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Re-imagining Social Justice

John M Alexander The principal aim of Martha Nussbaum

november 3, 2007 Economic & Political Weekly36book reviewFrontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership by Martha C Nussbaum; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007; pp xvii + 487, Rs 695 (hardbound).Re-imagining Social JusticeJohn M Alexandercontract to be free, equal and independent individuals. While this was intended to as-sert the moral equality of individuals against different forms of hierarchy and social class prevalent at that time, in practice it meant that the contract was forged exclusivelyby men. Women, children, the elderly,minori-ties and other nation states were excluded and played no effective part in determining the political principles that were to govern their lives. Some of these omissions are now beginning to receive attention, but the ex-clusion of disabledpeople and their well-being remain a major theoreticallacunain many contemporary theories. Nussbaum finds this to be problematic even in Rawls’ theory particularly because it rests on the contractarian assumption that all citizens are “normal” and “fully cooperating members of society over a complete life” and that the needs of care for the disabled can be addressed at a later stage once the principles of justice have been derived. Idealised ViewNussbaum points out that the idealised contractarian view of human being with its emphasis on independence and ration-ality eschews the pervasive fact of human dependency and disability. As Eva F Kittay (2001) in a closely related critique has highlighted, all of us are born dependent in childhood. Most of us are dependent for short or long periods of time due to ill health and old age; and as in the case of the severe-ly disabled, dependency may be prolonged throughout a life. Moreover, people who are disabled require the assistance of familial or professional caregivers. These, by virtue of their service to dependents in their charge, are subjected to a condition of derived dependence especially when the society concerned does not duly recognise or reward their work. More and more, this should also be viewed as a matter of gender justice since most care for the dependents is provided by women and often enough their care-giving work goes unrecognised by the market. For Nussbaum, insofar as the contractarian theories do not take the issue of dependency and disability to be central to their design of justice they are ill suited to generating acceptable principles of justice for the treatment of people with physical and mental impairment. In contrast, the capability approach, ac-cording to Nussbaum, offers a much better scope because it develops a non-contrac-tarian idea of justice centred on human dignity. A life of dignity requires opportu-nities to realise a threshold level of basic capabilities for everyone including people with disabilities. Even though the disabled may not be as free and independent as others, and others in society may gain nothing or comparatively little in cooper-ating with them, they should nevertheless be considered as full citizens entitled to dignified lives. And this should be recog-nised as an agenda of justice rather than as an act of pity or charity. Theoretically, this calls for the abandon-ment of the idea of social bargain and an instrumental attitude towards people still so predominant in many societies: people are respected as human beings only insofar as they are able to economically contribute and be productive to society. At a more practical level, this should result in public policy commitments not only by way of special arrangements for the disabled such as access to public space, special medical provisions, and inclusive education, train-ing and employment, but also in terms of social recognition and fair distribution of care-giving work for the disabled. When we extend this reflection to India, we do realise that the country lags far behind and is yet to make a mark in the area of justice for the disabled. There is much more to be done for the entitlements of people with disabilities than what is currently in practice. Thus far, the well-being of the disabled in India are sought to be addressed by legislations such as the Rehabilitation The principal aim of Martha Nuss-baum’s Frontiers of Justice is to offer a trenchant critique of theo-ries which invoke the idea of social con-tract to derive principles of justice and put forward the capability approach as a more persuasive model. In the early 1980s, Amartya Sen introduced the con-cept of “capabilities” in welfare econo-mics and advocated it as the most appro-priate criteria to measure human well-being. Nussbaum, however, must be cred-ited for philosophising the approach and developing it as a political theory based on a list of basic capabilities intended to serve as benchmarks for social justice.The list includes a widerangeofcapa-bilities – from the most fundamental such as life, health and bodily integrity to more complex ones such as practical reason, af-filiation and control over one’s material and