In his essay “Justice in the Global World” (Indigo, Winter 2011), as before in his study The Idea of Justice (Harvard UP, 2009), Amartya Sen does not beat about the bush when analysing the lessons to be drawn from the 2008 global economic slump.
Whereas some very opulent persons saw their fortunes somewhat diminished, it was the poorest people, people “at the bottom of the pyramid”, local or global, that have been affected most badly: “Families who were already worst placed to face any further adversity have often suffered from still greater deprivation, in the form of lasting joblessness, loss of housing and shelter, loss of medical care, and other deprivations that have plagued the lives of hundreds of millions people”. The conclusion, Amartya Sen asserts, is all too obvious: if you want to correctly evaluate the severity of the current global crisis, examine “what is happening to the lives of human beings, especially the less privileged people – their well-being and their freedom to lead decent human lives”.
Chronically deprived categories of people tend to learn to accept their lot and just because of its “ordinariness”, “indisputability”, “normality” suffer it meekly (“underprivileged people without hope of liberation often try to do just that to cope with the inescapability of the deprivation involved”). It is in the time of crisis that the routine, daily, perpetual and habitual distribution of privileges and deprivations is abruptly recast as “extraordinary”, fatal accident, emergency – and so brutally drawn to the surface and brought into dazzling light for everyone to see. We may add that with catastrophes affecting, as a rule, different categories of people unequally, it is the degree of vulnerability to all sorts of natural, economic or social earthquakes, the high probability of being hit much more severely than other residents of the country or other members of humanity, that is revealed as the defining feature of social injustice.
But wouldn’t we rather begin with defining the standard of justice, so that we would be better armed to spot and isolate the cases of injustice whenever and wherever they appear (or rather hide)? Easier said than done. Amartya Sen would not advice to take this line. Asking what the perfect justice would look like is “a question in the answer to which there could be substantial differences even among very reasonable people”. Obviously, we may add, as reasonable people seasoned in the art of argumentation and rhetoric are to be found in every one of the camps determined, in a bizarre reversal of Kant’s categorical imperative, to flex the proposed universal standards so they may fit their anything but universal interests; in other words, to summon the idea of justice to the defence of a particular injustice that rebounds as their privilege.
There is little hope, then, that a debate about universal standards of justice will ever bear fruits palatable to everyone involved and so to acquire genuine universality. But there is another reason to be doubtful as to advisability of such debate. As Barrington Moore Jr. pointed out a long time ago, historical evidence shows beyond reasonable doubt that whereas they are quick in spotting injustice in the acts changing the extant state of affairs or the heretofore binding rules of the game, people tend to be abominably slow if not downright inept in decrying as “unjust” even much more adverse conditions they had come already, because of their persistence, to accept as “normal”, intractable, immune to protests and resistant to change.
Just like in the apparently opposite case of “pleasure”, of which Sigmund Freud observed that it tends to be felt solely at the moment when a displeasure is removed, but is hardly ever brought by continuous presence of “objectively” even the most pleasurable (that is, displeasure-free) state of affairs conditions. In the language of semiotics, we may say that the “injustice” and as well as “displeasure” are contrary to appearance the primary, “unmarked” terms of the oppositions in which “justice” as well as “pleasure” are the “marked” members, that is such concepts as derive all their meaning from their opposition to the “unmarked” ones. Whatever we may know or imagine of the nature of “justice”, we derive from the experience of injustice – just like from the experience of displeasure, and only from that experience, we may learn or rather imagine what “pleasure” may look like. In the nutshell: whenever we imagine or postulate “justice”, we tend to start from cases of injustice currently most salient, painful and offending.
Starting as we are from widely varied experiences and sharply, often irreconcilably differing interests, we are unlikely ever to arrive to an un-contentious model of “just society”. Not able to resolve the quandary, we can only agree to a “settlement solution” – reduced to the hard core evident to all while staunchly unprejudiced and desisting the temptation to pre-empt the future twists and turns of the continuing (indeed encouraged to continue) poly-vocal debate. I’d suggest, as a “settlement” of that kind, the following formula: “Just society” is a society permanently sensitive and vigilant to all cases of injustice and undertaking to take action to rectify them without waiting for the search of the universal model of justice to be completed”. In somewhat different and perhaps simpler terms, a society up in arms to promote the well-being of the underdog; the “well-being” including in this case the capacity of making real the formal human right to decent life – recasting “freedom de jure” into “freedom de facto”.
Implied in this choice of a settlement formula is a preference given to Richard Rorty’s “politics of campaign” over its competitor, the “politics of movement”. The latter, the “politics of movement”, starts from assuming an ideal model of if not the “perfectly” (“perfectly” meaning an a priori impossibility and undesirability of any further improvement) then at any rate a “comprehensively” or “fully” just society, and consequently measuring/evaluating any proposed move by its impact on the shortening the distance separating reality from the ideal, and not by diminishing or increasing the sum total of human suffering caused by present injustices. The first, the “politics of campaign”, follows an opposite strategy: it starts from locating an indubitable case of suffering, proceeds to diagnosing the injustice that caused it, and then undertaking to correct it – without wasting time on the (admittedly hopeless) attempt to solve (the admittedly irresolvable) issue of the possible impact of this undertaking on bringing the “perfect justice” closer or delaying its arrival.