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Moral dilemmas in politics

Moral dilemmas in politics
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First Published: Wed, Jul 30 2008. 11 06 PM IST
Updated: Wed, Jul 30 2008. 11 06 PM IST
Irrespective of differences on the nuclear deal, there seems to be consensus that what happened in Parliament last week was despicable. I find it hard to drum up the level of outrage that I have seen in others. In fact, I find it either naive or dishonest for the rest of us Indians to leave the dirty work of mud-wrestling in the well of Parliament to the politicians, while we watch on live television and “tch-tch” at the spectacle. It’s easy to dismiss our politicians as having no morals, and write letters to the editor about the death of values in our society.
What happened last week was a wake-up call about the realities of politics. While there are many opportunists looking out only for their interests, there are also honourable men and women who struggle with the choices they face. And this is the price of politics: To make a difference in public life, one must be willing to make the bargain. This isn’t a new dilemma, or one that is peculiar to India—it is true for political leaders across time: how they reconcile their actions in public office with the demands of ethics and morality.
In his book Paradoxes of Political Ethics, John Parrish examines the history and philosophical underpinnings of dilemmas in public life. He writes, “Across the centuries...significant moral dilemmas arise more frequently within the political arena than they do anywhere else... Power seems to invite its practitioners to do what would be unthinkable to them in ordinary life. In contemporary moral philosophy and political theory, this particular kind of publicly driven moral dilemma has gone by the name of the problem of ‘dirty hands’ in public life.” He is referring to Jean-Paul Sartre’s book Dirty Hands, in which the French philosopher provocatively asks, “Do you think you can govern innocently?”
Clearly, there were many dirty hands in Parliament last week. And of these, most would probably not be able to justify their actions in any form of larger public interest. But I believe that there were at least a few who agonized over their choices—the Prime Minister and Prakash Karat are two who would qualify, irrespective of how vehemently one would disagree with either of their positions. Both ended up making significant moral compromises, and will have to live with the choices they made to defend the beliefs they held. Ironically, the PM’s words in an Independence Day address were, “While the question of ethics in public life has repeatedly agitated our people...the time has come for us to evolve consensually a code of conduct for all political parties (and) a code of ethics for all individuals in public life.”
Philosophers down the ages have vexed themselves with this question, and come out on various sides—from the Utilitarians who believe that the greater good justifies all actions to the Absolutists, such as Immanuel Kant, who swear by an unswerving moral code with no regard for consequences; and the middle-of-the-roaders such as Max Weber, who said, “No ethic in the world can dodge the fact that in numerous instances the attainment of good ends is bound to the fact that one must be willing to pay the price of using morally dubious means.”
I spoke with Shivram Ubhayakar, a wise old friend whose life work now is to complete a rendering of the Bhagavad Gita in English verse. I asked Dada, as we call him, about what Indian epics have to say about such choices. He said, “Indian thinking is very situation-specific. At one level, you can think that Krishna—in the Mahabharata—is a utilitarian, who believes that the larger good justifies one’s actions. There are many examples—asking Arjuna to shoot when Karna’s chariot got stuck, the white lie to get Drona onto the battlefield, advising Bhima to hit Duryodhana below the waist, and so on. But at another level, Krishna also said that dharma is not about focusing on the ends, but doing one’s duty, even if good people suffer as a result. He also did everything he could to prevent the war in the first place, and took the utilitarian view only when war was inevitable.”
Dada went on to say, “Indian philosophy has no absolute answers. The key point is about being a sthithapragna —or someone who works with a stable mind and doesn’t allow personal feelings to come into actions.” The relation to moral choices here seems, therefore, not so much about ends and means, but about whether the individual is able to act with no personal agenda whatsoever.
We could choose to think of last week’s event as an unsavoury episode in Indian politics. We would be missing the tragic choices that at least a few political leaders must have made, in what they believed was the moral dilemma of working for the larger good while compromising their personal values in the process. This is the reality of entering—and being effective in— the public realm.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at mobiusstrip@livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, Jul 30 2008. 11 06 PM IST