Colonial Experience: Normative Ethics I

1. What is western normative ethics? It is a structure or style of thinking about ethics. What is its structure? It makes use of norms. What are norms? ‘Rules’ or ‘principles’ which have a characteristic structure that use certain concepts like the moral ‘ought’ and moral ‘ought not’. That is, some actions ought to be performed (i.e. they are obligatory); some actions ought not to be performed (i.e. they are forbidden) and some actions are neither of the two (i.e. they are permitted). What is important to note is that these norms (i.e. for example, some action is obligatory) hold irrespective of time, place, condition or the person. [For instance, the norm that one ought not to torture people because of their religious or political beliefs is indifferent to place, person, time, or culture. No human being ought ever torture another human being just because the latter subscribes to some or another political or religious belief.] In other words, norms are supposed to hold universally. From what I have said above, it logically follows that violation (or transgressing) some moral norm or the other is immoral (or unethical) and following some moral norm is moral (or ethical).

2. One of the important consequences of §1 is that all norms are universal in scope: that is, it is linguistically and logically impossiible to have a particular norm or a context-dependent norm. Let me just illustrate with an example. Let us consider the norm that “Balu ought to reply to the posts here”. This appears as a particular (or context-dependent) norm. As soon as we ask ‘why’ we see that the chain of arguments leads us very quickly to a universal norm from which this particular norm is derived. Because “authors ought to reply to their readers, where it is possible to do so” or some such thing. (I have skipped the scenario because constructing any such scenario is easy.) This norm applies to all authors (in a position to reply to their readers) independent of their place, time, country or culture. This is what is meant by the universal nature of the norms. The particular norm is justified only because of the universal norm. If and only if the universal norm is justifiable is its derivation also justifiable.

3. When I speak of western ‘normative’ ethics, this is all I have in mind. In one sense, the confusion in the discussion is indicative of our lack of understanding: most of us do not understand this type of ethics. (We do not, that is, have the foggiest of what we are talking about, when we indulge in normative discussions.) At the same time, because the above ideas sound and look very familiar we think we know what we are talking about and, in fact, will go to absurd lengths to show that we know what we are talking about! An ignorance of the issue coupled to the conviction of knowledge of the same issue is the trajectory of discussions with Indians on ethics. It is extremely difficult to make them understand what ‘norms’ are; it is equally difficult to make them understand what ‘norms’ are not. (I shall shortly say why.) Let me begin by rephrasing what I have said in my earlier posts.

4. According to §1, a municipal office or a building contractor is immoral because they violate a moral norm. (‘One shall not take bribes’ or whatever else takes your fancy.) According to western normative ethics, one can be immoral, if and only if one violates some or another moral principle. [What, in this case, that principle is, is totally irrelevant to my discussion. The only requirement that this norm should be universalizable: it must apply at all people in the relevant situation – i.e. all clerks in the world, past, present and future — irrespective of time, place, people, culture, etc.] Otherwise, not.

5. Not only is the phenomenon that we call “corruption” in India immoral but so is the caste system: the latter, because, let us say, it violates the norm that all human beings ought to be treated equal. Therefore, it is simple to condemn both corruption and the caste system as immoral because their existence and practice violate some or another moral norm.

6. If you are with me so far (despite the drastically simplified presentation), I can now answer the following question: “where is the colonial awareness in accepting this ethics?” Let me begin with the following claims: this mode of ethical reasoning is absent in our culture. Even worse (or better!), we cannot formulate norms in the Indian (not just Indian, but let me leave that aside) languages! And further, we cannot even understand the western ethics because we are mapping this onto our Indian (non-normative) ethics. Do not expect me to argue for the truth of any of these claims: they will get taken care of (to some extent) in my book. Even one book is not sufficient to do this.

6.1. Let me begin with an example and an anecdote. The example first. In Indian languages, I claim, there is no equivalent of the “moral ought”. That is, we cannot say one “ought not” kill, one “ought to” respect their parents, the way one can do these in the European languages. In our languages, these sentences have the same structure as “one should not stand up and drink water”, “you should come home today” and such like. How can we know whether the “should” and “should not” (or “must” and “must not”) do not have the same logical and semantic properties in our languages that the moral “ought” and “ought not” have in the European languages? Simple. There exist systems of Deontic Logics (anyone with some understanding of the mathematical model theory can follow them) that very precisely delineate the property and behavior of the moral concepts like ‘forbidden’, ‘obligatory’. That is, we can show that the Indian equivalents do not exhibit this logical and semantic behavior.

6.2. One of the reasons that cultures like India were called ‘immoral’ by the Western thinkers lies here: there is nothing resembling a universal moral norm in our traditions. In the lens of the western culture, it appeared (logically) that all actions are permitted within the Indian culture. Hence the appellation ‘immoral’. This is also the reason why people like Shweder and others transform us into moral imbeciles. (We have not even learnt to formulate the moral norms.)

6.3. However, this does not mean (that is where I would like to go) that the Indian cultures are immoral (or that we are moral imbeciles). I would like to show that non-normative ethics exist (i.e. ethics that works without using or needing norms to make ethical judgments) and that India is one such culture.

6.4. Let me take, as an example, one of the many frustrating discussions I have had with Indians on this subject. All of them have taken objection to my claim in §6.1 and want to ‘show’ that we too have the moral ought. In one such discussion in JNU, here is how one person tried to refute me: “the Hindi word ‘tha’ is the moral ought in Hindi.” (He had, most probably, a sentence like “Aap aiyse nahin karne tha” in mind.) I drew his attention to the fact that ‘tha’ was the past tense for ‘hai’ and that it was not the equivalent of “moral ought” at all.

6.5. Why did he think that this was a counter-example? He confused the ethical force in the above sentence with the structure of the sentence. He thought that I was denying that Indians had ethics, because, he felt, denying a normative language is to deny the possibility of doing ethics in the Indian languages. He was convinced, and probably still is, that he understands what western ethics is because he does ethics in his native language; because he learnt an English language through the medium of his own native language, he has understood the meaning of moral vocabulary in the English language.

6.6. Most (if not all) Indian readers are in this boat. They think they know what moral language in English means because they think they can use it. Actually, they do not understand it: they are talking ‘Indian’ while trying to be an ‘angreji’.

7. We have a colonial experience not only when we think that deva’s are ‘gods’, puja is ‘worship’ etc. We exhibit exactly the same experience when we say that “corruption is rampant in India” or that “the caste system is immoral”. Each and every time we ‘criticise’ the immorality of the Indians, we exhibit this colonization. The tragedy is that we genuinely believe that we are modern, progressive, and reform-minded when we do these things. My hope in writing this article was to force an induced break in this experience. Would this all-too-brief-an-explanation, together with the article bring this about? I await your verdict. Only one request: please, please think about these issues and the article seriously.

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  1. Pingback: Normative Assumptions, Discriminations, and Caste Discriminations – All Roads Lead to Jerusalem!

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