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Re: Non-normative ethics/Gandhi-ji

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  • vnr1995
    Gandhi s discussions with others raised the question of developing a theory of, say, ahimsa, a theory that justifies some set of principles. Hence a
    Message 1 of 52 , Aug 1, 2005
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      Gandhi's discussions with others raised the question of developing a
      theory of, say, ahimsa, a theory that justifies some set of
      principles. Hence a pseudo-dilemma, because of a posteriori

      Normative Ethics helps one make choices, but does not help one act
      unless we subscribe to common sense experience, and a theological
      truth, that actions are intentional. Given a moral theory and that
      actions are intentional, the gap between making choices and acting is

      On the contrary, Indian traditions claim that such a belief is false;
      they treat it as a learning exercise, which is different from the way
      one makes moral principles his own. Constraining choices, by using
      some decision theory, is not really learning how to act. Here Balu
      tells how these recursive stories help one act (recall his talking of
      mimesis etc): or, how actions in some story helps one act in novel
      way. Thats why these stories are not claims about the world the way
      theories are.

      > Our
      > stories revolve around ethical choices and their appropriateness.

      Look at Balu articles: he talked about the distinction between a rule
      and action, abt that between making a choice and learning to act.

      > Part of it might be because (as you point out) the question that was
      > raised creates a
      > pseudo-problem. But then why cannot Gandhi-ji see and say that his
      > critics are raising a
      > fake challenge?

      If it is a pseudo-problem, so is the modern problem: Indians haven't
      concerned about moral philosophy the way west has; and haven't
      developed any moral theories. If the West hadn't developed these
      theories in the first place, there wouldn't be any problem. In other
      words, this peace of wisom we learned makes us confront these problems
      (Without Newtonian theory, there is no anamoly of mercury perihelion.)
      The only way to solve this problem is to conceptualize differently,
      which Gandhi didn't; hence he couldn't convince his opponents.

      > As for Gandhi's reference to unselflish (or should we say selfless)
      > action, it's a common
      > theme.

      Read puranas, you will hear stories to the contrary.
    • ss
      Dear Jakob: I do agree with you, and this is precisely what I mean when I say Gandhi s arguments sound hollow. Gandhiji seems a bit confused, to say the least.
      Message 52 of 52 , Aug 14, 2005
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        Dear Jakob:

        I do agree with you, and this is precisely what I mean when I say Gandhi's arguments
        sound hollow. Gandhiji seems a bit confused, to say the least. At any rate it seems difficult
        to reconcile the two statements: 'ahimsa is the highest maxim....' with 'I am committing
        himsa all the time-it is unavoidable'. One is forced to conclude that Gandhiji thinks it is
        impossible to be ethical, or that we are all tainted by (original?) sin. If ahimsa is the
        highest ethical principle, and its violation is unavoidable, then it follows that it is simply
        impossible to be ethical.

        (Even more confusing is the second 'maxim' - 'to kill any being save for its own good is
        ahimsa'. Naturally, this 'precept' would be bound to launch us into endless discussions of
        'how (ie upon which principles) can one decide what is good for others?' as many people
        asked Gandhiji in response to his hypothetical about his daughter).

        Nevertheless, it is clear that Gandhi thought the two statements to be consistent with each
        other. Unless we want to turn the Mahatma into an idiot, we have to make some logical
        sense of what he says. One is forced to conclude that Gandhi cannot possibly mean
        'maxim' in the way we recognize it. His notion of 'maxim', 'principle', 'precept' is
        something different than what your unfortunate ethics professor might have meant.

        Somehow, at a level I can't quite explain to you, I can understand why the calf/monkey
        issue would be a big deal to Indians. Similarly, if an Indian heard that a group of brothers
        had engaged in battle with and killed off their cousins, uncles, gurus, wiping out their
        entire clan, it would be a big deal to Indians. It seems almost natural to me that anyone
        would find such situations to raise ethical problems, but that may just be my conceit.
        Whether the problems raised would be 'paradigmatic' or not is a different question. Are
        there - Can there be - any paradigmatic ethical problems?

