Governmentality by Michel Foucault — A Summary

Foucault, Michel. 1991. “Governmentality.” In The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, edited by Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller, 87–104. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Check out this (YouTube video, 11 minutes), this (Encyclopedia Britannica entry) and this (learned introduction from the blog, Critical Legal Thinking), in order, before proceeding. Or better not proceed!

Political writing concerning the ‘art’ of government —  of the self (by, well, the self), of souls (by the priest), of children (by the father/teacher) and, especially, of the state (by the prince) — develops and flourishes starting from the 16th century. Questions concerning “how to be ruled, how strictly, by whom, to what end, by what methods, etc.” become salient in this period thanks to the double movement of state centralisation due to the fall of feudalism and religious rupture due to the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation.

This development may be fruitfully examined against the backdrop of Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince which is the starting point and well as the point of departure for the literature on the art of government.

The art of government that Machiavelli’s work presented was centred on the interest of the prince.[1]This prince is external to the principality and the link between the two is merely synthetic.[2] This being so, the link is fragile and constantly under threat. If the prince want to maintain his principality, he has to strengthen this link and is this link — “the prince’s relation with what he own” — that is the object of Machiavelli’s art of government.

It is this notion of the art of government — that of maintaining a principality — that is being questioned by the new political writing. Consider Guillaue de La Perrière’s Miroir Politique.

Firstly, it is recognised that the art of government in not to be associated with the prince alone. There are — as mentioned in the beginning — multiple forms of government which are immanent within the state, for example, the government of the family. The task is to establish linkages between these different forms of government. In fact, the art of government in this literature, is concerned with extending the model of family management ([private] economy) to the state (political economy).[3] This model implies exercising “a form of surveillance and control as attentive as that of the head of a family over his household and goods.”

Secondly, government is defined as “the right disposition of things, arranged so as to lead to a convenient end.” The ‘things’ are neither the subjects nor the territory in which they live. Rather they are men in their relations with material things, with culture and with natural events.[4] Government relates to this complex of men and things of which men and their territory are only variables.

Thirdly, government is directed to ‘a convenient end’. In La Perrière, this end is not “the form of the common good” — for Samuel Pufendorf, ‘public utility’; for Machiavelli, maintenance of the principality —  but rather something which is “‘convenient’ for each of the things that are to be governed.” The end then is not a singular and circular one but a purality of specific ends. They are to be attained by disposing — managing, or arranging — things in ways such that the specific ends may be achieved.[5]

Lastly, the wisdom of the ruler or governor, understood as knowledge of the things he manages and his diligence, understood as acting in such a way as if he were in the service of those he is governing, are essential to government.

This abstract notion of the art of government did not remain abstract but first got concretized in the notion of the ‘reason of state’ in the late 16th and early 17th century. The reason of state simply refers to the idea that the state could be governed according to rational principles. But the growth of the art of government was frustrated by 17th century political and economic crises[6] as well as the pre-eminence of the question of sovereignty.

Mercantilism represents the first application of the art of government. It is the “first rationalisation of the exercise of power as a practice of government”. However, as its object was the sovereign’s might, and its instruments — laws, decrees, regulations — those of sovereignty, it remained immobilized by the institution of sovereignty.

On the one hand, then, the art of government was hampered by the rigid, large, and abstract framework of sovereignty. On the other hand, it suffered because of its reliance on the weak model of the family. (How could this model hope to succeed at the level of the state?)

The rigid framework of sovereignty was broken through the rise of the science of government in the ‘economic’ plane which enabled reflection on the art of government outside the juridical framework of sovereignty.

The limiting model of the family was overcome through the emergence of ‘population’ which replaced the family as a model for government and relegated it to the role of a ‘privileged instrument’. The population — the interests of its constituents, understood collectively as well as individually — became the end of government, that is to say, the target of its tactics. The population also constituted the domain whose knowledge it was essential for the ruler to have. In short, the population became the new subject.

The new science called political economy arises out of the perception of new networks of continuous and multiple relations between population, territory and wealth; and this is accompanied by the formation of a type of intervention characteristic of government, namely intervention in the field of economy and population. In other words, the transition which takes place in the 18th century from an art of government to a political science, from a regime dominated by structures of sovereignty to one ruled by techniques of government, turns on the theme of population and hence also on the birth of political economy.

Having said these, neither sovereignty nor discipline became less important as the art of government developed. The former had to be given a juridical foundation and the latter had to be inculcated to manage the population.

Governmentality, to conclude, is the ‘ensemble’ of “institutions, procedures, analyses and reflections, the calculations and tactics” which realise government. It is the tendency that has led to the pre-eminence of government (over other forms of power like sovereignty, discipline). It is the process through which the state has become governmentalized.

Maybe what is really important for our modernity — that is, for our present — is not so much the étatisation of society as the ‘governmentalization’ of the state.


[1] Whether or not this interpretation is correct is not important. What is important is the it was interpreted in this way.

“Let us leave aside the question of whether the interpretation of Machiavelli in these debates was accurate or not.” (p. 89)

[2] The link between the father and the child in a family, in contrast, is natural and ‘essential’.

[3] See Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Political Economy.

[4] Consider this metaphor. To govern a ship means to take care of the ship and sailors. But it also means to take care of its cargo, to reckon with storms, to establish relations between the sailors and the cargo and the ship all of which are to be taken care of. Government relates to this complex of men and things.

[5] Foucault contrasts sovereignty with government as part of this point. The end of sovereignty, understood as the common good, is achieved essentially by obedience to the law, which is given by the sovereign. The purpose of sovereignty then is served by the exercise of sovereignty. The end of government, on the other hand, is a plurality of specific ends which are convenient for each of the things governed and which will be achieved through a mutiplicity of tactics, of which law is but only one. The purpose of government is served by the application of tactics to the things it manages.

[6] “[F]irst the Thirty Years War with its ruin and devastation; then in the mid-century the peasant and urban rebellions; and finally the financial crisis, the crisis of revenues which affected all Western monarchies at the end of the century.” (p. 97)



The Rise of State-Nations by Yogendra Yadav — Lecture Transcript

Title: The Rise of State-Nations
Presented by: Yogendra Yadav
Presented on: March 25, 2011
Presented at: Centre for International Governance Innovation, Balsillie School of International Affairs

  • This transcript has been edited substantially to improve clarity and flow for reading. Click here to watch the lecture.
  • Extended digressions which are incidental to the arguments have been reproduced as end notes.
  • The lecture presented ideas and concepts developed in Alfred Stephan, Juan J. Linz and Yogendra Yadav, Crafting State-Nations: India and Other Multinational Democracies (Johns Hopkins University 2011). The illustrations and figures are from the book.
  • The divisions are my own.


I want to talk about the rise of state-nations and the way I wish to go about making the argument is as follows. I begin by posing a general question [how do modern democratic states deal with deep diversity?] and say something about why that question is important and has become far more important than it used to be; then I present one dominant answer — [the paradigm of nation-states] — and one of the possible alternatives [the paradigm of state-nations]. Thereafter, I shift to the Indian case and I sketch what was the Indian model — how India went about dealing with diversity in democracy: I begin by sketching that model in some of its specificities and then go on to look at some evidence of whether the model has worked or not; I look at some successes: I will present some empirical evidence for you to look at those successes; but I also look at some of the failures and finally ask myself: what do we learn from India’s successes and India’s failures to think about diversity and democracy in our time?

The Problem of Deep Diversity

The question I want to start with is very simple: how do modern democratic states deal with deep diversity? Why modern? The idea of dealing with the idea of coexistence of different religious and social communities within a single political unit is not unique to modern states. This existed prior to modern states. For the famous Indian emperor Ashoka — as my colleague Rajiv Bhargava would remind everyone — this is a principal concern: how to make sure that people who follow different religions live amicably within his kingdom? What does modernity do then to us? Modernity transforms this question in two fundamental ways. One, it transforms the nature of our identities.  In pre-modern times, identities are fuzzy in the sense that there are no sharp boundaries between communities. What modernity does is that it brings in several templates and instrumentalities which force us to make these boundaries very sharp: boundaries between what it means to be Hindu versus what it means to be Muslim; boundaries of belonging to one linguistic community versus another linguistic community.  As you travel in any pre-modern community, your notion of whether you are German or you are French — there was a notion of being German and there was a notion of being French but there were very large shaded zones which you passed through — did not require you to say either or; it did not require you to draw a sharp boundary. But this precisely what modernity does. It transforms the nature of our identity; through instrumentalities like census, it transforms these communities into enumerated communities; identities get sharply defined, and very clearly focussed.

