The Need for Transcendental Justice in a World Marred by Conflict and Conquest

There are larger questions of ‘justice’ and respect for international law raised by many of today's conflicts.

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There is a solar flare of deep inter-state conflict, conquest, and siege erupting all over the globe.

Russia and Ukraine have been embroiled in a long-drawn, painful war for over a year and a half. After a 10-month blockade, Azerbaijan launched an attack on 19 September, claiming the enclave in a day and causing nearly the entire ethnic Armenian population to flee.

Give war a chance, as the saying goes.

And, just a few days ago, the Palestinian militant group, Hamas, launched an unprecedented attack on Israel, with its fighters entering communities near the Gaza Strip, killing hundreds of residents and taking dozens of hostages.


Although the attack by the militants on 7 October came without warning, it happened at a time of soaring Israeli-Palestinian tensions. 

This year has been the deadliest year on record for Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, which could have motivated Hamas to strike Israel with an attack.

Hamas, it seems, might also have been seeking to score a major propaganda victory against Israel to boost its popularity among ordinary Palestinians. 

As reported by the BBC, “The fact that it has taken so many Israelis captive is likely to be aimed at pressuring Israel to free some of the about 4,500 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons - a highly emotive issue for all Palestinians.” 

There is also speculation that the attack was orchestrated by Iran, Israel's arch-foe, though Iran's ambassador to the UN has denied his country's involvement. It’s possible, given Iran and Hamas staunchly opposed the growing prospect of a historic peace deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia - something which might be thwarted if Israel's military response to the attacks provokes widespread anger in the Arab world.


Justice and Sovereignty

There is a larger question for a more divided, polarised, multipolar world order at this point which is marred by conflicts and regional tensions -having global ramifications all over. There are larger questions of ‘justice’, the respect for international law and sovereignty raised by many of these attacks and erupting conflicts.

However, a breakdown in the international world order of cooperative, peaceful resolution, safeguarded by a Bretton Woods period institutional system finds itself to be incapable of addressing the issues of our times. The nature of the situations evident reminds of me a text I read years ago on the chimera of global institutional justice.

In The Problem of Global Justice written by Thomas Nagel (2005), he noted how global justice as a normative concept had much less empirical significance and is “not a viable subject for deliberation” (especially in an environment where non-compliance by a member party to a binding legal action isn’t met with strong deterrence or sanctions).

Nagel said, “It seems to be very difficult to resist Thomas Hobbes’ (an English philosopher best known for his work, Leviathan) claim about the relation between justice and sovereignty”, and “if Hobbes is right, the idea of global justice without a world government is a chimera”. And, at this point, perhaps, it is a reasonable claim to make.

The idea of global justice is normatively vital and is an idea that needs less moral and ethical scrutiny. What is critically needed is an effort to reform (pre)existing institutional arrangements aiming to minimize injustices.

Under a Hobbesian and Rawlsian institutional structure of justice, as Amartya Sen (2009) argues in The Idea of Justice, the above question would qualify as a “loose talk.”

For the requisite principles of justice to be applied institutionally or have any significant impact, in a Rawlsian or Hobbersian structure, a sovereign state’s existence is a must.

In an absolutist Hobbesian world, which is what it seems we are living in, the concept of sovereignty in a society will be defined as a person or body of persons who (a) have been given the right of govern through the social contract and (b) have the “three marks” of sovereignty, i.e., control of the military, ability to raise money, and the control of religious doctrines.


While the demand of a sovereign global state appears very difficult realistically, questions on the operational framework of global justice seem impossible to address to “transcendentalists” (applicable to Rawls and Hobbes in Amartya Sen’s views), who theoretically argue for a perfect outcome and process for justice in a given setting.

The maximisation of interest for a nation-state (on which most political theories are based) governs as a rational, primary locus of political legitimacy and the pursuit of justice. When we are faced with the question of collective action on a global scale facilitated in a mutually cooperative way, it remains quite unclear what could then play a comparable role.

It would be pertinent here to exclude the issue attached to the universality of certain basic human rights (or some form of minimal humanitarian standards) in the context of international criminal law, or even international trade laws where we have seen how international cooperation and recognition work better and are more visible.

The issues that remain unaddressed and may be more pertinent to concerns similar to the one raised here include the relationship between justice and sovereignty and the limited scope of equality as a demand for justice.

This is the premise of Thomas Nagel’s work where he identifies these as key problems in his study.

According to Nagel (2005), the link between justice and sovereignty depends on “the coordinated conduct of large numbers of people, which cannot be achieved without a law backed up by a monopoly of force.”

And, perhaps, countries (like the US, Europe, India, and Japan) that have a responsibility to ensure peace prevails need to reflect more on this.


Reforming Existing International Institutional Arrangements

Collective self-Interest is difficult to realise by an independently motivated self-interested state of individuals unless each state has some form of assurance that others will conform if it does. And that assurance, as Nagel presents in his thesis, requires the external incentive provided by the sovereign, who sees to it that individual and collective self-interest coincide.

At least among sizable populations, it cannot be provided by voluntary conventions supported solely by the mutual recognition of a common interest or consent.

Even the first principles of basic economics argue that, in a given suitable environment, a rational individual or a collective homogeneous group (of like-minded individuals) may seek to maximize his or her or its own interests vis-à-vis the others, unless incentivised or deterred in any way (by law or practice) to act in some form of an alternative preference, where the other group’s interest takes precedence over one’s own. 

Thus, in moving towards the dominant and most revered path of transcendental justice (that Rawls and Hobbes envisage in their theories of global justice), it is critical to develop (new) institutions or at least reform existing international institutional arrangements in a way where strong incentives and sanctions are used as powerful tools for generating consent among mutually affected members unless a universal vision for a global state is created (which I think is not a possibility to realise).

For now, what we are witnessing is an apathetic outlook by those who are okay with seeing their neighborhood burn and may do everything to prevent the fire from reaching them, which is an allusion to a deeply entwined geopolitical and geoeconomic world order.

(Deepanshu Mohan is Professor of Economics and Director, Centre for New Economics Studies (CNES), Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, O.P. Jindal Global University. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Israel   Palestine   Israel Palestine 

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