Option For The Least: An Ethical Perspective

Dr. Basil Xavier, S.J.

Image: Kyran via Unsplash

On seeing the sufferings and agonies of the last and least in the society, our hearts prefer to opt for them. Our souls also, stirred up by Jesus’ option for the poor, move us to choose the oppressed. But our minds (always tricky!) question it saying, “Is it equality? Is it not one-sided approach?” Can we defend ethically the option for the least? One ethical theory (Equity) and two ethicists (Rawls and Ruskin) come to our rescue!

Firstly, the difference between the ethical theories of equity and equality is important. Although both promote fairness, equality achieves this through treating everyone the same regardless of need, while equity achieves this through treating people differently depending on their respective needs. In an unequal and unjust society like India, equity gets priority over equality. In our society, (refer the picture on page ) people are not equal in height (not equal economically, socially, culturally, politically and so on).

In order to witness the game, the shortest must be supported with the extra stools. It looks as if people not treated equally. But this is equity and option for the least. In the traditional philosophy of justice, it is restorative justice as the society has to now restore relationships to “rightness” and reinstate equality! We can even call this retributive justice as the least has been wronged by the advantaged (people are kept poor and made illiterate in an unjust social structure) and hence the latter has to bear the ‘punishment’ of compensating the former! The philosophy of ‘reservation’ is based on this principle of equity. This is also called ‘social justice’ spearheaded by Dravidian movements in South India.

Secondly, John Rawls an American philosopher introduced the concept of “Justice as Fairness” in his book A Theory of Justice (TJ) in 1971. He was constantly revising this concept and published Fairness as Justice: A Restatement (JF) in 2001. From the time of J. S. Mill until the mid 20th century, most philosophers who defended democratic principles did so largely on the basis of utilitarianism i.e. a greater amount of happiness for a greater number of people. The implication of this is that the greater happiness of the majority is achieved by unfairly neglecting the rights and interests of a minority. Radically Rawls attempted to develop a non-utilitarian justification of a democratic political order characterized by fairness, equality and individual rights.

His concept has two principles. The second principle runs like this, “Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: a. They are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; b. They are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society (the difference principle)” (JF, 42–43). The second part of the second principle is the difference principle which regulates the distribution of wealth and income. This allows inequalities of wealth and income, so long as these will be to everyone’s advantage and specifically to the advantage of those who will be worst-off. This principle claims that any economic inequality must be to the greatest advantage of those who are advantaged-least. Those better-endowed are welcome to use their gifts to make themselves better-off so long as their doing so also contributes to the good of those less-well-endowed. “In justice as fairness,” Rawls says, “men agree to share one another’s fate.” (TJ, 102).

Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice (2009) is a critique and revision of Rawls’s theory of justice. While appreciating Rawls, Sen appends the following. He talks about niti and nyaya. The former relates to just rules whereas the latter refers to realization. Niti is an abstract exercise, if implemented completely, would result in maximum public welfare and justice. Nyaya, on the other hand, relates to the enforcement of laws and regulations. According to Sen, Rawls grappled only with the perfect theory of justice i.e. transcendental institutionalism. On the other hand, what we need is not an ‘ideal perfect justice’ (niti) but practical means to remove the injustice (nyaya). Sen’s ‘Idea of Justice’ in a way completes and moves forward Rawls’s ‘Theory of Justice’. So Sen’s effort should be seen as fulfilling the grooves of Rawls’s concept and not an alternate view.

Lastly, the ethics of ‘Unto This Last’ and its Indian avatar is significant here. Unto This Last was written by John Ruskin in 1860. Gandhi had borrowed the philosophy of sarvodaya from Ruskin which he himself acknowledged. Gandhi summed up the teachings of Ruskin in three fundamental principles. Among them the first one goes like this, “That the good of the individual is contained in the good of all”. Gandhi was concerned with the last and least in the society while explaining his concept of ‘sarvodaya’. Actually the proper rendering of the ‘Unto This Last’ would be “antyodaya” (welfare of the least). Later, J. P. Narayan drafted sarvodaya plan inspired by Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave. The bhoodan and gramdan movement of Vinoba was successful in collecting lands from the land lords and distributing them to poor landless farmers (the least). This is a voluntary social justice from the side of the advantaged.

Actually we can accomplish “sarvodaya only through antyodaya”. The welfare of all can be achieved only by ensuring welfare to the least in the society. Will a mother feed equally a healthy and mal-nutritious child? Certainly she would give more to the neediest. Any society is judged by how the weakest and poorest of its members are treated. The most vulnerable people are our greatest responsibility. Therefore the need of the hour is a preferential option for the last and least of our sisters and brothers. This option is in fact an ethical imperative essential for effectively attaining the common good!

About the Author:

Dr. Basil Xavier, SJ is former principal of Arul Anandar College, Karumathur, Madurai. He has been teaching philosophy there for more than two decades. He has recently published two books: Ethnophilosophising in India and Philosophies of Margins.