At the same time, modernity also ensures that these sharply defined identities are brought in juxtaposition to each other. They are made to confront each other in ways which the pre-modern world did not need to: through international transfers, through cultural flows, through flows of information, through migrations. Everything is happening at the moment. So, in a sense, modernity makes this question — a question that humanity has always lived with — a much tougher question to negotiate, a question which has its presence all the time.

What does democracy do to this question? Because the question of dealing with diversity within a single state is not necessarily a question that worries only democracies — Syria is worried about it, Bahrain is worried about it, United Arab Emirates is worried about it. What democracy does is that it removes one range of options to deal with deep diversities. Today, we associate democracy with a certain minimum regime of rights. And given that, and if you wish to respect those rights, then, certain ways of dealing with diversity which were available in the 19th century are simply not available in the early 21st century. It also does something else, it provides new set of instruments. Democratic politics based on universal adult franchise and open political competition also provides new ways of dealing with diversity. What it does in some imperceptible ways is that it makes the nature of identities politically negotiable. In other words, we are dealing with a question which is neither necessarily modern nor specific only to democracies. But the modern democratic context transforms the nature of this question completely.

Let me say a little about the two other expressions used here: state and deep diversity. There are many ways of dealing with diversity that need not respect boundaries of modern states: accepting multi-national solutions, accepting disintegration of countries — what happened in Yugoslavia is a response to diversity except that in the last instance, it did not respect the boundaries of state; it involved redrawing the boundaries of the state. I am at the moment interested — I do know that much thinking in multiculturalism sometimes takes us in the direction of full blown multi-nationality which is to say: let a thousand flowers, bloom let a thousand nations bloom, let a thousand states bloom — in ways of thinking about resolving this question within the given boundaries of state.

Finally, what is deep diversity? I have something very specific in mind in talking about deep diversity. There are all kinds of diversities that you see in the modern world. But only some of these diversities have geographical concentration and have the potential of presenting itself as an alternative nation, the potential of thinking of itself as a possible state. Those are the ones that I would call deep diversity. So, the position of Quebec in Canada for example, is clearly an illustration of deep diversity. The position of Kashmir in India is clearly an illustration of deep diversity in India. Other kinds of diversities that we have and there are so many which do not lend itself to geographical concentration and aggregation in the form of alternative states are not things that I would bring under deep diversity because these are things which most states find some ways of resolving. It is the question of deep diversity which poses a challenge to the boundaries of nations and states and that’s a question which is worth thinking about seriously.

The Paradigm of Nation-States

With these parameters then, I want to get back at the question we posed right in the beginning: how do modern democratic states deal with deep diversity? As you can see, my question has an empirical appearance but has a moral normative slant to it —  how do they deal with it also has implicit questions of how should we deal with it. These are both things that I wish to take on. We have one dominant way of responding to this question and that dominant way invites us to think about a world where there is almost a perfect fit between cultural boundaries and political boundaries; that is to say that the way to deal with diversity is to draw political boundaries in such a way that each culturally homogeneous community has a political unit of its own. Each nation, each culturally homogeneous community, which exhibits characteristics of deep diversity has a state of its own. So, each nation has one and no more than one state; each state has within it one and no more than one nation.

This is, artificially put, the paradigm of the nation-state. In its cruder formulation, this is something which is unlikely to appeal to us. But it is astonishing to look at how deeply informing this particular paradigm has been of our imagination and how powerful this imagination has been in the last hundred and fifty years in shaping our thinking about how collective political life should be lead. Basically, this paradigm invites us to think about the existence of more than one homogeneous community within a single political boundary as a potential source of problem. So, if you have more than one nation within a state, you are dealing with a potential problem. Or if you have one nation, say people like the Kurds, spread across more than one state, that’s also a problem. So, how do you resolve it? Well, you resolve it either by redrawing political boundaries — and you can see the history of 20th century is history of attempts to draw and redraw political boundaries in order to match a presumed deep cultural boundary or attempts to erase cultural boundaries. How do you erase cultural boundaries? You can erase cultural boundaries very softly by encouraging minorities to integrate; you can put some pressure on them to assimilate; you can use laws and state power to coerce; and in the last instance, you have the option of ethnic cleansing. And the history of the 20th century is the history of all these options having been exercised almost all over the world.

So, we’re dealing with a subject which is not merely of limited academic significance. We’re dealing with a paradigm which is not a paradigm that bothers some professors in universities. We are dealing with a paradigm that has gripped human imagination for a very long time. People have fought battles and killed each other to meet this theoretical paradigm of how political life should be lead. My colleague Ashis Nandy insists, and I respect his calculations, that in the 20th century more people were killed in ethnic violence than in the two world wars and all the other wars of the states put together. This is the kind of subject that we are dealing with.  This in a sense is the consequence of the power of the idea of nation-states. We all feel uneasy about those consequences but what do we do about it? Is there another way of looking about it, another way of theorising this?

The Paradigm of State-Nations

Crafting State-Nations: India and Other Multinational Democracies is an attempt to understand how we go from the dominant idea of the nation-state to a different way of looking at it. This dominant idea has had two kinds of critiques. There are moral critiques of the idea of nation-state and the idea of nationalism. That has been quite prevalent all this time. Look at Rabindranath Tagore, for example — I am thinking of the Indian examples. In fact, one of the most ironic things about Indian nationalism was that this nationalism was informed by a very deep critique of the idea of nationalism itself. Someone like Tagore, India’s first Nobel Laureate, who was considered an iconic figure by Indian nationalists, actually wrote a small book in English[1] critiquing the idea of nationalism and he wrote to Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of our national movement, a series of letters, to say: I thought you were a spiritual guru, I thought you were a great man, why do you attach yourself to such parochial notions as nation and nationalism. And this is happening at the height of the national movement and both these are icons of the national movement debating with each other whether they should associate with such narrow doctrines as nationalism or not. In other words, moral critiques of the idea of nation-states have been around. What we don’t have is an attempt to take that one step further and to actually say that it’s not just in the realm of morality but if you look at the real-life practices of the last hundred years or so, there is actually an alternative model which has emerged from practices of different societies in dealing with deep diversities. What I would do today is to present one such case, namely that of India. But I do so not because I think the Indian case is and ought to be the central case but because I happen to be familiar with that. I am sure someone could do that for Canada, for Spain and other countries.

The basic starting point and, in a sense, the intuition behind this intellectual project is the idea that while, in reality, the idea of the nation-state dominated human imagination, in political practice, many parts of the world did work out very intelligent and complex ways of doing what nation-states prohibited us from doing: namely, keeping more than one homogeneous political community within a single political unit without it becoming a source of deep conflict and without disintegration; and this is a model which is based on recognition of diversity and differences. This model and the contrast with nation states is this: in this model, you saw differences not as a problem but potentially as a source of strength; this model encourages diversities to be foregrounded rather than to be swept under the carpet; this model requires diversities to be acknowledged from the front door and be accommodated.

We focus on this model and we thought there is now a need to give this model a name because that’s how the imagination moves: you look at practices; there is an unease which takes forms of alternative practices; and there comes a stage when you wish to give that alternative practice a name and move that forward. Naming doesn’t change the world but it can possibly take us one step forward in trying to think of alternative arrangements. Names have a quality of reminding us of something all the time. So, that’s why we propose the name state-nation. Why state-nation? After all, it is just a reversal of the two words used there. State-nation because while nation-states invite us to think of deep cultural boundaries which are pre-existing and which in turn have to be respected by those who do the business of state, the name state-nation invites us to think exactly in the opposite direction. It invites us to think of modern political boundaries which can negotiate pre-existing differences and actually accommodate them.

Nation-States vs State-Nations

Let me not go on about the theoretical difference. One way of capturing the difference between these two ideas is to look at their differences somewhat more systematically and schematically as kind of ideal types. Ideal types in the sense that these are not differences you would see in reality clearly reflected in concrete cases because no one case would fully fit any of these theorisations.

In terms of pre-existing conditions, nation-states are characterised by awareness and attachment to one single cultural identity, one cultural and civilizational tradition. You would see this characteristic in a large number of countries such as Japan, Sweden or Germany. State-nations, on the other hand, are countries which are typically characterised by awareness and attachment to more than one civilizational cultural tradition. This attachment to more than one cultural tradition, more than one civilizational tradition, does not preclude a possible identification with a single political unit.

