Absolutism, moral

If you have listened to Michael Sandel's Justice: What's the right thing to do - a video recording of his extremely popular class at Harvard, so popular that it takes place in an auditorium - you will know that one of the primary conflicts he deals with is the one between Kant's categorical imperative and Mill/Bentham's utilitarianism. Kant said some things are intrinsically wrong - say killing an innocent human being or telling a lie. Bentham and Mill on the other hand argued that what's right depends on the impact that action will have. Thus not saving the life of one person is okay, if you have a choice between saving that one person and saving five. I got a feeling that Sandel didn't approve so much of utilitarianism, going by the examples he gave, suggesting that utilitarianism in effect meant cost-benefit analysis. And, you can't assign value to human lives.

I always imagined Gandhi to be pragmatist and Tagore an idealist - and therefore, Gandhi would be more sympathetic towards utilitarianism - or in this specific post, consequentialism; and Tagore more sympathetic towards categorical imperative. But I read about an incident (narrated by Amartya Sen in his book The Argumentative Indian) that made me change my mind.
On one occassion when Gandhi visited Tagore's school at Shantiniketan, a young woman got him to sign her autograph book. Gandhi wrote, “Never make a promise in haste. Having once made it, fulfil it at the cost of your life.” When he saw this entry, Tagore became agitated. He wrote in the same book a Bengali poem to the effect that no one can be made 'a prisoner forever with a chain of clay' He went on to conclude in English possibly so that Gandhi could read it too 'Fling away your promise if it is found to be wrong.'
Now, if you read Gandhi's statement, you will notice that it's more than categorical imperative. He doesnt merely say it's wrong to break promises, he says always fulfil it even at the cost of your life. That is absolutism (and the always do, differentiates it from deontological view / categorical imperative.

In our culture there are examples of moral absolutists. Harishchandra never spoke a lie, causing enormous suffering to his family members and to himself.  No wonder Harishchandra was a idol of Gandhi. Religious texts tend to go by this view. In Bible, we know see how Abraham was all set to sacrifice his own son - to absolutely follow God's command. There are no if's and buts in Ten Commandments Thou shalt not murder; Thou shalt not commit adultery and so on. It's a bit different from ethics lessons in India - which is often told through stories.  Or through very contextual rules, like AK Ramanujam says in his lecture Is there an Indian way of thinking?

Absolute, the

If you are familiar with Indian philosophy, you probably know about the Absolute.

It's the paramatma (as against, in some schools, jeevatma), it's that (as against this), it's the universal (as against the specific).

It's sat, chit and ananda - being, awareness and bliss.

It's Nirgunam, Niranjanam, Sanathanam, Niketanam, Nitya, Shuddha, Buddha, Mukta, Nirmala Swarupinam (attributeless, pure, final abode, eternal, unsullied, enlightened, free and embodiment of sacredness.)

It's ekam, eva, advitiam. One, only one, and not two.

My Oxford companion says.

The absolute is not conditioned by, relative to or dependent on anything else. It simply is.

It's unitary, spiritual and self-knowing.

It contrasts - like I did in the second sentence - the Absolute with the Individual.

But, I guess at one level the differences don't exist. Tat vam asi. (That thou art) Ayam atma Brahma. (The individual and the Absolute are verily the same)


Puurnnam-Adah Puurnnam-Idam Puurnnaat-Purnnam-Udacyate
Puurnnashya Puurnnam-Aadaaya Puurnnam-Eva-Avashissyate

To western philosophy, the idea - or at least the word - seems to have come a little too late. It was introduced by Schelling and Hegel.

Absolute idealists such as Josiah Royce, an American philosopher who came to philosophy via history; and FH Bradley, a British philosopher heavily influenced by German philosophers such as - yeah -  Schelling and Hegel


Purvi Patel, an Indian-born woman from Indiana, US was sentenced to 20 years in prison for feticide.

Patel's account of what happened went like this. 23 weeks into pregnancy, she suffered a miscarriage, and the child - a girl - was still born. Patel was bleeding profusely, got panicky, deposited the corpse in a dumpster, and rushed to hospital. And things got worse from there.

In the hospital, she told the doctors what happened. Doctors reported the incident to the police. Patel was arrested, tried for murder, and was convicted.

The prosecution's argument was this. Patel illegally induced an abortion: she had discussed with a friend about buying a pill online, ordered it (while buying it with doctor's prescription is legal, ordering it online isn't) - and possibly took it. According to the law,  doing that amounts to killing - even if the foetus survives. The prosecution also argued that the baby was still alive at birth. One of the tests it cited to establish that went like this. Drop the child's lung into water. If it sinks it had taken at least one breath, and therefore was alive after birth. Either way, Patel had no chance.

Purvi is single and got pregnant through a colleague with whom she had an affair. Even though this doesn't implicate her, my guess is it played a role in the decision.

After Patel's conviction, her supporters raised a number of issues. They questioned the method used to conclude that the baby was alive at birth. Apparently the sink test is old and has been discredited. They pointed out that there was no trace of the abortion inducing drug in the blood. It was a miscarriage of justice, they said.

