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Social Climate
A Filipino definition of social justice

By Mahar Mangahas
First Posted 01:08:00 12/15/2007

Filed Under: Agrarian Reform, Social Issues, Justice & Rights

MANILA, Philippines--In elementary Economics, one learns that the welfare of society definitely improves when any one gets better off while no one else gets worse off; it definitely deteriorates when any one gets worse off while no one else gets better off. This is called the principle of efficiency. Unfortunately, most economics teachers go no further than this principle.

The most common real situations are those where some gain while others lose, requiring some evaluation of the gains and losses in order to assess the effect on social welfare. Such situations require principles of justice or fairness that take precedence over the principle of efficiency.

For instance, is it fairer that the Quisumbing estate be owned by the Sumilao farmer-tillers, who walked all the way from Bukidnon to Manila, as Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program beneficiaries, or that the estate be owned by San Miguel Foods as buyer from Quisumbing? Whose welfare should matter more? And who should be the judge of that?

In my view, the final judge of fairness in a case like Sumilao is not any single individual, but the Filipino people as a whole, reaching a consensus in a democratic manner. Proof of the existence of social justice with respect to agrarian reform does not depend on what is merely declared legal by the ruling order, if the result is so widely unacceptable as to keep revolutionary fires burning in rural Philippines.

Here is the best Filipino definition of social justice that I have seen so far --

?Social justice, for us Filipinos, means a coherent, intelligible system of law, made known to us, enacted by a legitimate government freely chosen by us, and enforced fairly and equitably by a courageous, honest, impartial, and competent police force, legal profession and judiciary, that:

? ?first, respects our rights and our freedoms both as individuals and as a people;

? ?second, seeks to repair the injustices that society has inflicted on the poor by eliminating poverty as rapidly as our resources and our ingenuity permit;

? ?third, develops a self-directed and self-sustaining economy that distributes its benefits to meet, at first, the basic material needs of all, then to provide an improving standard of living for all, but particularly for the lower income groups, with time enough and space to allow them to take part in and enjoy our culture;

? ?fourth, changes our institutions and structures, our ways of doing things and relating to each other, so that whatever inequalities remain are not caused by those institutions or structures, unless inequality is needed temporarily to favor the least favored and its cost is borne by the most favored; and

? ?fifth, adopts means and processes that are capable of attaining those objectives.?

Those are the words of the revered patriot Jose W. Diokno, in his essay ?A Filipino concept of justice? published in Solidarity magazine in 1983.

It is clear that Diokno was influenced by the American philosopher John Rawls (?A Theory of Justice,? Harvard University Press, 1971), but that does not make his definition any less Filipino. What matters is whether the ideas are acceptable, as I think they are, to the Filipino people as a whole.

Rawls conceived of a social contract drawn up, as it were, by unborn souls who are aware of the world?s economic and political history, but who, due to a ?veil of ignorance,? do not know the circumstances in which they will be born. They do not know if their parents will be rich or poor, powerful or powerless. They know that genes differ, but they do not know what genes they will inherit. They do not know what their gender or race will be. They do not know when they will be born.

In such circumstances, Rawls argued, the unborn souls will play safe by adopting a social contract that emphasizes minimal demands. They know that not everyone can be rich, but they also know that the world?s resources can afford a certain minimal standard of living for everyone. They will outlaw slavery and discrimination according to gender or race. They will allow differential rewards for differential talents, provided that such talents are used to improve the conditions of the poorest people. They will agree on rates of saving and of conservation of natural resources that ensure that sacrifices are equally borne by all generations.

Rawls? two principles of justice are:

? ?Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.? This is the Priority of Liberty.

? ?Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone?s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all.? This is the Priority of Justice over Efficiency.

Rawls? ?General Conception? is: ?All social primary goods -- liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self-respect -- are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any or all of these goods is to the advantage of the least favored.?

These principles are clearly compatible with the Catholic Church?s call for a preferential option for the poor. They are not incompatible with any religion.

In evaluating national progress, these principles of justice would prioritize statistics on poverty and hunger over the Gross National Product, which is merely correlated with the profits of the rich.

* * *

Contact Social Weather Stations: www.sws.org.ph or mahar.mangahas@sws.org.ph.

More Inquirer columns

Previous columns:
Agrarian reform through peaceful means ? 12/08/07
Walking 1,600 km for social justicev ? 12/01/07
Satisfaction with the way democracy works ? 11/24/07
Multiple images of poverty ? 11/17/07
Throwing money at hunger ? 11/09/07

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