political environment. In this book, she identifies three areas of justice in which the social contracttheoriesturn out to be inadequate: justice to people with physical and mental disabilities; justice across national boundaries parti-cularly to those in developing countries; and justice to non-humananimals. Without labouring on the details of her interpretive arguments for each of these areas, it would be more beneficial to focus on the reasons why Nussbaum finds the idea of social contract unhelpful for developing a satisfactoryaccount of justice. Focusing mostly on the issue of disability, we will also point out that while Nussbaum’s project as a whole makes a convincing case for moving beyond the contractarian way of thinking about the problems of justice and even widening our moral imagination to creatively respond to these problems,it requires further work to resolveitsown theoretical difficulties and to make the cap-ability approach an attractive alternative. Classical theorists of the social contract tradition such as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau envisaged the parties of the
BOOK REVIEWEconomic & Political Weekly november 3, 200737Council of India Act (1992), the Persons with Disability Act (1995) and National Trust for WelfareofPersons with Autism, Cerebral Palsy,Mental Retardation and Multiple Disability Act (1999). There is alsonowthe new national policy on disability approved by the union cabinet in February 2006. For fulfilling the obligations of justice towards the disabled, well-targeted legis-lations and policies are crucial, but they should be matched by conscientious im-plementation and supported by allocation of adequate resources to realise them. Alongside, social attitudes and religious beliefs that are resistant to positively inte-grate the disabled into the mainstream society should be transformed through public campaigns in schools, universities, the press and media. Engaged discourses such as Nussbaum’s provide sufficient motivation to move in these directions. Justice or Compassion? Nussbaum’s proposed aim in this book is not merely to argue that the boundaries of justice should be pushed further so as to design a social world in which the old, the disabled, citizens of poor countries and non-human animals will be treated with dignity. She also strives to illustrate that this goal can be achieved by adopting richer moral sentiments than what the standard contractarian theories are willing to admit. Classical social contract theorists depicted social cooperation to be arising from prudence and mutual advantage. For example, inLeviathan,Hobbes (written in 1651) points out that people decide to abandon the state of nature and are will-ing to govern themselves under a common political authority only because they per-ceive a mutual advantage in doing so. Some contemporary philosophers who deploy the contract idea, however, do not restrict people’s motivation only to self-interest and prudential rationality. InA Theory of Justice,Rawls (1999) for instance, believes that people not only look for their own advantage, but also have a sense of justice. Yet Nussbaum ar-guesthatwecan make progress in the realm of justice only when we embrace a moral point of view that includes not just prudence or even a hybrid of prudence with justice, but also compassion. As she puts it: “The capabilities approach is able to include benevolent sentiments from the start in its account of people’s relation to their good. This is so because its political conception of the person includestheidea of a fundamental sociability and of people’s ends as including shared ends. Prominent among the moral sentiments of people so placed will be compassion, which I con-ceive as including the judgment that the good of others is an important part of one’s own scheme of goals and ends” (p 91). While Nussbaum’s enriched political psychology of what motivates people to cooperate promises to cover more grounds, it is less prepared to recognise that the argu-ments we may make in the name of justice are different from the ones we may advance out of compassion. As Boltanski (1999) has illustrated, any attempt to conflate these two runs the risk of mixing up the “politics of pity” with “politics of justice”. One dis-tinctive characteristic of justice is the notion of reciprocity. We can meaningfully talk of justice and the obligationsimpliedthere-of only when there are certain forms of interaction and reciprocity between the parties involved. Traditionally, such recipro-city has been understood in political terms in the sense that questions of justice arise betweenpeople who are subject to the same coercive sovereign authority or between citizens who are subject to a common set of coercively imposed laws and institutions. In modern times, particularly after Rawls’ theory, reciprocity has also been under-stood more broadly to include economic interactions. Consequently, obligations of justice would arise not only because the con-cerned parties are under common political institutions, but also because they are more generally engaged in cooperative ventures. Non-ReciprocityOn the