In terms of state policies and how politics and policies relate to this, nation-states are characterised by homogenisation while state-nations are characterised by recognition of diversities and by non-assimilationist integration. In terms of institutional apparatus, nation-states are typically unitary states; sometimes they can be federal too — think of Germany or Austria which are technically federal states but these are nation-states which have created federations more by way of administrative division. State-nations are characterised not just by federation but by asymmetrical federation.[2] In its politics, nation-states are characterised by absence of ethno-cultural or territorial cleavages. State-nations are characterised by presence and salience of these cleavages. Nation-states do not provide a play for autonomous parties. State-nations allow, legitimise and, sometimes even, find coalitional power arrangements — that is to say, parties which are autonomous parties are often given a share in central power. These are some of the characteristics.

In terms of citizen orientation, which follows somewhat from the pre-existing conditions, nation-states are characterised by single identity and by obedience to the state and to the nation. State-nations on the other hand are characterised multiple but complementary identities — which is to say the citizens say: yes, I am a Canadian, but with that I have another identity too and I cannot be asked to choose between these two. I carry more than one identity and both these are my legitimate political identities. This is typically the pattern of state nation.

State-Nations: The Case of India

Enough of theory and generalisations, I want to now come to India and speak about the Indian case. Just one minute for a thought experiment of the kind that John Rawls would approve. The thought experiment is this: we happen to everything about what happened in the 20th century; we know all the relevant facts necessary to think about diversity and democracy all over the world; but somehow, because of some stroke of luck or ill-luck, we miss out on one slice of memory which is what happened to India after 1947;[3] you know what India’s demographics are; you know that the country has been partitioned on lines of religion in 1947; you know that the country has a wide scape of languages;[4] you also know this thing called “Hinduism” which comprises 80 percent of the population is actually characterised by deep divisions of caste so that it is actually in a sense pointless to talk about Hindus because divisions of caste with the institution of untouchability does exist; and in this experiment, you do know what happened to Yugoslavia, you do know what happened to the Soviet Union, but you somehow do not know what happened to India after 1947. What is our best guess?

If I look at the literature of that time, if I read sensible political commentators of that time, the conclusion is somewhat inescapable: give it 15 years, maybe 20, this country will disintegrate. This was the most obvious sensible conclusion. I don’t think it was alarmist and I don’t think it was nonsensical; it reflected the wisdom of its time. The wisdom of its time was that this country was characterised by a deep misfit between cultural and political boundaries; it has mega political boundaries which has within it at least 25 countries. It was a reasonable assumption to make in that time. That did not happen. Therein lies the tale.

The Indian national leadership took on a very risky model at that time. They took it on because it flew in the face of conventional political wisdom. Leaders of the Indian national movement wanted to insist — against Churchillian accusations — that India was a nation. They obviously could not have pretended that this was a kind of nation in the sense in which France or Germany is a nation. So, they came up with innovative formulations of what it meant to be a nation and the phrase that captured it in India — and someone told me yesterday that this was actually the case in Canadian textbooks as well which delighted me no end — was ‘unity in diversity’ which was almost the official slogan of the Indian state in dealing with these situations. This is what Indian nationalism did. Although the constitution was written between 1946 and 1950, some of these fundamental decisions about what the Indian nation was like and what form the Indian democratic state will take were decided much earlier. In fact, one could argue that by the early 1930s, most of these fundamental decisions were settled: India was going to be democratic state; it was going to be a state which would not be a nation in the classical sense of the term; it would be asymmetrical; it would not be assimilationist —all these features were actually taken for granted. They were undertaking a very risky venture. They did not know it at that point but they were creating a new model unknown to them. What was that model?

The Indian model had the following attributes. Some of these attributes have to do with legal-constitutional institutions. Asymmetricalism is one of the key attributes of this new model. Ironically, the word ‘federation’ was never mentioned in the Indian constitution. They knew about the word, they debated it, but they feared it. The country had just had partition. So, in creating what it is nothing except a federation, the word federation was kept out and instead a euphemism called ‘Union of India’ was used. India is a union of states. An asymmetrical federation was established which was characterised by uneven representation of states and union territories — UTs are federally administered territories; these are very tiny and only a few now. States have uneven representation not only in the lower chamber but also in the upper chamber. More importantly, the Constitution is full of specific provisions for specific states. One of the most famous ones of these is Article 370 for the state of Jammu & Kashmir — I’ll have more to say about Jammu & Kashmir later — which effectively says that virtually nothing in the Constitution of India will apply to Jammu & Kashmir. If I could summarise the article in one sentence, that’s what the Article means. But similar provisions were provided for several other smaller states of the North-East of India. Basically, the Constitution shows a deep sensitivity to differences and the Constitution itself provides for these differences to be accommodated. It also provided flexibility apart from naming certain places and assigning special and unique features to them. Two general appendices called Schedule V and Schedule VI were inserted in the Constitution which provided for recognition of uniqueness for the indigenous communities which the constitution makers might have missed. They empower the President of India has to simply recognise and by order notify certain area to be an area inhabited by indigenous communities and once notified, a large number of laws and provisions of the Union will not apply there and independent arrangements can be made. So, enormous flexibilities were built in the Constitution.

There is a parliamentary form of government.[5] What this does is that it makes power into a shareable good. While we look at all other features of parliamentary and presidential forms of government, I don’t know why this attribute has escaped the attention of political scientists because these two forms of government have direct relationship to the possibility of accommodating diversity or not. Parliamentary form of government makes power shareable and once it becomes shareable, of course, all kinds of corruption and everything else creeps in. But parliamentary form of government, in the last instance, is coalition requiring and coalition sustaining; sometimes not so sustaining and requires collapsing as well. But its diversity consequences are actually very positive. So, this is an attribute of the Indian system.

And finally, in terms of thinking about constitutional provisions, in the bill of rights which India had, like most other democracies, there was a recognition of collective identities, of religious minorities by name and with special provisions.[6] Which are these collectivities? Religious minorities and linguistic minorities.[7] There is no special attention or any special privilege to any one language. And there are special recognitions of disadvantaged communities: two communities specifically, the ex-untouchables who are today called Dalits and the indigenous communities who are called Adivasis; the constitutional language for them is Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. There are special recommendations and reservations[8] — in everything: in education, in parliament, in jobs — for them. This was the constitutional package.

The Indian model goes beyond the constitutional provisions and includes an element of policy and an element of politics. The element of policy is the policy of integration without assimilation and this is where unity in diversity comes into play. In terms of the key symbols of Indian state, it is reflected right from the National Anthem which actually begins by naming places in the country and, in a sense, gives you the message that India is all these places put together. So, it does not begin by singing praises of some deep Indianness. It’s actually naming of places and recognition of diversity and differences that the National Anthem is all about. In terms of language and cultural policies… I have already mentioned the language resolution in the Constitution[9] but even later on in the country in the 1960s, there were linguistic riots in India about Hindi not being imposed on the rest of the country. The government finally took that line — it has now become the official policy — which stipulated that English would be allowed to be used for official purposes as long as the non-Hindi states require it. Now, whether it was a good resolution to the linguistic problem in terms of equality is a separate question and I have my opinions on that but in terms of diversity and its accommodation, the fact remains that no one linguistic group can get up in the country and say: my language is the language of the nation. That idea was simply abandoned.

In terms of politics — because no model can be invented purely by a constitution; that’s only the starting point of the game, the game being politics — what happened in India was the recognition of regional political parties through the front door. This happened about 20 to 25 years ago. Parties which are state specific, parties which actually draw most of their support from one state of the Union, one province of the Union, started coming up. Many commentators thought this was the end of the Indian dream because if you have a party from Tamil Nadu, from Andhra Pradesh, from Punjab, from Maharashtra, where is India? What’s going to happen to Indian politics? In the last instance, however, if you look at it now, we see that by then, the pattern of politics was far too developed for anyone to try to control it. But if you look at the overall consequences today, my sense is that these regional parties have contributed more to integration than the so-called national political parties. The consequences have been that because these regional political parties were given a front-door entry and were provided legitimate political play, none of them took the secessionist route. They actually have become centric regional parties in the sense that most of these regional parties would wish to claim that they are not regional. They would have names like All India Anna DMK: the party is entirely limited to one state of the union but they wish to pretend that they are All India ‘something’.

Also, they enter into interlocking alliances, coalitions with polity wide parties. There are two polity wide parties, the Congress and the BJP. And the pattern of politics in the last 15 or 20 years is such that most of these regional parties have interlocking coalitions. Interlocking in the sense: we support you in a national election; you support us to win power in a provincial election. And there are unequal terms set for both. It a perfect interlocking alliance.[10] Accommodation of regional politics directly has had very beneficial consequences; so much so that there are two political parties which are on the borders of secession which have been given a legitimate play in the national politics. One of these parties is in Kashmir and the other party is in the state of Nagaland. Both these parties, even though they have not advocated secession, are known to be very soft on secessionists. Yet they have been given a legitimate direct open political play.

