NONVIOLENCE AS A CIVIC VIRTUE:
GANDHI AND REFORMED LIBERALISM
International Journal of Hindu Studies 7 (2003), pp. 75-98
Linked with permission from the editor
Peace is the primary public good.
--James K. Galbraith
Somehow or other the wrong belief has taken possession of us that ahimsa is preeminently a weapon for individuals and its use should, therefore, be limited to that sphere. In fact this is not the case. Ahimsa is definitely an attribute of society. To convince people of this truth is at once my effort and my experiment.
–M. K. Gandhi
First of all, we shall have to consider how we can realise the self and how serve our country . . . . For realising the self, the first essential thing is to cultivate a strong moral sense. Morality means acquisition of virtues such as fearlessness, truth, chastity, etc. Service is automatically rendered to the country in this process of cultivating morality.
–M. K. Gandhi
One’s self must become a project, one must become the architect of one’s soul. One’s dignity resides in being, to some important degree, a person of one’s own creating, making, choosing rather than in being merely a creature or a socially manufactured, conditioned, created thing.
In my book The Virtue of Non-Violence: from Gautama to Gandhi I reformulate Gandhi’s ethics of nonviolence from a virtue perspective, and I also argue that he can be seen as a constructive postmodernist according to the series by that name at SUNY Press. I propose that virtue ethics is the best choice for a constructive postmodern social and political philosophy. Gandhi follows postmodernists in dissolving modernist distinctions between the inner/outer, private/public, religion/state, means/ends, rights/duties, and values/facts. Gandhi cannot be allied with the French postmodernists because he does not believe in the decentering and fragmentation of the self, nor is he an anarchist as some commentators have claimed. Gandhi creatively combined elements of premodernist and modernist thinking in same way that constructive postmodernists do today. My book also gives Gandhi’s philosophy a Buddhist interpretation, claiming that Buddhism, as well as Confucianism, anticipates constructive postmodernism in insightful ways. Confucius can also be appropriated for a contemporary aesthetics of virtue as well as the communitarian liberalism supported in this article.
The first section will discuss in more detail the constructive postmodern framework for this discussion of political theory. Then second section will propose that Gandhi’s political philosophy can be conceived as a “reformed liberalism” (following Franklin I. Gamwell, Stephen Macedo, the later John Rawls, and William Galston) that rejects a morally neutral procedural liberalism and also replaces its social atomism with a concept of “situated” autonomy. Gandhi calls procedural liberalism a “nominal” democracy and expresses reformed liberalism as either purna swaraj (“integral” democracy) or ramarajya (“sovereignty of the people based on pure moral authority”). The third section discusses how this reformed liberalism would view the civic virtues and how nonviolence could be conceived as a civic virtue. The fourth section will suggest that reformed liberalism can affirm the virtue of nonviolence in the context of the traditional moral virtues and distinctive liberal civic virtues.
Some readers of this essay have strongly objected to the alliance of Gandhi with the liberal tradition, even though his preferred view of the self, as I will show, favors this proposal. Instead, they propose that Gandhi must be joined with the communitarians. However, the more I read the communitarians, the more I am convinced that their goals are essentially the same as the reformed liberals. Morphing the fraternite of the French revolutionary motto as “community,” I see communitarians and reformed liberals as both striving to find the right balance among the three great values of classical liberalism--liberty, equality, and community. (Procedural liberals and libertarians leave it woefully out of balance.) I find it significant that Amitai Etzioni, a prominent communitarian, accepts William Galston (I read him as a reformed liberal) into his ranks as well as calling his own view “neoprogressive,” and Gerald Doppelt calls John Rawls a “communitarian liberal,” a term also used for John Dewey.
It is also noteworthy that Etzioni accepts the democratic liberal state, protected by formal constitutional rights, as the all inclusive American community, just as one could claim that the world community is one that is defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (Even though I argue that the virtues have axiological primacy, moral rules and rights, as abstractions from virtue, still have normative force.) I also agree with Doppelt that Rawls has a much more coherent moral grounding for community, drawing on explicit liberal rights and virtues, than does communitarian Michael Sandel, who struggles to articulate a rather vague “moral experience” that can withstand the criterion of critical reflection, itself a liberal principle. Furthermore, my emphasis on civic virtues makes the synthesis with communitarian values even more compelling, and I will speak to Alasdair MacIntyre’s incipient liberalism at the end of the first section. Therefore, I stand by my alliance of Gandhi and reformed liberalism, assuming that the focus on virtues and a relational self will incorporate the most important communitarian values while at the same time reaffirming human rights and liberal virtues.
A related objection has come from my liberal friends, some of whom believe that I have somehow become a conservative because of my passion for virtue ethics and my desire to work on character education in the schools. Those liberals who say that political theory must be morally neutral will not only lose badly on this point in the cultural wars, but they also misrepresent their own liberal tradition as well. John Adams maintained that liberty without virtue is mere license, and many of us do not know, because of our selective reading of them, that John Locke, Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, and J. S. Mill all agreed with Adams. William Galston makes the point well: “There is a gap between rights and rightness that cannot be closed without a richer vocabulary—one that invokes principles of decency, responsibility, and the common good, among others.” Contemporary liberals avoid the issue of civic virtue at their peril, and we must take more seriously the ancient view that statecraft does indeed demand soulcraft.
The ancients did not distinguish between craft and fine art, but a contemporary virtue ethics can make instructive use of the fine arts analogy. The Chinese Book of Odes conceives of moral development in terms of the carving and polishing a raw stone into the gem that we sometimes call the virtuous person. As opposed to craft art, where copies are made from an original model, the fine arts analogy allows for the self-creation of unique and distinctive moral beings. An aesthetics of virtue can preserve a strong normative base by referring to examples of artistic virtuosos. Great ballerinas follow the same steps but develop their own distinctive styles; concert soloists read the same notes as amateurs but they are all unique in their execution; and the best judges craft elegant briefs about an unchanging set of laws. In this way we can defend virtue ethics against the standard relativistic critique, and affirm that it is personal, contextual, and normative.
