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Focus: GS-II Social Justice


  • The pursuit of greed and narrow self-interest leads to severe inequalities, to an unequal division of social benefits.
  • Given the compulsion to advance our self-interest, the burden is easily passed on to those among us who are powerless to desist it.
  • In simple words: The poor cannot afford to reject the excess work burden placed upon them due to their dire necessity to work and escape poverty.

Sharing benefits and burdens

  • The idea of distributive justice presupposes not only a social condition marked by an absence of love or familiarity, but also others which the Scottish philosopher, David Hume, termed ‘the circumstances of justice’.
  • For instance, a society where everything is abundantly available would not need justice. Each of us will have as much of everything we want. Without the necessity of sharing, justice becomes redundant.
  • Equally, in a society with massive scarcity, justice is impossible. In order to survive, each person is compelled to grab whatever happens to be available. Justice, therefore, is possible and necessary in societies with moderate scarcity.

Giving persons their due

  • The basic idea of justice is that ‘each person gets what is properly due to him or her’, that the benefits and burdens of society be distributed in a manner that gives each person his or her due.

Hierarchical and Egalitarian notions

  • In hierarchical notions, what is due to a person is established by her or his place within a hierarchical system. For instance, by rank determined at birth. Certain groups are born privileged. Therefore, their members are entitled to a disproportionately large share of benefits, and a disproportionately small share of burdens. On this conception, justice requires that the benefits and burdens be unequally shared or distributed. Conversely, those born in ‘low castes’ get whatever is their proper due — very little, sometimes nothing.
  • Innumerable examples can be cited in Indian history, where aspects of this hierarchical notion had been opposed: in the early teachings of the Buddha, passages in Indian epics, Bhakti poetry, and protest movements such as Veerashaivism.
  • All have an equal, originary capacity of endowing the world with meaning and value because of which they possess moral worth or dignity.
  • People must first struggle for recognition as equals, for what might be called basic social justice, then they must decide how to share all social benefits and burdens among equal persons — the essence of egalitarian distributive justice.

Needs and Desert

  • Two main contenders exist for interpreting what is due to persons of equal moral worth.
  • For the first need-based principle,what is due to a person is what she really needs, i.e., whatever is necessary for general human well-being.
  • Second, the principle of desert for which what is due to a person is what he or she deserves, determined not by birth or tradition but by a person’s own qualities, for instance ‘natural’ talent or productive effort.
  • In short, though we start as equals, those who are talented or work hard should be rewarded with more benefits and be less burdened.

Break the deafening silence

  • Most reasonable egalitarian conceptions of justice try to find a balance between need and desert.
  • They try to ensure a distribution of goods and abilities (benefits) that satisfies everyone’s needs, and a fair distribution of social burdens or sacrifices required for fulfilling them.
  • After this, rewards are permissible to those who by virtue of natural gift, social learning and personal effort, deserve more.

-Source: The Hindu

March 2024