Gandhi Ethics Essay Eth/316

Theories are normally formed to display different beliefs. These theories are often used to help people try to figure out who they might become or where they might belong. The three main theories are the virtue, utilitarianism, and deontological theories. Each theory takes a different view on ethics and morals. Virtue ethics theory “we become good when we cultivate excellence (virtue) by pursuing the moderate course between excess and defect” (Boylan, 2009). This theory takes into question whether or not a person is judged by their actions or their character. If a person is judged by their actions, then the theory states that they are judged ethically. If a person is judged by their character, then they are judged morally. This theory states that there is always a constant internal fight between a person’s ethics and morals. Utilitarianism theory, “suggests that an action is morally right when that action produces


Nicholas F. Gier, Department of Philosophy, University of Idaho, Moscow, ID 83844-3016 (

from Gandhi Marg 23:3 (October-December, 2001), pp. 261-284


Permission to link article given by Mahendra Kumar, coeditor of Gandhi Marg


Note: Some endnotes may be incomplete or missing, and the argument for nonviolence as an enabling virtue has been rejected in the final version in The Virtue of Non-Violence: from Gautama to Gandhi (SUNY Press, 2004), chap. 9.


The following essay is the main chapter of a book manuscript entitled "The Virtue of Non-Violence: from Gautama to Gandhi." The book attempts to accomplish two principal goals: (1) to conceive of nonviolence from the standpoint of virtue ethics; and (2) to give Gandhi's philosophy a Buddhist interpretation.  My intent is not to foreclose on the possibility of a Hindu or Jain reading of Gandhi's work; rather, I argue that there are some distinct advantages in thinking of Gandhi as a Buddhist.  Writing to a Burmese friend in 1919, Gandhi said that "when . . . I became acquainted with the teaching of the Buddha, my eyes were opened to the limitless possibilities of nonviolence"; and he also said that the "Buddha taught us to defy appearances and trust in the final triumph of Truth and Love."[1]  Although Gandhi's neo-Vedantism is more compatible with Mahayana Buddhism, I will propose that the ethics of nonviolence works better with a Pali Buddhist view of the self and world.   This essay will focus on the first goal of explicating a virtue theory of nonviolence.


My task is not to give a full scale defense of virtue ethics, but I have appropriated the thoughts of the best virtue theorists, have added my own insights, and have applied then to Gandhi=s ethics.  Some of Gandhi=s ideas cannot be forced into this theoretical framework, so that means that Vedantist or theistic rule ethics are also options. Furthermore, Gandhi=s commitment to the Indian ascetic tradition and to a Hindu dialectic of extremes is not compatible with either the Buddhist Middle Way or the moderation of classical virtue theory.  Hindus are sometimes prone to, as Wendy Doniger describes it, to pursue a Doctrine of Golden Extremes, between excessive eroticism at one end and excessive asceticism at the other.  The more contemporary Gandhians stress this aspect of Gandhi=s philosophy the more difficult it will be to build an acceptable theory of nonviolent political activism that all people can embrace.


The first section will defend the priority of virtues over moral laws, demonstrating that, drawing on hackneyed phraseology, the virtues are ultimately blind without the abstract ideals embodied in moral rules, but these norms are empty without the particular achievements of the virtues.  The second section will discuss the traditional connection between virility and virtue, and, contrary to our first impressions, we will find that Gandhi completely subverts patriarchy=s bias on this issue. Gandhi speaks more of vows than virtues, so the third section will analyze the distinction between vows and virtues.  The fourth section will summarize Gandhi=s vows and propose that they can be reinterpreted as enabling virtues.  The fifth section deals with the Gandhian virtues, interpreting the unity of the virtues by means of practical reason and focusing on truth, love, courage, ahimsa, and humility.  The final section explicates the distinction between enabling and substantive virtues, joins Gandhi=s principal vows with the virtues of self-control, patience, and courage, and concludes that the virtue of nonviolence forms an alliance with these enabling virtues.



