Sunday, July 26, 2009

Pursuit of justice can be much enhanced by open and well-aimed public discussion

Amartya Sen's story of justice
Times of India - 26 July 2009 Rashmee Roshan Lall - ‎In an exclusive interview with The Times of India, the Nobel laureate speaks about his most ambitious book yet.

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.

Is justice essential for democracy to flourish?

One of the main arguments of the book is the role of open public discussion for our understanding of the demands of justice, and particularly of the removal of injustice. Indeed, democracy can be seen as "government by discussion" (an approach made famous by John Stuart Mill), and the pursuit of justice can be much enhanced by good democratic practice - not just well-fought elections but also open and well-aimed public discussion, with a free and vigorous media. In an earlier book, I discussed a remark of a very poor and nearly illiterate peasant, who lived in a village close to Santiniketan (where I come from). "It is not difficult to silence us," he said, "but this is not because we cannot speak." In that quiet confidence there are reasons of hope for the future of justice and democracy in India.

Seek justice, only if you deserve it Wendy Doniger Times of India - 26 July 2009

As Amartya Sen discusses the idea of justice in his new book, it's interesting to note that justice, like just about everything else in ancient India, has been a much debated topic since time immemorial (a point that Amartya Sen made very well in an earlier book, The Argumentative Indian). Dharma can often best be translated as 'justice,' though dharma also means law, rightness (as opposed to wrongness), religious ethics, and simply the way things ought to be or even the way things truly are. The authors of the many texts about dharma always cited, with respect, the opinions of several other authors on any particular topic, before putting forth their own views as the best.

The great epic, the Mahabharata, which is often called a dharma-shastra, constantly contests dharma. Time and again when a character finds that every available moral choice is the wrong one choice, or when one of the heroes does something wrong, he will mutter, or be told, "Dharma is subtle (sukshma)," that is, thin and slippery as a fine silk sari, elusive as a will o' the wisp, internally inconsistent as well as disguised, hidden, masked. People try again and again to do the right thing, and fail and fail, until they no longer know what the right thing is. As one of the early dharma texts put it, "Right and wrong (dharma and adharma) do not go about saying, 'Here we are'; nor do gods or ancestors say, 'This is right, that is wrong'." The Mahabharata deconstructs dharma, exposing the inevitable chaos of the moral life. [...]

This is a brilliant story about the subtlety of justice, the need for it to be constantly challenged, re-examined and re-understood in every age. The writer teaches Sanskrit and the History of Religions at the University of Chicago and has published translations of the Rig Veda and the Laws of Manu. Her latest book, 'The Hindus: An Alternative History', was published earlier this year

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