Before I begin the analysis, there is one more anticipated objection that I would like to address. The principal reason that liberal democracies have been relatively peaceful is they have insisted on religious freedom and the separation of church and state. Is it not unwise, even foolish, for constructive postmodern thinkers to reject this time-honored and successful dichotomy? A reformed liberal would definitely preserve full religious freedom and the prohibition of an established church, but they would urge us to rethink the relationship between religion and politics. Both Gandhi and King brought their religious beliefs into their political activism, and yet it is usually only the fundamentalists that liberals criticize for doing this. Anti-abortionist are entirely correct that they have just as much right to perform acts of civil disobedience as Gandhi and King did.
In a free society we simply cannot ban religious speech or opinion simply because it is part of a political campaign. Rather, the truly liberal society always allows the flow of free and open discussion. The Religious Right keeps up its campaigns despite liberal protest, but their ideas are being tested in the liberal domain of public justification. The reason why Gandhi and King were not widely criticized for injecting religion into politics is because their message was always religiously and culturally inclusive. Fundamentalists usually divide and exclude, and we must trust ourselves and our democratic institutions to moderate such views or ban the worst as unconstitutional.
Modernism has been described as a movement from mythos to logos, and this replacement of myth by logic has been going on for at least 2,500 years. Almost simultaneously in India, China, and Greece, the strict separation of fact and value, science and religion was proposed by the Lokayata materialists, the Greek atomists, and the Chinese Mohists. These philosophies remained minority positions, but it is nevertheless essential to note that the seeds for modernist philosophy are very old. The Greek Sophists stood for ethical individualism and relativism; they gave law its adversarial system and the now accepted practice that attorneys may "make the weaker argument the stronger"; they inspired Renaissance humanists to extend education to the masses as well as to the aristocracy; in short, they gave us a preview of a fully secular modern society. Even though maintaining teleology and the unity of fact and value, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle affirmed ethical rationalism, and Aristotle supported representative government, held by many as one of the great achievements of the modern world.
Modernism is a form of thought that loves to dichtomize. It separates subjects from objects, the inner from the outer, the private from the public, fact from value, individuals from their communities, rights from responsibilities, procedural justice from the good, and religion from science. (Making these distinctions has great advantages but also, as postmodern critics have shown, profound liabilities as well.) If freely choosing value is something subjective and causality is something objective, then free-will happens only in an internal realm and cannot happen in an outer realm of cause and effect. The issue of the free will and value formation was joined with the problem of the ontological status of the external world, the problem of the knowledge of other minds, and the rejection of the idea of moral facts–in sum, the table of contents of an introductory text in modern European philosophy. If we are value creators and fully embodied selves, both in a body of flesh and feelings and in the body of society, then it is indisputable that our “inner” flows into the “outer” and vice versa. For political philosophy it means that there must a closer connection between personal and civic virtues.
Constructive postmodernists wish to reestablish the premodern harmony of humans, society, and the sacred without losing the integrity of the individual, the possibility of meaning, and the intrinsic value of nature. They believe that French deconstructionists are throwing out the proverbial baby with the bath water. The latter wish to reject not only the modern worldview but any worldview whatsoever. Constructive postmodernists want to preserve the concept of worldview and propose to reconstruct one that avoids the liabilities of both premodernism and modernism. One of the greatest achievements of modernism has been liberal democratic state and the idea of universal human rights. This state was never meant to be morally neutral, but an implicit social atomism made it difficult for the liberal self to remain tied to its body, other persons, and society.
In other work I have shown that the integrity of the self is actually strengthened and enriched by relational and somatic elements, and this where premodern organicism has an important role to play. Michael Sandel is quite correct to critique the atomistic self as “unencumbered,” “possessive,” “without character,” and “without moral depth.” Such a self obviously could not embody any virtues, not even liberal ones. Justice, truth, and courage (along with many other virtues) are universal, but their development is ineluctably personal and contextual. For example, most cultures recognize gluttony as a vice, but eating just the right amount is a uniquely personal choice, based not on a whim, but on objective conditions such as metabolism, temperament, body size, and other physiological factors. Aristotle called this “the relative mean,” and it is also found in Buddhism and Confucianism.
One of Gandhi's most basic assumptions appears to be thoroughly modernist. This is his firm belief in the integrity of the individual: "The individual is the one supreme consideration"; and "if the individual ceases to count, what is left of society?" The most extreme position in modern political philosophy is anarchism, and Gandhi shares its fear of the power of the state: "It does the greatest harm to mankind by destroying individuality, which lies at the root of all progress." For Gandhi individuals must act on their own truth regardless of the consequences and regardless of whether others think they are in error. This proviso is foundational to Gandhi’s experiments with truth, discussed in the next section. This affirmation of the integrity and reality of the individual is the principal reason why Gandhi cannot be related to premodern forms of thought such as Advaita Vedanta. If individuals are ultimately illusory or even derivatively real, the very foundations of Gandhi's engaged ethics and political activism are undermined.
One could also argue that even though he differed with other Indian nationalists, his own nationalism was modernist in its main points, especially if it is seen in connection with his anarchism and his utopianism. But his views appear more communitarian and thus postmodern when, in Hind Swaraj, Gandhi makes a significant difference between a genuine nation formed as community (praja) and a nation of individuals merely held together by state power (rashtra). As Anthony Parel states: "[Hind Swaraj] does not propound the modern concept of nation in so far as the latter is based on the notions of brute force, the priority of national interest, and a principle of exclusiveness based either religion, or language, or race." (Such exclusivity generally defines premodern communitarianism.) Even the relatively innocuous state apparatus of liberal democracy does not escape Gandhi's critical eye. Although it is theoretically designed to do so, liberal democracies do not empower individuals; rather, as Bhikhu Parekh so aptly phrases it, they abstract "power from the people, concentrate it in the state and then return it to them in their new [abstract roles] as citizens." This critique holds true only for the morally neutral procedural liberalism that is now being reformed by thinkers such as Gamwell, Macedo, and Galston.