When one thinks of the question "Which came first--moral rules or virtues?" the obvious answer, I contend, is that virtues came first.  Moral imperatives are abstractions from thousands of years of observing loyal, honest, patient, just, and compassionate behavior, just as moral prohibitions have come from equally ancient experiences with the vices.  There is good evidence to argue that the expression of moral rules requires a spoken language and one could argue just as persuasively that virtues manifested themselves in prelinguistic human beings. For example, strong circumstantial evidence for compassion among the Neanderthals can be joined with the hypothesis that their very high larynx made it impossible to articulate the basic vowels. Michael Spangle and Kent Menzel state that "spoken language transformed our species and was a major factor in forging the human world as we know it." They also argue for the existence of an Aacoustic trigger to conceptualization@ that gestural language obviously lacks.  While there is now a consensus that gestures are integral to all natural languages (remarkably, even the blind gesture when they speak), it is generally agreed that they do not express abstractions very well at all.


It is even more clear that divine virtues precede divine law, because God=s virtues would remain even if God chose not to create a world.  The Pauline view that the Law was created only to manifest human sin further proves its contingency and confirms the idea of a "lawless" God before creation. For medieval nominalism the moral law characterizes what God has ordained (potentia ordinata) for a sinful world, and it is not part of God=s potentia absoluta.  Even though Aquinas maintains that there is practical as well as theoretical reason in GodBspecifically God would know the rule that good always excludes evilBthis argument is open to serious objections.  Furthermore, Gandhi speaks of God=s laws frequently and if he believes those laws are part of the nature of God, then a Gandhian virtue ethics is not possible.


Philosopher Leslie Stephen describes virtue ethics as follows: "Morality is internal.  The moral law. . . has to be expressed in the form, 'be this,' not in the form  'do this.' . . . The true moral law says 'hate not,' instead of 'kill not.' . . . The only mode of stating the moral law must be as a rule of character."  In other words, people of good character and virtue require no reminder of what the rules are or what their duty is.  For John Stuart Mill the application of internal sanctions had much more moral value than the imposition of external sanctions, those that most often used by parents and societies to control human behavior. Mill=s argument is persuasive: a society living under self-imposed vows would require few police, judges, and prisons thereby maximizing utility.  Generally speaking, the sanctions for virtue ethics are internal and self-regulating, whereas the sanctions for rule ethics, especially in its religious form, are external.  (Kant joins virtue ethics in favoring internal sanctions.)  For the Greeks, the Roman Stoics, Buddhists, and the Confucians, virtue was its own reward, but for most Christians, the incentive for good deeds is eternal life in heaven, with eternal damnation for those who do not follow the rules.


One of the problems with rule ethics is applying the rules to specific cases.  The imperatives of virtue ethics--be patient, be kind, be generous, be compassionate, be courageous--better equip an individual to negotiate the obstacles of the moral life.  The virtue ethics approach is not to follow a set of abstract rules, but to develop an ensemble of behaviors, dispositions, and qualities that lead to human excellence and the good life.  Virtue ethics may not have pat answers to specific cases--no ethical theory could offer this--but it does prepare the moral agent for adaptation, innovation, and self-discovery.  As Martha Nussbaum states: AThe good agent must therefore cultivate the ability to perceive and correctly describe his or her situation finely and truly, including in this perceptual grasp even those features of the situation that are not covered under the existing rule.@


Annette Baier=s analysis of trust is a good example of the specific adaptability of the virtues.  Rule based ethics and its contractarian social and political arrangements give the false impression that the essence of the moral life consists of conforming to general rules.  Obeying rules can be made specific in a legal contract, but it would of course be impossible to cover the exigencies of our lives with such formal arrangements.  It is the virtue of trust that is basic to human interactions and only a few of the myriad promises necessary for the smooth running of human life could ever be spelled out in contract form.  It would be not only be absurd but also a great insult to plumbers (Baier=s hilarious example) to Ahaving it in writing@ that they promise not to plant explosives in the pipes of the houses they visit.  Again it is the virtues that come first and they are the tools the do the work of the moral life.  As Martha Nussbaum so aptly states: AA good rule is a good summary of wise particular choices and not a court of last resort. Like rules in medicine and in navigation, ethical rules should be held open to modification in the light of new circumstances@


