Friday, June 26, 2009

Balagangadhara; the 'Ethical' in Ethical Monotheism; Normative Ethics as colonial leverage; native culture falsely problematized as deviant from norm

[[[[ The following are excerpts from the works of the well-known theorist of Comparative Culture, Prof. S. N. Balagangadhara.

These excerpts argue for a Greek 'philosophical' origin of Normativity. 'Abrahamic' Monotheism uses Normativity to falsely problematize target native cultures as "immoral," "degraded," "fallen," and so on. ]]]]

Regarding the first issue. Yes, I do think that there is a *fundamental divide* between these two cultures as to the nature of the ethical domain. This forum is not the place to argue for it: in a book I have almost completed, I show what this difference is. Very briefly put: the structure of western ethical thinking is ‘normative’ in nature. (That means to say, it makes use of ethical categories like ‘obligatory’, ‘forbidden’ and ‘permissible’ to evaluate actions. Or that the ‘moral ought’ is central to its talk about morality.) By contrast, the Indian ethics is ‘non-normative’. There is no distinction between the ‘normative’ and the ‘factual’ statements in our culture, whereas it is fundamental to the western intellectual thinking. (For example, the scientific statements are seen to be ‘factual’ whereas the ethical statements are said to be ‘normative’ in nature.) You are right, therefore, in sensing that this divide is the backbone to my argument in the passage you cite. This divide, however, is not a simple ‘postulation’ from my side but one based on arguments and evidence which, as I have already said, are not presented in this article. nature.)
1. Are Western traditions innately richer because they have the moral ought?

My answer: No. In fact, in my book on ethics I will prove the following: the non-normative ethics are richer: Under specific assumptions, in limited conditions, one can derive a normative ethics from a non-normative one. The relation between non-normative ethics and normative ethics is analogous to the relation between Einsteinian theory and Newtonian theory: under specific assumptions, in limited conditions, you can derive the Newtonian theory from the Einsteinian theory.
“This absence of the terminology to talk about ethics differentiates the Indian traditions from the Greek culture. That is to say, there is a difference in kind between the Greek ethics and the Indian ethics: one had the words to talk about it, whereas the other does not. Secondly, this difference has some significance regarding the 'reflective' thinking that VL is supposed to exemplify. How is it possible to reason and think about ethics, when you do not even have the words in which to do so? Obviously, you cannot. That is, there is a second kind of difference too, a consequence of the first: the Indian culture did not have the ability to reason and think about ethics. (That is why VL provides “a mosaic-like picture of feelings, attitudes and thoughts”.) Thirdly, if this is the difference that separates Indians from their Greek (or Roman) counterparts, even though coming after the Greeks by almost by a thousand years, the Indian thinkers are at the lower rung of the moral ladder: the Indians (of about a thousand years ago), followed by the Greeks (more than two thousand five hundred years ago), and then the contemporary moral philosophy. There is, however, a degree of difference between the Greeks and the contemporary moral philosophy: the latter is 'more' reflective than the former. [/B] (Pp.96-97)
It is important to note that Ancient Greek, for example, introduced not only the word 'ethica'. The same culture also gave us many substantial treatises on that subject, the most well-known of which is Aristotle's Ethica Nicomachea. If the Indian text, composed around 650- 1200 years ago, does not even have a word for that phenomenon called 'ethics', how could it be an ethical tract at all? It cannot. Hence the reason why the authors discover that the “text does not contain one single general rule stated in the prescriptive mode. General rule of conduct may easily be derived from various statements, but it is significant that the rules are not formulated as such. … The statements are written in the evaluative rather than the normative mode” (p.95). [[[ the author is referring to the Indian text here ]]]

How can one speak about 'ancient' India, when one is talking about a text composed during the 'middle ages'? Here, 'antiquity' does not have a particular time-frame as its reference. Instead, it is civilizational: compared to the 'ancient Greeks' (of about 2500 years ago), the Indian civilization of about 700 years ago is more 'ancient' (i.e. more primitive). Of course, this is not made explicit but it is the only possible interpretation, especially in light of their conclusions.

