Against false moral equivalence
To falsely attribute a bad quality to a person when he does not possess it is to misrecognise him and such misrecognition can leave a permanent scar
When people speak of social injustice or misrecognition, they usually have in mind the persistent suffering of large marginalised groups such as Dalits, Adivasis, minorities or women. Such oppression of large groups is not the topic of this column. Rather, I have in mind smaller, less dramatic, more everyday forms of injustices and misrecognitions suffered by individuals. I speak in particular of one wrong which I call false moral equivalence that individuals in our society appear to face increasingly in everyday life.
Everyday forms of injustices
Consider several people applying for two academic positions in the university. Only two can get them and they do. One has excellent qualifications, performs brilliantly in the selection interview, and does nothing illegitimate to get the job. The other has reasonable qualifications, gives an average interview but more than makes up for these inadequacies by ‘fixing’ the selection process. He pulls every conceivable string. Despite this stark difference, the wider academic community fails to distinguish the two cases and brands them both as ‘fixers’.
Another example. Consider two government officials charged by their seniors for financial corruption. One, in fact, is squeaky clean but a victim of much envy and jealousy within the system or framed because he refuses to toe the line of powerful politicians. The other is a run-of-the-mill corrupt officer who has reached where he has by selling his soul at every stage of promotion. Both cases are brought to the notice of the wider public that, ill-informed, indifferent or lazy as it is, places both officers on the same moral footing, by presuming both to be equally corrupt.
What wrong, when branded corrupt, has the clean officer suffered? What wrong has been done to the deserving candidate when he is clubbed with the real ‘fixer’? My one-line answer is that both have suffered from false moral equivalence. What does this involve? An equally short answer: injustice through misrecognition.
One ancient principle of justice requires that those equal in some relevant respect be treated equally and those unequal, unequally. It follows that when equals get an unequal share of a material or psychological good (say, income or reputation) or when unequal persons receive equal shares, then distributive justice is violated. This principle can be embedded in two different forms of life, however. In one, people are viewed as intrinsically unequal. Those born superior to others in all respects must never be treated in the same way as their inferiors. This hierarchical or aristocratic interpretation must be rejected. In the other, where moral equality of all humans and equality of opportunity is guaranteed, the principle reads differently: those equal in need, condition or ability must be treated equally and those not equal, unequally. To return to our example: the most qualified person who goes through a fair process of selection must get the job and also be recognised as truly worthy of it. Others found ‘unequal in the relevant respect’ are not worthy of it even when they get the position. When both are treated as fixers, then the deserving candidate gets a reputation he does not deserve. The same is true for the person who is viewed as financially corrupt when, in fact, he is not. By treating ‘unequals’ as equals, by falsely equating the two (the morally relevant quality of integrity is not present to the same degree in two persons), an injustice is inflicted on the ‘clean’ or deserving person.
Injustice by misrecognition
The relevant injustice in such cases arises from misrecognition. Each of us has a certain understanding of what we are, as well as an estimation of our worth. And yet, what we are is partly shaped by how others recognise us. If they get us wrong, if they attribute to us features we do not have, if, in short, they misrecognise us, then this can cause us very real damage. If our society mirrors back to us a distorting, severely mistaken picture of who we are, then this might leave us with lowered self-respect. Misrecognition is a somewhat intangible but very real harm. It can make us feel small and humiliated. And when thrown back by everyone around us, we might, unless we are very strong and secure, even begin to change our self-perception. Good feminist and Dalit scholars have made us realise the lasting damage caused by a denigrating self-image. But this feeling can be experienced by any individual in her everyday life; its ordinariness and individual quality does not detract from the crippling psychological damage it causes. To falsely attribute a bad quality to a person when, in fact, he does not possess it is to misrecognise him and such misrecognition can leave a permanent scar.
False moral equivalence then involves unfairness by misrecognition. It is a potent instrument of psychological harm, a form of mistreatment. When good, meritorious people are ill-treated, they go through first social and then, eventually, self-estrangement. Everyday injustices and misrecognitions add up. Good people begin to lose not only their bearing, self-confidence and self-respect but also their souls. As everyone loses a sense of discrimination between right and wrong, and adopts an attitude of “anything goes when everyone is equally guilty or innocent, we are well on our way to turning a community into a directionless mob in which virtually anyone can be arbitrarily targeted. The pernicious social habit of false moral equivalence shows not only our coarseness, that we could not care less, but also that we are trapped in an immoral abyss from which there may be no escape. And for anyone still left with a modicum of moral integrity, this is insufferable.