Interestingly enough, some virtuous behavior is not always required in cases that might call for it, while confirmation to rules demands no exceptions.  For example, generous people do not lose their virtue if they do not give to all charities as a Arule to give@ might command or certainly what Peter Singer requires for maximum world-wide utility.  Let us imagine a burning house where a hedonic calculator is indicating that it is too dangerous to go in and save the children inside.  While all utilitarians would be bound by the calculus and all Kantians would be bound by the rule that it is always irrational to go beyond one=s duty, virtue theory would allow people to act on their own personal mean between cowardice and foolhardiness. Turning to yet another virtue, it is clear that even the virtue of justice always amounts to more than simply conforming to the strict letter of the law.  The craft excellence of judicial review, as well as daily extralegal decisions, always lead to unique, distinctive, and noncompulsory results.


Another way to demonstrate the superiority of virtues over rules is to think of the life of the consummate couch potato. (This is very apt, as I come from a state that is famous for its potatoes.)  He is a  man who essentially lives and works on his couch.  His job is entering data via a modem attached to his computer.  It does not take much thinking to enter the data, so he is able to view his favorite TV shows all the time.  His refrigerator and microwave, of course, are handy for snacks, drinks, and frozen dinners.  Our sofa slug is also a very religious person.  He tunes into to his favorite TV preachers on Sunday morning and sends in his tithes by mail.  Finally, let us say that this man has never broken a law or committed a sin in his life.  According to Aristotle, such a life lacks virtually everything that counts as human excellence; and for Confucius, this man remains very much an uncut gem.  Our couch potato obeys all moral laws, but he does not aspire to cultivate the virtues of the good life.  According to rule ethics and traditional religion, however, this man is fully moral, and, assuming divine favor, saved as well.   Bernard Mayo clearly sees the implications of this example: "People might well have no moral qualities at all except the possession of principles and the will (and capacity) to act accordingly."  This appears to be a severe indictment for any rule-based ethics.

As we have seen, the sanctions of a rule-based ethics, in its religious form, are primarily external: rewards for those who do good and punishment for those who do evil.  This may lead to a mere moralism rather than a genuine morality based on internal sanctions and the view that virtue is its own reward.  Most people would agree that the latter is a more admirable form of ethical motivation, and we have seen that internal sanctions maximize utility. Most traditional religious ethics teaches us the wrong reasons to be moral.  We should become moral so as to become a better person and be an example to others, rather than for the purely selfish reasons of avoiding punishment.  Moral action should flow naturally from our selves; we should not have to be bribed to be moral.  Justice will not be achieved by following rules, it will only be attained, as Plato, Confucius, the Buddha, and Gandhi envisioned, by people with balanced and harmonious souls and the particular just acts that comes from such harmony.

Another concern about duty ethics is the problem of legalism.  True morality should be the foundation of law, and the virtues, as prior to law, would then serve as a guide and check to any law.   Humans acted courageously, justly, beneficently before they laid down rules regulating human behavior.  A rule-based ethics reverses this order.  It speaks of law, usually divine law, first, and moral rules come directly from the mind and mouth of the lawgiver.  But true morality must always serve as a check for the possibility of unjust laws.  If law and morality are the same, then this crucial idea of morality as the guardian of just law is undermined.  For example, most of my students are able to condemn Zeus and other Greek gods as immoral deities because of the basic intuition, central to virtue ethics, that virtue precedes law.  The king, earthly or heavenly, is not always right, and we must always guard against the false identity of the legislator and the source of the Good.

Yet another problem is the issue is freedom.  For Kant a duty is whatever one is forced to do according to the moral law, and the moral will lives by the dictates of reason.  This does not sound like freedom at all.  If the will is truly free, it must be free from reason as well. (Although virtue theory steers clear of all dichotomies, it is clear that it would be a form of moral voluntarism.) For Kant the consistently autonomous person would be one who can no longer choose the wrong and must always choose the right.  (This seems to be the implication in Platonic ethics as well.)  Virtue ethics, however, is free from these conundrums of moral rationalism. 

