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

The Hindu - - COLUMNWIDTH -

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.

(chalta hai)”,

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