India as a State-Nation: The Evidence

We’ve seen what Indian national leadership were trying to do; we know it was a tough situation; we know the set of practices they came up with; we know what their solution was; the question is: has it worked?

I’ll present a series of evidences very quickly. My questions in a country like this would be the following. First, do people have a sense of national pride? That’s one question because I am not one of those who would say: let a thousand nations bloom. That’s not the way I look at it. A state-nation in the last instance is both a state and a nation. A certain kind of political integration is important to it. So, the question is, do people have a sense of national pride? This is evidenced from the World Values Survey data.

#1 Pride in nationality
Alfred Stephan, Juan J. Linz and Yogendra Yadav, Crafting State-Nations: India and Other Multinational Democracies (Johns Hopkins University 2011), p. 58.

My point is not that India is among the top. My point is that the level of national pride is such that would not lead you to thinking about this experiment having been a failure. We clearly are looking at reasonably high levels of national pride compared to some other countries. We can also guess why is it that in countries like Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and Austria, the level of national pride would be somewhat lower. That’s 20th century history straightaway playing itself out. So, the point of the comparison is simply that something has happened. This is not a country which suffers from any lack of sense of national pride.

Second, do people have a sense of being Indian? This is the question about multiple but complementary identities.

#2 Subjective national identity
Crafting State-Nations, p. 61.

35% Indians have a sense that would describe themselves as only Indian which is more than what they would in Spain or in Belgium — these are countries where this question has been tried and these are countries which are state-nations of a serious order. What is significant here are the figures for Muslims and Sikhs — two large groups which are religious minorities and Muslims are a disadvantaged religious minority. That’s where my attention would immediately go, to see whether they share that national identity. Of course, they do. So, the only two conclusions I would draw from this table are that (a) a very large number of Indians, if you forget the top 35% and the bottom category of 12%, are the ones — that’s a little more than 40% — that would mix some degree of state identity and some degree of national identity in describing who they are, and (b) in the case of minorities where you would expect some kind of alienation, this identification of Indianness is, if anything, a little more than the rest, not less. It’s less in the case of Christians but that has to do with their demographic distribution in the country.

Third, what is the level of trust? Do people trust only their provincial institutions or do they also trust some of these national institutions?

#3 Citizen Trust in Six Major Institutions
Crafting State-Nations, p. 76.

Again, the comparison has other countries which are long standing federal democracies. The figures tell us that, compared to other long standing federal democracies, Indian level of trust in the legal system, in the parliament, in political parties, in the central government and the civil services is pretty high. It comes as a reassurance to me that the level of trust in the police is very low; reassurance in the quality of data. If the level of trust in the police was also very high, I would be stunned and I would begin to relook at the data itself given the way Indian police works. The point is that trust is extended not merely to local or provincial institutions but also to national institutions.

Finally, is there support for democracy? Because afterall, democratic political mechanisms are what holds it together. Do people have trust in that democracy itself?

#4 Attitudes toward Democracy
Crafting State-Nations, p. 65.

Here, it’s a selective comparison with countries which have witnessed non-democratic regimes. Again, the simple point is that India is not a country where a large number of people think that they can do without democracy. Something of this diversity frame which has been guaranteed by democracy has worked.

Does it hold true for all sections of society? That’s a natural question will come to mind. Here is a look at the classic political efficacy question. Does your vote make a difference?

#5 Sense of Political Efficacy
Crafting State-Nations, p. 79.

Honestly, I am always stunned to see so many people who believe that their vote makes a difference. I don’t know if my vote makes any difference. But the point here is not the objectivity of it but the perceptions because nations and communities are created in minds and destroyed in minds. We look at this from 1971, 1996 and 2004; three points of time through the national election study conducted from CSDS (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies). The simple point is that the sense of political efficacy has increased. More importantly, it has increased in every single disadvantaged group that we could possibly think of.

What’s the point of this positive story? The point of this entire evidence is to say that this very risky experiment which began in 1947 did succeed in some basic ways not merely in holding the federation together — we don’t need surveys to find out that India is one single country even today. But that this is not merely a legal fact. There is more to it. Institutions and in terms of citizen subjectivities too, this experiment has succeeded in some fundamental ways.

India as a State-Nation: The Failures

Are there no failures? Of course, there are. And let me just speak about some of the big failures before I close with some general observations. Kashmir is one of the best known most spectacular and comprehensive failures. Comprehensive because through the last 50 years it’s only fair to say that people in the Kashmir valley have remained unintegrated in the imagination of India. We have asked tough questions in the Kashmir valley and the answer has been somewhat flat over the last 12 years or so during which we have conducted surveys in Kashmir; the answer is that is 4 out of 5 persons in Kashmir want to secede from India — they don’t want to go to Pakistan but they want to have an independent state of their own. This is as comprehensive a failure as it can get. After 60 years, if 80% of the people say: we don’t want to live in this country, that’s bad.

The question is, is it a failure of state-nation policies? Or is it a failure of inability to extend state-nation policies? My argument is that, if you look at Kashmir’s history more closely, it is an even more fundamental failure. It is a failure to extend minimum democratic conditions to that part of India. Although in the Constitution it was provided with more autonomy than any other state of India, in reality it has worked like a colony, a place where we have had military presence, where basic democratic rights have never been extended, elections have never been fair with some exceptions, and puppet regimes have been imposed from the top. This is the lack of basic democratic conditions which, of course, is not conducive to the state-nation policies at all. So, the lesson I learnt from Kashmir is that democracy is a necessary condition.

Similarly, with Nagaland — a tiny state on the North-East of India — which has refused to integrate with India right from the beginning. What we have today is probably not that deep a sense of alienation as in Kashmir but I would still say there is no deep relationship to India. What we have is a military stalemate. The rebels in Nagaland have got tired. The Indian state has also got tired. And they are trying to work their way out to negotiation which have ended up in a deadlock. But compare that to another state in the North-East itself, Mizoram, which presented itself with similar diversities. Mizoram had a condition which, at one point, was worse than Nagaland. The Indian state used Air Force bombing on its own people in the 1960s but by 1987, the situation was reversed completely in Mizoram and today, Mizoram is one of the most peaceful and integrated states of the Indian Union. The lesson I pick up from the North-East is, if the initial moment is not impossible, then recoveries do take place. And recoveries take place only when a package of state-nation policies is extended. In Mizoram, the recovery took place because finally the Indian state said: alright, you run your own country but agree to be part of India. So, they used Schedule VI to work out this provision. Virtually, large number of laws passed by Indian parliament do not apply there. Of course, budgetary grants do go there. That’s an arrangement that worked.

For one decade, the insurgency appeared to be bordering on secession in Punjab. And it seemed that Punjab was headed that way. Many scholars observed that it was a classic case of minority alienation resulting in secession. We take a very close look at that example in this book. The argument here is that Punjab is not the case of deep alienation of a minority religion. That, actually, the Sikhs had done better than the Hindus in almost every possible respect. There is very strong evidence of that. What we saw was a classic democratic breakdown in which the elite was playing its own too clever by half games resulting in a temporary breakdown which allowed a recovery in 1996. And the recovery has been as spectacular as was the collapse.


Let me summarise this entire story so far. Diversity and its relationship to democracy is no longer a question which concerns some peculiar societies as was imagined 50 years ago. 50 years ago, the dominant wisdom was that there are normal countries where homogeneity was the norm and then there are some peculiar countries — I am sure they must have thought of Canada as one of those peculiar places where there is too much of a mix. Today, it’s time to reverse that assumption. And to begin to think that countries like Japan, Sweden, and some other European countries, may actually turn out to be something of an exception in human history. That, actually, the global situation would be of lack of fit between cultural and political boundaries. And that this is actually not so bad a news because these two things can be brought together in ways which are profitable both for democracy and for sustaining diversity.

In order to do so, while in reality the question of diversity has expanded — it has started attacking even Europe; when Switzerland has those laws about minarets,[11] you know the question of diversity is hitting very hard in all places where people never expected it to come — our imagination is not expanding in a corresponding way. This is what we need to do: we need to expand our moral and political imagination to keep with the changing realities of our time. The idea of state-nations is one possible paradigm of thinking about it. I do not mean to say:  junk the nation-state in Sweden; junk the nation-state in Japan. These are decent practices. They have worked. I am also not saying: adopt state-nations everywhere else. We don’t know sufficiently about the world. Our notion of the world is still limited to half the world even now. We would have many practices of different kinds. And I do not mean to suggest that the Indian case provides us with a recipe book which can be applied everywhere else. If European and US recipes have not worked in the rest of the world, there is no reason why the Indian recipe should. It is just a way to expand our imagination; to begin to think in ways which are diverse and rich to keep with a reality which is diverse and rich.

