Posts Tagged ‘Hobbes’

Justice, Power, and Truth

October 18, 2009

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. (more…)

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Ghalib – 25: On Resignation

March 13, 2009

Ghalib says in his letters that in moments of despair he was given to reciting this she’r:

raat din gardish meiN haiN saat aasmaaN
ho rahega kuchh nah kuchh ghabraayeN kyaa

night and day the seven heavens are revolving
something or the other will happen – why should we be perturbed

The meaning is open to interpretation and the reader is encouraged to refer to the commentary on Mehr-e-Niimroz for more on the literary wordplay.

The most common interpretation is as an expression of resignation in the face of overwhelming odds that an individual feels powerless to confront (as, for example, the 1854 epidemic in Delhi that Ghalib refers to in one letter). And indeed, at such times, it is a great consolation to be able to leave one’s fate in the hands of a power greater than oneself.

Two thoughts come to mind:

First, note that Ghalib takes recourse to this remedy at the moment of his greatest helplessness – a time at which even the most unsentimental of critics would concede the laying down of arms. But what happens when the sentiment is the norm? What happens when in the best of times a society is prone to leave its fate to be decided by the revolution of the seven heavens?

In such situations, I would shift the stress on the words ghabraayeN kyaa differently. Instead of reading them as ‘why should we be perturbed’ I would be inclined to read them as ‘shouldn’t we be perturbed?’ Would I be wrong to feel that the prospect of the ‘something or the other’ likely to happen with such an attitude should be a cause of major concern?

Would readers consider this a commentary on the Pakistan of today and its predicament? Not for nothing have the faithful been advised: ‘Trust in God but tie your camel.’

Second, from turning to a higher power for solace in a moment of despair to believing that all fate is decreed by a higher power can seem an imperceptible extension but it is an extension with profound implications.

Doesn’t this take us back to Hobbes (1588-1679) and Leviathan (1651) in which Hobbes makes his momentous contribution – shifting the focus of deliberation from the heavens to the earth and outlining a theory of politics that rests on anthropology and not on theology?

Hobbes’ contribution is now known as the ‘Great Separation.’ Was it this conceptual and intellectual break that determined that the ‘something or the other’ that happened in societies that went different ways would be so radically at odds with each other?

For an excellent introduction to Hobbes and the Great Separation, see the lecture by Ian Johnston.

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