contrary, compassion or pity arises in the context of non-reciprocity. In fact, the vulnerability and weakness of the suf-ferer or victim makes it inappropriate to invoke any form of reciprocity. Of course, when displaying compassionate feelings or translating them into action, one can do it keeping in mind the dignity and agency of the sufferer. But even then it is not the same type of reciprocity that would be required for justice. Hence, when something is pointed out as a matter of justice, some kind of reciprocity should be involved in order to obtain a wider moral and political endorsement, even though the kind of reciprocity envisaged need not be direct, immediate and purely in terms of economic and monetary gains. Moreover, justice invariably invokes the idea of desert. An act or gesture is unjust only if it can be shown that the person concerned has been denied of what she deserves. There would be of course different criteria of desert, depending on the types of goods distributed. For example, the criterion School of Women’s StudiesJadavpur UniversityKolkata 700 032Research Fellowship in the School of Women’s Studies.Two fellowships (each for three years)Qualification:Essential:Good academic record with at least 55% marks in a Masters’ degree examination (50% for SC/ST) or M.Phil from an Indian University or an equivalent degree from a foreign University.Desirable: Masters’ Degree in Women’s Studies.Stipend: Rs. 8,000/- p.m.Last Date: 30 November 2007Forms available at the University Information Counter (11 am-4 pm)Candidates must apply to the address below with CV, research proposal, proof of age and copies of all relevant degree certificates and marksheets.School of Women’s StudiesJadavpur UniversityUG Arts BuildingKolkata 700 032.Phone (033),
BOOK REVIEWnovember 3, 2007 Economic & Political Weekly38of desert is different for political offices, scientific excellence and athletic honours. Nonetheless, demands of justice involve some form of desert judgment. Compas-sion in contrast works not on the basis of desert, but rather on the idea of “luck”. In-stances of bad luck can make the life and well-being of some people exposed and vulnerable. Thus, while compassion fo-cuses on the opposition between the for-tunate and unfortunate, justice con-centrates on the distinction between the deserving and the undeserving. Idealistic PictureNussbaum is right to point out that we will not come up with creative and substantial solutions to problems such as the justice for the disabled if we rely only on mutual advantage, reciprocity and desert. And yet when we look at her alternative account of justice, which bases itself on a substantive list of capabilities, some crucial questions remain unanswered. As some critics have pointed out, the elaborate and exhaustive nature of Nussbaum’s list of capabilities represents an idealistic picture of human flourishing – a criticism that Nussbaum was keen to attribute to contractarian theories. While the contractarian philosophers tend to be parsimonious with regard to moral sentiments and human nature, Nussbaum seems to go to other extreme of being too generous with the risk of being unable to provide definite intellectual structure and guidelines for social justice policies. Furthermore, in building up a revised theoretical edifice for social justice, it is important to ask what precisely makes a problem a justice issue. It is quite clear that neither the disabled themselves nor a capability theorist such as Nussbaum who argues in their favour would be cheered that their grievances are addressed on grounds of compassion alone. If so, Nussbaum’s reflections could have delved a little more into the type of reciprocity that would be still meaningful to talk of in our interaction and interdependence with the less endowed members of society. Just because the contractarian theories reduce reciprocity to monetary gains, it need not deter us to think of it in many other ways. In denying that the disabled are incapable of reciprocity and that reciprocity is not a necessary condition for justice to obtain, we might perhaps be unconsciously suc-cumbing to the temptation of naturalising people’s disabilities. In India and else-where in the world, the suffering and the undue disadvantages faced by the disa-bled have more “social” components and complacence built into them than their ac-tual inabilities arising from “natural” dis-abilities. We therefore need to marshal enough evidence and arguments so as to demonstrate that the shortfalls and diffi-culties encountered by people arise from inefficient and unjust basic structures of society and from the lack of courage and willingness to think of other forms of reci-procity and interdependence. Email: References Boltanski, Luc (1999):Distant Suffering: Morality, Media and Politics, Cambridge Cultural and Social Studies, Cambridge University Press, UK. Kittay, Eva F (2001): ‘When Caring Is Just and Justice Is Caring: Justice and Mental Retardation’,Public Cul-ture,Number 13, pp 557-80. Rawls, J (1999):A Theory of Justice, Oxford University Press, UK, first published 1971.

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