The marginalisation of justice in public discourse

  • IASbaba
  • August 27, 2020
  • 0
UPSC Articles
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Topic: General Studies 2:

  • Indian Constitution—historical underpinnings, evolution, features, amendments, significant provisions and basic structure. 

The marginalisation of justice in public discourse

Context: The pursuit of greed and narrow self-interest leads to severe inequalities, to an unequal division of social benefits. This has made us to look at what Justice entails.

Ethical Challenges with Development

  • The burden of realising national goals such as development is not equally shared by all. This leads to unfair division of social labour
  • The burden is easily passed on to those who are powerless to desist it. Some people sacrifice virtually everything they have and others benefit without forgoing anything at all.
  • The least paid workers and peasants in our society are expected to offer the greatest sacrifices for building the nation
  • Also, concern for a fair distribution of benefits and burdens — the core issue of justice — is rare in mainstream public discourse.

What is Justice?

  • 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.

What is David Hume’s ‘circumstances of justice’?

  • 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.
  • Justice also presupposes that people are neither totally alone nor organically united with others
  • If one was totally fused with others, with no distinction between self and other, then again, sharing will be unnecessary. 
  • Justice therefore presupposes a moral psychology in which humans are neither wholly selfish nor entirely benevolent.
  • Since most societies share these conditions, we can say that justice is a necessary social virtue and has great moral value.

What are the challenges with achieving Justice?

  • Our society is afflicted by deep material, cultural and knowledge-related inequalities. 
  • While dealing with resource/burden sharing, prominence given to hierarchical notions of Justice rather than egalitarian Justice
  • In hierarchical notions, what is due to a person (Justice) is established by her or his place within a hierarchical system. For instance, by rank determined at birth (Caste System)
  • In societies still infested with live hierarchies, 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.

Challenges with Egalitarian Justice

Two main contenders exist for interpreting what is due to persons of equal moral worth. 

  • First, the need-based principle for which, what is due to a person is what she really needs, i.e., whatever is necessary for general human well-being (basic needs)
  • Second, the principle of desert for which, what is due to a person is what he or she deserves determined by her own qualities and hard work
  • 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. After this, rewards are permissible to those who by virtue of natural gift, social learning and personal effort, deserve more.


Putting justice back into public discourse should be our priority. Or else, the dreams of our nation will never turn into reality.

Connecting the dots:

  • Amartya Sen’s Theory of Justice (Freedom is futile without Capabilities, hence one needs to build capacities of people)

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