The philosopher Immanuel Kant succinctly posed the dilemma of organising a just state, two centuries ago, in these terms:
“The problem of organizing a state, however hard it may seem, can be solved, even for a race of devils, if only they are intelligent. The problem is, given a multitude of rational beings requiring universal laws for their preservation, but each of them is sincerely inclined to exempt himself from them, to establish a Constitution in such a way, although their private intentions conflict, they check each other, with the result that their public conduct is the same as if they had no such intentions.”
Kant’s concrete solution to the inevitable conflicts he identified in organised human societies was that institutions, as with all normative behaviour, would have to satisfy the “categorical imperative” to be moral and just. In one popular formulation, this categorical imperative states: act in accordance to rules that you would wish applied to everyone as if they were universal laws.
Mos commentators who followed him agreed with his stricture that institutions constituting a state must be organised in accordance with the principle of justice, but his criterion of the categorical imperative, proved nettlesome in real life.
John Rawls, the most influential of modern liberal political philosophers, came up with another formulation to guide the formation of social institutions nearly two centuries later, in 1971. It had the great virtue of simplicity.
In the opening line of his first section in his magnum opus “A Theory of Justice”, Rawls boldly declared only the principle of “justice” would generate the broad acceptability for the establishment of institutions necessary for societal stability: “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.”
Recognizing that Guyana probably does not even reach Rawls’ definition of a society as “a cooperative venture for mutual advantage, it is typically marked by a conflict as well as by an identity of interests,” his definition of “justice” is yet very pertinent to our effort to construct a democratic state in Guyana: “…a way of assigning rights and duties in the basic institutions of society and they define the appropriate distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation.”
In Guyana we all have to appreciate that the existence of the state itself is for the furtherance of the societal good – the public interest. Ultimately we believe that all Guyanese are looking to be culturally authentic, politically secure and economically sound. In the furtherance of these “public goods”, the people promulgate a constitution through which the government directs the state through policies and programmes in consonance with the prime directives of the Constitution.
In modern democracies, under the liberal paradigm, equality of treatment and equality before the law of the citizens stands at the very top of the imperatives.
We have proposed that under a federalist state institutions will be created to implement the policies of Ethnic Impact Statements, multiculturalism, federal form of government, Government of National Reconciliation, Catalytic Economic State, Affirmative Action, etc in the fulfilment of the national goals.
However, because each individual citizen or group of citizens are situated differently (according to specific criteria) governmental policies and programmes will inevitably have a different impact on different citizens.
The task of the government is to ensure that their differential treatment is not arbitrary and capricious and irrational – and that they further some societal good. There should be a correlation between the classification and the purpose of the statute so that citizens can presume the impartiality of the legislators. Thus even those adversely impacted may consider it an acceptable cost of achieving a larger societal goal.
In Guyana we would have to derive our substantive principles of justice for ourselves based on our history and present realities. Out of our experiences during slavery and Indentureship where they were denied, the values of liberty and equality are central to what we desire for the “good life”. These values must be central to any institution that seeks to address any aspect of our national life.