Social Empowerment – a Way towards a Social Minimum of Justice

One way to look at global justice is to find a way to define a social minimum according to which global justice can be defined. Although there are many different ways in which this minimum as the core of global social justice can be defined, I’d like to take a look at the so-called capabilities approach.

I find the capabilities approach to define a social minimum for human dignity an interesting approach as it tries to look for actual measurable capabilities that leave the comprehensive outlook of life untouched. It does not try to find a definition of human dignity (Kant) which is informed by a certain view on what a human is. By leaving aside the question of what a human being is, true freedom of choosing one’s own comprehensive moral outlook on life is guaranteed. By not going into a basic minimum of needs (Miller) the difficult questions regarding the legitimacy of claim-rights and regarding whose responsibility it is to make sure the basic needs are met, are avoided.

However, the practical manner in which this capability approach is further specified by Nussbaum and Sen is not per se ideal. Nussbaum’s list of central capabilities is very broad, but this makes it perhaps less practical to implement. When leaving the way in which these capabilities are crystallised up to the individual and the individual’s preferences according to his or her own comprehensive outlook, the non-imposing of a specific paradigm is guaranteed. But the strength which is needed to rely upon the list of capabilities as enforcement of social justice is thereby heavily undermined. The other extreme, to focus on full capability equality with the priority of liberty as Sen argues for, is on the other hand to demanding and not free from dictating the manner in which human life should be developed.

Personally I am in favour of the idea of human empowerment, which is implied by the capability approach. By thinking in terms of capabilities, a statement is made on what human potential is, while leaving each country / group / person to decide whether and how to develop the capabilities in question. This leaves each person to decide on their own integrity and does not involve imposing a certain human ideal on others. I believe that the capabilities as listed by Nussbaum are indeed important ones, but when thinking about social justice, certain capabilities are essential that will bring about other capabilities. When a person is empowered to take control over their own lives, both politically as environmentally, his capability to live, health, integrity and independent thought are guaranteed.

Empowerment should not be thought of as material. Instead it is a mental, spiritual manner of fundamental respect for those that live in unjust conditions, to focus on their capability, their potential for humanness. By increasing their own thoughts and control of life, they will be able to better their own lives. This also creates a just relationship between the one who needs help and the one who helps. It does require complete selflessness on the part of the helper, as the person in need should be empowered in such a way that they can decide their own life. This approach to capabilities as the basis for social justice can be compared to good education. Education is not about making other people think the same things and in the same way as the teacher does. Instead, the teacher helps the student to develop their own capacities, takes the student by his hand only until she can stand on his own feet. Without imposing any ideals, the teacher should be able to look upon the student as “a mine rich in gems of inestimable value” (Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, US Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1988, p. 162.), without trying to decide what the ‘gems’ (capabilities) are and how they should be used. This is how true liberty and integrity of social justice is guaranteed. The natural result of this type of education is a sense of dignity and honour, without predetermining what the essence of this dignity must look like. Although social justice as empowerment cannot be claimed as a right as it cannot be demanded or implemented by force, it does very much work towards a more just society.

Governments as well as individuals are confronted by their responsibility towards themselves and all other human beings on the planet, and they cannot hide themselves behind the idea that they deserve the wealth they enjoy more than others do. Every man’s wealth depends on the fact that someone else has empowered him to be wealthy. The same goes for health and the other types of capabilities that Nussbaum lists. By acknowledging one’s own dependence on the help of someone else (be it a parent, or the state), responsibility towards those who still need this empowerment in order to reach their potential, is firmly grounded in individual and governments.

Another important aspect of this empowerment approach is that there is no-one who can say that nothing has to be done. When all needs are satisfied, Miller would argue that justice is present and altruism would be unnecessary. Yet the empowerment approach looks towards development no matter which level of development one is at. This focus on the development of human potential will truly bring forth a network of social justice that need have no maximum. It will make sure each society, each government and each human being will always look critically towards himself and his surroundings as to what potential still needs to be empowered in order to be turned into an implemented capability.

Rebuilding Trust: Who to Trust in a Nihilist World?

