What social justice means in a deeply polarised landscape

Deepanshu Mohan
Deepanshu MohanJun 21, 2020 | 11:16

What social justice means in a deeply polarised landscape

Institutions or a rules-based order, without systemic cultivation of virtue-ethics in social-action, will see the meaning and delivery of justice as a temporal response to shared resentment.

The last few weeks saw an explosion of mass protests across streets of United States, expressing anger, discontentment (by violent means in some cases) against institutional racism witnessed against the African American community after deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor amongst many others. Protests spilled over to different parts of the world in countries like United Kingdom, France etc., resulting in the toppling of statues of the personified and 'glorified colonialists', accused of being racist against the black community during their lives. India too, months before the pandemic struck, saw similar mass movements, condemning the subjugation of minorities seen during the CAA-NRC combine.


United against racism

There are three common linkages between the nature of protest movements being seen across the world today: a) they are largely peaceful in nature involving a much wider representation of people across aggregates of class, caste, ethnicity, race and gender; b) these have predominantly been led by women (at least for the larger part of the CAA protests seen in India), and c) all appeal for restoring "social justice". I would like to focus on the third linkage, especially in relation to what the idea of social justice means in a deeply polarised socio-political and socio-economic landscape today.

The last few weeks saw an explosion of mass protests across the world expressing anger against institutional racism. (Photo: Reuters)

Often, there is a tendency, amongst the general citizenry, to obscure the meaning of (social) justice for retaliation, resentment against any form of indignation seen, or received by an individual, or a section of citizens, or a social group. Institutional processes are systemically questioned for their own propriety or failure to 'deliver justice' even when 'indignation' is circumstantially proven. The angst against the police in India during the CAA protests, against the criminal justice system in the US and in rest of the world, have all reflected this institutional failure in ensuring citizens feel safe, protected for, and in ensuring a "just" social arrangement.


The ethics imperative

However, to dispose social justice simply from the perspective of institutional means and due processes as important as they are (say, what courts and police do and don't do) makes one see the actual meaning of social justice in a far more limited sense.

Adam Smith, often hailed as the father of classical economics and recognised for his work on the invisible hand in the Wealth of Nations, wrote extensively about on how social psychology from a virtue-ethics based reflective system should guide both individual and collective action as against reason alone. His transformative idea on explaining the meaning of (social) justice in Theory of Moral Sentiments - written way before Wealth of Nations - provides an extension of views expressed by other Scottish Enlightenment thinkers like David Hume around the time, and an interesting inflexion point today, for both, closer self and collective reflection.

Justice, according to Smith, must be seen as a virtue of its own: "the observance of which is not left to the freedom of our own wills, and which, if exhorted by force and violated by the due process can expose one - or many to agents of further resentment".


In simpler terms, social justice requires a cultivated ecosystem of collective conduct of beneficence, shared empathy, and other virtues in both self and collective propriety in shaping and complimenting a "rules-based order"- the kind of which moral political philosophers like Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham reasoned for.

Nyay doesn't just lie in Niti or due process alone but in an accumulative shared experience from the society's virtues and ethics (empathy, prudence, beneficence) when practised in propriety. This can be said for determining the nature and form of social relations between White and Black Americans, Hindus and Muslims or between other minorities, or between (and within) any other social aggregate of caste, class, ethnicity, race or gender. 

And this need to collectively understand each other through an ethics-driven social system educating, imbibing virtues of empathy and beneficence is critical and most essential to understanding social justice, both in its meaning and end.

Cultivating love

In the essential social development of one's self, societies tend to shape such virtues in propriety or moral behaviour through social institutions of family, school, workplace, being part of a religious, political organisation, etc. Or, for worse, many (say, in the majority) may tend to develop a disregard for certain moral virtues, if they recognise the incentive-reward systems within or across society are disposed of in a behaviour contradicting virtues like empathy and prudence.

A virtue-ethics based social system fails to be entrenched in self and collective propriety of humans within nations and in state-society relations and it is because of this failure that appeals for social justice as important as they may be - go unheard or fail to cause systemic behavioural change. Institutions, or a rules-based order (in Niti), without systemic cultivation of virtue-ethics (empathy, prudence, beneficence) in social-action will continue to see the meaning and delivery of justice more as a temporal response to shared resentment than anything else. Cultivate love, don't legislate it.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Last updated: June 21, 2020 | 11:16
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