In the complex tapestry of societal development, the pursuit of justice stands as a foundational principle. While freedom is undeniably vital, prioritizing justice over mere freedom can yield profound and enduring benefits for societies, particularly in the context of a nation like Ethiopia. This essay examines the reasons why seeking justice is paramount, drawing on historical examples and evidence to illuminate its significance for Ethiopian society. Additionally, it explores the intertwined nature of freedom and justice and contemplates the perspective of eminent philosopher John Rawls on this crucial matter.
John Rawls, a prominent American philosopher, argued for a just society based on fairness and equality. He emphasized the importance of social justice, advocating for principles that ensure the well-being of the least advantaged members of society. Rawls would likely assert that justice should take precedence over mere freedom. In his view, a just society guarantees basic liberties for all, creating an environment where individuals can exercise their freedom within a framework of fairness and equity. That, indeed, should be the pillar of Ethiopian progress!
Historical Example: The Ethiopian Experience
Ethiopia’s history bears witness to the transformative power of justice or lack thereof. One pivotal example is the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution, a movement that sought to rectify years of oppression and inequality under Emperor Haile Selassie’s regime. The revolution aimed at justice, addressing socio-economic disparities and empowering the marginalized. Through land reforms, education initiatives, and social welfare programs, the Ethiopian government sought to create a more just society, setting the stage for progress. However, it turned out to be a pipedream because, in my opinion, the leaders lacked the three ingredients identified below for successful transition to justice. But before we get to that, let’s look at the imperatives and requirements for achieving justice in society.
Achieving Justice in Society: Imperatives and Requirements
Justice is the cornerstone of any civilized society, providing fairness, equity, and harmony among its members. Achieving justice requires a multifaceted approach encompassing legal, social, and moral dimensions. This section explores the essential components and imperatives necessary for the attainment of justice in society.
First and foremost are legal reforms with the establishment of clear, just and consistent laws that protect individual rights (not the group) and ensure equal treatment under the law. This further requires a fair and impartial judiciary that interprets and applies laws without bias, ensuring that justice is served irrespective of one’s social or economic standing. It may also require accessible legal aid and education to empower marginalized individuals to navigate the legal system and defend their right effectively.
A valid counter argument here is that there are variations in legal reforms and cultures. For instance, while Western countries often emphasize individual rights, some Eastern cultures focus on communal well-being. And that is the point: understanding these variations is crucial for a global perspective on justice.
Second, is Social Equality, with the eradication of discrimination based on ethnicity, religion, gender or socioeconomic status. It also includes equitable access to education, healthcare, and employment opportunities, promoting equal starting points in life. In addition, it requires the promotion of diversity and inclusion to foster a society where all voices are heard and respected.
A worthwhile example is the Nordic countries’ model, combining progressive taxation with robust social welfare, exemplifying economic justice. Recent initiatives in India with the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act to uplift marginalized communities economically showcases efforts in the pursuit of justice.
Third, is Economic Empowerment, with poverty alleviation programs and social safety nets to provide a basic standard of living for everyone. This requires economic policies that bridge the wealth gap and create opportunities for upward mobility, ensuring economic justice. Even more substantially in Ethiopia, it implies accessible financial resources and education to promote entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency among marginalized communities.
Fourth, is Restorative Justice, with the implementation of restorative justice programs that focus on rehabilitation and reconciliation rather than additional punitive measures. This includes the support for victims and perpetrators alike to address the root causes of crimes, such as murder, genocide and economic punishments, fostering healing and preventing future offenses. Most importantly, this also means the inclusion of community involvement in the justice process, encouraging empathy and understanding among community members and society at large.
While it is true that incorporating community values into the justice system fosters a sense of belonging and accountability, the counterarguments suggest that restorative justice might be lenient on offenders. The evidence, however, is that those exposed to restorative justice have lower recidivism rates, challenging conventional punitive approaches.
Last but not least, is Moral and Ethical Values, in the form of the cultivation of empathy, compassion, and ethical behavior through education and societal values which appear to have disappeared at the moment. Working toward the encouragement of civic responsibility, fostering a sense of duty towards upholding justice and the common good is vital. No need to stress here that the promotion of a culture of accountability, where individuals are responsible for their actions and their impact on society as being vital.
I recognize that while freedom of speech is fundamental in the West, some Eastern cultures prioritize social harmony over individual expression, reinforcing the view that the globalization of cultures necessitates a reevaluation of moral and ethical frameworks. In the end, while challenges persist and the counterarguments are valid, they also demonstrate the adaptability and resilience of justice in the face of diverse perspectives.
That the benefits of the prevalence of justice brings with it social cohesion, economic empowerment, conflict resolution, and assures human dignity does not need repeated mentioning. But given their importance, we need to remind the reader that justice acts as a glue binding diverse communities together. A just society ensures that all citizens, regardless of their background, have access to fundamental rights, fostering unity and understanding. Additionally, in a just society, economic opportunities are distributed equitably. This empowers individuals and communities, reducing poverty and stimulating economic growth. For example, the Ethiopian governments’ initiatives post-revolution initially led to improved economic conditions for many citizens, showcasing the power of justice in fostering prosperity. Safe to suggest that it ushered in the notion that justice, though not complete, provided a structured mechanism for resolving disputes.