People often wonder what they would do in grave situations. Would they jump in the water to save a person from drowning? Or would they look the other way? Discussions regarding this often surmount to a general shrugging of the shoulders: we don’t know, how could we know and let’s leave it at that.

In one of the leading Dutch newspapers it was reported that a group of UN human right watchers declared that seven leaders of the bahá’í community in Iran, charged with espionage and corruption, have been held in prison for five years now, solely due to their choice of faith and should be released immediately. This imprisonment is not the first or only action against bahá’ís in Iran, nor is it something extraordinary when taking leaked memorandum from the Iranian government from 1991 into consideration. Bahá’ís have been barred from working and from education for years. According to some, all this can be seen as a first step in a larger scheme: the genocide of a specific minority in Iran.

How should we respond to such a message? More precisely: what can I do? Do I even have the right to pass judgement on another country, with laws I am not familliar with and which I cannot understand even if I wanted to. How can I protest against another paradigm? I am a citizen of my own country, abiding its laws and trying to live a good and proper life according to its own standards. Whenever possible, I like to support that what I think is good, and work towards a better future. Or, at least that is what I like to think about myself.

This world, my world, my universe, is created that way. I consume media that informs me of everything that happens around me, in a way that confirms my world and the opinions and thoughts I have about it. I get my daily feed of misery and calamities from around the world at breakfast, and am then considered to continue on with my life as if it didn’t affect me. Perhaps that’s a good thing, as the economy relies on people going about their business. If everybody would stop whatever they would otherwise be doing and start to think about what they can do in order to change things, total chaos would emerge.

So here I am, getting all worked up about this one instance of injustice, and I find myself at a loss. The nihilist perspective on things, that is so intimately connected to present Western society, starts to kick in: Whatever I do, nothing will change. I am utterly alone. If the UN cannot change it, why should I even try or care? I am already doing something, as I am part of the United Nations, being a citizen of one of its member states. Therefore, I shouldn’t concern myself with wanting to change things.

The problem with thinking about ‘change’, with wanting to change something, is that one needs to presuppose something that is worth giving up the status quo for. If there is no alternative, why give up on the present system, even tough we might realise its lacks? Especially in a liberal environment, with an emphasis on the right of everybody to have an opinion on personal matters such as faith, it becomes very difficult to take a stand not only in favour of your own point of view (taken that you even have one!) but against the views of somebody else. That is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to trust the system we have put in place to handle injustice. In order for change to occur, we need people, lots of people, to take action personally. To work constructively together with others, to let go of own’s own personal goal, and instead let justice and truth become the most important objectives. Unfortunately this all sounds very utopian and naieve.

So, what can we do? Perhaps we should begin to stop trusting not just the information given by the media but the paradigms they actively insert into our minds. We should stop trusting people who claim nothing can be done. Or, as an alledged Chinese proverb tells us, ‘man who says it cannot be done, should not interrupt man doing it’. Instead, we should consider trusting ourselves. It is governments who profit from citizens who complacently follow orders. Although brainwashing might not be as obvious as it was done during the Nazi government, also in the West our information and opinions are largely based on our education (governed by the state) and our sources (also governed by the state).

Does this mean that we should not trust the state? No. But it does mean that we should trust our selves more than we can ever trust somebody else. That includes thinking about what we can do for and in society, letting go of the thought that we are only one drop in the ocean.

I’ve often wondered at the people who saw the animal trains full of people pass by, during the second world war. The cries must have been heard. And there are stories of people trying to bring them some relief in the form of water. But those stories are few, because killing people is an effective way to prevent them from speaking. And the people who looked the other way when those trains passed, are not the ones who will speak up. They simply accepted the status quo and went about their own lives. They use the same psychological measures to acquit them from any responsibility as we do now.

I do think we have to regain trust in ourselves above anything else. We have to find a way to let go of patterns of thought that limit us in our endeavours. If we don’t, how can we claim to be different from those who looked away when those millions of Jews and other ‘criminals’ were transported to their death? When we do not think for ourselves we are the same. And not out of necessity, but out of choice.