Justice as Individual Fairness
Any conception of justice is about the relationship between the members of a society living in cooperative arrangements for the benefit of all members. For any society that is presumed to consist of free and equal persons, the necessary conditions for ensuring justice are equal personal and political liberties, and equal opportunities. Equality before the law is fair. That is, justice is about fairness, as the great political theorist John Rawls argued. He conceives of society “as a fair system of cooperation over time, from one generation to the next.”
Fairness is a concept that operates at the level of the individual and can only be meaningfully applied to the interaction between a particular individual and other individuals or groups. When applied to a group (rather than an individual), it is merely a shorthand for saying “this applies to each and every member of the group.” In other words, the individual is the proper object of attention in any notion of fairness. Therefore, a person’s group affiliation is irrelevant for determining if the proposed action is fair to him or her.
Historically, the group identity of a person has been accorded great relevance in India. For example, the kinship group known as caste is held to be relevant in political, social and economic contexts. The individual is not accorded an independent standing and instead is considered a part of the collective.
This has two very pernicious effects. First, it fragments society into groups. This leads to conflicts between groups, sometimes to violent conflict. Second, it devalues the individual and makes individual freedom impossible. The identity of the individual is lost and the group identity is forced on him or her. Willing or not, he or she is saddled with the burden of whatever the group is accused of and made guilty by association.
Individuals belong to certain groups have been discriminated by people of other groups merely because of their group identity. The “untouchables” of India is an example of this among many others. Unfortunately, identity-based discrimination is not just a historical oddity but is a present-day reality. The government of India discriminates among individuals based on which caste an Indian is born into or which religion the person professes.
The Constitution of India encodes this discrimination and helps perpetuate it to the detriment of all individuals, regardless of whether they are discriminated against or not. This often takes the form of “reverse discrimination” which essentially holds that individuals of certain groups will be penalized for deeds that the group they belong to by birth had done in the past, and for which deeds the individual had no control over. The individual is being punished for the sins of the ancestors. This is patently unfair and therefore unjust.
Historical discrimination of groups is an undeniable wrong. But that wrong was done in the past by people who are no longer living. Attempting to correct for the historical wrongs by discriminating against individuals based on their identity is futile at best and morally reprehensible.
When discrimination is used as a political lever, it leads to social harm. The task of a government is primarily to maintain peace (often through the threat of violence), prevent harms to individual and enforce property rights. Add to that basic responsibility the task of providing collective goods. These are goods that cannot be efficiently provided by the private parties voluntarily cooperating in a free market.
When discrimination is based on group identity, then it politicizes the provision and distribution of collective goods. This leads to rent-seeking and fracturing of the polity. Groups are pitted against each other and conflict
arises in the allocation of scarce collective goods. As mentioned above, this hurts all members of society, not just those who are directly discriminated against.
The solution at its basis requires that the government treat all persons as equal and not discriminate on the basis of identity, religious or otherwise. Inequality and inequity need to be addressed, of course, but that can be done by reference to the individual — regardless of the identity. An individual should be given whatever assistance is needed and possible based solely on the circumstances of the person and not based on his or her group identity.