For Aristotle the virtues are dispositions that we freely choose to develop, and everyday we have to fine tune the moral means that are relative to us and our situations.  (It is true that after a short while the virtues become habits [ethike], but we are still fully responsible for actions that proceed from them.)  Rule morality recognizes no middle way and no variation on an absolute right.  Virtue ethics always aims at a personal mean that is a creative choice for each individual.  Such an approach engages the imagination and personalizes and intensifies moral responsibility.  While there can be no process of self-discovery in duty ethics, virtue ethics requires us to confront a growing, dynamic self in ever changing conditions.  Here again is the reason for the dynamic Buddhist self as opposed to the universal static self of Hinduism and Stoicism.



In the ancient world virtue was thoroughly gendered.  There was a strong connection between self-mastery, freedom, and virility.   (The Latin virtus stems from vir meaning Amanhood@ so that Roman virtue meant Aexcellence of manly qualities.@)  Aristotle=s conception of woman as an ill formed and irrational man was almost universally accepted.  Lacking reason the woman could not instill reason in those things without it, which of course the virtuous man could.  (This meant that the virtuous man could control his sexual appetites, but women in general could not.)  Greco-Roman ethics was, according to Foucault, an Aethics of men made for men, . . . a structure of virility that related oneself to oneself.@

Foucault also demonstrates that there was a close alliance among sexual virility, ethical virility, and social virility. The social hierarchy of virility and mastery produced interesting anomalies, such as the wife of the house being more masculine than the male slaves. Here the virtuous wife has these qualities only because she has imitated male self-mastery.  Foucault gives the example of Ischomachus= wife in Zenophon=s Oeconomicus who displays Amasculine understanding@ and is so well trained by her husband that she, like Plutarch=s barking dog, need hear his commands only once.Fourth Maccabees, a Hellenistic Jewish text, portrays the brave mother of seven boys as more masculine than Antiochus Epiphanes, the tyrant who tortures her sons to death. 

In both the Chinese and Indian traditions there is an intimate relationship between virtue and male power, although the Daodejing is one text that generally subverts male dominance.  In a famous passage Mencius connects the power of qi energy with the virtue of courage. The retention and concentration of qi is a central focus of the Chinese marital arts and spiritual discipline in general. In Asia there is a near universal dictum that the one who preserves his semen is the one to increases his spiritual power.  In some Asian traditions it is thought that a man loses a little of his soul every time he ejaculates.

Interestingly enough, the only Hindu god who is allowed to be depicted with muscles is the celibate Hanuman, the patron god of wrestlers.  Hanuman always preserves his tejas, the power of the male gods.  (Virya, linked to the Latin virtus, is another Sanskrit word for male power, with its meanings of manliness, heroism, and male seed.)  Tejas is not only an attribute of the gods and antigods (asuras), but it is also found in the Manus, sages, priests, kings, and ordinary men. The priest "takes on a physical form of brilliant energy (tejas) and attains the supreme condition . . . A; the king is "made from particles of these lords and gods, therefore he surpasses all living beings in brilliant energy (tejas)."  Tejas ebbs and flows, as can be seen in the man who breaks a vow of chastity, sheds his semen, and loses his tejas back to the gods. Also significant is the case of the man who loses his tejas by having sex with a menstruating woman, and the priest who loses his vitality by looking at a woman "putting on her eye make-up, rubbing oil on herself, undressed, or giving birth.  Even in their misogyny the author(s) of the Laws of Manu give a back-handed compliment to the power of woman.