This might also achieve something else in the process; this might shift the locus of democratic theory from a tiny part of the world — Europe and the US — to most of the world. Because while democracy has expanded to all nooks and corners of the world, our notion of what it means to be democratic has not expanded. To do that is one of the biggest challenges of our time. And by thinking of something like state-nations we can begin to take a small step towards doing democratic theory in a way which is truly democratic.

End Notes

[1] Nationalism

[2] “Asymmetrical federation is a federation that does not treat all the units within the federation equally; which works out unique solutions, different solutions for different places. The US is a typical example of a symmetrical federation while India is an example of asymmetrical federation in the extreme.”

[3] “John Rawls would call it a partial veil of ignorance but I like to think of the Bombay cinema in whose movies accidents like this routinely happen and the whole movie then revolves around that accident. So, John Rawls or Bombay cinema, you take your pick but basically you happen to lose that slice of your memory but you know everything else.”

[4] “You could say 25 if you wanted to look at languages which have print culture of their own, languages which have some kind of recognition and intellectual culture around it, but if you were a linguist you would probably go up to 700. So, anything from 25 to 700. You have as much variety of languages as you would find, for example, in the whole of Europe, maybe more.”

[5] “I say this with some hesitation now because I know I have not arrived in the right week in Canada to advocate a parliamentary form of government and the beauties of coalition making.”

[6] For instance, the Sikhs. I mention this because I know this is a debate in Canada right now. Whether the Sikhs can carry a little sword with them as a sign of their religious affiliation is something which is provided in India as a fundamental right of religious minorities. The right to carry a symbolic sword as a part of your religious rights — not the full sword; in fact, the smallness of size is also prescribed in the Constitution — is granted by the Constitution.”

[7] “Interestingly, the Indian constitution does not recognise any national language although many Indians believe that Hindi which is spoken by 40% of the population — which is also my mother tongue — is the national language but actually Indian constitution does not recognise any language as national language at all. There is simply a list which is called the Eight Schedule of the constitution which began with 14 languages has now become 22 which are official languages of the Union and that’s all.”

[8] “Reservation not in the Canadian sense of the term but let’s say, quota…yeah, that’s the North American expression — there are quotas for them.”

[9] supra note 7

[10] “It has huge consequences for corruption which is going on right now in the country. Sharing power also means sharing booties of corruption which has been happening at a very large scale but that’s not my story today. My story is only to look at diversity related consequences.”

[11] Swiss Minaret Referendum, 2009.


Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical by John Rawls — A Summary

Rawls, John. 1985. “Justice as Fairness: Political Not Metaphysical.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 14 (3). Wiley: 223–51.

Section I explains “justice as fairness” as a political conception of justice applicable to the basic structure of society in a democratic society.

Section II asserts the intractability of disagreements over fundamental questions in any society and describes what a political conception of justice can do to adjudicate between these disagreements. It then indicates how justice as fairness could achieve that. It also indicates why justice as fairness is a political and not a metaphysical conception.

Section III states the overarching idea of justice as fairness as referring to a fair system of cooperation between free and equal persons. It then expands on the idea of fair terms (or system) of cooperation and the notion of persons.

Section IV explains through what process the fair terms of cooperation are determined and considers (possible) objections to that process.

Section V discusses the notion of a political conception of the person, i.e., as a free citizen.

Section VI clarifies why justice as fairness is a truly liberal view.

Section VII concludes with remarks on how social unity might be forthcoming through justice as fairness.


Justice as fairness is intended as a political conception of justice. It is of course a moral conception but one that is worked out for a specific subject — the “basic structure” of a modern constitutional democracy. This basic structure consists of the society’s main political, social, and economic institutions, and the way in which they fit together into a unified system of social cooperation.

Justice as fairness, it follows from the previous paragraph, is not intended as comprehensive moral conception that applies to all general subjects. To reiterate, justice as fairness applies only to the basic structure and not to other subjects the personal actions or philosophies of persons. This is unlike a comprehensive moral doctrine like utilitarianism which is understood to hold for all kinds of subjects.

Justice as fairness is intended for — see the second sentence of the first paragraph — democratic society. It draws upon basic intuitive ideas that are embedded in the political institutions of a democratic regime and the public traditions of their interpretation.


Any society is bound to face situations where there is controversy regarding fundamental questions which might appear, and prove, to be intractable. In such situations, a firm foundation of justice supplied by a political conception of justice, such as justice as fairness, might help sufficiently narrow down the divergence of opinion so that political cooperation is, despite differences of opinion, made possible.

There is no agreement in democratic thought about how the values of liberty and equality can best be secured or distributed through the basic structure of the society. The disagreement may be understood, broadly and crudely, as a conflict between two traditions, one stressing individual freedoms and the other, public values.[1] Justice as fairness tries to adjudicate between these two traditions by proposing two principles of justice which regulate how the basic structure should realise the values of liberty and equality. These principles are:

  1. Each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties, which scheme is compatible with a similar scheme for all.
  2. Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they must be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they must be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.

Justice as fairness also specifies a point of view from which these principles are advanced as more appropriate to free and equal democratic citizens than other principles of justice.

How might the disagreement alluded to in the last paragraph be settled? It might not be possible to do so, and indeed, as pointed out earlier, the most that could be done could be to narrow the differences.

A political conception of justice should be in accordance with our “settled convictions”[2] as well as the “shared fund of implicitly recognised basic ideas and principles expressed by the public culture”. The public culture however is the source and arena of the disagreement. A political conception of justice then has to organise the basic ideas and principles such that they are seen to fit together properly. It could even go further and supply an overarching (more fundamental) idea with which to tie together these basic/familiar/intuitive ideas and principles. This can be done if the conception provides a reasonable way of shaping the underlying bases of agreement in the public culture into a coherent view.

If justice as fairness achieves these goals, it will provide a reasonable public standpoint from which citizens might judge the justness of the social institutions using principles supplied by the conception. Also, in this conception, the manner of judging and justifying institutions are not based on the logical validity or even soundness of arguments but instead on arguments which are derived from premises which are recognised as acceptable through a prior consensus. It is for this reason that the aim as well as the content of justice as fairness is not metaphysical but political. It is not a conception that pretends to be true metaphysically but one that serves as a basis for political agreement for resolving fundamental questions by free and equal persons.

Justice as fairness avoids disputed philosophical, moral, and religious questions simply because there is no way of resolving them politically. It also avoids metaphysical notions about the true nature of the self in conceptualising the idea of free and equal persons. By avoiding these irresolvable issues whose inclusion would make any political conception useless, justice as fairness hopes to moderate between differing political views.


The overarching intuitive idea behind justice as fairness is the idea of society as a fair system of cooperation between free and equal persons.

Cooperation as understood in justice as fairness is marked by three features:

  1. It refers to activity based on publicly recognised and accepted rules and procedures, and not to merely socially coordinated activity brought about by a higher authority but.
  2. It involves fair terms of cooperation meaning not only that the terms of cooperation should be ones that each person may reasonably accept provides others do but also that they specify reciprocity or mutuality.[3]
  3. It involves the idea that the participants are seeking to achieve their rational advantage or good.

The person as understood in justice as fairness is a person who can cooperatively participate in social life. That person is a citizen.[4] These participants are free and equal. That they are free is connected with their capacity for moral thought and for reason which enable independent judgment. That they are equal is connected to them having the aforesaid capacity to the requisite degree so as to ensure their full cooperation in society.

And in being fully cooperative participants, they have the capacities (“moral powers”) for a sense of justice and for a conception of the good. Having a sense of justice simply means they find it proper to adhere to the political/public conception of justice, here justice as fairness. Having a conception of the good is the capacity to form, to revise, and to rationally pursue one’s conception of rational advantage. In addition to these two moral powers, participants have at a given time a particular conception of the good which they try to achieve which they can pursue. This conception of the participants as having the two moral powers and therefore free and equal is a basic intuitive idea assumed to be implicit in the public culture of a democratic society.

“...[T]he fundamental question of political justice [is this]: ... what is the most appropriate conception of justice for specifying the terms of social cooperation between citizens regarded as free and equal persons, and as normal and fully cooperating members of society over a complete life. It is this question that has been the focus of the liberal critique of aristocracy, of the socialist critique of liberal constitutional democracy, and of the conflict between liberals and conservatives at the present time over the claims of private property and the legitimacy (in contrast to the effectiveness) of social policies associated with the so-called welfare state.”