What's interesting is the broader arguments that the sentence triggered. One was about how immigrants get legally harassed in the US. In fact, the only other time a woman was charged similarly, also involved another Asian woman. She tried committing suicide when she was pregnant. She survived. But the baby perished. And she was charged.

The other theme was around women's liberty. The freedom to do what a woman wants to do with her body. So, it's not antiabortion vs pro-abortion, but it is anti-abortion Vs pro-choice.  You would have noticed that pro-choice argument assumes that the foetus is not separate from mother - and therefore doesn't have a life of its own. So, there is no question of killing someone.

The anti-abortion camp questions this assumption. They ask, at what point does a fertilized egg, a collection of cells become human? It's a tough question to answer, because we actually don't know the answer.  It's a bit like bald man's paradox. Suppose a man is full of hair, losing one strand of hair is not going to make any difference. So, at what point does he actually become bald? Only, you can be half bald, but you can't have half a life.

One can of course argue that the cells get life on birth. But, it's not a good argument. First, there is some evidence - at least for those who grew up in my tradition, hearing stories about Abhimanyu and any number of folk lores; and for those who have heard stories from pregnant women and fathers to be - that the child in the womb has life. Second, even if you discount these, consider premature babies, kids who come out before their due. Should we take it that they are alive and the more developed foetus in mother's womb don't.

Another way to decide on this is whether there is a chance that the child would survive - the viability of a fertilised egg. The viability however has little to do with the child itself, and more to do with the medical facilities in a locality. It's a good information to have to find out whether a child would survive - but not to decide whether a child should survive.

Another equally dangerous territory to get into is to say forget when the fertilized egg gets life - and ask what does it mean to be human in first place. For, the premise on which we oppose abortion is that it is not right to kill an innocent human. So, what does it mean to be human? Should you be a self aware, reasoning, knowing person to be called human? Narrow definitions such as these might help you arrive at some answer - but not without raising many more questions.


Imagine you are in a train, sitting in your corner, and doing your stuff. And then you notice three or four people having a heated conversation - except there is absolutely no sound from that side. They are arguing in sign language - and you start feeling uncomfortable, you try to make out what they are talking, and you cannot because you don't know the sign language. You look again, they seem to be not only having heated conversation, they are also obviously enjoying it. And you get irritated. Or imagine you are inside a mall, in a shop, and the stuff you are looking for is a few shelves away, but in between you and the shelf there is a woman in a wheelchair. You can of course pass her, but it would have been better if nothing had come between you and the object of your desire - certainly not a person in a wheelchair.  And you wonder why people on wheelchair should come to shop, or why these shops allow wheelchairs inside, causing so much trouble for others. Beware. You are practicing ableism. Ableism is prejudice against doing things the way disabled people do - like using a sign language, reading a brail or going in wheel chair.

I wonder the impact this has on the disabled. Do they also get to share the prejudice? Ved Mehta, despite being blind, refused to wear glasses or carry a stick. Was it to protect himself against prejudice? His books and essays give no clue that he is blind - they describe how one looks, how one walks, how one smiles. You will even find him settling down in couch to read a book. Does ableism infect even the disabled? 

Abelard, Peter

Peter Abelard lived a very exciting life, I wonder why no one made a movie out of it.  He travels miles to go to Paris to be with and learn philosophy under his master. And after that, he fights and defeats him in a debate. He falls in love with a girl, writes passionate love letters to her - incidentally for which he is better know than his philosophy. He gets himself embroiled in the politics of religion - runs to Pope for justice - only to be outrun by his rival. And finally cared to by his friend as his health gradually failed and he died.

Like many philosophers he had points of view on a lot of things. Let me focus on just two - because that's what The Oxoford Companion to Philosophy, my guide for this series, focusses on.

The problem of universals. Are universals real? Is there something called - since Salman Khan is in news these days - Being Human? One can understand that Salman Khan as an individual exists. And Shahrukh Khan as an individual is real. The problem comes when we talk about the attribute they share - that of humanness. If humanness is real - how can it be in two places? Why can't it be in two places, I don't know, but philosophers argue over it. Realists say, humanness is real. There are two counterviews to it. Conceptualists or idealists - say that the humanness is only in the mind, as an idea. And nominalists dismiss that too - saying it exists only as a name. Abelard was a nominalist.

The second problem is problem of omniscience and free will. Did God, who knows everything, know that Salman Khan - in his drunken rage and carelessness - would run over a poor man sleeping in a footpath in Mumbai. (Now I am beginning to think, this is probably not a very good example, but since I started with Salman let me proceed). If he knew SK would run him over, did SK have an opportunity to exercise his freewill.

Or take another example, suppose I ask you to choose, exercise your free will and without any fear or favour choose - between red pill and blue pill. You are still thinking about it. Meanwhile, I know - I am not taking a bet, I am not assessing probabilities based on what I know about you - I actually know that you are going to take red pill. And then you take red pill, thinking that you made a decision. You thought you made a decision, but how come I knew about it even earlier. Probably, you didn't make the decision. Probably, you just did what you were destined to do. And I knew that because I knew what you were destined to do.

