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Moral Catastrophes and Immoral Reasoning
By S.Subramanian*
Source: South Asia Citizens Wire Dispatch #2 | 18 May 2002

In the aftermath of the dreadful carnage in Gujarat, and in the course of the continuing violence witnessed in that State, many people have spoken out against these terrible happenings in loud, clear voices of pain, anger, and denunciation. Ordinary citizens, activists, political parties, the media, scholars, professionals - all of these agencies have joined their voices against the forces that seek legitimacy for state-abetted communal pogroms, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. Every one of these voices that has spoken, when we have not, deserves our humble acknowledgement and gratitude. For it is thanks to these voices that we now have at least an audible murmur in place of the deafening silence that might so easily have come to pass if there had been universal subscription to the sort of moral reasoning that seems to mediate the refined quietness of such large sections of the literate upper middle class population of this country. It is of this silence from this quarter that I wish to speak: the silence that informs ordinary conversation among friends and acquaintances; the silence of large chunks of the regional written media; the silence of influential men and women in public affairs; the silence of academic institutions which one might have expected to serve as "natural" sources of principled and intellectual opposition to wrong-doing.

It would be helpful if this essay could be seen as being directed at, rather than against, these sources of silence, not least because this essay is in some measure an exercise in talking to oneself, in addressing a problem of which the author is himself a part rather than outside of it. Despite this caveat, it will not be surprising if what is on offer ends up attracting those strictures that are specially reserved for the sins of didacticism and preachiness. But the matter at hand is too important for one to shrink from the prospect of being called moralistic: it's a small price to pay in the face of the mor(t)al horrors that confront us today. Apart from which, there might, after all, be something to be said for suspending judgment on who is, and who is not, really guilty of self-righteousness: there's just the possibility that those who see their silence as a principled refusal to be holier-than-thou are persistently judging you for judging without the humility that so thoroughly informs their own modest quietness.

In conversations with friends, neighbours, acquaintances, one perceives a certain self-conscious effort at avoiding the topic of Gujarat. Not that there is any particular virtue, seen in the light of sufficient intervention, in talking of the subject. It's just that - as a matter of necessary involvement-unless there's some persistent engagement with the subject, in thought and in speech, it's hard to see one's way to any sort of meaningful intervention in the matter. If the topic should still be determinedly insinuated into the conversation, a commonly encountered piece of reasoning for not pursuing it further assumes the following form: "What's the good of talking about it? Where's the point? One's views are not going to make the least difference to what's happening. (Pause). Are you going to stick around during the vacation?" There are two grand traditions in moral reasoning: the consequentialist tradition, and the de-ontic tradition.

In terms of the first system, actions are judged according to their consequences. In terms of the second, actions are judged not according to their consequences but according to prior moral principles of obligation and onus. Utilitarianism is an example of a consequentialist philosophy: that action is to be commended, according to this philosophy, which brings about the consequence of a higher sum total of utility for the members of a society. Moses' Ten Commandments, and Kant's "categorical moral imperatives", are examples of de-ontic systems of moral thought: the commandments and imperatives place constraints on one's actions not from any consequentialist line of reasoning, but from foundational considerations of right conduct. Whether or not we are self-consciously aware of it, much of our own moral reasoning is guided by some combination of consequentialist and de-ontic considerations. It's a matter of some importance to be clear about which line of reasoning we choose to invoke under what circumstances. When someone says "What's the good of talking about Gujarat?", s/he is invoking a consequentialist argument. This strikes me as being thoroughly misplaced. One does not talk about Gujarat because it may (or may not) do any "good": one engages with the subject because it is right to do so, or at any rate, because it would be wrong to avoid it wholesale. It's no thanks to people who ask "What's the good of voting?" that this country, despite all its monstrous iniquities and imperfections, is still something of a functioning democracy. The disabled old lady who has to be carried on her son's back over a distance of twenty kilometers under a scorching sun to the polling booth casts her vote because it's her right and her duty to do so, not because she believes in the silly superstition (which it would be natural to associate with her benighted status of illiterate ignorance) that her one solitary vote from among a few hundred million votes is going to make any blessed difference at the margin. Her example is a humbling one, and should appeal in particular to the humility of those who, apart from the consequentialist futility of speaking up, are also seized, as a justification for their silence, by the de-ontic principle that commands: "Thou shalt not judge." Not judge when what's at stake is state-supported killing and lynching of targeted communities? Even a die-hard supporter of de-ontological ethics like the American philosopher Robert Nozick has conceded that de-ontic reasoning must yield place to consequentialist reasoning in the face of what he calls "moral catastrophes." By employing consequentialist categories when de-ontic ones are more apposite to the issue at hand, and, contrariwise, de-ontic principles when consequentialist ones are in order, there's a fine confusion of the logic of morality on display in arriving at the decision that silence is an acceptable option to implement. Additionally, and in the interests of consistency, if it's in order to ask "What's the good of talking about Gujarat?", it should also be in order to ask "What's the good of not doing so?" As far as I can tell, the "good" would reside in the saving of a little bit of private bother, some personal inconvenience. There's a certain dull lack of nobility in this "good" which one must be forgiven for finding less than wholly inspiring.