And then, there was another group as well. For the sake of convenience, let us call them philosophers (those who loved wisdom). We know the names of many such; one of them, the most well-known, is Plato. This philosopher was not happy, either with the bards or with what they did. He felt that the bards incited the crowd into irrational behaviour based on irrational feelings. Instead of inculcating reasonableness, Plato thought, these bards pandered to the emotions of people. Emotions were always bad advisors, especially if they concerned matters of polity. He opposed educating the children (who would be the future Athenians) by teaching them legends and mythologies because such stories, according to Plato, always exaggerated, distorted and lied about the past. In fact, Plato envisioned an ideal state that would ban all the poets and bards into exile; such a state, ruled by a philosopher-king, would be the polis to live in because it alone cultivated reason among its citizens. He opposed ‘myth’ to ‘history’, and ‘emotions’ to ‘reason’. He believed that not myths but history should guide the behaviour of the civilized Athenians. He saw the bards as ‘orators’ and counterposed ‘rhetoric’ (the art of speech) of his time to ‘reason’. Oration cultivated demagogy (that which appealed to the irrationality and the emotions of the crowd) and thus poisoned the youth, whereas philosophy cultivated reason.
These two tendencies were apparently each other’s rivals in the Athens of so-long-ago. However, before either of the tendencies could gain dominance, the Greek civilization collapsed. In the future, the torch lit in Athens would be carried only partially by the Roman Empire.

Why is there such an asymmetry? It has to do with what colonialism is also about: establishing frameworks of inquiry into the nature of human beings and societies through the use of power and violence (S. N. Balagangadhara et al., 2008). Once established and generalized, such frameworks continue to draw their legitimacy through sources other than those that are cognitive in nature. Today, it appears to me, this legitimizing process has reached its apotheosis in the guise of an attitude that suggests that a science of culture and the sciences of the social are simply impossible because of human and epistemic limitations. Needless to say, a persistent ‘anti-scientific’ attitude adds fodder to such an attitude.

Actually, the act goes beyond transformation: terrorism is trans-substantiated crime. “Trans-substantiation” refers to the miraculous transformation of some particular substance into another one. (During the Mass, for instance, Roman-Catholics believe that bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ.) This happens in the case of terrorism as well: crime becomes morally praiseworthy. It does not concern so much a particular crime, but rather the transformation of the entire domain of crime. This trans-substantiation results in the re-presentation of crime as morally praiseworthy. We suggest that what brings about this “miracle” is an ideology, which we would like to call “the ideology of crime.” It is our hypothesis that such an ideology exists today and that acts of crime can become acts of terrorism because of what this ideology does and how it does so.

[[[[ Note: Trans-substantiation as portrayed in the Roman Gospels encompasses getting the colonized (ie Jews) to feast (ironically) on their own awaited Messiah, whose identity is actually overtaken (again ironically) by the colonial power. This would suggest that one function of the gospels was to normalize the crimes of the colonial power (eg terrorism) by redescribing colonial pressures as a self-affliction (leading to salvation)...]]]

One of the running threads in Western ethical thought is Glaucon’s challenge to Socrates in Plato’s Republic: “Why ought I be moral?” Like all threads running through a rich tapestry, at times it has been prominent and at others nearly invisible: here the picture and there the ground. Whatever the case, in this or that ethical theory at some place and time, it could be reasonably said of the Western ethical systems that they presuppose the necessity for giving reasons (whatever they might be) why human beings ought to behave morally. That is, the idea is that the self requires a reason (or reasons) for behaving morally. ‘Reason’, as I use it here, need not be restricted to mean ‘rational argument’. It merely refers to some kind of plausibility consideration which, as we know only too well today, is contextually dependent.
My suggestion is that Glaucon’s challenge is not intelligible within our intuitive world models. The reason why this is so is because moral actions and moral relations are constitutive of that very entity which is supposed to make moral choices, viz., the ‘self’ or the moral agent.
The contrast with Western ethical thought is again instructive in this regard. Ever since Homer, it has been a rather characteristic trait of Western thinking that moral phenomena pertained only to the domain of human intercourse. The relation of Man to Nature fell outside the scope of moral life: where it does enter into discussion at all, it does so derivatively in terms of, say, the consequences of such actions on future generations. Inanimate Nature, non- and quasi-sentient animals, on their part, could not enter into any moral relationship with human beings because they lacked the faculty or the capacity to ‘reason’ (or whatever) by exercising which moral choices and decisions could be made. Morality came into play only when both the relata in the relationship were moral agents and Nature disqualified herself from being one. In the best of cases, Nature was indifferent to man’s striving to realize a moral world. At worst, she was hostile to such an endeavour.

