Decoding Ethics: Kant and Manu, is there an Indian way of thinking?
Updated: Feb 14, 2021
WHO WAS KANT?
Immanuel Kant is a name synonymous with the ethicist tradition of Western philosophy. Kant was, all of his life, deeply unsatisfied with the religious domination of Christian values and ethics which dictated how a person ought to behave, what was right, what was immoral, and so on. Kant, in his book “The Groundwork of Metaphysics of Morals” attempted to free morality, and ethics from the traditional orthodoxy of religion and place it in the structure of human conscience. For this purpose, Kant devised a theory of “Categorical Imperatives” which can be summed in a single quote of his “act according to that maxim which you may, at the same time, will should become a law” (excuse me sir, WHAT? English PLEASE??). Let’s try to understand this, in his categorical imperatives, Kant states that you should do only that, which you may wish to be done to you. Do unto others as you would them do unto you. If you wouldn’t like to be stolen from, you should not steal, and so on.
The implications of this statement have often been contentious and, hence, many philosophers tend to dismiss him as laughable. For example: “um, excuse me Kant, if a criminal breaks in my house and demands to know where my children are so that he can murder them, are you saying that I should tell the kind sir the truth? Because I wouldn’t want to be lied to myself?”
Manu was an ancient Indian thinker and writer, whose work: the “Manu smriti” tackle questions ranging from justice, to caste structures and political hierarchies. In the April of this year I wrote, motivated by a disagreement with a friend, an article about Kantian ethics, which read like this:
“I'll say this, at the risk of sounding painfully reductionist, that I actually believe in Kantian ethics and I think that they have been misunderstood, largely owing to the ambiguity of his categorical imperative. We must also account for the fact that the mere idea of objectivity regarding morals is considered too simple to successfully function and thus any attempt to weave them into a theory is seen as laughter worthy. But it must be remembered that Kant gave the categorical imperatives as an attempt to create a structure of morality outside of religion to free ethics from the blandishments of tradition, this context, I find, is often neglected when criticizing Kant.
On careful consideration it becomes apparent that the theory is not so much a set of moral objectives as an objective method to arrive at relative morals (draw parallels between this and religious ethics and the contrast becomes palpable).
In fact, it is the very ambiguity of his work that makes it truly genius, because it leaves room for relative interpretations. When Kant says "act according to that maxim which you may at the same time will should become a law" (basically, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, but with extra steps) he leaves the question pretty ambiguous to provide room for subjectivity and, more importantly, relativity. At the heart of the theory lies choice.
The usual contention to his theory is that "should you not lie if the lie helps someone, because you wouldn't want to be lied to yourself. So, should you lie if the lie saves someone’s life?”. It's a little redundant to put it like that because a topic as nuanced as morality cannot be categorized into black and white.
In such a situation it's your choice. would you choose to be saved over being lied to? This makes the argument sufficiently relative and subjective to work perfectly! but then you Kant know anything for certain (had to make that pun, sorry)”
RAMANUJAN AND MANU
Consider, also, an essay by AK Ramanujan I came across, about three weeks after I wrote the article about Kant. In the essay Ramanujan marks a distinction, in order to explore the question “Is there an Indian way of thinking”, between Kant’s morals and Manu’s. He remarks that while Kant strives to universalize everything, Manu tries to make it as subjective as possible. For example, on being asked about killing a man, Kant would undoubtedly say that because the killer wouldn’t want to be killed themselves, killing is wrong, but Manu would take into account all the nuances of the situation: who was killed, who was the killer, for what reasons did the killing occur, was the person who got killed an enemy, did not killing him defy the killer’s duties?
By citing similar examples Ramanujan wishes to establish that this, almost overwhelming, desire to subjectify everything is inherent and unique to Indians. Whether this hypothesis is true or not remains to be answered.
Consider again the article I had written, about whose inquiry and analysis Ramanujan’s essay provides invaluable context, wherein I had attempted to subjectify Kant’s objectivity. In retrospective, Ramanujan’s argument coupled with the fact that I haven’t encountered any similar interpretations of Kant, may, after all, be a testimony to Ramanujan’s argument. Maybe, there is an unique Indian way of thinking.
p. s. We do not stan Manu in the least, he was a massive casteist, and does not pass the vibe check