Parel's and Parekh's views of Gandhi's political philosophy allow us to get our first glimpse of a postmodern Gandhi. His view of the nation state is arguably postmodern in that it offers India as a model for a new type of polity, one which has already proved itself, with some unfortunate exceptions, to be a success in bringing sixteen different major language groups and six world religions together, not by brute force, but by the rule of law and representative democracy. (The centralized Indian federal government and its five year plans are of course something Gandhi would have strongly rejected.) Gandhi's postmodern vision of nationhood is one based on decentralized local control, assimilation and tolerance of cultural differences, and above all, nonviolence. The "decentering" the self and its national analogues is the crux of all postmodern philosophy. Gandhi's position, however, definitely does not go as far as Derrida's view, which has been described as a "radical form of democracy, one without representation, and therefore one in which even individuals' representations of themselves would be drawn constantly into question."
Gandhi's commitment to civil disobedience also appears to be modernist and is intimately related to the issue of Gandhi's professed anarchism. Gandhi called his village republicanism a form of "enlightened anarchy" in which "everyone is [her] own ruler." (From this angle Gandhi’s village does not appear communitarian at all.) He agrees with Thoreau that "government is best that governs least," and he believed that government is a necessary evil. Close scrutiny of Thoreau’s On Civil Disobedience and the Gandhian texts reveal that neither thinker is an anarchist in any of the traditional senses. Gandhi spoke fervently of his village communities as ideal states, but he was keenly aware of human fallibility and the limits of reason, especially the calculative reason of modern mass political organization.
Joan Bondurant has also taken issue with those commentators who have interpreted Gandhi's anarchism along traditional lines. Most anarchist theories are based on the idea of mutual self-interest and a rejection of all external sanctions. But Gandhi's practice of nonviolence and self-suffering discourages self-interest and reintroduces constraint and coercion in a way unlike any other previous political theory. In addition to the two anarchist positions--violent overthrow of the authoritarian state or passive withdrawal from society altogether--Gandhi adds a third solution, which Bondurant believes solves the anarchist dilemma. Anarchists have always opposed the state because they believe that the only way it could assert its authority was through violence. Gandhi's technique of satyagraha offers a nonviolent way of restraining and persuading people to work for the common good. As Bondurant states: "Anarchists may claim a positive philosophy, but they, like other political theorists, have rarely sought a positive technique whereby a system could be realized."
When Gandhi said that Indians should "study [their] Eastern institutions in [a] spirit of scientific inquiry . . . [to] evolve a truer socialism and a truer communism," this appears to be the synthesis of premodern and modern that we find in constructive postmodernism. His rejection of all political hierarchy is strong: “There will be ever-widening, never-ascending circles. . . . an oceanic circle whose centre will be the individuals. . . . [and] the outermost circumference will not wield power to crush the inner circle." This is indubtiably communitarian, but could Gandhi have realistically believed that these ever widening circles will never ascend to national or international communities?
Gandhi’s passionate belief in the unity of the world religions includes the integration of all cultures, accepting each of them on their own terms. At the same time, however, he would have insisted with equal passion that each and every person must be treated with equality and respect, and it would be difficult for anyone to believe that Gandhi would have rejected the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as an appropriate international framework. In a letter to Hitler in 1940 Gandhi proposed that Germany and Great Britain submit themselves to “an international tribunal of your joint choice,” and just before the San Francisco meeting to form the United Nations, he proposed that there should “be an international police force to enforce the highest terms of peace.” Therefore, I submit that the term communitarian liberalism or reformed liberalism would an appropriate label for him.
It is important to distinguish between premodern and constructive postmodern forms of communitarianism. A good example of the former would be the neo-Confederate movement led by Michael Hill and Steve Wilkins. The neo-Confederates propose that fifteen Southern states leave the union and establish a Calvinist utopia that favors the Anglo-Celtic race and its patriarchs. They also are very critical of secularism and the egalitarianism of liberal democracy. Religious fundamentalists are generally premodern communitarians and they constitute the one of the greatest threats to the relative world peace that liberal democracy has achieved. In a word, “liberaliam” names the difference between the premodern and constructive postmodern communitarian, and this remains the reason why contemporary communitarians must always preserve the formal legal framework of basic human rights.
Alasdair MacIntyre would say that the neo-Confederate vision is a worldview that has failed the process of critical reflection that he requires of any viable culture. A great majority of Americans now support the fact that their nation has successfully fulfilled the promise of the Declaration of Independence that all persons, regardless of race or gender, have equality under the law. (The question of sexual orientation is still to be worked out.) The fact that MacIntrye promotes modernist ideas of progress, critical reflection, and the narrative unity of individual lives proves that he is not as much the enemy of the Enlightenment as we thought he was. (Even his concept of eudaimonia is “fully individuated, and thus modernized.”) Indeed, MacIntyre manifests the distinct patterns of a constructive postmodern thinker, taking premodern values of virtue, tradition, and community and joining them with modernist views of critical reflection, progress, and individual integrity. And if this reading of MacIntyre is correct, then he could just as well be called a reformed liberal as a communitarian. The premodern communitarian does not affirm the Chinese nesting of ever inclusive communities unless they are an expansion of their own culture and religion, but a communitarian liberal would embrace all cultures and religious, just as Gandhi did, within the legal boundaries of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Gandhi's principal problem with modernism is its separation of fact and value. By separating the "ought" from the "is," human life loses its moral focus. The goal of modern life, especially in its most utilitarian forms, is simply the satisfaction of one desire after the other. Self-gratification is not only accepted but encouraged, and gradually higher purposes are replaced by lower ordinary ones. In Hind Swaraj Gandhi equates modernism with sensual self-gratification, and condemns it primarily for this reason. The modern world view not only alienates us from nature, but also alienates our desires from any moral end. The teleology of the ancients, that which gave their life its ultimate meaning and purpose, has been eliminated in modernism. Ironically, the power promised by modernism has in many instances turned to impotence--either in complete hedonistic dissipation or the clash and mutual cancellation of personal and national power.
In his excellent book on Gandhi's political philosophy Bhikhu Parekh lists five "distinctively human powers"--self-determination, autonomy, self-knowledge, self-discipline, and social cooperation--that Gandhi would have required for any great civilization. According to Gandhi, all five of these capacities are threatened by modern civilization, with the last three as the most weak and vulnerable. Today's emphasis on the first two qualities is distinctively modern and Euro-American not to mention politically liberal, but all five qualities are part of the European tradition beginning with Greek and Christian philosophers. A lack of balance among the qualities make contemporary culture especially unstable and violence-prone. Except for the spiritual self-determination and autonomy of the yogis, which does not have a political or even a moral goal, these two characteristics have not been strong in Asian thought either.
