Justice And The Limits Of Institutions

Justice And The Limits Of Institutions
Let me propose a system. At the risk of infuriating both handfuls of my brethren. A system that is just, but not equal – not only materially, but also in access to opportunity. A system where each part plays a role that is best suited to its capability. Where no one part impinges its reach onto one that it fits for another. And in doing so, they create harmony, beauty and magic – all in one stroke of this philosophical yet very material paintbrush!

Such a system might initially sound utopian, but each living soul has one intrinsically attached to us. And it is by grasping the real working essence of this system, one that is quite existentially grounded, that all philosophical debate about an ideal society and by extension political system should begin. This system is nothing else but our own human body. The very flesh we wear, living on the very air we breathe. For instance, what calamity would it befall anyone if their hand was asked to perform the function of its heart, or if the heart was to do what is reserved for the brain? – This concept might trivial at first, but is precisely what Plato alludes to in his famous The Republic – one of the greatest pieces written in the study of political philosophy.

The central question that Plato tackles in The Republic is one pertaining to Justice. For Plato, Justice rather than being linked to equality is actually linked to harmony. And harmony for Plato is a result of each part playing its role without interfering with another. The human organism, for instance, Plato asserts, consists of reason, spirit, and appetite. It is only when reason rules over the spirit and appetite, can there be harmony within a human organism. Similarly, in a social organism, which for Plato is an ideal society, hierarchies correspond to appetite, spirit, and reason. To appetite belong the labor and artisans, to spirit belong the warriors and fighters, and to reason belong the philosopher kings.

For Plato, this utopian society is just, because in it is internal harmony – and that in itself is the ultimate yardstick of justice, not equality. Such a Platonic state is obviously utopian. To claim that in our current state as a human species, we can conceivably construct a just society on such a blueprint is both naïve and also corrupt at the same time. Yet, this does not stop Plato from proposing exactly that in arguably his most famous philosophical work. Perhaps Plato himself realized that often at times it is necessary to paint a futuristic picture of an ideal system so that we do not get our fundamentals wrong. And as we move through a critical juncture in our history as a country, I believe it is of utmost importance to reiterate these fundamentals.

The Platonic idea of Justice has two parts which are relevant to Pakistan today. Let me tackle the first part first. The first part that the Platonic system stresses upon is that a system is only just when each of its constituent parts has its systematic standing directly proportionate to what they intellectually bring to the system as a whole.

This idea of every part of a society getting outcomes that are proportionate to what they contribute is not very different from other more materialistically grounded political philosophies. The crispest and most apt example that comes to mind – after which all other examples get banal – is that of the socialist system itself. You see, there is often this erroneous conflation of socialist ideas with the “quest for equality.” A conflation that is all so common in popular if not academic circles. However, Marx and Engels themselves were very clear about not advocating for a system that is equal. For them, the concept of the quest for equality itself was a byproduct of a bourgeois-controlled system. One that would disappear in a society where each section was to get proportionate to what they contribute to the society in terms of their material labor. In this particular sense, despite being wholly on two separate sides of the idealist-materialist spectrum, the Platonic and Marxist concepts of justice are uncannily similar.

The second important integral part of a just state for Plato – is that in it, each part is supposed to perform the function that is best suited to it without interfering in the domain of other parts. If one was to notice closely this concept is also intrinsically woven into most modern forms of constitutional governance in the shape of separation of powers between different branches of government. Most modern constitutions stipulate separate and independent executive, legislature, and judiciary power domains. In an ideal state, no one branch is allowed to encroach into another’s domain. Yet this non-encroachment does not imply indifference – it is actually the role of each branch to make sure that they try to protect the fundamental rights of citizens if any other branch was to abuse power. Without such an absolutely uncompromising separation of powers, it is not possible to have a Just system.

As we speak, Pakistan is currently going through an amalgamation of economic, social, and also constitutional crises. In such a time, before we delve into either technicalities or rhetoric – or perhaps both! It is important to ask the question, a question that Plato asked almost two millennia ago – What is Justice? And what makes a society just? – the answer to both is quite manifest, at least in my own head. A system is just when each part gets what it contributes to the whole and not one inch more, and one in which no one part is allowed to encroach on the duties, rights, and freedoms of another.

In conclusion, I would have loved to articulate things as barely as I could. But even my once obstinate brazenness has been compelled to choose words carefully these days. I would end with the words of Plato himself, who through the character of Socrates states in The Republic: “Injustice implies ignorance, stupidity, and badness . . . A just person is wiser because he acknowledges the principle of limit . . .Unlimited self-assertion is not a source of strength . . . as it leads to unending conflicts.”

The writer is a Research Fellow at PIDE, Islamabad, and holds a Masters Degree from Cornell University, USA.