Initially one=s impression of Gandhi is that he conforms to this traditional fusion of virtue and virility.  In fact, commentators have said that one of Gandhi=s greatest achievements was the he destroyed the Orientialist prejudice that the West was masculine and the East was feminineBsummed up aptly in John Strachey's description of the Bengalis="extraordinary effeminancy.@ Much of Gandhi=s rhetoric has strong martial overtones: such as Anonviolent warfare@ waged with the Amasculine virtues@; and "nonviolence. . . does not mean cowardice. It means the spirit of manliness in its perfection." Gandhi also follows the traditional Hindu belief that the life force with the seminal fluid: AAll power comes from the preservation and sublimation of the vitality that is responsible for the creation of life. . . Perfectly controlled thought is itself power of the highest potency and becomes self-acting. . . Such power is impossible in one who dissipates his energy in any way whatsoever.@

The young Gandhi was very much attracted to the manly virtue of the British and he was initially convinced of the widely held view that meat-eating was essential for nourishing a man=s vital energies.  His experiments with meat eating were a disaster and the recovery of his Hindu heritage (thanks to the theosophists in London) and his dramatic reconversion to vegetarianism were major turning points in his life.  As a result, a very different way of relating virtue to gender gradually arose in his thinking.  As he reflected back on his childhood, the power of "self-suffering," modeled perfectly in his devout mother, moved to the center of his struggle to find an acceptable philosophy of political engagement. Transgressions in Gandhi=s home were dealt with by self-punishment, which became the model of Gandhi=s insistence on performing others= penance for them. 

What the young Gandhi feared most at home was his father's self-suffering not his punishment, and the mature Gandhi had considerable success in applying this insight against the British. As the Rudolphs have shown, Gandhi discovered the connection between self-suffering and courage in his South Africa campaigns.  The virtues of patience, self-control, and courage (we will later define these as Aenabling@) were absolutely essential to defeat the temptation to retaliate and respond with violence.  Gandhi concluded that aggressive and retaliatory courage demonstrated a complete lack of self-control; it actually shows impotence rather than maniless. Satyagrahis must purge themselves of ill-will and their goal must be the bring out the goodness in their opponents.

Let us now move to the crux of the issues of self-suffering, courage, power, and nonviolence. Gandhi made it clear that each of these virtues were found most often in women. The textual and experiential evidence is quite persuasive:  "Has she not great intuition, is she not more self-sacrificing, has she not greater powers of endurance, has she not greater courage?" In 1936 he declared that ahimsa is embodied in the woman: she is "weak in striking. . . strong in suffering." The women around Gandhi were amazed about how comfortable they felt in his presence and how much of a woman he had become to them.  (AI hope you have not missed the woman in me," he once said.) His grandniece Manu considered Gandhi to be her new mother and simply could not understand all the controversy surrounding their sleeping with one another.

Gandhi once said that he wanted to convert the woman=s capacity for Aself-sacrifice and suffering into Shakti-power."  The Sanskrit shakti is the power of the Hindu Goddess and, as opposed to tejas, 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, explained superbly by Brian K. Smith, that one gains power only at another's expense.  The Vedic power game, as with most patriarchal concepts of power, is a zero-sum game.  Those who control the sacrifice, either by hook or by crook (with the gods dominating in the "crook" department), control tejas.  The result is constant battles between gods and antigods, gods and ascetics, priests and kings. Goddess theology is radically different: shakti is a power that all beings have by virtue of their very existence.  Ontologically speaking, tejas is a quality (seen most clearly in its meaning as fire as one of the primary elements of the basic substance [bhuta]) while shakti is the basic substance; or, more accurately, the basic process because Goddess philosophy is clearly more compatible with process, rather than substance, metaphysics.

The Goddess scriptures were written by men and her sacred sites were controlled by male priests, so it should not be surprising that she does not always speak with a woman=s voice.  In North India a husband must pay for fourteen recitations of the Devi-Mahatmya, the most famous Goddess scripture, in order to control an unruly wife, but he only has to pay for twelve recitations to defeat an enemy. A recitation of the same text may also protect a Hindu male's genitals and semen and help him get a good wife.   Every year, at the beginning of the warring season, Hindu kings sacrificed thousands of animals to the Goddess so that their battles would go well.  Mythologically, this translated into the Goddess winning the great victories over the enemies of the Dharma with incredible acts of violence and destruction. At the 1999 Durga festival in Calcutta, clay statues brave Indian soliders were added to the traditional neighborhood altars to demonstrate how the Goddess made their victory in Kargil possible.