We can now see what Gandhi meant when he said that his attack on modern civilization was not an attack on the West, because each of his basic human powers are part of the European tradition. Europe and America can regain the moral ground that it has lost by cultivating the virtues related to self-knowledge, self-discipline, and social cooperation. The great irony is that Gandhi was initially inspired to recapture this lost ground by European thinkers (Socrates, Tolstoy, Ruskin, and Thoreau) and by English translations and expressions (theosophy as an example) of his own Indian tradition. It is obvious that Socrates' and Thoreau's "soul-force" is strongly activist compared to the passive "soul-force" of his Hindu tradition. Gandhi's own Vaishnava tradition is known for its dynamic spirituality, but not for political confrontation, so Euro-American activism represents an important key to Gandhi's idea of satyagraha and progressive nonviolence.
I therefore propose that reformed liberalism can accommodate all of Gandhi’s aspirations and at the same time mitigate some the effects of two Gandhian liabilities. These are an excessive asceticism and a related Manicheanian tendency to reject the body and too often characterize conflict in terms of God versus Satan. (Some contemporary Indians still embrace the ashram as a spiritual ideal, but one cannot imagine that it will ever have universal appeal.) In America conservatives have been successful in criticizing liberalism for its indifference to moral and spiritual values and its exclusive emphasis on the strict procedures of the rule of law. The result is a strong temptation for citizens to act on any desire that it is not proscribed by law, thereby transforming personal liberty into license. Commentators such as John Q. Wilson and others have shown that Euro-American culture possessed enough moral capital and virtuous restraint to prevent this from happening in the 19th Century, but that capital, especially since the end of World War II, has now been spent.
Empirical evidence appears to suggest that the most resilient source of moral value is personal virtue and not necessarily religious institutions. (It is of course a truism that institutions are no better than the members that make them up.) Interestingly enough, the authority of the church in Europe has waned dramatically, but conservative American churches have gained considerable ground. If crime and social welfare statistics are even a rough measure of personal virtue, one might very well conclude that virtue is stronger in Europe than in America. Judith Martin (best known as “Miss Manners”) has observed that when citizens start calling for laws to regulate behavior that was previously controlled by social norms, then this is a sure sign that their culture is in trouble.
The virtue ethics that most closely conforms to Martin’s moral agenda is Confucianism and its concept of li. Li is best translated as “propriety” and it includes very specific rules for how people should interact with one another. Confucius demonstrates the moral failings of a law and order society in this famous passage: “Lead the people with administrative injunctions and keep them orderly with penal law, and they will avoid punishments but will be without a sense of shame. Lead with excellence (de) and keep them orderly through observing ritual propriety (li) and they will develop a sense of shame, and moreover, will order themselves.” One does not have to be a prude or a reactionary to suggest that there is far too much shameless behavior in Europe, America, and other countries where popular culture has made inroads in traditional societies. Classical liberalism was founded on the assumption liberty would always be tempered by virtue, but its founders wrongly assumed that society itself would always provide the personal virtues necessary for responsible expressions of liberty. Kant was obviously wrong in believing that the very form of liberal government would control and pacify even a race of devils. Kant assumed that this form of government was so well conceived that the devils would at least conform to duty, even though we would never expect them to act from duty. Therefore, Kant appears to be wrong when he claimed that in the liberal state a person, “even though. . . not morally good, is forced to be a good citizen.”
Please note that I have used the phrase “personal virtue” rather than “individual virtue” to avoid the implications of the social atomism that is part of procedural liberalism. Gandhi was so profoundly influenced by Socrates and Thoreau that his strong individualism appears to be a form of social atomism, which of course it cannot ultimately be. Constructive postmodernism has generally sought a middle way between extremes of social atomism on the one hand and the dissolution of the self in Hegelian or Vedantist schools on the other. I have aligned Gandhi with the social relational self of Pali Buddhism rather than the monistic or even deconstructivist views of the self in Mahayana Buddhism. Many Euro-American models can be found in Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Buber, and pragmatism.
In terms of the development of the virtues, however, it is hard to find a better model than the Confucian one. Confucian ethics can be summed up in the following formula: ren+yi+li =ren*. Ren means “human being” while yi is best understood as a personal appropriation of social norms (li). The homophone ren* (literally “two peopleness”) is the comprehensive virtue in which all other virtues are perfected. Ren* is translated variously as humanity, benevolence, human heartedness, goodness, compassion, or love. Therefore, while the virtues are thoroughly personal because of yi, they are always created in relation to others and are never just individual. As opposed to procedural liberalism, which tends to praise the isolated individual, Asian thought always sees the individual as fully constituted by its relations to both society and nature. While European thinkers since Aristotle have stressed rational autonomy, Buddhists and Confucians have stressed relationality and a fusion of reason and affection, a unity best described as “heart-mind,” the best translation of the Chinese word xin.
Franklin I. Gamwell’s reformed liberalism is based on a comprehensive moral principle that he describes as “individuality-in-association, or distinctiveness in connection with the distinctiveness of others.” This principle is eminently Confucian not only in the sense of the formula above but also in terms of what Confucius described as the basic thread of his moral philosophy. In the Analects 1.4 Confucius links shu--reciprocity, loyalty, deference, altruism–with zhong, being faithful, conscientious, trustworthy. All acts should aim at a delicate balance between self-interest and other interest, such that shu is doing best for others while zhong always requires that people be true to themselves. That is why Confucius rejects the Daoist imperative to always return good for evil (Analects 14.34). In order to keep their self-respect people are required to respond to evil with zhu, translated best as justice but also rendered as uprightness or impartiality. Confucius believes that justice requires that you treat a person as distinctive and unique, not as a generalized other under the universal demands of agape or the requirements of a transpersonal hedonic calculus. This is also the reason why Confucius rejected the Mohist imperative of universal love and insisted on a “graded” love. It is only natural that people love those closest to them more than those unknown and far away.
