Feisal Naqvi

Monkey see, monkey no like

In Uncategorized on April 15, 2008 at 3:58 am


As our new leaders struggle with the burdens of their responsibilities, they would do well to remember the story of Pandora’s Box. Everybody remembers how Pandora disobeyed her instructions and let loose all the evils of the world. People forgot that in compensation they received Hope

Imagine you are a monkey being offered a grape in exchange for pressing a lever. I imagine you would be a happy monkey.

Now imagine you see another monkey who is also being offered goodies in exchange for pressing a lever. Except, that the other monkey gets two grapes for doing what you did.

Back to you. Now, you are an excited monkey. You press the lever again and you get … one grape. What do you do?

It turns out that in a significant majority of cases, what you do is throw a complete tantrum and chuck the grape back. What you want is what the other monkey got. And if you don’t get it, you are not a happy monkey.

As the father of two very argumentative children, I can personally testify that the argument most often used by kids to express their disapproval is, “It’s not fair”. Fairness, it seems, is hard-wired into our brains so much so that even monkeys (and little children) have an instinctive regard for equity’ more importantly, an instinctively angry response when they do not see justice being done.

The problem, of course, is that life is not fair. Some of us are born with more — more money, better looks, better luck et cetera. Some with less. More importantly, the history of the 20th century proves that trying to make everybody factually equal only winds up reducing most people to poverty, but that allowing the uninhibited pursuit of profit increases aggregate social wealth tremendously. On the other hand, aggregate wealth and average wealth are two very different things. And if the gap between rich and poor is allowed to grow too big, people react in much the same way as the offended monkey in the science experiment, which is to say violently.

How then to reconcile the competing demands of economics and ethics?

I wrote some weeks ago how our society is marked by a zero-sum perspective in which one person’s gain is seen as another person’s loss. By contrast, prosperous societies share a belief that one person’s gain is only just reward for that person’s efforts. The question is, what makes different societies adopt a non-zero approach as opposed to a zero-sum approach?

I think one very important factor in that answer is the quality of justice in a society. Part of growing up is the gradual realisation by people that not everything always works out for the best. Or as beautifully captured by Yeats in his poem, “Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad”:

Some think it a matter of course that chance

Should starve good men and bad advance…

Young men know nothing of this sort,

Observant old men know it well

What softens the blow then is the belief that even if there is an imperfect justice at work, there is at least some justice out there to be found. However, if faith in justice disappears, it takes along with it a hope in a better future, leaving behind only a seething, sullen mass of resentments.

The point then being made is that the provision of justice, or more accurately, the hope that justice is available, is a very important factor in the health of a nation. We all know that we live in an imperfect world full of imperfect humans. And we also know that we are destined to live in a world of inequalities. What makes that inequality palatable is the belief that with hard work we can all rise above our circumstances. In the absence of a functioning and well respected system of justice, no such belief is possible. An independent judiciary therefore is not just important as a check on an arbitrary executive: it is important as a guarantee of a minimum degree of equity in society.

As our new leaders struggle with the burdens of their responsibilities, they would do well to remember the story of Pandora’s Box. Everybody remembers how Pandora disobeyed her instructions and let loose all the evils of the world. People forgot that in compensation they received Hope.

In the absence of an independent judiciary, there can be no hope for justice. And without hope, the only thing we are left with is all the evils of the world.

The writer is an advocate and can be reached at laalshah@gmail.com

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