Significantly, Gandhi embraces Goddess theology in a manner more consistent than these traditional views. The most dramatic demonstration of Shakti power was Gandhi=s pacification of the Pathan warriors, whom Kipling praised as the notable exception to the cowardly effeminancy of the Indian people. ABrave they are as a matter of course,@ said Gandhi,  A[and] to kill and get killed is an ordinary thing in their eyes, and if they are angry with anyone, they will thrash him and sometimes even kill him.@ Ironically, the Pathan=s disposition to anger and uncontrolled retaliation describes the masculine version of the Goddess=s action, while Gandhi unarmed moral courage in front of them is more consistent with the shakti view of shared power. Indeed, Gandhi=s Goddess does not decapitate nor does she impale; rather, she disarms and attempts to reconcile warring peoples.  Therefore, when Gandhi states that "all power comes from the preservation and sublimation of the vitality that is responsible for the creation of life@ he must be referring to shakti not tejas.



Even though Gandhi does speak of the virtues and even nonviolence as one, my attempt to make Gandhi a virtue ethicist is complicated by the fact that Gandhi emphasized vows more than virtues.  The fact that a person has to make a vow to discourage certain behavior clearly indicates that this person is not naturally inclined to the virtuous action that counters the vice.  Even if this person is successful in her vow, she may still be virtuous only, as I say, under duress--the pressures of temptation to lapse from the vow.  Gandhi believed that the greatest human failing is was weakness of the will, and the taking of vows is the best cure for akrasia. In Aristotle=s terms the person who takes a vow is an akrates, literally one without the will overcome temptation.  The enkrates is one who has sufficient will to resist but has not formed the habit of living naturally in the mean of the virtue in question.   Aristotle calls the latter a sophron, one who, as Confucius said of himself at the age of seventy: AI could give my heart-mind free rein without overstepping the boundaries@ (Analects 2.4).

Let us illustrate this distinction with the following story.  Jack and Jill work as temporary tellers at a bank.  The bank has only one permanent teller position open, and either Jack or Jill will be chosen for the job after a probationary period.  As soon as he is on the job, Jack finds that he has strong temptations to embezzle funds from this new employers.  He finds these temptations so troubling that he decides to take a solemn vow not to follow through with these intentions.  The vow works and Jack makes it through the probationary without succumbing. Meanwhile at the other station, Jill goes through her daily routine not once thinking of stealing funds.

Our story obviously makes Jack the enkrates and Jill the sophron. (He would be an akrates without the vow.) First, note how absurd it would be for anyone to suggest that Jill needs to take the vow that Jack has taken.  Second, both Jack and Jill are deserving of praise, but note that while we would commend Jill for her virtue, we can praise Jack only for his will power to resist temptation.  We may believe that Jack=s action has moral content, and some may even propose that Jack deserves higher praise.  (In fact, Immanuel Kant supports this view because we know for sure that Jack is being honest out of duty and not just mere inclination, while Jill=s easy virtue obscures her commitment to duty.)  But I contend that more dramatic examples of duress virtue--the person who has strong urges to murder every person that she meets but always manages to restrain herself; or the man who wants to rape every woman he meets but desistsBdemonstrates that there may be no moral value to Jack=s heroic efforts. Third, let us say, just for the sake forcing the argument, that the bank managers somehow learn of Jack=s temptations.  (He frequently mutters to himself and pounds himself on the forehead like Gandhi used to do.) It is clear that bank managers will obviously not be able to trust Jack and that they will offer the job to Jill without hesitation.

The point of the argument thus far is to suggest that an ethics of virtues and a morality of vows are conceptually divergent and may also assume significantly different views of human nature and the nature of evil.  It has been said that Aristotle did not fully appreciate the depth and extent of human evil.  While he can envision a person with insufficient will to follow the mean, he cannot conceive of a person who deliberately wills evil and certainly not one who would actually take pleasure in it.  It is significant that for Aristotle the only one Awith will@ (the literal meaning of enkrates) is the person who stays in the mean under duress not the person with the will to deliberately do evil.  Aristotle does admit that persistent misfortunate (Oedipus is a good example) can destroy the conditions for personal happiness. The Stoics, however, read the external world as one of insurmountable misery and the Christian view of original sin further undermined the optimism and perfectionism of the classical Greeks.