3. There is another, albeit related, point to the previous hypothesis. In a culture where ‘selves’ are not reflexive at all or are only partially so, but one whose ideal (or ‘self-image’) is governed by that of reflexivity, stories continue to be important but in a transmuted form. They continue to depict events and situations, but are powerless to teach. That is, they retain their instructional nature without being able to instruct. There is such a genre in Western culture: utopian thought. They are instructional in nature without really instructing. (That is exactly what the moral imperatives, the ‘oughts’, are.) They depict events and situations which are not “real”, i.e., not the “is’, but out-side of it, viz., in utopia. They depict “non-real” situations and events with the explicit claim of doing so. Because of this, they can continue to exist only if they entertain and that depends on the ‘aesthetic’ taste of the population at any given moment. The modern day utopian thought is known well enough to all of us to recognize it as so without doubt: science fiction.

4. If we learn to be moral beings through mimesis, it means that moral and ethical actions must be susceptible to being mimed. Contrast this stance with that of the West: a moral individual (an ideal priest or, say, Jesus Christ) is inimitable in principle. That is, a moral individual is actually a message, which does not say “be like me”, but one which proclaims “hope” for the humankind, brings “glad tidings” so to speak. And the “hope” is that the presence of such an inimitable, excep-tional individual will “save” humankind. If one is “righteous”, it is not only because that is the way to one’s ‘salvation’, but more importantly, because the salvation of humankind depends upon the “righteous” being present amongst them. One is “moral” so that other ‘sinners’ may be delivered from their ‘sins’. Such figures cannot influence daily life positively, but do so negatively viz., as examples of what we ordinary mortals, cannot be. They are, literally, the embodiments of ‘ought’ and, as such, outside the ‘is’ (Not every human being can be an ideal priest or even, as the exam-ples tell us, ought to be one.)

In Asia, such an ‘ought’ is no moral example at all. A moral action must be capable of emulation in daily life and only as such can someone be an ‘example’. Moral actions are actions that a son, a father, a friend, a teacher, a wife, etc., can perform as a son, a father, a friend, a teacher, a wife, etc. Either moral actions are realizable in this world, and in circumstances we find ourselves in our daily lives or they are not moral actions at all. Therefore, those real or fictitious individuals whose ac-tions we mime and who are, consequently, construed as ‘exemplary’ individuals cannot find them-selves ‘outside’ our world, but in situations analogous to our own. (Such a view is consistent with our models of ‘self’, for obvious reasons.)
[[[The monotheist proclaimations of "hope" and "good news" are ironic and satiric instances (e.g., 'good news' or evangelion refers specifically to the 'good news of military victory' i.e., subjugation. These western paradigms are "powerless to teach" and are thus conducive to mass propaganda, if not synonymous. Persons culturated in such a manner tend to see heathen cultures as similar instances of propaganda. Thus, the tilak becomes a mark of supremacy; the native american peace pipe becomes a symbol of 'religious' hypocrisy; and sons following the professions of their fathers and grandfathers becomes a dystopic caste "system".]]]


Let me repeat what I said in my earlier column: colonialism is not merely a process of occupying lands and extracting revenues. It is not a question of encouraging us to ape the western countries in trying to be like them. It is not even about colonising the imaginations of a people by making them dream that they too will become 'modern', developed and sophisticated. It goes deeper than any of these. It is about denying the colonised peoples and cultures their own experiences; of making them aliens to themselves; of actively preventing any description of their own experiences except in terms defined by the colonisers.

The European culture mapped on to itself aspects from the Indian culture so as to understand the latter. These mappings, in the form of explanations, have taken the status of frameworks to us. Liberalism, Marxism, secularism, etc

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