A second line of argumentation is that of the "realist school" which invites you to see the facts of life, a machismo acceptance of which will convince you of the embarrassingly pathetic exhibition of blubbery idealism you are guilty of when you breathe recrimination and demand rectification. Specifically, it is out of court, in this view, to condemn the DMK and the Trinamool Congress for voting with the Government in the Lok Sabha, to criticize the AIADMK for abstaining, and to find fault with the TDP for staging an opportunistic walk-out after days of "will-they, won't-they?" teasing. There are two strands to this line of reasoning: first, it could be ill-judged to castigate political parties without a sufficient appreciation of their political compulsions; and second, what about the rest of the opposition? - it's not as if they're acting the way they are for reasons of purity of heart, rather than in order to make political capital out of what has happened in Gujarat. I'll try and take the two strands in order. I don't believe there's anything particularly hard-nosed, street-savvy, or man-of-the-world-ish in understanding the political compulsions of political parties. The calculus of cynicism is transparent enough and simple enough for a child to grasp. No elaborate lectures are really required to explain why political parties have acted the way they have. But in moral reasoning I believe there is a strong case for differentiating between reason as causation and reason as justification. If a political party with a strong tradition of rationalism and social justice decides to go with the Government on the Gujarat issue, it requires no great cerebral feat to infer that considerations of political survival have inspired the decision. One can see reason as causation readily enough. One cannot even begin to see reason as justification, though. It doesn't make it right, or acceptable, or deserving of sympathetic understanding that the political party acted as it did because its own strategies of survival dictated that it should so act. The gradual and often-times unconscious assimilation of reason as causation into the category of reason as justification has a dangerous proclivity for blurring the distinction between fact and evaluation. This just will not do. I recall an incident involving my late friend S.Guhan, who could be accused of many things, but not the vice of being impractical or wanting in a pragmatic appreciation of the world and its ways. After receiving a host of predictable and commonplace criticisms regarding the political feasibility of a social security package he had proposed at a seminar, he responded thus: "Someone has to do something for the silent poor. We are not talking of what the politicians are likely to do. It is obviously because they are not likely to do it that I thought it was the responsibility of academics to press for it." No, I cannot pretend to feel under an obligation to see it from the perspective of the politician as s/he is presently constituted; to the contrary, I feel under an obligation not to see it from that perspective.

The second strand of the argument. Because I condemn the DMK, etc., does not mean I'm a Congress-wallah or a CPM supporter. There are plenty of sticks to beat these political parties with, and no doubt they should be wielded at the appropriate time and in the appropriate context. But I should see it as being worse than diversionary to question these parties' purity of heart and nobility of intent at this juncture, however little faith I may have in either. Such an undifferentiated assault is irrelevant in the present context, and muddies the prospect of uniting forces against an evil that both cries out to be swiftly stopped in its tracks and cannot possibly be tolerated The plain fact of the matter (and it's a wonder that it has been missed by the realists!) is that the battle lines were drawn in Parliament following on a clear division of positions with respect to a matter of profound importance for the security of a subset of this country's citizens: it just so happens that the Opposition - whatever its intrinsic character-was on the side of the angels. Under these proximate circumstances, where one is faced by a referendum-like situation, I should be inclined to reserve my disapprobation for those who went along with the Government, without being starry-eyed about those went against it. One may be no votary of the Congress Party, but this fact need not in any way diminish one's disgust at the Defense Minister's view that, contrary to the stories that were being bruited, Gujarat was not the first instance of pregnant women having their foetuses plucked out of their wombs to be thrown into the fire. Finally, in respect of both strands of the "realist school's" argument, it is instructive not to forget what the stakes are. These, to repeat, are state-supported genocide and ethnic cleansing. In brief: a moral catastrophe.