Various expressions of reformed liberalism have, in the face of conservative criticism, introduced qualifications to the time honored view of rational autonomy. Stephen Macedo, for example, has called for a “situated” autonomy that is thoroughly sensitive to social context. As he states: “The autonomous individual is a socially embedded individual, one who understands his intellectual and cultural inheritance but is determined to make that inheritance his own by fashioning an individual character and life plan, and turning his participation in social practices into performances expressive of his individuality.” This, I contend, is a redefinition of autonomy tailor made for virtue ethics. An essential aspect of this revised view of moral autonomy is that we must reject the libertarian view that the sole moral principle in a liberal society is Mill’s “no harm” principle. As long as individuals do not harm others without their consent, the libertarian claims that the state has no right to set any standards for morality or virtue. In stark contrast, a reformed liberalism will stipulate an ensemble of civic virtues that will encourage (but never coerce) the development of traditional virtues, both private and public. In short, reformed liberalism will not be neutral with regard to general moral norms; it will insist on not only self rule but also self restraint. Indeed, self-discipline is an essential enabling virtue for any civil society, and also requisite for the virtue of nonviolence
Gandhi’s “experiments with truth” can be profitably explained using the principle of practical reason that is present in Greek, Confucian, and Buddhist virtue ethics. In each of these traditions practical reason allows the agent to make a personal appropriation (Confucian yi) of social norms. In Mahayana Buddhism it is found in the doctrine of “expedient means,” but the principle is much better articulated in the Pali Buddhist texts. Therefore, one can interpret the “right” of the 8-fold path as “suitable” or “appropriate,” or “right for you.” Ontologically, one can see it in the famous motto “they who know causation know the Dharma.” This can be interpreted as: those who know their own causal web of existence know the truth (i.e., the true facts of their lives) and they will know what to do. The truths we discover by means of this formula will be very personal truths, moral and spiritual truths that are, as Aristotle says of moral virtues, “relative to us.” This means that Wilson is wrong, at least in terms of its founding thinker, to charge that Confucianism does not allow for personal expression in the unique ways that classical liberalism permits. Furthermore, a contemporary Confucian could embrace a world virtue ethics in which each culture’s li would be respected as long as there are no violations of basic human rights.
Macedo’s concept of situated autonomy is also dependent on learning from personal history: “The story of my life is already partly written and I want to continue it in the best way that I can; it can proceed in any number of ways but not any old way. My personal history is also embedded in and illumined by the long course of human experience and deep tendencies of human nature. . . .” (There should be no question that the liberal Macedo has successfully answered Sandel’s concerns about a morally empty and unencumbered self.) In After Virtue Alasdair MacIntyre argues that a focus on a narrative view of an embodied self in yet one more way that virtue ethics is superior to both utilitarianism and Kantianism. It is therefore significant that Gandhi introduces his experiments with truth in his autobiography. Although Gandhi expressed faith in eternal Truth, he always reminded himself and his followers that finite beings could only know finite truths. D. K. Bedekar is the one Gandhi scholar who sees the implications of this most clearly: “He unmistakably refers to the finite truth which can be grasped by a finite mind, and boldly asserts that we, as finite human beings, must chart our voyage with this compass, as our only guide.” Bedekar also supports my controversial move to disengage Gandhi from his Hindu tradition and give his contextual pragmatism a Buddhist self and Buddhist ontology. The situated autonomy of a social-relational self fills the empty and abstract liberal self such that virtuous achievement by unique individuals, rather than a reluctant toleration of excessive vice, becomes a social ideal. This means that while we preserve formal equality before the law and equal opportunity, reformed liberals can reaffirm basic intuitions of individual merit and achievement.
The civic virtues of reformed liberalism will have key differences from traditional conservatism. The principal liberal virtues would be individualism, diversity, and tolerance. Answering the typical conservative critique, the liberal need not tie the virtue of tolerance to ethical relativism. Liberals tolerate the views of others not by judging all views to be equally correct; rather, liberals must have good reasons if they are to believe that their views are the correct ones. Liberal tolerance is based on a basic liberal ideal: namely, that people can be persuaded by debate and fortified by education to become open to the views of others. Learning to give principled reasons for personal action is a high intellectual as well as moral virtue. Liberal tolerance is based on respect for persons, but not necessarily respect for all views, especially if they are presented in hateful and irrational ways. For example, we tolerate the expression of anti-Semitism, because, as Stephen Macedo says, “it is being expressed by a person; we wish to respect that person as a being capable of reason. . . .” We are, however, not moderate towards anti-Semites; rather, we are resolute in our condemnation of their views. The virtue of civic moderation, as Macedo explains, is appropriate for topics over which reasonable people still debate, and the current controversy about abortion is Macedo’s instructive example.
It is here in the nexus of public justification, tolerance, and moderation that we can see that nonviolence must become a central liberal virtue. Liberal virtues of public participation and debate are thoroughly noncoercive in nature. The virtue of nonviolence would then join with personal virtues of patience and forbearance such that conflict resolution becomes possible. Macedo sums up this view aptly: “Liberalism stands for peace through toleration, law-bound liberty, and a rights-oriented conception of justice. . . . Liberal citizens expect to be answered with reasons rather than mere force or silence.” It is worth reminding ourselves that not a single liberal democratic state has ever warred on another, although it is sadly ironic that the United States has frequently used violence in the third world when nonviolent means should have been used instead. Furthermore, a high level of ignorance and misinformation indicate that while Americans enjoy the rights of liberal democracy, they fail in their duties to engage in substantial and meaningful public discourse, justification, and persuasion.
In terms of the current distinction between “enabling” and “substantive” virtues, it appears that the virtue of nonviolence joins patience, moderation, and courage in the enabling category. This would mean that the enabling virtues are means to the final ends of substantive virtues such as love, compassion, and justice. Although this distinction appears to meet some initial intuitions (e.g., the possibility of a patient, nonviolent thief), Gandhi would find this division of virtues unacceptable and ultimately destructive of the moral life. For Gandhi ahimsa becomes active and engaged with the substantive virtues of love and truth, and in the process means and ends are ultimately fused. Overcoming a basic modernist dichotomy, Gandhi states: “Means and end are convertible terms in my philosophy of life.” In this way one could say that the means constitute the ends. A life of virtue is not the means to the good life; it is the good life.
