An Introduction To The Notion Of Injustice
- Part 2 -

Czadanda Saint *

Now, we have to take leave of Gandhiji and move along. At this point, Prof. Amartya Sen's illustration of 'three children and a flute' can be brought in for better understanding of the concept of injustice. In his book "Idea of Justice", Prof. Sen cites the illustration to discuss a situation in which there are conflicting claims to justice, each different from the other, and each right in their own claims, and each rival the other claims.

His illustration is reproduced as follows:

There are three children- Anne, Bob and Carla, and they are quarrelling over a flute. And we have to decide who gets the flute. Anne claims that she is the only one amongst the three who knows how to play it (the other two doesn't deny this) and it would be quite unjust to deny the flute to the only one who can actually play it. Bob claims that he is the only one of the three who is so poor that he has no toys of his own and the flute would give him something to play with (the other two concede this). Thus, for the ends of justice, it is best to give him the flute. However, Carla points out that she has been working diligently for many months to make the flute with her very own labour (the other two admit this) and thus, she have the sole right to claim it as it is something she made herself.

If we look at this problem from the viewpoint of injustice, we can see that whoever we choose to give the flute to, it will always be deemed unfair. Because of the rightful claims of the other two. And thus, regardless of the choice we make, it will amount to injustice in any possible scenario.

From here, it also appears that injustice is not only pre-existent, but also inevitable in certain cases. And as said beforehand, life is unfair. And that is the premise from where we should build our understanding of 'justice' and 'injustices'. In the given problem of Prof. Amartya Sen, the only ideal solution is when there are three flutes, one each for the three children. That is the perfect world we are striving for- the idea of absolute justice. But presently, there are three children and only one flute. And we have to make a choice. And whatever choice we make, it will tantamount to an act of injustice.

And it cannot be helped. But it also doesn't mean that this is the end. Because, what is really important comes after the flute is given to one of them. What we choose to do to remove such instances of injustice. The real question is not why. But how? Do we try to make a change or do we move on? The path is strewn with thorns of injustice and what we choose to do with these thorns is what really shapes our quest for justice. And so, to remove such 'thorns', the understanding of it becomes of paramount importance.

The illustration of Prof. Sen can also be used to make some crude arguments against the concept of 'for the greater good'. If we are to apply the hypothesis of 'for the greater good', then in nine cases out of ten, the flute will be given either to Anne (who knows how to play it) or Bob (who can't afford a toy) but never to Carla (who made the flute). Because, there will always be the presumption that Carla can always make a new one and thus, for the ends of justice and for the greater good of all, the flute must be given to either Anne or Bob. But what exactly is the 'greater good' in giving the flute to either Anne or Bob?

And while we are at it, why not search for the greatest good? The concept of 'for the greater good' is only a fiction designed to facilitate some evil discreetly, to overlook the instances of injustice, and to remain trapped in the 'happy illusion'; that everything is right. There is no greater good in giving the flute to either Anne or Bob. It is just an excuse to cover the injustices done to Carla without any reason.

And here, it is just a flute. But in our contemporary world, we are talking about the instances when the concept is used to justify genocide, torture of innocents, war or aggression in the name of terror, imposition of arbitrary and inhuman laws on the people. Which in turn, leads us to wonder- are we really searching for the 'greater good' or are we being dictated by the whims and the fancies of the more powerful ones in the name of the 'greater good' for all? And as J.K. Rowling has put it so beautifully in one of her Harry Potter books- the concept of greater good is just a step away from stating that might is right. And the lines have definitely become blurred in the recent times.

Prof. John Rawls, in his 'Theory of Justice', only stated that the principles of justice were chosen behind a 'veil of ignorance' in the original position. Without going any further into the theory, it is obvious that his theory is based on the assumption- the fictional 'veil of ignorance'. And this was the only shortcoming of his otherwise brilliant theory. And also, he didn't appreciate the pre-existence or rather dealt into the concept if injustice. All he said was that some principles were chosen to be heralded as the 'principles of justice'.

But he gave no reason/ explanation as to why some specific principles were chosen and the rest abandoned. Or to be more precise, how did we, the man, knew exactly what principles were to be chosen? And how did we, the man, made that choice? So, it is clear that we have to move further from Prof. Rawls if we are to understand the concept of injustice. We have to go behind the 'veil of ignorance' to see if enlightenment is meant to be.

Prof. Rawls, however, do acknowledge the presence of power behind the 'veil of ignorance'. By introducing the freedom of choice, he had acceded to the pre-existence of power. Because power is nothing but the magnitude of our choices- of what we can do. And vice versa. Choice is nothing but the magnitude of our power.

As aforementioned, to understand the concept of injustice, we have to start from the premise that life is unfair. And to see why life is unfair, we have to move past Gandhi, move beyond Prof. Rawls 'veil of ignorance', into the very beginning, if there was any. Thus, to delve deeper into the genealogy of injustice, it becomes necessary to first understand, realise and acknowledge the phenomenon of power- in relevance to justice and injustices. Because, if we are to follow Prof. Rawls' chain of thought, or Gandhiji's for that matter, the question of choice (power) surfaces ubiquitously.

And more importantly, to see how far power influences our perception of justice and injustice, truth and untruth. And of course, the illusory elephant in the room- if there was no power, would there be the need of justice? Or in other words, if there was no power, would there be injustice?

Power is a phenomenon, not a concept introduced by mankind. It is real. It exists. And it is everywhere. It is not some ideal we, the mankind, are chasing after like Absolute Truth or Absolute Justice. And what is there in actuality are all relative. For instance, the concept of truth is relative to the existence of untruth. The occurrence of injustice is pertinent to our perception of justice. The phenomenon of power is also relative. And to comprehend it, we have to understand it in the same way we understand time. We have to see it in relation to something and not as an independent entity.

Power is how much/ what we can do at a given point of time- the amplitude of our choices, our options. The more our choices, the more our power will be. And if we break down the society into its base unit, i.e., the unit of individuals, we will find that power or choice is inherent in every individual member. At any given time or circumstance, as long as we live, we will always have a choice. And it is called 'will'.

And it is only by surrendering these collective 'will(s)' into one collective whole, that the institution of state is brought into existence. Well, that's quite another matter altogether. The point is that we, as individuals, have choices, and they vary in degree and character. And more often than not, one man's choice encroaches upon the choice of others, thus resulting in some 'conflict' situation. And generally, the individual with greater power- whose variety of choice was wider- will have his way. When life was crude, when man was a brute, and when society was nob-existent, this was the way of life.

No high ideas of right and wrong, morality and immorality, good and bad. Power was all there was. Thus, we have reached the genealogy of injustice. No, this imbalance in the status-quo of individuals was not the genesis. The origin of the concept of injustice lies in our perception of the phenomenon of power- the events where the individual's choice was consciously used in real time. How we see and remember those events led to the classification of our idea of good and bad, right and wrong. And consequently, as human race progressed, the need for the ideal called "Justice".


* Czadanda Saint wrote this article for
The writer can be contacted at saddanskhaibam(at)gmail(dot)com
This article was posted on April 11, 2015.

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