        I can't believe the man stuck in the cave being blown up by his companions is an example
        used to teach ethics! What kind of problem is that -- 'Is it moral to blow up your fat

        Unlike the fat man in the cave situation, the questions Gandhi raises when he brings up
        the monkeys, for instance, are (it seems to me) squarely about how to be ethical. After all,
        that is, in essence, Gandhi's question: what is the most appropriate way for me to deal
        with these monkeys?

        Hope you're over the jetlag and enjoying the season...

        --- In TheHeathenInHisBlindness@yahoogroups.com, "jakobderoover"
        <jakobderoover@y...> wrote:
        > Dear Satya,
        > 1. Your take on what Gandhi says in the different texts on the
        > calf/monkeys issue is certainly more balanced than the 'anything
        > goes' answer I mentioned. What I meant to emphasize, however, is
        > that when Gandhi is pushed to explain ahimsa and his actions of
        > having the calf killed or chasing away the monkeys, he retreats into
        > silly statements after a certain point. For instance, he talks
        > about "the celebrated maxim, "Ahimsa is the highest or the supreme
        > duty"" and says it is a great and universal doctrine. In a later
        > piece he writes that he is constantly involved in himsa:
        > "For instance I know that in the act of respiration I destroy
        > innumerable invisible germs floating in the air. But I do not stop
        > breathing. The consumption of vegetables involves himsa but I find
        > that I cannot give them up. Again, there is himsa in the use of
        > antiseptics, yet I cannot bring myself to discard the use of
        > disinfectants like kerosene, etc., to rid myself of the mosquito
        > pest and the like. I suffer snakes to be killed in the Ashram when
        > it is impossible to catch and put them out of harm's way. I even
        > tolerate the use of the stick to drive the bullocks in the Ashram
        > Thus there is no end of himsa which I directly and indirectly
        > commit."
        > If non-violence is our highest and supreme duty and a universal
        > doctrine, surely we must all obey this principle if we want to be
        > ethical beings. But our respiration and consumption of vegetables
        > (and all kinds of inevitable actions of ours) are violations of this
        > principle. So the consequence is that all of us become very immoral
        > beings. We are all violent all the time. To me, it seems this
        > trivialises both the notion of violence and that of being ethical.
        > The same goes for Gandhi's principle: "To kill any living being or
        > thing save for his or its own interest is himsa however noble the
        > motive may otherwise be." These statements remind me of the
        > professor of 'sexual ethics' at our university who insisted that
        > making love always is an act of violence on the man's part, because
        > any penetration is violent. Such lines of thinking merely serve to
        > confirm the old Christian truth that man is sinful and morally
        > corrupt to the core. They have us accumulate moral guilt until the
        > weight becomes unbearable. They certainly do not help us to become
        > more ethical beings.
        > 2. I would really like to understand as to why the twentieth-century
        > Gujaratis made such a big fuss about the calf/monkeys issue. How
        > could this become a paradigmatic example of an ethical problem?
        > Gandhi writes to Mirabehn that "The calf incident has occupied my
        > attention a great deal. It has done much good in that it has set
        > people thinking." It seems difficult simply to blame the fact that
        > the Gujarati intellectuals had adopted the normative mode of
        > thinking of the West. Though the case does remind one of the typical
        > examples in western moral philosophy:
        > "Five man wander into a cave. The fat man gets stuck and blocks the
        > only way out. Water is running into the cave. Is it moral for the
        > other four men to use the explosives they are carrying to blow up
        > the fat man and save their own lives? Or is this immoral in any
        > case?"
        > Such examples may help us to understand the distinction between
        > deontological and consequentialist ethics in moral philosophy, but
        > they are hardly relevant to the situations we encounter in our
        > lives. They cannot teach us to become ethical. At first sight, the
        > same goes for the calf incident. But, then again, we cannot make all