Again we can see that a reformed liberalism based on this view of means and ends cannot be content with a value-neutral state. Looking at the history of classical liberalism, Gandhi would agree with Mill, who believed that the virtues had intrinsic value, rather than Hobbes, who thought that they had only instrumental value. Galston notes with approval that John Rawls has moved to Mill’s position in his later works. Therefore, a reformed liberalism can now reject the impractical and self-defeating idea that the liberal state is value neutral, and assert, following Gandhi’s fusions of means and ends, that liberal virtues are ends and not merely means.
Gandhi would agree with Galston’s view that there are at least three common civic virtues–courage, law-abidingness, and loyalty–and two principal liberal virtues: individualism and tolerant respect for diversity. Gandhi would also commend Galston for his clarification that the virtue of individualism does not undermine the values of the family. Liberal filial piety would consist in teaching children loyalty and deference, but also self-reliance, freedom of thought, and independence. Locke believed that rational self-direction was part of what “constitutes a morally worthy character,” and Thomas Jefferson’s advice to his nephew is a good example: “Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of God.” Gandhi would also agree with Galston that the virtue of law-abidingness does not prevent actions of civil disobedience, which are actually done out of the highest respect for law and a willingness to accept cheerfully the punishment following the law’s violation. Finally, Gandhi believed that courage was one of the supreme virtues, trumping even nonviolence if one were faced with a choice between defending one’s family and society with violence and becoming a coward. In this situation it is more important to be true to one’s self than to be nonviolent. Gandhi would have heartily embraced MacInytre’s three cardinal virtues--justice, truth, and courage—but would have rejected the procedural liberal’s insistence that justice is always trumps all other virtues.
In his book On Gandhi Bart Gruzalski criticizes the received view that Gandhi justifies violent action with his principle that is worst to be a coward than using violence in self defense. If this is true, Gandhi offers no significant advance over utilitarians who hold that violence is sometimes necessary to maximizes pleasure over pain. (Note that the principle of utility so applied makes the use of violence a moral obligation, whereas for a Kantian it would merely be a prudent action having no moral worth.) Gruzalski contends that this is not Gandhi’s view: “Gandhi’s preference for violence in defense of loved ones . . . reflects his view that cowardice makes nonviolence impossible, not a view that violence is justifiable.” Gandhi thought that soldiers would be very good satyagrihis primarily because their courage would be absolutely essential to a nonviolent revolution. It is significant that Gandhi suspended ahimsa primarily in cases of wild animals and lunatics attacking humans. He was confident that fearless satyagrihis could always win the hearts of rational people, and he proved this in extremis in his famous encounter with Pathan warriors. The preferred alternative as always nonviolent resistance, and while violence may be a prudent action on occasion, it is never morally justified.
Returning now to nonviolence as a civic virtue, we can see that it is not only possible but preferable. Gandhi’s waxes unusually eloquent in his vision of such a state: “My notion of democracy is that under it the weakest should have the same opportunity as the strongest. That can never happen except through nonviolence. No country in the world today shows any[thing] but patronizing regard for the weak. The weakest, you say, go the wall. Take your own case.” Except for the European welfare states, this criticism remains as stingingly true as it was 60 years ago. Especially after the alleged success of welfare reform, conservatives are even more brash about their lack of compassion for the poor and dispossessed and their clarion call for bootstrapping. When half the farm workers in Southern California live in hovels in the arroyos, some within clear sight of trophy homes, Gandhi’s indictment, in the same passage as above, that “large holdings cannot be sustained except by violence, veiled if not open” still has validity.
Following the lead of Gandhi and constructive postmodernism’s fusion of the inner and outer, nonviolence would not be optional personal virtue but a required civic virtue. As future citizens, children should be taught that violence is never morally necessary and that conflicts should always be resolved peacefully. In a society not as steeped in violence as ours, the police, such as British Bobbies, could do most of their work unarmed, relying on SWAT teams only in extreme circumstances. The armed forces could also be established on the same principles with the use of violence only in a direct attack on the country. With regard to violence against animals, Gandhi’s doctrinaire vegetarianism, just as with his ideal of the ashram, will obviously not be practical. But the abolition of feed lots for cattle and fish farming would turn society in the right direction. Gruzalski uses just this example as way for Gandhians to show their preference for options that transform society with the goal of a less violent future than to insist on a totally unworkable shift to strict nonviolence. Gandhi actually accepts this less than ideal state: “A government cannot succeed in becoming entirely nonviolent, because it represents all the people. . . . But I do believe in the possibility of a predominantly nonviolent society.”
In an insightful article relating Gamwell’s reformed liberalism to the principle of nonviolence, Douglas Sturm adds much to the discussion of nonviolence as a civic virtue. Conceding that it would take a miracle in Hannah Arendt’s sense to turn America into a nonviolent society, he nonetheless believes that we should hold it as part of the “moral imperative” of all liberal democracies that seek to go beyond procedural liberalism. Sturm finds inspiration in the pragmatists: first, William James, whose “moral equivalent of war” Sturm reinterprets in terms of a civic commitment to nonviolent solutions; and second, John Dewey, in whom Sturm sees both the situated autonomy discussed above and a morally imbued liberalism that anticipates the reformed liberalism that Sturm defends. Gandhi’s call for manly virtues in his satyagrihis matches James’ proposal for martial virtues, which Sturm lists as “hardiness and discipline, competitiveness and honor, toughness and dutifulness.”
I agree with Sturm that these virtues are important, but I also agree that while these virtues may win the war, they are not necessarily the virtues that will maintain the peace nor will they contribute to human flourishing. These goals “may well required another set of virtues, not less difficult to attain, but more directly germane to, the moral imperative of enhancing the richness of our common life.” On this very point I am reminded of the contrast between austere and authoritarian Mozi, who, by using the marital virtues above, was effective in defending the weak from the strong, and Confucius, who allowed for a personal appropriation of social norms that aimed at maximizing individual excellence and social harmony. In my work on Gandhi I try to relate him to the general eudaimonism that I find in the Greeks, the Buddha (where sukha is roughly equivalent to eudaimonia), and the Confucians. In each we find the rich common life that Sturm finds as his ideal.
