Normative Ethics II

Whenever I discuss the absence of normative ethics in India, people, especially Indians, get agitated. They hear me say that India has no ethics. Consequently, they want to show that I could never be right in my claim. This has happened on the Abhinavagupta forum as well.

Perhaps, I should say that the Indian understanding of ethics is different from the western understanding. While this might prevent a knee-jerk reflex, it is not quite so informative.

If we want to test whether Indian ethics is normative in nature or not, a simple test is available. It is a linguistic test. However, to understand the significance of this test, one needs to know something about western ethics as well.

1. In all western theories of morality, a moral statement has the following characteristic logical and linguistic form: One `ought’ to do something (i.e. one is `morally obliged’ to do something); one `ought not’ to do something (i.e. one is `morally forbidden’ to do something); one might either do something or not do it (i.e. it is `morally permissible’ to do something). Or, some action is either `morally obligatory’ or `morally forbidden’ or `morally permissible’. Put in compressed terms: a moral statement involves a norm expressed by the `moral ought’.

2. Consider statements of the following nature: You `should not’ do something; you `must not’ do something; you `need not’ do something; you `shall not’ do something, etc. These kinds of statements do not express a moral norm, whatever else they express. In fact, in some contexts, one defends these statements by using a moral `ought’: (a) You cannot (or should not) simply go around killing people; (b) why not? (c) Because you `ought not’ to kill people. Or again (a) you should not (or must not) torture people; (b) why not? (c) Because one ought not to torture people. And so on.

In other words, there is a difference between how `should not’ and `must not’ function (both logically and linguistically), and how the moral `ought’ functions in statements.

3. In the course of the previous century, philosophers and logicians have spent a lot of effort and ink on understanding the way the `moral ought’ behaves both logically and linguistically. There is a sub-branch of logic, called the “deontic logic”, which looks at the logical behavior of the `moral ought’. These logics analyze the meaning of the `moral ought’ by looking at the derivable moral theorems. For instance, it is capable of answering the question “Does `ought’ imply `can'”? That is, if something is morally obligatory, does it imply that one can also fulfill the obligation? And so on.

4. In very simple terms, what we know today about ethics tells us the following: there is a difference between obligations and forbiddances that are non-moral in nature, and those that are moral. One can specify what these differences are by saying which theorems are derivable by using the `moral ought’. For example, legal obligations have a different force and character than moral obligations, even where such legal obligations are defended on moral grounds. (For instance, one might defend the legal obligation to pay taxes by ultimately appealing to the moral obligation that one `ought’ to obey the sovereign.) One could also defend legal obligations by providing pragmatic justifications. For instance, the special prosecutor’s argument in indicting `Scooter’ Libby was one such: truth is the engine of the justice system; Libby did not tell the truth; therefore, he hindered the functioning of the justice system. Hence the charge of obstruction of justice. Why should justice not be obstructed? In the process of answering this question, we enter the moral domain. However, the special prosecutor does not raise or answer this question and says that the law forbids it. As far as he is concerned, this is all that is required: contravention of the law.

5. So, if we want to argue for the existence of the `moral ought’ in the Indian traditions (and thus show that normative ethics exists in India), then one should be able to point out the existence of a word which plays that role. Here is my challenge to those who claim that the Indian ethics is also normative: kindly show which word (in our languages) plays this role. It is all well and good to speak of the Mimasa tradition or advice people to go and do ethnography in the villages, but these claims or advices do not constitute proof. It is my thesis that such a `moral ought’ is absent in the Indian languages.

Once, while giving a talk at the JNU in Delhi, one of the students there (who also exhibited the knee-jerk reflex) came up with the following gem: in Hindi, he said, `tha’ (as in `aap aise nahin karma tha’) is the `moral ought’. When I told him `tha’ is the past tense of `hain’ and that it is not equivalent to the `moral ought’ (and asked him to prove that), he did not discuss any further. It is obvious that he was confusing the ethical force of that statement with a normative statement.

The claim I make is this: in none of the Indian languages (I know only a few), is it possible to distinguish (either logically or linguistically) between the following statements: you `must not’ do something (in certain contexts, it also takes the form of you `should not’ do something) and you `ought not’ to do something. That is to say, our so-called ethical statements do not have a word that plays the role of the moral `ought’. If we had normative ethics, then our languages should contain a word that does what the moral `ought’ does.

6. As I just said, I know only a few languages. People on this board know other languages. I would be grateful if someone could provide me with a word that exhibits the logical and linguistic properties that the `moral ought’ has. Then my thesis is false, and I will not speak further about my book on ethics.

7. Of course, my arguments about the nature of Indian ethics are not based on the mere absence of some words in the Indian languages. These absences are merely indices; they cannot and do not constitute proof on their own.

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