        > the Gujaratis writing passionate letters to Gandhi into fools. To
        > them, the incident was relevant to the role of Gandhi's actions as
        > paradigmatic instances of ethical action.
        > Yours,
        > Jakob
        > --- In TheHeathenInHisBlindness@yahoogroups.com, "ss"
        > <satyasarma@h...> wrote:
        > > Dear Jakob: I do agree with much of what you say, but I had a
        > > slightly different take (whether justifiably on not) on what
        > Gandhi
        > > said.
        > >
        > > <jakobderoover@y...> wrote:
        > >
        > > >
        > > > Once again, this reveals the bizarre situation we are in today.
        > > The
        > > > question presupposes a particular understanding of the ethical
        > > > domain - that of the normative West and its notions of moral
        > > > obligation, forbidden, etc. (just like the worship question
        > > > presupposes a Christian theological description of the Indian
        > > > traditions). The same framework constrains the answers one can
        > > give.
        > > > In English (and other western languages) at least, it has become
        > > the
        > > > single framework to think about ethical problems. The only way
        > to
        > > > break free from that framework is to develop an alternate
        > > > understanding of Indian ethics and the ethical domain, which
        > shows
        > > > *how* the questions are mistaken. In the current situation, even
        > > > simple questions like the one about ahimsa compel us to
        > > alternative
        > > > theory formation. Or they will condemn us to the silly 'anything
        > > > goes' explanations.
        > > >
        > > --Well, as we've said, the form of the objection is itself the
        > > problem and constrains the answer. Nevertheless, it must be
        > > possible - in fact necessary - to discuss ethical issues in Indian
        > > culture. That is to say, I don't think Indians always know exactly
        > > what to do in any given situation. It isn't always immediately
        > > obvious to them. So, there must be some way of thinking through/
        > > talking through a given situation. In other words, there really
        > are
        > > problem situations in Indians' or any other lives that require
        > them
        > > to work out paths of actions. Indians face ethical problems (if
        > > dilemmas will not do). None of us are born knowing exactly
        > > what the appropriate action is in every possible situation we
        > might
        > > encounter.
        > >
        > > The problem, it strikes me, is that Gandhi's contemporaries, as
        > > well as we modern Indians of today have no way of talking about
        > our
        > > ethics sensibly. It is possible that there were "genuine"
        > objections
        > > to killing the calf in this case which had nothing to do with
        > > normative ethics. But could an Indian then or now who felt that
        > > something was wrong with this or any other action articulate it
        > > without conceptualizing the problem in terms of norms? Can our
        > > discussions on what is ethical be intelligible (in English, since
        > > that is our lingua franca as well)?
        > >
        > > Given that the question constrains the answer into a particular
        > > normative domain, I think one can interpret Gandhi-ji's answer
        > more
        > > charitably than in your formulation above. The first thing to note
        > > is that when confronted with the objection: "Does ahimsa not
        > forbid
        > > the killing of calves?", Gandhi does not simply respond with
        > > the "anything goes" answer. He unequivocally affirms that killing
        > > the calf (in this instance) *is* ahimsa. In fact, as I recall, he
        > > calls it the highest form of ahimsa.
        > >
        > > Where I think Gandhi's response begins to get a bit garbled is
        > when
        > > (eg when he is challenged by his Jain friend), he attempts to
        > > explain just what ahimsa is. Confronted by detractors who (as I
        > read
        > > it) equate ahimsa with "forbidding the taking of life", (the
        > > presumption I guess being that life has some intrinsic value),
        > > Gandhi counters that ahimsa is 'not acting with the intent of
        > > benefiting oneself' (or in a way as to deprive the benefit of the
        > > other - as in the case of driving away the monkeys).
        > >
        > > So we have this weird scenario of the apostle of 'non-violence'
        > > saying it transgresses his moral principles to drive away monkeys
        > > who steal crops from his field (because that act benefits him),