By upholding the rule of law and ensuring fair trials, societies can mitigate conflicts and maintain peace, creating a stable environment for development. And, finally, justice safeguards human dignity by preventing discrimination and ensuring equal treatment. This further fosters a sense of belonging and pride among citizens, enhancing their overall well-being.
Justice Enabling Leadership Requirements: Perception and Understanding Before Transformation!
“The point of being is not merely to change the world blindly, but is first and foremost, to see it and understand it.” Genuine transformation arises from profound understanding, making the acquisition of knowledge and perception paramount in the pursuit of meaningful change.
So, what were the three ingredients suggested above under the Ethiopian experience that the leaders of the revolution of 1974, and those various governments that followed them, lacked that helped derail the country’s journey to a modicum of a just society?
First, Perception as the Foundation of Change:
Perception acts as the foundation upon which meaningful change is built. To alter the world effectively, one must first perceive its intricacies, challenges, and opportunities. Without a deep understanding of the existing state of affairs, attempts to bring about change are often misguided and may lead to unintended consequences. Ethiopian leaders since 1974 lacked this imperative.
The Supporting Evidence as Example:
Historical movements such as the Civil Rights Movement in the United States were grounded in a profound understanding of racial inequality. Leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. comprehended the depth of societal prejudices, allowing them to craft strategies that resonated with the realities of the time, leading to substantial social change.
Second, Understanding as the Catalyst for Informed Action:
Understanding the world engenders informed action. Knowledge of social, economic, and political dynamics empowers individuals and societies to formulate targeted, effective strategies for change. Informed decisions based on comprehensive understanding are more likely to yield positive outcomes, addressing specific issues at their roots. Ethiopian leaders ignored this pre-requisite.
The Supporting Evidence as Example:
Scientific advancements, such as the development of vaccines, have significantly transformed public health. Researchers deeply understood diseases, leading to the creation of vaccines that have saved millions of lives worldwide, showcasing the power of understanding in driving positive change.
Third, The Role of Empathy and Perspective:
Empathy, born from understanding, fosters compassionate action. By comprehending the experiences, struggles, and aspirations of others, individuals can create solutions that are sensitive to diverse perspectives. Empathetic approaches to change promote inclusivity and social cohesion. To this day, Ethiopian leaders have shown no empathy for the dead, displaced and those who suffered acts of genocide. Indeed, officials have mocked and denigrated those who are displaced or even died because of wrong or misguided state policies. What will they say when millions die of starvation (as is anticipated) due, in part, to the interminable wars declared against their own citizens?
The Supporting Evidence as example:
Social initiatives like the global movement for LGBTQ+ rights have gained momentum due to increased understanding of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. Empathetic understanding has led to legal reforms, societal acceptance, and support networks, fostering an environment of acceptance and equality.
Another example that must be mentioned here is the Great Nelson Mandela of South Africa. Though he had suffered under the apartheid government and was imprisoned for years, he had gained incredible insight into and understanding of the diversity and need of his nation and its role in the world that he helped engineer an environment that was more accepting and forgiving than what had personally been afforded him and his people during his years in prison.
In the Ethiopian context and beyond, the emphasis on justice over mere freedom is essential for fostering enduring societal progress. Justice acts as a catalyst, promoting social cohesion, economic empowerment, conflict resolution, and human dignity. While freedom is indispensable for individual autonomy, democratic participation, and cultural flourishing, justice provides the foundation upon which these freedoms can flourish meaningfully. By embracing the principles of justice advocated by philosophers like John Rawls, societies can lay the groundwork for a more equitable, harmonious, and prosperous future, where the collective well-being of all citizens is prioritized and upheld.
Achieving justice in society is a complex endeavor that requires the concerted efforts of governments, institutions, and individuals. Legal reforms, social equality, economic empowerment, restorative justice, and moral values form the pillars upon which a just society stands. By addressing these imperatives and fulfilling these requirements, societies can create a foundation where justice prevails, ensuring a harmonious coexistence and a brighter future for all.
By these measures, Ethiopian governments have completely let down society, engulfing a once peaceful country to wage war against itself. Brothers killing brothers, economic infrastructure destroyed, tens of millions destabilized, dislocated and even discarded all because of blind ambition and a twisted ideological activism at the expense of society. The government, through its policies, pronouncements and dispositions has created a society increasingly unaware of its own injustices. Successive governments have lacked the three ingredients advanced here as the requirements for just leadership. It is time, therefore, that Ethiopian society demand and declare to itself that it is entitled to justice!
Given the brief but critical evidence provided here, we are all imploring the current ideologically wedded leaders of Ethiopia, and those future likely governments to come after them, that the point of being transcends mere blind ambition, twisted ideologies and activism (as I write, the UN advisor warns of genocide risk and related crimes in four regions of Ethiopia: https://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/tea/news/rest-of-africa/un-adviser-warns-of-/). It calls for profound observation, contemplation, and empathy. By deeply understanding the world, acknowledging its complexities, and appreciating diverse perspectives, individuals can pave the way for genuine, lasting change. Perception and understanding serve as the guiding lights, illuminating the path toward a more enlightened, inclusive, and compassionate society, where transformation is not just an ideological goal but a conscious, intentional and informed journey.
*Teshome Abebe, a former Provost and Vice President, is Professor of Economics.
Editor’s note : Views in the article do not necessarily reflect the views of borkena.com
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