Distributive Justice

The Elgin Marbles which were taken from the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, more than 200 years ago. 

Baransam1 asked in response to the latest AMA:

In the past, conquering Islam has broken many temples and erected mosques over the ruined temples. What should be our ideal stance in modern India? Shall we remove all those mosques and resurrect the temples? Or shall we let the mosques stand because the original criminals (breaking those temples) are all dead? I am not comfortable punishing descendants for their ancestor’s crimes. Instead of breaking and building mosques/temples, shall we remember and remind future Hindu generations of the atrocities committed by some violent rulers in the name of Islam? That will enable the future generation to be on their guard without committing new crimes (like the forceful demolition of Babri Masjid).

Let’s begin with an issue that is not as emotion-laden for Indians as the destruction of thousands of Hindu temples that accompanied the Islamic invasion of India, beginning with Muhammad Bin Qasim’s invasion of Sindh in 712 CE. Let’s begin with the loot by European colonial powers in the more recent past. Colonialism and looting go hand in hand. The British, as the most successful colonizers, are understandably the most successful looters. The British museum is the world’s largest receiver of stolen goods.

If you care to, check out this report in The National which has a set of nice pictures of stolen goods, including the Elgin Marbles (which appears at the head of this post.)

The core point in the demand for the return of stolen goods is that of rectification of past harm. The rectificatory theory of justice is explored by the American philosopher Robert Nozick (1938–2002) in his book 1974 book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

Nozick rejects any consequentialist arguments for the justification of holdings (the word he uses for property). Meaning, for example, claims that certain holdings are justified because they lead to overall social welfare are invalid. For Nozick, individual holding are justified only through backward-looking investigations of how the distribution of holdings came to be.

For Nozick, the right to property (holdings) is entitlement to the property and that entitlement is historical. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Individual A will have an entitlement to holding H if and only if A’s possession of H has the right sort of history. This stance accords with the common-sense intuition that an agent’s acquiring economically valuable objects in certain ways—e.g., creating those objects out of unowned natural materials—generates entitlements for that agent over those objects while an agent’s acquiring objects in other ways—e.g., seizing those objects from another who has created them out of unowned natural materials—does not generate entitlements for that agent over those objects. A distribution of holdings across individuals will be just insofar as the particular holdings that constitute that distribution are just—rather than the justice of any particular individual’s holding depending on the holistic justice of the distribution of which it is a part.

Just acquisition takes the form of just initial acquisition, just transfer, or just rectification of an unjust taking. An existing holding will be just if it arises from an act of just initial acquisition or an act of just initial acquisition followed by one or more acts of just transfer, or an act of just rectification that counteracts an unjust taking of a just holding. An adequate theory of justice in holdings will specify the processes that constitute just initial acquisitions, just transfers, and just acts of rectification.

That forms the philosophical foundation for my response to the questions at the top of this post related to the destruction of Indian temples by Islamic invaders over several centuries.

The existing distribution of holdings of temple properties by Islamic institutions was not justly acquired. The past injustices must be rectified. Any and all holdings of Islamic institutions that can be, through historical accounts, established as having been taken by force should be given back to the descendants of the original owners.

One can easily come up with a mechanism for doing that. Let’s concoct a story. Imagine that Joe owns a piece of land that John takes possession of after murdering Joe. Assume this act of injustice can be historically verified. Over time, John and his descendants build various buildings on the land, and the John family enjoys the benefits of their holding.

The question arises: what action to rectify the past injustice done to Joe’s family is proper? It is that Joe’s descendants must be compensated. How? That John’s family pay Joe’s family the current price of the land plus appropriate interest on the value of the land so that the injustice in holdings is rectified. If John’s family cannot pay, they have to transfer the land (with or without the improvements) to Joe’s family.

The claim that this act of rectification somehow hurts John’s family is silly. If the holding was impermissibly acquired, it was an injustice and must be rectified.

Temples destroyed cannot be resurrected but the land should be returned to the descendants of the original land owners. The current holders of the temple lands could, if they so wish, purchase all the current land — the proceeds of which can go into a general fund that the Hindus can collectively decide to use for whatever purpose they choose, to build temples on land that they own, or to build schools, or to support poor Hindu families.

Will this happen? I don’t think so. Indians, I am sorry to say, don’t have a very well-developed sense of justice and fairness. Expecting Indians to resist injustice and tyranny is too unrealistic.

Author: Atanu Dey


5 thoughts on “Distributive Justice”

  1. Thank you.
    It is the second time you are doing this to me. You have provided me with a framework that goes against my current bias.
    I will now think about it over and over in multiple contexts. Like Krishna Janma Bhoomi.
    Thanks once again.


  2. Indians, I am sorry to say, don’t have a very well-developed sense of justice and fairness.

    I think this may have to do with the fact that generations of Indians have grown up in environment where right to property is not a fundamental right – basically a communist outlook. Ideally all laws should pretty much follow from the fundamental “right to property”.

    Liked by 1 person

        1. I also like to think so. And that may explain the spectacular rise and contribution of the US to human civilization. But, at the same time, I am curious to know what the US constitution has to say about the land loot from native Red Indians?


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