        > but
        > > that if he should injure one of them accidentally during the
        > effort,
        > > he would summarily euthanize them (because killing injured monkeys
        > > is not in his self-interest). In fact, he would even take it upon
        > > himself to slaughter not only terminal livestock and injured pests
        > > but his own hypothetically-about-to-be violated daughter. This is
        > > only a paradox if Gandhi actually treats ahimsa as a normative
        > value
        > > that = 'not acting with the intent to benefit oneself', which is
        > > what he says it is.
        > >
        > > Gandhi's objection to his Jain friend's definition of ahimsa might
        > > stem from his discomfort with equating the notion of 'ahimsa' with
        > a
        > > norm. If ahimsa means 'one ought not take life', then this is an
        > > impossibility anyway. It makes a nonsense out of the path of
        > ahimsa.
        > > But not being able to conceptualize his own ethics, Gandhiji is
        > > himself unable to make full sense of 'ahimsa'. Instead, he
        > continues
        > > to try to clarify just which norm ahimsa does equal.
        > >
        > > Gandhi emphasizes that being ethical (to him) means *doing*
        > > something. It's a practical exercise. While he engages to an
        > extent
        > > with his friend's moral theorizing on ahimsa, to the extent his
        > > friend's theories are not practicable (not to mention long-
        > winded),
        > > he counters them.
        > >
        > > The problem in Gandhi's response occurs when he meets his
        > detractors
        > > on their turf. Indians in the 1920's and today are having debates
        > of
        > > this kind (when they do have them) in someone else's board room.
        > > That in itself, it seems to me, is a living danger to our ethics.
        > It
        > > seems to me possible that, if we don't find a way to get past this
        > > problem, that our stories will stop making sense to us. Maybe they
        > > already have...
        > >
        > > >
        > > > 2. Some time back, it struck me that the way we understand
        > > > the "selflessness" of the Asian traditions in the West has also
        > > > taken a normative form. We most often read it as "one ought not
        > to
        > > > be egocentric and self-obsessed." It has become the equivalent
        > of
        > > > Augustine's division of humanity into the sinners "guided and
        > > > fashioned by love of self" and the saints "guided and fashioned
        > by
        > > > the love of God." Being selfish is morally wrong and being
        > > selfless
        > > > is the right thing to do. Even when reading Gandhi's
        > > autobiography,
        > > > I sometimes had the impression he talks about selflessness in
        > the
        > > > same normative way. He seems to make it into a moral principle.
        > > The
        > > > confusion of the self and the body (or the belief that there is
        > a
        > > > self) is no longer a cognitive mistake, which leads to
        > > unhappiness.
        > > > One ought to be selfless. Is it my western reading of Gandhi
        > which
        > > > makes his selflessness into a moral principle or did he really
        > > > discuss it in this way?
        > > >
        > > -- To an extent, Gandhi does seem to discuss "selflessness" in the
        > > way you describe. But I picked up something different in the
        > > excerpts Arun assembled for us. What they suggested to me is the
        > > notion expressed in 'karman.yevaadhikaaras the' maa phalesuu
        > > kadaachana'. Once you realize that there is no agent, you can no
        > > longer be attached to the fruit (or consequence) of action. (In
        > the
        > > instance at hand, you can no longer remain attached to the life of
        > > the calf, nor to the crops in your field, nor to your daughter).
        > > However, I don't feel Gandhiji actually articulated any of this
        > all
        > > that well. Which is a pity.
        > >
        > > Well this is hurried, and may not be very articulate or organized
        > > either, but let me leave it there for now and see what you think.
        > >
        > > Fond regards,
        > > Satya
        > >
        > > PS: I can only vaguely recall parts of Gandhiji's autobiography,
        > > which, frankly must not have made much impression on me, because I
        > > don't remember it at all. I just started reading thru it again, so
        > > maybe we can expand on that issue again then.
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