Norm, utilitarian ought, Patanjali

1. Assume that India (or any other society) does not have an ethics. What would happen? Surely, if ethics has something to do with coordinating human actions, we know of several ways to do the same without taking recourse to ethical thinking: laws, rules (like those in games), agreements, pacts, covenants, … are some of the candidates.

2. Assume that India does not know of normative ethics. So, what is wrong with this state of affairs? If something is wrong, what kind of ‘wrong’ are we talking about here?

3. If it is the case that ethical thinking is not an innate biological capacity that allows us to recognize the morally right and the morally wrong, we need to teach human beings to become ethical. Any and every such teaching process has to take recourse to language to do so. Consequently, ethical talk must be recognizable as ethical talk. Is it? If yes, what is the distinguishing mark of the ‘ethical’ talk?

4. Are all obligations and forbiddances normative in nature? For instance, there is the legal obligation or the moves forbidden in a chess game. Are they too normative in nature? If yes, are they ethical as well? If no, what else are they?

Usage of ‘norm’

Let me first of all say that I am not developing a hypothesis to account for how the word ‘norm’ is used in the English language. Ordinary usage of the word is at best evidence (to a theory) and at worst wrong or irrelevant. In the best case, such use is evidence for a hypothesis or a theory. In that case, what is the hypothesis that is being put forward to which the use of the word ‘norm’ in the English language is evidence to? Surely, no hypothesis about the nature of Indian ethics can be supported by looking at how people use the word ‘norm’ when they speak or write in English. Rules, etiquettes, averages (I assume you are talking about the notion of ‘normal’), might or might not have a binding or compelling force. But you need something extra if you want to say that they are “experienced as an ‘ought'”. To argue this, you need to clarify the nature of the binding or compelling force that is typical of the ‘moral ought’. Subsequently, after having some story about how injunctions, rules, etiquette, etc. also have the same binding or compelling force, you can try to say that they also share ‘something’ of the ‘moral ought’. Until one can argue this, this reference to language use cuts no ice. It must be obvious why: while jumping down from a height, one also experiences a “binding and compelling force”, namely, the gravitational force. That does not suffice to make this force into a moral force analogous to the ‘moral ought’, does it?

Calling Western ethics ‘normative’

Is there a problem in temporarily reserving the term ‘normative’ to the western ethics alone? It might not have been a problem, if the challenge did not consist of precisely the thesis that suggests that one of the distinctions between the Indian ethics and the Western morality has to do with the ‘moral ought’. So, one of the proponents in the debate will have to ‘prove’ that the Indian ethics is also (or not at all) normative in nature


It is not sufficient that Patanjali says that some rules are to be followed regardless of jati, country, time or social conventions to make it into a moral obligation: he requires to say that these rules ‘ought’ (a moral ought) to be followed. This moral ‘ought’ has logical properties, which deontic logics investigate. One could say that ‘Hindu Ethics’ ranks outcomes and thus make them appear on par with utilitarianism. But the utilitarian ‘ought’ functions the way deontic logic makes us expect the ‘moral ought’ behaves

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