Monday, August 29, 2011

The Idea of Justice

Justice deals with what is right and wrong. One often assumes that right and wrong are categories like white and black. White is white everywhere and always, and black is black always and everywhere. However, right and wrong are more like light and dark. They are relative and they vary according to the viewpoint. What is right for an individual may not be right for another individual. What is right for a baby may not remain right when she grows to become a teenager.  Also what is right for an individual may not be right for her family. What is right for a family may not be right for a city. In short, right and wrong are context-dependent.

However, in every context, right must be distinguished from wrong. In order to do so, a measuring scale needs to be used. For example, I believe that doing exercises regularly is the right thing for me. Why do I believe so? Because regular exercise keeps me healthy. I may generalize that whatever that helps me to stay healthy is right for me, and whatever that causes me to lose my health is wrong for me. One day when I get ready for my daily exercise, I receive a phone call about a close friend who needs emergency care. In such a situation, ignoring the call for help and going to do exercise is not the right thing to do. When I have to choose between two right things, I have to prioritize them based on their importance.
Similarly what is right for the whole must have priority over what is right for a part of it. When the very existence of an organization is at risk, it takes certain measures for survival, which may affect some people who work in that organization. Laying off an employee is not the right thing from the perspective of the employee, but it is a necessary evil from the perspective of the organization. A nation’s right has priority over a city’s right. The world’s right has priority over a nation’s right. All that exists (whatever we call it) is the ultimate arbiter of ultimate justice.
Justice in Christianity
This is the context in which we may consider how our religious traditions have addressed the question of justice. Having born and brought up in the Christian religious tradition, it is the one I am the most familiar with. The one central idea in the Jewish-Christian tradition regarding Justice is that God alone can decide what is ultimately right or wrong in any situation. It means that human choice can be right or wrong – there is not any guarantee that our choices can always be right. This does not mean that humans should refrain from making choices. Every moment in life, we move on making choices based on our knowledge. Life is an adventure trip along which is not always smooth. Every choice involves a risk—it can be right or wrong. If it is wrong, we have to suffer the consequences. The awareness of the fallibility of our choices and the willingness to face its consequences can make our life a lot easier.
The idea that God alone can decide what is ultimately right or wrong has important implications in human relationships. If I believe that God alone can make the right judgment regarding someone’s choices in life, it prevents me from usurping the seat of God and making judgments. We will not refuse to take responsibility for our actions and we will not point fingers at others. Also the awareness that it is human to err makes us willing to forgive others. 
If this idea is accepted by human communities such as cities, states, and nations, it is possible to evolve better relationships. Sovereignty of a nation does not mean that it can usurp the seat of God. If a nation humbly accepts that its choices can go wrong, it can evolve better relationship with other nations and with its own citizens.
Justice in Hinduism
In India from very ancient time, justice among human beings has been seen as microcosmic expression of the natural order and harmony of the macrocosmic universe. The cosmos has an inherent structure and functional pattern in which human may willingly participate. Justice is thus a human expression of a wider universal principle of nature and if we were entirely true to nature, our actions would be spontaneously just.
Thus to the classical Indian culture, the universe is essentially a moral universe. Nature has its principles which become translated into ethical terms in the individual and social lives of human beings. Human life is seen as a part of this natural process, but not by dominating it. Moral justice, social justice and legal justice are viewed as a particularization of the general principle of the universe seen as a total organism. The belief has remained strong in India through the centuries that Nature, itself, is the ultimate and final arbiter of justice. Ultimately, justice is cosmic justice.
Nature is evolutionary and teleological. An individual is seen as an embodiment of the underlying universal principle or force. One has to keep on incarnating until one evolves enough to attain the spiritual maturity or perfection. As part of nature, the same principles of natural balance and harmony apply to man's moral behavior as they do to other functions of the universe. One’s destiny over a series of lifetimes is determined by the quality of his deeds or karma. In the evolutionary process of liberation, man reaps what he sows. An evil-doer can revert to sub-human levels of existence. Human beings are born into various classes according to their karma. One’s evolution or salvation lies in the quality of his performance at the level on which he finds himself. To expect all men to adhere to the same standard or to act in a manner beyond their present stage of spiritual, moral, and intellectual capacities would be neither just nor natural.
The purushaartha-varnaashrama-dharma system, is designed around the possibility for the individual to take the harmonious development of his own nature consciously into his own hands. In this an ideal life-program is mapped out in terms of goals to be achieved and progressive stages in life in which they are to be pursued. The goals (Purushaartha) are moral, ethical and social rectitude (dharma), aesthetic and erotic gratification (kaama), material well-being and prosperity (artha) and most important, spiritual liberation and self-realization (moksha). In order to fulfill each of these goals in a balanced and harmonious progress, the Hindu is advised to divide his life into the four stages (aashrama) of the student (brahmacarya), householder (grhastha), forest-dweller (vaanaprastha) and monk (sannyaasa). Not only individual harmony but also the concepts of social ethics and interpersonal justice revolve around the right of individuals and groups to advance within the teleological structure without interference from their fellows. The ideal society envisioned by Indian sages is an association in which individuals respect and help one another to work out their respective spiritual destinies. Those in the higher classes were not supposed to take their status as a privilege to feel superior to those in the lower classes, but they were supposed to support them as parts of the same social body.
The ancient Indians knew that the ideal may not always match with the reality. Therefore the state performed its duty of protection of society and the individuals through the enforcement of the standards of justice. Early codes of law, covering every aspect of life, are preserved in the voluminous Dharma saastra literature. Accordingly, the traditional Indian king has been invested with danda, the scepter, a symbol of the power and authority of the state which rules by law and punishment. Greater penalty was given for those in higher levels and milder punishment for those in lower levels. The principle was that when a common man was fined one kaarshaapana, the king shall be fined one thousand. For example, in a case of theft, if the guilt of a Suudra is eight-fold, that of a Vaisya (higher class) must be sixteenfold, that of a Kshatriya (even higher class) must be thirty-two fold, and that of a Braahmana (highest class) sixty-four fold.
Regarding the idea of justice, I do not see anything contradictory between the Christian and Hindu views. When someone is willing to dig deep into one’s own religious tradition, it is easy to find so much in common with other traditions. Those who see their religion very different from that of others obviously have a very superficial understanding of their own religion. In my view both Hinduism and Christianity seek the well being of all that exists, and they see human existence as a part of the cosmic existence. The ideal life is a life in harmony with the cosmos or the nature. As a Christian with a sufficiently deep understanding of my own religious tradition, I do not have any problem to have an embracing relationship with a Hindu.
Aspects of Justice in Ancient India

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