How are the fair terms of social cooperation to be determined? Through a contract by free and equal participants. However, this contract must be entered into in the appropriate condition, i.e., they must be situated fairly or symmetrically such that their decisions are not distorted by particular features of social institutions or indeed their own particular circumstances. This condition as achieved via the “veil of ignorance” which prescribes an “original position” where the participants are sheltered from the influence of contingent advantages.

But this original position is only a device of representation and does not occur in actual societies. This renders the contract nonhistorical and hypothetical. What significance can such a contract have? The significance lies in the features of the original position itself. Without those very features — the idea that the participants are symmetrically situated and that their contingent social circumstances are unknown to them — no contract can be truly fair.

As a device of representation the idea of the original position serves as a means of public reflection and self-clarification. We can use it to help us work out what we now think, once we are able to take a clear and uncluttered view of what justice requires when society is conceived as a scheme of cooperation between free and equal persons over time from one generation to the next. The original position serves as a unifying idea by which our considered convictions at all levels of generality are brought to bear on one another so as to achieve greater mutual agreement and self-understanding.

However, the original position behind the veil of ignorance, even if it appears abstract, must not be misunderstood to presuppose, for example, some metaphysical notion of the person.[5]


What is entailed in conceptualising a political notion of the person, i.e., as a free citizen?

First, citizens are free in that they conceive themselves and others as having the capacity to have a conception of the good. This also means that they are capable of revising the conception on rational grounds and that their identity as free persons in the political/public sense is not tied to any particular conception of the good.[6] However, their nonpublic identity — their personal devotions and loyalties, their religious or philosophical convictions —could be very different from that expressed by their political identity.

Second, citizens regard themselves as self-originating sources of valid claims. Claims founded on duties and obligations which are based on the moral doctrines and conceptions of the good that they uphold are also considered as self-originating. To say that citizens are free in this way is to say that in democratic societies they actually think of themselves in this way. The importance of this aspect of their being free is to state that in so far as the claims do not derive from duties and obligations, that is in so far as the claims are not self-originating, they have no weight.[7]

Third, citizens are capable of taking responsibility for their ends and this affects how their claims are assessed. Briefly stated, this means that citizens are capable of adjusting or restricting their claims so that they can be pursued through mean which can reasonably be available to all. The weight of the claims in other words is not determined by the pyschological intensity of the desires but why considerations of cooperation and reciprocity.


Justice as fairness is a liberal view. In a democratic society, there will surely be incommensurable conceptions of the good. This fact, which is a given, is why the person is conceptualised as and restricted to a political notion, i.e., as citizens. Persons are free to be committed to comprehensive doctrines or ideals, whether liberal or otherwise, in non-political parts of their lives as long as these doctrines are not introduced into political discussion. This point is crucial because an insistence on liberal ideals would make the conception incompatible with other conceptions of the good turning liberalism itself into a dogmatic doctrine.

In any just democratic society, conceptions of the good apart from liberalism are likely to persist and it is this variety that justice as fairness tries to account for by identifying areas of “overlapping consensus”, i.e., intuitive ideas shared by diverse conceptions of the good. This consensus is the most that can be achieved.

But isn’t justice as fairness merely a modus vivendi that allows groups to pursue their own good subject to certain restraints? First, justice as fairness is a moral conception even if not a comprehensive one that stresses the virtues of cooperation. It is not merely a modus vivendi. Second, the principles of justice are accepted by the diverse conceptions of the good or as integral to them and not merely as convenient means apart from their moral doctrines.


Most political conceptions of justice do not allow a plurality of conceptions of the good. Examples of such conceptions include those of Plato, Aristotle, and the Christian tradition and classical utilitarianism. By contrast, liberalism does allow for a plurality of competing or even incommensurable conceptions of the good. It assumes that a public agreement on one conception of the good is not possible.

How can social unity be secured if this is the case? Justice as fairness understands social unity as founded not on a singular conception of the good but on the public acceptance of a conception of justice as regulating the basic structure of society. The concept of justice is independent from and prior to the concept of goodness in that the principles of justice specify the acceptable conceptions of the good.

End Notes

[1] The first can be identified with John Locke (what Benjamin Constant called the “freedom of the moderns”) and the latter with Jean-Jacques Rousseau (or the “freedom of the ancients”).

[2] These might include “the belief in religious toleration and the rejection of slavery”.

[3] For more on this point, see John Rawls, “Justice as Fairness”, The Philosophical Review 67 (2). [Duke University Press, Philosophical Review]: 164–94.

[4] ‘Thus, we say that a person is someone who can be a citizen, that is, a fully cooperating member of society over a complete life. We add the phrase “over a complete life” because a society is viewed as a more or less complete and self-sufficient scheme of cooperation, making room within itself for all the necessities and activities of life, from birth until death.’

[5] When, we simulate being in this position,  [behind the veil of ignorance,] our reasoning no more commits us to a metaphysical doctrine about the nature of the self than our playing a game like Monopoly commits us to thinking that we are landlords engaged in a desperate rivalry, winner take all.

[6] For example, when citizens convert from one religion to another, or no longer affirm an established religious faith, they do not cease to be, for questions of political justice, the same persons they were before. There is no loss of what we may call their public identity, their identity as a matter of basic law.

[7] “Laws that prohibit the abuse and maltreatment of slaves are not founded on claims made by slaves on their own behalf, but on claims originating either from slaveholders, or from the general interests of society (which does not include the interests of slaves).”

Another importance of this aspect is that it clearly identifies that it as peculiar to a particular conception of justice. The example about slaves just given flows from a political conception of justice where certain groups slaves are not viewed as self-originating sources of claims.

Justice as Fairness by John Rawls — A Summary

Rawls, John. 1958. “Justice as Fairness.” The Philosophical Review 67 (2). [Duke University Press, Philosophical Review]: 164–94.

Section I claims that the fundamental idea for the concept of justice is fairness.

Section II introduces the two principles of this conception.

Section III explains how these two principles are arrived at.

Section IV pre-empts possible criticisms against justice as fairness as developed in Sections II and III.

Section V sketches why fairness should be central to any concept of justice.

Section VI characterises the utilitarian conception of justice as one concerned with efficacy.

Section VII discusses why such utilitarianism fails as a conception of justice.


The fundamental idea in the concept of justice is fairness. The paper will try to justify this claim. It is this aspect of justice (as fairness) that classical utilitarianism fails to account for.

Three things should be kept in mind. First, justice is considered as a virtue of social institutions[1] (henceforth “practices”[2] as Rawls does) and its function is essentially distributive.[3] Second, justice is considered as only one of the many virtues of practices. Justice is just one aspect of any conception of a good society. Third, the principles of justice discussed below are not the principles of justice.


There are two principles of justice as fairness:

(a) first, each person[4] participating in a practice, or affected by it, has an equal right to the most extensive liberty compatible with a like liberty for all;

(b) and second, inequalities are arbitrary unless it is reasonable to expect that they will work out for everyone’s advantage, and provided the positions and offices to which they attach, or from which they may be gained, are open to all.

The first principle expresses a presumption against “distinctions and classifications” created by practices. Put another way, the first principle presumes an original situation of equality. However, it does not rule out deviations from this state — “there can be, and there often is, a justification for doing so”.

The second principle defines what sort of deviations from this original situation of equality — or inequalities[5] — permissible. First, only those inequalities are permitted which benefit everyone.[6] Second, those offices and positions that have benefits attached to them must be open for all to acquire through fair competition.


How are these two principles arrived at?

Imagine a society of persons where a system of practices is well in place. Now suppose that they are, by and large, mutually self-interested. This means that they are self-interested but not always so. They have loyalties to their families, nations, churches and the like whose interests they also pursue. This does not imply however that they are mutually self-interested under all circumstances. They are so only when they participate in “common practices”. Also, suppose also that they are rational meaning that (a) they know their own interests, (b) they can foresee the consequences of their actions, (c) they can adhere to their chosen course of action, (d) they can resist enticements for immediate gain, and (e) they are comfortable with certain limited differences in their condition and that of others.[7] Finally, suppose that they have similar needs and interests which enables their fruitful cooperation.

This society of mutually self-interested, rational, and similarly situated persons, since they already have a system of practices in place, can be imagined to regularly discuss complaints about the practices they have set up. They first establish the principles based on which their complaints will be judged by letting everyone propose the principles based on which he thinks complaints should be tried. This is done on the understanding that once the principles are adopted, they will be binding on all future occasions. This provision disallows principles that may be peculiarly advantageous for a particular complaint as they will be, if adopted, imposed on everyone for every complaint that might arise.

