Political Science, Thinking Out Loud

John Rawls, Justice (and the Meat Ban in India)

Originally published: 5th October 2015

If you were to answer the question, what is the most desirable value that a society should embody, what would you say? Equality? Well no, to cite an extreme example if my hard work is rewarded equally as the sloth of a couch potato, I would have no incentive to work. (The flaw with socialism) Then, liberty? This, many societies in the West, and increasingly in India too, would find acceptable. Let a person decide how to live his life without external constraints, give him freedom of speech and expression, if he works hard let him amass wealth. But challenge of liberty is deciding what are its limits, how do we define boundaries in a society to ensure that the liberty of one does not infringe on that of others. That one person doesn’t resort to exploitation or that his wealth does not perpetuate extreme inequality without giving back to the society he took from.

There is an underlying thread in these arguments. A yardstick that we’re subconsciously using to judge them and say, ‘ok that’s not right’. Or to be more precise, we’re comparing them to a greater value, the one that I think is the most desirable in a society – that of justice. John Rawls, possibly the greatest political philosopher of the 20th century, said that ‘Justice is the first virtue of social institutions’. Which is to say, that there are other values that are important but justice is the most important one.

Look at the preamble to our constitution. It lists the values most dear to the people of this country and it starts with Justice and then moves to Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. It talks about justice in the social, economic and political sense.

If you’re wondering what all this has to do with the meat ban, I’ll get there in a bit. For that I’ll have to give a quick background on Rawls’ theory of justice. When asked ‘what is justice’, he replied “justice is fairness.” It means being fair to the disadvantaged and the least well off, but also to those who might be better placed. Reward their talents and skills, so that they may work harder and earn more. Sure this might lead to inequality, but the challenge that arises then is how to make inequality look just?

To answer this question, Rawls puts before us his Theory of Justice. One that he claims would be universally applicable, and deontological (i.e. if everyone followed their moral duty, they would automatically arrive at it). And to come up with it he places people in an Original Position behind a Veil of Ignorance. To de-jargonize and cut the long story short, what he basically does is that he imagines people to be in a hypothetical situation where they have no idea of who they are, what their position in society is, what skills and abilities their society values, but they do have some knowledge of economics, psychology and social sciences. He says that in such a position to formulate the principles of justice, each person would imagine herself to be in the least advantageous position and then they would agree upon the following principles of justice:

  1. Most extensive basic liberty (but one that is compatible with similar liberty for all)
  2. Fair equality of opportunity
  3. Difference principle

According to these, each person can choose their goals and aspirations in life without any constraints, that person will be given a fair opportunity to pursue them, but at the same time the inequality that will emerge from such a situation will have to be compensated. It should benefit the weakest and the poorest (a sort of ‘trickle down’, if you may). He said that each society is as strong as its weakest link and unless you strengthen that link, you are not going to have a prosperous society.

The principles seem quite attractive and no wonder they gained such widespread acceptance. It seems like a win-win situation for all. But it does have its flaws. I won’t get into them except the one that he accepted to refine his theory further. A group of people called ‘communitarians’ (thinkers such as Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor who believe that man is deeply influenced by his community, rather than being self interested and individualistic) said that man cannot possibly be in such a hypothetical situation! He won’t be able to make choices without having any knowledge of his society and even if he does, they won’t be applicable in real life. Imagine your parents for example, in such a hypothetical situation. Will they only decide what is best for themselves or think about their family, their community? They also said that each person has his own moral views that are influenced by their upbringing and world view. That is how a person takes decisions. You cannot subtract him from his deeply held beliefs, imagine his mind to be (almost) tabula rasa and then expect him to take decisions.

So, in his next book Political Liberalism, Rawls agreed that everyone may not automatically agree on the same universal principles for the same reasons. Though he still believed that his principles are the ultimate, grand principles of justice, he changed the method of arriving at them to make them more realistic.

He agreed that each person has their own ‘comprehensive moral view’ or prism through which they look at the world. This view might be influenced by the religion they follow or their philosophical beliefs and so on. But for society to function everyone has to agree on a set of principles of justice on which it should be based. The way to arrive at these principles he said was through ‘public reason’ i.e. open, democratic, at times critical discussions. There will be give and take of ideas and everyone will have their own rationale to justify their decision on agreeing to the principles. It is also implied that everyone respects other people’s views and does not try to claim the superiority of his own view. There is an equality of opinion and preferences. Thus, he arrives at a ‘political conception’ of justice.

He believes that in a liberal democratic society, people will compromise, they will adjust their own views, till they arrive at an ‘overlapping consensus.’ Why? Simply because that’s how a democracy works! You debate, you discuss, you critique and then you arrive at a solution that is more or less acceptable to all. And that’s where the meat bans – both the one on beef as well as the one during paryushana – prick me. (Along with a no. of other things happening in India today, but I won’t rant)

It might be a matter of genuine faith for someone to not eat meat for religious reasons or because they feel killing animals is wrong or simply because they don’t like the taste! I respect that. This might seem like quite a trivial issue, but it is one with profound implications for our society. It isn’t a matter of culinary preferences as some writers have wrongly pointed out! (“Elitist concern for hamburgers and steaks”)

I agree that eating of beef might be extremely offensive to Hindus, but that is no reason to stop someone else from doing it. Why do I think that it is such a serious issue? Because a few days back, a person was killed in a village in the vicinity of the capital Delhi, on the mere suspicion that he was eating beef. And now, ‘the meat samples have been sent for a lab test.’ Someone’s dinner is the matter of a police investigation! Am I the only one who thinks that this is extremely ridiculous, not to mention quite irrelevant? What if the results say that it was mutton? Will it bring back a dead man? Will it ensure that his family gets justice?

What is happening here is that a group of people are imposing their comprehensive moral views on others who do not agree with them. And that’s where we can see a beginning of the unraveling of justice in this society. What is troubling is that though it is just a (very vocal!) politicized minority of Hindus who are endorsing these views, they are giving them the garb of legitimacy by projecting them as being those of the majority community. I doubt the Hindus of this country would endorse violence because someone went against their beliefs. Hinduism is a lot about tolerance, about assimilation and anyway, history says that brahminical insistence on sacredness of the cow and nonviolence was derived from Buddhist teachings.

Passions are being whipped up, social cleavages being sharpened only for the sake of political gains. I hope the people of this country are smarter than to fall for that. Democracy, after all, isn’t about the tyranny of the majority. It is about participation, deliberation and about making everyone’s view matter. But for that, people like you and me will need to stand up and make ourselves heard. Justice isn’t served on a silver platter, it has to be demanded.


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