Author: John Huddleston
Publisher: George Ronald, Oxford, 1991, 508 pp
Review by Danesh Sarooshi
published in Baha'i Studies Review 4:1 (1994)
Throughout history various societies have sought an ideal system of dispensing justice, a search often inspired by religious teachings. John Huddleston's latest book, The Search for a Just Society, attempts to show that the link between religion and the search for a just society is an inextricable one. Huddleston's just society is "a society which gives freedom to all its citizens and encourages them to achieve their full potential physical, mental and spiritual" (xiii). From this rather broad definition, four requirements stand out: an ethical system that "creates a balance between rights and duties" (xiii), the provision of security for life and property, democracy, and equal opportunity. These propositions are hard to disagree with.
The book's main problem is its ambition: its scope and breadth do not allow for thorough analysis in many areas. As a result, it often provides general information in the area rather than insight into religion's contributions to the elements of a just society and the evolution of these elements. It is divided into three Parts: "The Past," "The Present Age," and "The Future." Part I, "The Past," attempts to describe how the world's different religions have contributed to the development of a just society. It is somewhat disappointing. Instead of identifying and examining what elements of a just society have been developed by particular religions, this part is more a general review of the history of each of the particular religions discussed. A major flaw is the separation of religion's contribution from what is characterised as the secular contribution in Part II. This makes it difficult to evaluate the impact of religion on the development of a just society.(1)
The book might have profited had it initially identified constituent elements of a just society as expounded by particular religions and then traced the development of these elements throughout history in the rest of the book. This would have given greater cohesion to what are otherwise rather disjointed parts: in particular, Part I from Parts II and III. Such an approach would have also enabled greater discussion of how religion, which is ostensibly dealt with in Part I, has provided the philosophical underpinnings of many of the notions of a just society which Huddleston discusses in Part II. It would have also made it easier to understand the distinctive contribution of each religion to the development of such ideas. This would then have made it easier to examine the Bahá'í Faith's contribution. As it is, the Bahá'í Faith is dealt with in a contextual vacuum in Part III.
The second part, "The Present Age," is divided into the following three sections: "Greater Political and Social Equality," "Reducing Material Poverty," and "From War to Peace." Each of these constitutes, according to Huddleston, elements of a just society. This section is well written. The last of these sections, "From War to Peace," is a good description of collective attempts by nations to erect institutions in order to maintain peace amongst themselves. However, Huddleston misses the opportunity to examine the sources of many of the principles underlying these institutions. Like Part I, it also suffers from the artificial separation of the contributions of religion and secular society. Huddleston could have traced a few of the principles which underlie the international institutions covered in Part II through both religious and secular history instead of dealing with them in relative isolation.
Take, for example, the concept of collective security which was the guiding principle of the Congress System in Europe, the League of Nations, and the United Nations (UN) in each of their successive attempts to prevent war. Collective security provides that if a state which is a party to such an agreement is attacked by another state, then all the other states which are also party to the agreement should assist the state under attack by military means. Tracing the development of this concept throughout history would have thrown light on Bahá'í innovations to it.
Bahá'í scripture suggests that if a government violates a fundamental norm of international law in particular, by breaching a provision of a future World Constitution which Bahá'ís believe will be established by all nations, receive the assent of all humanity, and which will govern international affairs then "all the governments on earth should arise to reduce it to utter submission, nay the human race as a whole should resolve, with every power at its disposal, to destroy that government." The Bahá'í view of collective security is wider in two ways than the concept as it is currently understood. First, the Bahá'í concept requires collective military action against a state whenever there is a violation of certain commonly agreed fundamental norms, and not just where a state is under armed attack. Second, the principle of collective security in the Bahá'í writings requires destruction of the government of the rogue state. Under current international law in particular, the law of the UN this is not an essential aim of a collective security response by states. This was evident in the response of the UN and its member states to the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in August 1990: the allies forced Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait but did not destroy the Iraqi government. Huddleston's study of the development of elements of a just society might have proved more fruitful had it allowed for such correlations between the religious and the secular.
Despite over 450 pages of text, appendices, illustrations, maps, and tables on a wide variety of interesting subjects, there are few footnotes in the book. As a result, many statements seem like assertions rather than facts. Despite these criticisms, Huddleston's lucidly written book is a good introduction to the area for both Bahá'ís and others.
1. This issue is of increasing importance, especially as more of the laws in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas are adoptedin particular, by national legislatures as there is a rapid increase in the population of Bahá'ís within their countries.