In reformed liberalism nonviolence will not be a mere strategy, a means to political ends; nor will it be an abstract rule of noninjury requiring strict compliance; rather, it will be a virtue, a cultured disposition to be mindful in thought, speech, and action. Sturm calls for an ontology of nonviolence that conceives its basis in a holistic interrelatedness, a premodern idea that informs constructive postmodernism. He finds such an ontology in this remarkable passage from Martin Luther King: “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.” This is vintage King, characteristic of his consummate rhetorical skills, but it also contains a strong echo of Martin Buber or perhaps even the Buddha. I choose a Buddhist ontology for Gandhian nonviolence, over the Vedantist reading than Sturm gives him, because Vedanta does not give Gandhi the strong notion of individuality that he always wanted. I argue that Buddhism, especially in form of Pali realism and pluralism, does this very well. Indeed, in the eight-fold path we may interpret right views, right action, etc. as “right for you,” drawing constructive parallels to the Confucian yi and Aristotle’s personal mean between extremes.
Strum rightly proposes that reformed liberalism must move from a distinctively masculine view of power as a zero-sum game to a feminine view of power sharing. Initially, it appears that Gandhi ties the virtues with virility as patriarchy always has. Gandhi declared that “nonviolent warfare” must be waged with the “masculine virtues”; and that "nonviolence. . . does not mean cowardice. It means the spirit of manliness in its perfection." On the other hand, Gandhi once said that he wanted to convert the woman’s capacity for “self-sacrifice and suffering into shakti-power." The Sanskrit shakti is the power of the Hindu Goddess and is a necessary attribute that the Goddess shares with everything in the universe. The Hindu Goddess theology essentially breaks the vicious cycle of the Vedic maxim that one gains power only at another's expense. Goddess theology is radically different; shakti is a power that all beings have and share by virtue of their very existence. It was a sign of his evolving perfection as a brahmachari that women always found Gandhi completely non-threatening in their presence and it may also be the reason why his grandniece always thought that there was nothing wrong with her sleeping with Gandhi on a regular basis.
Let us now summarize the argument. When Gandhi is talking about society as a whole, he usually speaks in pantheistic or organic holistic language that sounds strongly communitarian. On the other hand, his strong emphasis on individuals and their moral obligation to experiment with truth regardless of their peers sounds libertarian even anarchistic. I have chosen a reformed liberalism as means to bring these sometimes conflicting elements of Gandhi’s thought together. Furthermore, even when Gandhi speaks of “ever-widening, never ascending” circles of cooperation, contemporary Gandhians must admit that these circles are ever ascending within the framework of national and international laws and rights.
I have also shown that leading communitarians do not leave the fold of classical liberalism, and that their critique is one that is essentially internal to that tradition. Liberty, equality, and community are the three great classical liberal values and contemporary political theory must find some way maximize the value of each. That which is most clear in Gandhi’s moral and political message is that nonviolence cannot just be a personal virtue; rather, it must be a civic virtue, “an attribute of society,” as Gandhi somewhat exaggerates.
I must also reiterate Gandhi’s call for a nonmasculine way of viewing political power along the lines of the Hindu Goddess. In her best selling book The Mammoth Hunters Jean Auel weaves a grand story based primarily on her imagination, but also on a good grasp of paleoanthropology. Taking the existence of wide spread Paleolithic female figurines as her guide, she portrays early human beings as followers of the Great Mother. A Council of Sisters is the highest authority for these tribes, and the senior women are particularly strict about any expression of physical violence among their people. For young people who are caught fighting, the punishment is for them to be tied at the ankles for two days, a sanction that not only publicly shames them, but also forces the two youngsters to cooperate on every task that they do. The ultimate sanction in primordial societies is not death but banishment, a penalty worse than death for people so keenly aware of the Confucian dictum that “to human is to be two people.”
Finally, let me draw on some terms from B. K. Matilal in describing the options in contemporary political theory. He defines “singularism” as a position that denies that there can be more than one conception of the good, whereas “pluralism” is of course the view that there are multiple goods among which citizens should be free to choose. On the other hand, a relativist is one who believes that the values of one society are just as good as another’s. While some conservatives hold to singularism, Matilal believes that this is a mistake on their part. I believe that Matilal is correct in insisting that genuine conservatives, at least ones who wish to live in today’s liberal democracies, should give up singularism and join the pluralists. At the same time Matilal advises liberals that they should not be relativists; in other words, they should reject procedural liberalism and reform liberalism along the lines proposed in this essay, a liberalism that remains open to all points of view but at the same time affirms basic the liberal virtues discussed in this article.
R. K. Prabhu and V. R. Rao, eds., The Mind of the Mahatma (1967), p. 270.
Gandhi, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (New Delhi: Government of India Publications, 1959), vol. 10, p. 70.
George Kateb, “Democratic Individuality and the Claims of Politics,” Political Theory 12 (1984), p. 343 .
N. F. Gier, The Virtue of Non-Violence: From Gautama to Gandhi (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004).
It is significant that Wm. Theodore de Bary can speak of Confucian liberalism in The Liberal Tradition in China (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press of Hong Kong, 1983) and then switch to Confucian communitarianism without any major changes in his position (Asian Values and Human Rights: A Confucian Communitarian Perspective [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998]). De Bary does admit that civic institutions (xianguye) that once focused on personal and civic virtue were gradually became mostly empty affirmations of loyalty and obedience to the Emperor. De Bary demonstrates that the five human relationships were originally conceived as mutual interactions that always involved self-reflection and criticism. For example, the true minister was always one who could safely advise the emperor even though that advise might be critical of the ruler. Likewise, a wife could correct her husband for his faults without fear of retaliation.
