Justice, Power, and Truth

By Anjum Altaf

I checked the name index of Amartya Sen’s book (The Idea of Justice) for Foucault and found him missing. Let me explain why I found that surprising.

As mentioned earlier, Sen contrasts two approaches to social justice – the search for a perfectly just society versus the alternative of making existing society less unjust. These perspectives are given different labels – ‘arrangement-focused’ versus ‘realization focused’ or niti versus nyaya. The implication of the contrast is pithily summarized by an endorsement on the book’s back cover: “The Idea of Justice gives us a political philosophy that is dedicated to the reduction of injustice on Earth rather than to the creation of ideally just castles in the air.”

In terms of lineage, the arrangement-focused perspective is said to derive from the social contract formulation of Thomas Hobbes via Locke, Rousseau and Kant to John Rawls (A Theory of Justice) in our own times. The realization-focused perspective is traced from Adam Smith via Bentham, Marx and John Stuart Mill to Amartya Sen himself.

This would be fine if we were to accept the two perspectives as mutually exclusive and were asked to make a choice between them, especially when the choice is so starkly posed – reducing injustice on Earth versus creating ideally just castles in the air.

But what if we contend that the perspectives are not mutually exclusive – indeed that they overlap. Recall the characterization of niti and nyaya: the former relates to the institutional arrangements and behavioral norms whereas the latter is concerned with what emerges and how, and in particular the lives that people are actually able to lead. What if we ask: Do the arrangements that exist have anything to do with what emerges and the lives that people are actually able to lead? Or, how are niti and nyaya related?

This is where Foucault becomes relevant because Foucault is also the exact opposite of Hobbes but in a way quite distinct from the realization-focused perspective. The position Foucault takes is that it is not an ideal arrangement that will determine the lives that people would be able to lead. On the contrary, the causality is reversed – the lives that people are able to lead tell us something about the way the arrangements are structured. In other words, nyaya is a manifestation of niti.

This seems to take us away from the realization-focused approach back to the arrangement-focused approach except that the arrangement-focused approach originating with Hobbes is devoid of any notion of power. And this is what Foucault adds to the analysis – in his now well-known formulation what happens at the fingertips is a function of the power that is situated in the head.

One implication of this is that if we try to reduce an injustice in society without paying attention to the social or political arrangements that might be its cause, the injustice could very well emerge in a different form. This makes both realization-focused and arrangement-focused approaches relevant at the same time. If, for example, we wish to reduce the burdens of gender discrimination we would need to address existing instances of such discrimination (e.g., starting women-only trains to reduce harassment of women in public transport) while targeting the institution of patriarchy at the same time.

This is easier said than done and it is here that the real contribution of Foucault becomes relevant. Power not only determines what happens at the fingertips, it also determines how we see and interpret what happens at the fingertips – ‘power’ shapes ‘truth’ and the nature of the public discourse that we rely on to reduce injustice in society. Note how many voices rise up to defend the veiling of women as soon as attempts are made to eliminate that dimension of gender discrimination – patriarchy is accepted as normal, as part of some divinely ordained order of things.

Foucault has many examples of how power works to shape ‘truth’ and behavior. For example, he might ask how it is that in an age where so much is made of individuality, everyone rushes out to buy the same things and wear the same fashions? What kind of power does this common behavior at the fingertips reveal? Those who strive to reduce injustice have to contend with how those efforts are portrayed by the media – what really does “All the news that’s fit to print” mean and what does it reflect?

When we take Rawls, Sen and Foucault together we realize what we are up against in attempting to reduce injustice in our societies and why injustice is so persistent. Of course, this should not deter us from taking on the task we have set for ourselves in identifying what we consider the ten most unacceptable things in South Asia today.


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6 Responses to “Justice, Power, and Truth”

  1. Arun Pillai Says:

    I have not read Sen’s book and so do not know what he includes within “realization-focused” but I suspect he would include structural arrangements including power structures that lead to injustice. I suspect that what he means by “arrangement-focused” is *ideal* arrangements, not existing arrangements. But I could very easily be wrong.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: I hope that is the case but even without reading the book it is useful to make the point that it ought to be the case. At least that is what common sense would suggest.

  2. Vinod Says:

    Defining justice is at times as hard as defining architectural beauty.

  3. Arun Pillai Says:

    I believe that the exchange between Vinod and you captures essentially what Sen is probably trying to get at. The tradition of political philosophy has always been concerned with abstract ideal arrangements right since Plato not to mention early Indian political thought – this is what Vinod is trying to convey when he says defining justice is hard. On the other hand, Sen’s focus appears to be on reducing existing injustice without worrying about ideal arrangements. And this is echoed by South Asian’s comment that identifying gross injustice is often easy. Again, I should not speculate more without reading Sen’s book but Sen’s general approach in these matters is something I find very interesting because he starts with what exists and how to develop capacities in people (rather than trying to abstractly define freedom, for example) and similarly with reducing injustice (rather than trying to define it in an ideal sense). It strikes me as quite a departure from the tradition.

  4. SouthAsian Says:

    A good argument for why John Rawls remains relevant. And a useful new concept – The Veil of Opulence:

    “The question of fairness has widespread application throughout our political discourse. It affects taxation, health care, education, social safety nets and so on. The veil of opulence would have us screen for fairness by asking what the most fortunate among us are willing to bear. The veil of ignorance would have us screen for fairness by asking what any of us would be willing to bear, if it were the case that we, or the ones we love, might be born into difficult circumstances or, despite our hard work, blindsided by misfortune. Society is in place to correct for the injustices of the universe, to ensure that our lives can run smoothly despite the stuff that is far out of our control: not to hand us what we need, but to give us the opportunity to pursue life, liberty and happiness. The veil of ignorance helps us see that. The veil of opulence keeps us in the dark.”


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