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?






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