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Going beyond the boundaries of justice

World Commerce Review
By Professor  

Deepanshu Mohan reinterprets Hume's Of Justice and argues for a deeper understanding of ethics and values of justice in the modern world

In year 1751 David Hume-one of the most enlightening and influential moral philosophers of the 18th century-published an essay titled Of Justice (published in his book An Equiry Concerning the Principles of Morals). Written almost two and a half centuries ago, the essay by Hume was at a time when a new era of globalization, due to the Industrial Revolution, was unfolding across different parts of Europe, causing people to migrate (from their homeland) to distant parts and adapt to new social, cultural and economic arrangements. In the essay, Hume argues for the need of a fresh and novel approach to thinking about the transitional nature of justice that evolves with movements of people the change in their relations with other people from the forces of globalization.

In current times, the emphasis made by Hume on interrelating ethics and a discussion of human sentiment(s) with moral reasoning to understand and practice the core values of (universalized) justice-beyond legalized, territorial boundaries-warrant an impartial degree of reflection. This article attempts to discuss some of the Humean insights that still continue to invoke deeper discussions on the demand and values of global justice (and its nature today) in times of a proliferating global refugee crisis and civil war


Boundaries of justice

Hume (1751) remarks in his essay: “…several distinct societies maintain a kind of intercourse for mutual convenience and advantage, the boundaries of justice still grow larger, in proportion to the largeness of (wo)men’s views, and the force of their mutual connexions… History, experience, reason sufficiently instruct us in this natural progress of human sentiments, and in the gradual enlargement of our regards to justice in proportion as we become acquainted with the extensive utility of that virtue.”

Here, the general idea of justice and its reasoning for people as per Hume remains contrary to the idea of justice that for example, Thomas Hobbes (and later John Rawls) argue for- where the latter remain centered on an institutional rule/law-based framework within the limits of a functioning sovereign state. While Hume remained deeply concerned about the importance of institutions (as Amartya Sen later argues here), the main concern for him on the idea and nature of (global) justice revolved around the need to have ‘just’ relations between people in any country including (with) those migrating from a farther land. A Humean line of reasoning for justice in urbanized societies thus, remains more realization focused than being transcendental in nature. Adam Smith too (in The Theory of Moral Sentiments) extends this Humean line of reasoning, seeing justice as a virtue that warrants an appropriate understanding of human sentiments and incorporating ethics (as a body of knowledge on human sentiments) in the diagnosis of what is just and unjust within existing societal arrangements.


Globalizing values of (human) justice

With the expansion of trade, capital movements and other relations with foreign countries (then and now), Hume’s emphasis on expanding “the boundaries of justice” beyond the confines of one sovereign state presents a dynamic interpretation and interpretation of justice and its jurisprudence. A congruence of reason and (human) sentiment thus, merits a discussion not only under the subject of ethics but is key in the jurisprudence of law affecting the sentiments and well-being of people residing in any country. In other words, ethics need a practical induction in any discussion on justice (and laws ensuring it) within a globalized society.

Nationally isolated pursuits of justice within developing pluralistic countries like India (and other countries) remain inadequate to the (global) demands of justice that culminate from the progress of human sentiments and migration of people due to the changing nature of employment markets (across the world).

While a lot has been recently written under the recent ‘anti-globalization wave’ critiquing policies that reflect neo-liberal perspectives of economic and financial globalization across the world in a unilateral way; the connection between reasoned ethics and human sentiments warrant a renewed understanding of global ethics and its application in areas of legal jurisprudence, public policy in a globalized society today. The nature of a globalized society today is a direct product of the (information) technological revolution that started (along with other economic reforms) during the early 1990s.

Scholarship emerging from the anti-globalization movements since the economic crisis of 2008 in the US and the European Debt Crisis questions (and rightly so) a misplaced understanding of markets (earlier seen as infallible) and the blind faith attributed to economic and financial policies of liberalization and deregulation. The Humean admonition about the need for empirical knowledge about-what works and does not work-helps us in testing these blind faiths and in widening the discourse on global justice (its transitional nature) and role of ethics. A realization-based approach to justice and understanding of injustice (promoted by Hume and Smith) thus, merit a deeper focus in an argument against any universalized, transcendalist view that attempt to design some ideal, institutionalist approach for understanding human sentiments and a just arrangement.

Deepanshu Mohan is Assistant Professor and Assistant Director for Centre of International Economic Studies at the Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University