Now, since God knows everything, do we have free will at all.

I don't know what exactly Abelard's reasoning is - but he believed that God can know, and you can exercise your free will at the same time. God knows - because that's his nature - how you will exercise your free will - because you have the freedom to act.


Here's Sherlok Holmes, practicing the science of deduction, in a rather intense scene from the movie.

And here's Inspector Jacques Clouseau locking horns with his rival/partner in Pink Panther 2. 

They call it the science of deduction. Yet, there is an interesting technical term to describe what Holmes and Clouseau did in these scenes. It's called abduction or Inference to the Best Explanation. Or simply, educated guess.

It's hard to prove it beyond doubt - like Jean d'Arc realises in this scene.

And yet, everyone resorts to abductive reasoning day in and day out. For example, at your office, you hear that there is a nasty fight between two friends in the sales team. And then a few days later you find them having lunch together, joking about this and that. And you conclude that they have made up with each other. That's abductive reasoning.  Or you find the shutters down at one of the eateries you have gone to, almost always, finding yourself to be the only customer - and you guess they have shut shop. That's abduction again - for there could be a few other explanations why it was closed on that particular day. In both these cases, your arguments are not bullet proof. Yet, of all the causes you can attribute to the event you saw, what your conclusion would best explain your observation.

No one talks about abduction without referring to a man named Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce's contribution to philosophy, maths, logic, statistics, research methodology is huge, and some of is works are considered to be the foundation of pragmatism, that he is referred to as the 'father of pragmatism'. He seems to have lived in a time that didn't care too much about pragmatism. He was kicked out of Johns Hopkins university because he lived and travelled with a person he was not married to. Only, his first wife had left him, and he soon got involved with another woman before getting a divorce. His adversary complained to the university. Starting a sentence with 'for all practical purposes...' probably didn't work in those days. We are digressing. But, let us record the fact that it was Peirce who introduced this term to philosophy, even if the idea had been around already.

And one more thing about abduction, that evokes Bayesian approach to finding things out. Bayesian approach simply states this: keep updating as you get more information. Thus abductive reasoning and Bayesian inference are about forming an hypothesis based on available evidence, and being willing to update as more information come in. Or as Keynes once said: When facts change, I change my mind. What about you, sir?


Jean Paul Sartre says you can't trust God to tell you what's the right thing to do - for he doesn't believe in God; nor can you trust in an universal law - which he thinks is just a compromise intellectuals arrived at to reject God, and yet keep His laws. For him existence came before essence.

So, is there anything called moral authority at all? Nothing beyond us, he says.

This realisation, that you can't depend on God or universal value to act morally, is he says abandonment. You are in effect abandoned by the two valid sources of moral authority. It's not that they existed before. He uses the term the way Friedrich Nietzsche said, God is dead. He didn't believe God existed, but just that the illusion got shattered.

Reading Sartre's arguments against critics of existentialists is a bit like being listening to a person who mistook you for someone else. (And if you are not sure who you are, you might even think you are that 'other' person. A lamb, which is not sure if it's a lamb or a wolf, getting lectured about not killing and eating other lambs, might start thinking of itself as a wolf.)

Reading a couple of pieces on abandonment, I found myself agreeing to some parts of his argument. Yes, I also believe that the source of moral authority is within - conscience. I remember a conversation with my master.

His question: 'what's bad?'.

My answer wasn't exactly insightful, or deep or well thought out, for I replied, 'Whatever is not good is bad'?

Then, what's good?

Whatever our conscience says is good?

That's true. But, there are is also true and false conscience. False conscience might mislead you.

How to differentiate between the two?

When your heart tells you go to a temple, or go to college or home, do you feel afraid?


When you heart tells you, go to a bazaar or to a movie (when you should be in the university), do you feel afraid?

Yes, I do.

That's how you differentiate. True conscience is clear, it's not accompanied by fear. False conscience on the other hand, is accompanied by fear.

I nodded my head, and he threw one more sentence, before moving on to another topic: "There is also one more thing, guilty consciousness."

Those words led me to some kind of existential angst. For, even signals from true conscience can be distorted by guilt. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that knowing what's right is not a easy matter. But, this much I could figure out, the responsibility of distinguishing signal from the noise is mine and mine alone.

That's what Sartre seemed to be saying.  "For the decipherment of the sign, however, he bears the entire responsibility. That is what “abandonment” implies, that we ourselves decide our being." - Existentialism Is a Humanism.

The despair - "It merely means that we limit ourselves to a reliance upon that which is within our wills, or within the sum of the probabilities which render our action feasible" -  that's supposed to follow abandonment seems to have nishkamya karma ring to it.  I might be wrong, but I haven't come to that point yet.

In any case, I am personally able to reconcile existence of God and conscience as a source of moral authority. Why can't Sartre do it? I can see he came to this position starting somewhere else, but still I wonder.