A third line of reasoning has to do with the perceived wisdom of not taking issues like Gujarat too "personally": it's the sort of thing that can jeopardize objectivity, compromise stability, and lead to harsh and hasty judgment. A cautious silence, in this view, is dictated by preserving a distance that lends perspective. Is there substance in the view that some people have taken the matter too "personally"? Yes. And No. Yes, in the sense that moral reasoning cannot be bereft of a sense of "selfhood": this theme constitutes an important part of Robert Bolt's play of Sir Thomas More, and I can do worse than quote him from his preface to A Man For All Seasons: "Š [T]hough few of us have anything in ourselves like an immortal soul which we regard as absolutely inviolable, yet most of us still feel something which we should prefer, on the whole, not to violate. Š I think the paramount gift our thinkers, artists, and for all I know, our men of science, should labour to get for us is a sense of selfhood Š". It is this sense of selfhood that drives More to opposition of Henry's desire for a divorce from Catherine: `And what would you do with a water spaniel that was afraid of water? You'd hang it! Well, as a spaniel is to water, so is a man to his own self. I will not give in because I oppose it - I do - not my pride, not my spleen, nor any other of my appetites but I do - I!' Yes, it's intimately personal in this sense. And yet, also wholly impersonal, because the notion of selfhood is being urged on every sentient agent as a universal, practical prescription for right conduct. Our selves cannot but be welded together, in a union of the personal and the universal, when we stare a moral catastrophe like Gujarat in the face.

A fourth sort of justification for silence resides in placing a great distance between the perpetrators of the Gujarat crimes and oneself: the former do not represent the latter, and there can be no question of taking responsibility for the inconceivably monstrous acts of people that one has never had any truck with. It seems to me that there are two sorts of response that are in order here. The first has to do with the notion that whatever the (real or imagined) distance between the perpetrators of the Gujarat outrage and oneself, there can be no such distance between the victims of that outrage and oneself. The Muslim minorities that have been stabbed and torched and driven out of their homes are our brothers and sisters: they are ours to defend and to protect; and considerations of solidarity with them in their horrifying predicament require us to speak up, for reasons of the rightness of assuming responsibility, even if not necessarily guilt. A second response is that fighting the forces of evil is not most effectively done by perceiving an incalculable distance between those forces and ourselves: they are not as far from us as we may comfortably assume, and the danger of silence is the danger of being eventually assimilated into that evil. As Chesterton's protagonist Father Brown puts it: " There are two ways of renouncing the devilŠ One is to have a horror of him because he is so far off; and the other to have it because he is so nearŠ. You think of [a crime] as something like an eruption of Vesuvius; but that would not really be so terrible as this house catching fire." There is reason to forfeit the complacence of a silence fathered by the imagined distance between oneself and a moral catastrophe around one: the reason is the message of William Golding's Lord of the Flies, in which the boy Simon dies trying to save his friends with the discovery of the truth that "the Beast is in us."

A fifth, and rather more sinsister, reason for silence is a gradual accession to the relentlessly insidious thesis that has infiltrated the public consciousness, the thesis which suggests that radical thought and a secular outlook have systematically eroded the legitimate rights of the majority community, and paved the way for a natural (even if slightly regrettable) reprisal such as has been witnessed in Gujarat. A recent example of this nauseating variety of "reasoning" offers the view that the persistent attempt at seeing society as being dominated by "upper classes" and "upper castes" has driven good and moderate Hindus like C.Rajagopalachari out of the political reckoning, to be replaced by phenomena like Narendra Modi; such divisiveness on the part of radicals and secularists has driven otherwise nationalistic members of the "upper classes and castes" to seek employment with multinational companies or abroad; and more along the same lines - the idea being that Gujarat and allied happenings are an inevitable culmination of the excesses of a certain kind of politics that has stretched the tolerance of the majority community beyond endurance. The message is quite clear: Oliver Twist had it coming to him, and rightly, when he asked for more; and if you will not brook the iniquities of the caste, class and communal divisions of this country, just wait and see how much worse it can and will get. The wages of resisting moral injustice are moral catastrophes - which you, and you alone, will have brought down upon your heads. This is substantially the position that was recently chillingly underlined by the RSS, and echoed (despite the subsequent "clarifications", for which he has now become famous) in his warning to `jehadi' Muslims issued in Goa by the Prime Minister of this country. I confess myself unable to respond to this form of "argumentation"; the problem I confront is a very elementary one, namely, that in this line of "moral reasoning", there is neither morality nor reason to contend with.

There is a sixth reason for silence: quiet celebration, amongst certain quarters, of the Gujarat bloodbath. This is the most horrifying moral catastrophe of all.

* The author is a Chennai-based social scientist.