I am indebted to Thomas Pantham for identifying these two Hindi terms. See his “Thinking with Mahatma Gandhi: Beyond Liberal Democracy,” Political Theory 11:2 (May, 1983), p. 165. What I call “constructive postmodern” Pantham calls “postliberal” or “postcapitalist,” although Gandhi never sought the abolition of capitalism but simply its thorough reform. Most capitalists, however, would probably not accept the constraints that Gandhi wishes to impose: “Under the new outlook multiplicity of material wants will not be the aim of life, the aim will be rather their restriction consistent with comfort. We shall cease to think of getting what we can, but we shall decline to receive what all cannot get” (Democracy: Real and Deceptive, ed. R. K. Prabhu [Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1961], pp. 76-77).
Amitai Etzioni, The Spirit of Community: Rights, Responsibilities, and the Communitarian Agenda (New York: Crown Publishers, 1993), pp. 201-02; Gerald Doppelt, “Beyond Liberalism and Communitarianism” in Universalism vs. Communitarianism: Contemporary Debates in Ethics (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), pp. 49-52.
Communitarian Charles Taylor argues that people of the world must come to the table of cultural dialogue and be ready to give up any values that they cannot defend. See “Conditions of an Unforced Consensus” in The East Asian Challenge for Human Rights, eds. J. R. Bauer and D. Bell (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).
See The Virtue of Non-Violence, chapters 8 & 9.
Doppelt, p. 51; see also Philip Selznick, “Social Justice: A Communitarian Perspective,” The Responsive Community 6:4 (Fall, 1996), pp. 13-25.
William Galston, “Rights Do Not Equal Rightness,” The Responsive Community 1:4 (Fall, 1991), p. 8.
For a fuller discussion of premodernism, modernism, and postmodernism see The Virtue of Non-Violence (chapter 1) and Spiritual Titanism (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2000), chapter 2.
See my Spiritual Titanism: Indian, Chinese, and Western Perspectives (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2000), chap. 1, last section. The preferred organic analogy is that of cells of the organism, not the natural hierarchy of some organs over others.
Michael Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 14.
Quoted in Jayantanuja Bandyopadhyaya, Social and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi (Bombay: Allied Publishers, 1969), p. 72; Gandhi, Harijan 9 (February 1, 1942), p. 27.
N. K. Bose, Studies in Gandhism (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Press, 1972), p. 63.
Anthony J. Parel, “Gandhi's Idea of Nation in Hind Swaraj," Gandhi Marg 13:3 (Oct.-Dec., 1991), p. 287. Parel observes that the Hindi translation of Hind Swaraj renders praja as rashtra and therefore obscures an important different that Gandhi wished to maintain.
Bhikhu Parekh, Gandhi's Political Philosophy (London: Macmillan, 1989), pp. 115-16.
Eleanor MacDonald, "Derrida and the Politics of Interpretation" in The Socialist Register 1990: The Retreat of the Intellectuals, eds. R. Miliband and L. Panitch (London: Merlin Press, 1990), p. 230. MacDonald surmises that Derrida would hold that "individuals are unable to represent their own interests, even to themselves" (p. 230).
Even though Thoreau initially goes further in this claim that a state governs best that governs not at all, he softens his views by admitting that paying taxes for schools and roads is permissible that a legitimate state is indeed possible.
Bondurant, The Conquest of Violence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, new rev. ed., 1988), pp. 177-78.
Gandhi, Collected Works, vol. 58, p. 219.
Gandhi, Democracy: Real and Deceptive, p. 73.
Gandhi, Collected Works, vol. 73, pp. 254-55; vol. 79, p. 390.
Alessandro Ferrara, “Universalisms: Procedural, Contextualist, and Prudential” in Universalism vs. Communitarianism, p. 26.
Parekh, op. cit., p. 26.
John Q. Wilson, “Liberalism, Modernism, and the Good Life” in The Seedbeds of Virtue, eds. Mary Ann Glendon and David Blankenhorn (Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1995), pp. 17-34.
Judith Martin, “The Oldest Virtue” in Seedbeds of Virtue, pp. 61-70.
Ames and Rosemont, The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation (New York: Ballantine Books, 1998), 2.3. I indicate the virtue ren* with an asterisk to distinguish it from ren as simply the human being.
Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace and Other Essays, trans. Ted Humphrey (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., 1983), p. 124.
Franklin I. Gamwell, Beyond Preference: Liberal Theories of Independent Associations (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 485.
Stephen Macedo, Liberal Virtues: Citizenship, Virtue, and Community in Liberal Constitutionalism (Oxford, 1990), p. 219. Macedo’s language also brings out an aesthetics of virtue that I discuss in chapter 6 of The Virtue of Non-Violence.
Majjhima-nikaya I.190-1, quoted in David J. Kalupahana, Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1976), p. 64.
Wilson, op. cit., p. 32.
Macedo, op. cit., p. 220.
D. K. Bedekar, Towards Understanding Gandhi, ed. R. Gawande (Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1975), p. 117.
Macedo, op. cit., p. 72.
Ibid., pp. 40, 41. Macedo offers some nice insights about today’s Nazis. By tolerating Nazis the liberal state tames them, requiring that they obey the laws and pay taxes to support the liberal state that they hate. “They cannot be ‘gung-ho’ Nazis, in fact they cannot be Nazis at all but only play at it” (p. 260).
Gandhi, Young India 6 (December 12, 1924), p. 424.
William T. Galston, “The Formation of Civic Character” in The Seedbeds of Virtue, p. 41.
Cited in ibid., after p. 44; A. A. Limpscomb, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Washington, 1903), vol. 6, p. 258.
Bart Gruzalski, On Gandhi (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson, 2001), p. 16.
Gandhi, Democracy: Real and Deceptive, p. 11.
Gandhi, My Socialism (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1959), pp. 50-51.
Douglas Sturm, “Reformed Liberalism and the Principle of Nonviolence,” Journal of Religion 71:4 (October, 1991), p. 481.
Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” cited in ibid., p. 490.
For a detailed argument see chapter five of The Virtue of Non-Violence.
M. K. Gandhi, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (New Delhi: Government of India Publications, 1959), vol. 19, p. 12.
Nair Pyarelal, Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1958), vol. 1, p. 574; 2nd ed., 1966, vol. 1, bk. 2, p. 219.
The Mind of the Mahatma, p. 270.
B. K. Matilal, Ethics and Epics: Philosophy, Culture, and Religion (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 242.