The two parts of this conjectural story have definite significance. The first part reflects the typical circumstances in which questions of justice arise. Such circumstances are those where conflicting demands are brought to bear on the design of a practice by persons insisting on what they consider to be their rights. The second part represents the constraints under which persons are brought to act reasonably. The constraints are those of morality which, at the very least, imply acknowledgement (a) of principles that must be pursued even if they conflict with self-interest[8] and (b) that principles must be applied impartially to all.

Given the circumstances and the constraints specified by the two parts, it can be seen how the two principles of justice put forth at the beginning of Section II might come about. This is not offered as proof that those two principles will necessarily be chosen but merely to show that those principles could be chosen.


Justice on this account appears to be a sort of pact between rational and egoistic persons similar to the sort advanced by Glaucon at the beginning of Book II of Plato’s Republic.[9] However, this is not entirely so.

First, the conjectural account does not advance any theory of human motivation (or human nature) underlying the actions and decisions of persons. The account refers simply to the fact, in the circumstances of justice, the different parties do press their conflicting and competing claims on one another and do regard themselves as representing interests which need to be considered. Second, the account does not seek to explain the establishment of any particular society or practice as most social contract theories set out to do. The different parties “jointly acknowledge certain principles of appraisal relating to their practices [which are] either already established or merely proposed” (emphases added). Third, the account does not imply that the parties are coming together for the first time. It applies even when highly developed social institutions already exist. This means that the account is not fictitious. In any society where people reflect on their practices, there will be times when principles of justice would actually be discussed in the way sketched by the account.


Thinking about justice in the manner so described brings out the idea that fairness must be central to justice. Rules of a practice are fair if they are accepted as applicable by all concerned on the basis of them (rules) being legitimate.[10] Similarly for principles of justice. It is this idea of mutual acceptance (or mutual acknowledgement) which makes fairness central to justice because when understood through the conjectural account, the principles of justice arrived at are what can be undoubtedly called as fair since they are premised on the notion of mutual acknowledgement brought about by the condition that these principles are binding on everyone. It is this notion of mutual acknowledgement that ensures a community between persons and their practices based not on force.

If the rules of a practice are correctly acknowledged as fair, duties on the part of the parties to act in accordance with those rules when it fall upon them to comply are born. This is the duty of “fair play”.[11] This obligation to abide by the rule does not depend on any explicit contract acknowledging the practice but merely requires knowing participation in and acceptance of the benefits of the practice.

The duty of fair play might enjoin upon the participants to sacrifice their self-interests in particular situations. This is the expected consequence of the strong commitment to the rules made in the general position (the situation described in the conjectural account, see Section III). The acceptance of the duty of fair play along with this constraint is recognition of the others as persons with similar interests and capacities, as specified in the general position.

These comments are made in order to anticipate and forestall the misinterpretation that the account presented of justice and fair play requires that there be de facto equality (“balance of powers”) in the general position. Such balance is important but is not the basis. The recognition of one another as persons with similar interests and capacities involved in a common practice is enough basis for the acceptance of the principles of justice and the duty of fair play.

One consequence of the conception as explicated thus far is that there is no moral value in satisfying a claim that is incompatible with it. Put concretely, there is no moral value in the satisfaction derived out of something which one imposes on others but would not accept for himself, regardless of the pleasure it generates.


For the classical utilitarians, justice is a kind of efficiency. Justice is tied to benevolence and benevolence is brought about through the most efficient design of institutions to promote the general welfare

A common objection is that this would “justify institutions highly offensive to our ordinary sense of justice”.[12] However, classical utilitarianism can answer this objection. For one, individuals are considered as having roughly the same utility function and differences due to accidents of birth and upbringing are ignored. For another, they accept the idea of marginal diminishing utility.[13] These two assumptions build a strong case for equality.

However, even if these assumptions actually operated and led to similar principles of justice, they would still be fundamentally different from justice as fairness. Firstly, in the utilitarian conception, the principles of justice are the contingent result of a higher administrative decision. Second, the individuals receiving the benefits due to the utilitarian calculus are non-related units to which resources may be allocated. Their enjoyment of the benefits has no moral connection with other persons.

It is assumed that the administrator will after considering all relevant criteria make the correct executive decision and that the principles of justice would result from this being so.


Many social decisions are of course administrative decisions. And classical utilitarianism can properly account for many of these decisions about social utility. However, as in interpretation of the principles of justice, classical utilitarianism fails.

It allows one to argue — not that the classical utilitarians did — that slavery is unjust because the disadvantage to the slaves outweighs the advantages to the slaveholder. The point is not whether the disadvantages to one party can outweigh the advantage of the other but simply that slavery is not in accordance with principles that can be mutually acknowledged and it is for this reason that slavery will always be unjust. The classical utilitarian might retort that it is not always true that the disadvantage to the slaves outweighs the advantages to the slaveholder and in the cases where this is not true, slavery is not wrong. Indeed, it is right, and for the same reason that justice is right. He might point out that utilitarianism gives no special weight to justice above and beyond the basic concern with effectiveness. And if slavery is effective, it is perfectly just.

But reasons of justice have a special weight which utilitarianism cannot account for but justice as fairness can. The argument that slavery is sufficiently advantageous might not be wildly irrelevant but it nevertheless constitutes a moral fallacy. Since slavery does not ensue from principles that could be mutually acknowledged, the advantages or disadvantages (benefits or burdens) that result from it have no moral significance. If the slaveholder recognises the injustice of slavery, he will disregard the advantages that might flow from it. Such advantages then cannot be grounds for defending a practice as just. For these reasons, the principles of justice have a special weight. With respect to the principle of the greatest satisfaction, they have an absolute weight. They are not contingent.

This criticism of utilitarianism does not depend upon whether or not the assumptions of similar utility functions for individuals and diminishing marginal utility (see section V, second paragraph) are understood to be scientific or psychological. It is certainly more attractive to consider the latter to be true. However, even if the assumptions are understood as moral or psychological, the mistaken belief in the intrinsic value of satisfaction of (moral and psychological) desires irrespective of the relations between persons still remains.


“By way of conclusion I should like to make two remarks: first, the original modification of the utilitarian principle (supra note 6) actually has a different conception of justice standing behind it. I have tried to show how this is so by developing the concept of justice … [which] involves the mutual acceptance, from a general position, of the principles on which a practice is founded, and how this in turn requires the exclusion from consideration of claims violating the principles of justice.

Second, … I have been dealing with the concept of justice. …Societies will differ from one another … in the range of cases to which they apply [the concept of justice as fairness] and in the emphasis which they give to it as compared with other moral concepts. A firm grasp of the concept of justice itself is necessary if these variations, and the reasons for them, are to be understood.”

End Notes

[1] Why is justice considered only in its application to social institutions? Because its application to social institutions is “basic” and may be “easily” applied to other “subjects of justice” such as persons or particular actions once its principles are established.

[2] The word “practice” is used as a technical term meaning any form of activity specified by a system of rules which defines offices, roles, moves. penalties, defenses, and so on, and which gives the activity its structure

[3] “The principles of justice … formulat[e] restrictions as to how practices may define positions and offices, and assign thereto powers and liabilities, rights and duties”.

[4] The term “person” could mean human individuals, nations, provinces, business firms, churches, teams, and so on.  In any case, the principles apply to all. The use of the term is self-confessedly ambiguous.

[5] These inequalities are not the differences in offices and positions and the differences in benefits and burden that ensue from them.

[6] This modification of the utilitarian principle that everyone must benefit from the inequality disallows utilitarian justifications that appeal to the greater magnitude of the benefits accruing to some compared to the burdens borne by others.

[7] The last point implies that the rational man in not greatly worried by seeing others in a better position unless that were the result of injustice. The rational man, in a word, is free from envy.

[8] “A man whose moral judgments always coincided with his interests could be suspected of having no morality at all.”

[9] “They say that to do injustice is naturally good and to suffer injustice bad, but that the badness of suffering it so far exceeds the goodness of doing it that those who have done and suffered injustice and tasted both, but who lack the power to do it and avoid suffering it, decide that it is profitable to come to an agreement with each other neither to do injustice nor to suffer it. As a result, they begin to make laws and covenants, and what the law commands they call lawful and just. This, they say, is the origin and essence of justice. It is intermediate between the best and the worst. The best is to do injustice without paying the penalty; the worst is to suffer it without being able to take revenge. Justice is a mean between these two extremes. People value it not as a good but because they are too weak to do injustice with impunity. Someone who has the power to do this, however, and is a true man wouldn’t make an agreement with anyone not to do injustice in order not to suffer it. For him, that would be madness. This is the nature of justice, according to the argument, Socrates, and these are its natural origins.” John M. Cooper ed., 1997, Plato: Complete Works, Indianapolis: Hackett, 358e–359b. (See this if you don’t know what the numbers mean.)

