an intellectual discourse as he believes that it plays a real role in how, and how well, people live.

Looking at justice in a new way, Sen rejects the idea of a “perfectly just society”, and as an alternative, emphasizes identifying the “remedial injustices”, like oppression in various forms, and finding out how they could be rectified and “ on the removal of which there would be a reasoned agreement”.

Sen, in his book, cites the story of “Three Children and a Flute” wherein he advocates the comparative perspective on justice. Sen mentions, “Three children— Anne, Bob and Carla — are quarrelling over a flute: Anne claims the flute on the ground as she is the only one of the three who knows how to play it; Bob demands it on the basis that he is so poor that — unlike others — he has no other toys to play with and it would therefore mean a lot to him if the flute were given to him; and Carla says that it belongs to her because she has made it with her own labor. The important thing to note here is that none of the claimants questions rival’s argument but claims that his or hers is the most persuasive. So, who deserves the flute? Should it go to the child for whom it represents the only source of entertainment as he has no other toys to play with? Or to the one who can actually make practical use of it; or to the child to whom it must belong by virtue of her “right” to the fruits of her labor?”

In his review of Sen’s book, acclaimed author and cultural critic Ziauddin Sardar writes-“What really enables us to resolve the dispute between the three children is the value we attach to the pursuit of human fulfillment, removal of poverty, and the entitlement to enjoy the products of one’s own labor. Who gets the flute depends on your philosophy of justice. Bob, the poorest, will have the immediate support of the economic egalitarian. The libertarian would opt for Carla. The utilitarian hedonist will bicker a bit but will eventually settle for Anne because she will get the maximum pleasure, as she can actually play the instrument. While all three decisions are based on rational arguments and correct within their own perspective, they lead to totally different resolutions” (Daily The Independent).

As such, it is implied that there is no complete justice existing anywhere. The relative meaning of justice is to be derived from institutions and mores of any society, and of course, the state’s moral and political philosophy. But this is the ground where justice usually has to face the slippery trajectory. Justice is morphed by the “tyranny of ideas” (borrowing Sen’s term) that actually shapes the delivery of justice.

When Saddam was executed, West upheld its own benchmark of defining terror and disseminating the message of retribution across the world. The operation of Bin Laden’s extermination was again weighed on the ideological, political and diplomatic fulcrum. Kasab’s capital punishment too has a concept of violent treatment to a violent perpetrator. In most similar cases, the balance and meaning of justice budges as per the state’s understanding of its internal and external domain. As the dynamics change, the perspectives and responses on justice become situational. Today, many countries that were disparaging Taliban are open to broadening diplomatic engagement with them. And it emerges as a classical case study of shifting meanings in the flimsy world polity.

Back home, the notion of justice is ironically rendered too difficult and vague to fit in any frame or discourse. Perhaps, it is for us that Charles Dickens wrote, “In the little world in which children have their existence, whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt, as injustice”.

We have sensed injustice for so many kids who lost their eyes to pellets and lives to bullets. We continue to think of injustice by remembering those who died unsung and were buried under oblivion. We endlessly feel injustice for no one ever heard our stories honestly.

Our Anne, Bob and Carla also want to claim and possess but their life security is in peril, and nobody could assure them of it. Justice has been scrapped from their life as well as lexicon.

For a genius like Amartya Sen, the words of Benjamin Franklin can be reminiscent of many obvious and plain truths: ‘Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are’. Unless injustice is not felt and acknowledged, the value of justice will not be there. It stands true for both phlegmatic perpetrators and silent sufferers of injustice.

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