[10] “A practice will strike the parties as fair if none feels that, by participating in it, they or any of the others are taken advantage of, or forced to give in to claims which they do not regard as legitimate.

[11] “…[T]o refer to it in this way is, perhaps, to extend the ordinary notion of fairness. Usually acting unfairly is not so much the breaking of any particular rule … but taking advantage of loop-holes or ambiguities in rules, … and more generally, acting contrary to the intention of a practice.”

[12] Rawls of course is referring to the objection that the general welfare could be bought at great particular cost. The greatest happiness of the many, to use other words, could come at the expense of the greatest suffering of the few.

[13] Satisfaction derived from additional units of a good diminishes. The implication is that fantastic differences in levels of satisfaction are unlikely to occur.


The Security Problematic of the Third World by Mohammed Ayoob — A Summary

Ayoob, Mohammed. 1991. “The Security Problematic of the Third World.” World Politics 43 (2). Cambridge University Press: 257-83.


The postwar world has been marked by (a) the doctrine of mutually assured destruction of MAD (thanks to the rise of the “awesome destructive capability” of nuclear weapons) and (b) the entrance of many new members, Third World states, into the system of states (thanks to the decolonisation process). The former has, thanks to MAD, stabilised the global balance of power while the latter has, by spawning a group of “floating” states which were “up for grabs”, introduced instability in to the system of states. In addition, the former has received much attention in international relations literature while the latter has not. Even if the security of Third World states is considered, it is done so from a distinctly Western perspective. This article is a review paper of four volumes which seek to fill this gap in the literature. (Note: There will be no explicit reference in this summary to the books reviewed although the paper draws upon and quotes from them frequently.)

“The[] … issues that … need to be addressed from both historical and comparative perspectives [are] as follows:
(a) How does the concept of security as applied to the Third World context differ from its traditional use in the international relations literature?
(b) What are the factors that inhere within Third World states that can help explain this difference?
(c) In what ways does the interaction of Third World states with the international system affect the security of the former?
(d) Are there specific factors related to technology in the late twentieth century that affect the security of Third World states in ways that are unique to the developing countries?
(e) What is the relationship between the security and developmental concerns of Third World states, and how does the interaction between these two preoccupations of Third World state elites affect the levels of legitimacy enjoyed by Third World states and regimes?”

The following sections will tackle each of these five questions in turn.


(a) How does the concept of security as applied to the Third World context differ from its traditional use in the international relations literature?

The traditional use of the concept of security has assumed the (a) military nature and (b) external origin of threats to state security. These assumptions are upheld even by those who insist on international security and are unwilling to accept the centrality of the state.[2] These assumptions are the natural result of a particular intellectual tradition that grew — from 1648 to 1945, to use symbolic dates — in the context of interaction among sovereign states and the identification of individuals with their respective (sovereign) states. The sovereign state thus became the unit object of security. After 1945, the Western world (“Europe and its offshoots”) was divided into two halves which were stabilised by a mutual balance of terror, i.e., by MAD. Alliance security, established in both halves, became superimposed upon state security. The essential assumptions, however, remained unchanged.

This understanding of security faces problems when applied to the Third World. The idea of security as (a) external, (b) systemic (or international), and (c) alliance-based are “thoroughly diluted” in the Third World.  Firstly, in the Third World, security threats substantially emanate from within states. External threats do exist but often they gain salience precisely from those insecurities that already abound within. Secondly, the Third World is relatively unimportant to the central strategic balance. Conflicts have proliferated in the Third World with the participation and even encouragement of the superpowers but without undermining the overall strategic balance. Thirdly, the notion of alliance security is absent for states in the Third World which, even if they are allied with the superpowers, receive a qualitatively different form of commitment to that accorded to Western states. The security of Third World states is not considered synonymous with the security of the alliance.


(b) What are the factors that inhere within Third World states that can help explain this difference?

Third World states are different from Western states. The mere possession of “juridical statehood” is insufficient ground for treating Third World states on par with Western states. The latter possess features such as strong state structures including rational-bureaucracies, infrastructure and internal cohesion which are largely absent in the former. The relevant factor for this discrepancy is time. The stable Western states are the finished products of centuries of unhappy historical experience. Third World states, on the other hand, are only a few decades old and have not had enough time to mature their institutions and societies.[3] It is this fact, the lack of the “software” of security, that makes recourse to military measures, “hardware” instruments of security, to deal with political challenges attractive for Third World regimes.

The current security predicaments of the Third World are partly explained by their similarity to the Western experience of state-making in its early stages.[4] This similarity is not merely coincidental. As such, the security problems faced by Third World countries today is not that astounding. The rest is explained by the telescoping of the state making process into a drastically shortened time period, and the low level of state power and legitimacy in Third World states.


(c) In what ways does the interaction of Third World states with the international system affect the security of the former?

The contemporary era of international linkages, whether military, economic, political, or technological, have substantial implications for Third World state making enterprises. This is particularly relevant for current technologies of communication and destruction.

In addition, the colonial experience has ensured that external factors have had serious impacts on Third World polities and their security environments. First, the decisions of colonial powers made for administrative purposes have resulted in the ethnic mix that Third World states possess in this day. This has major, often adverse, consequences for internal cohesiveness. Second, colonial legacies are responsible for many postcolonial interstate conflicts (Kashmir, for example).

Another aspect of the colonial experience is the transfer of the weakness and vulnerability of the colonies in relation to the colonial powers which is reproduced the postcolonial era in the form of the periphery-core dichotomy. The conflicts of the core, the superpower rivalries, are exported to the periphery, the Third World. Third World states are unable to prevent the occurrence of these conflicts or the intrusion of these conflicts into their polities.


(d) Are there specific factors related to technology in the late twentieth century that affect the security of Third World states in ways that are unique to the developing countries?

The propensity to engage in interstate conflict is increased by the transfer of modern weapons and weapons technology from the Western to the Third World. It is not just the instrumental value of weapons but often the mere fact of possession, especially if they are sophisticated weapons, that can increase the prospects of conflict. The transfer of these weapons happens at great economic cost.

Recently, it is transfer of weapons technology which has overtaken the transfer of weapons themselves. This shift could underlie either a movement towards military independence or could simply be replacing one form of dependence by another.  Either way, the effect on the overall security of the Third World is negative. If the former is true, the war-fighting capacity of Third World states in increased. If the latter is true, the feeling of insecurity and vulnerability among Third World elites is intensified.

One dramatic subset of the transfer of sophisticated weapons technology is nuclear proliferation. Emerging Third World states see nuclear weaponry as essential to their promotion to influence in the world stage and there are credible if unacknowledged instances of Third World states developing nuclear weapons. The problem of maintaining security is not just limited to the management of dozen or so nuclear powers but the practical implications of having a number of those powers involved in regional conflicts.


(e) What is the relationship between the security and developmental concerns of Third World states, and how does the interaction between these two preoccupations of Third World state elites affect the levels of legitimacy enjoyed by Third World states and regimes?”

In most Third World states, military spending is dominated by operational costs (mainly salaries for troops) rather than by costs of sophisticated weapons. This indicates the high level of manpower required to maintain internal control (taxation, policing, and warfare for attaining state power). In this context, it is safe to say that development as a serious objective comes only after power accumulation (political legitimacy) and meeting regional threats (securing regime security) in the policy consideration of Third World leaders.


“In the final analysis, however, most of the deep-seated sources of conflict and violence in the Third World … cannot and will not be fundamentally determined by superpower actions and interactions…. Therefore, although changes in superpower relations may continue to affect some of these sources of conflict and insecurity in the Third World, these changes alone are not capable of transforming the basic nature of the security predicament of the Third World states. As it stands, the existing parameters of the security problematic of the Third World can be altered only if Third World states have adequate time to complete the twin tasks of the state making and nation building, plus enough political sagacity on their leaderships’ part to attempt to accomplish these tasks in as humane a manner as possible.”

End Notes

[1] The ideas of Section II and III are more fully argued for in Mohammed Ayoob, “Security in the Third World: The Worm About to Turn?”, International Affairs 60 (1): 41–51.

[2] The system-centric idea of security draws its inspiration from the English School of International Relations which insists on the relevance of the “international society”.

[3] The experience of India in maintaining a robust democracy is an exception.

[4] “Th[e] European experience … cost tremendously in death, suffering, loss of rights, and unwilling surrender of land, goods, or labor…. The fundamental reason for the high cost…. Building differentiated, autonomous, centralized organizations with effective control of territories entailed eliminating or subordinating thousands of semiautonomous authorities…. Most of the European population resisted each phase of the creation of strong states.”