The Stoics= contribution to virtue ethics is considerable, but ironically they were responsible for its eventual demise.  As we have seen, the Stoics reaffirmed the concept of virtues as skills and the fact that they are whole the entire time they are expressed.  However, their devaluation of the affective dimensions of the human soul led to a position where virtue was an internal process of conformation to cosmic reason and its laws. The Stoic withdrawal from the world and from the body led to a rejection of the empirical ego in favor of a universal self, one, as Epictetus said, who never sleeps, is never deceived, and always knows the good. The Stoics then set the stage for the full decline of virtue ethics in Christian philosophy. There is no good except obedience to law, whether it be given by reason or God, whether it be by divine command or out of the divine nature.  Furthermore, the Stoic view that success is not necessary for virtue leads, ironically, from Augustine to Kant, to the view that the virtues are not necessary for morality at all.  Only Thomas Aquinas, under Aristotle=s profound influence, resisted this destruction of the classical virtue tradition.

Augustine=s emphasis on original sin and the omnipotence of God led him to reject the Greek view that we can develop the virtues on our own power.  The dual emphasis on sin and omnipotence also results in a paradoxical position on the resolution of evil.  For the Greeks, those who experience great misfortune had no recourse except to endure it, and in Oedipus at Colonus the hero, comforted by his equally brave daughters, accepts his fate with grace and equanimity.  For the Christian, however, the extent and depth of evil is much greater and punishment for sin is infinite torment. Some are surprised to learn that even Kant believed in radical evil, the original sin against the moral law that produces "infinite guilt." As Kant states: "It would seem to follow, then, that because of this infinite guilt all mankind must look forward to endless punishment and exclusion from the Kingdom of God." On the bright side, the promise of God=s grace offers final and complete relief from all misfortune and suffering.  For the Greeks, the stakes are lower but complete reconciliation is impossible; for the Christians the stakes are much higher but for the sincere person a ready solution is right at hand.  As Christine MacKinnon states: AThe problem for the agent who disobeys God is that the stakes are so high: the fate of his soul must be the most important thing the agent is to consider when he contemplates his welfare.@

Augustine=s position also resulted in a distinctively European focus on the will and its alleged freedom, a view of the will that one does not find in ancient philosophy either Asian or European.  (I qualify this freedom because  Augustine's God empowers those who turn away from him just as he empowers those to turn to him in grace.)  This focus on the will and sin has subtly transformed our intuitions about the enkrates and the sophron. It culminates in Kant=s position that the enkrates is the only one that we know is conforming to moral law and the only one whose action has moral worth.  The emphasis on sin has led us to suspect people like Jill; indeed, for people who love to speak of such things, it is the Devil who prefers to disguise himself as a person easy virtue and elegant manners.  For Christians committed to original sin the sophron must either be an illusion, or at least secretly bad, at worst Satan in disguise, or at best the incarnation of God himself.  In such a view perfection of this sort is not of this world.

Returning now to Gandhi, it appears that the taking of vows is necessarily connected to rule ethics rather than virtue ethics.  A vow can be best seen as the self-enforcement of a rule. Gandhi is definitely more like Kant than Aristotle if the Rudolphs are correct is saying that he held that "only self-control in the midst of temptation was worthy."[28] Was Gandhi=s view of human nature so negative that he concluded that vows rather than the free development of virtues was the only option for humankind?  This, I submit, is not Gandhi=s view.  His neo-Vedantist view of the self and his negative views of the body and the passions, however, align him very closely with the Stoics.  As one of my bright ethics students once said, ADuress virtue is the father of natural virtue,@ so we might think of Gandhi=s vows as instruments to train satyagrahis to develop the virtues necessary for world peace.  One could envision, especially within the context of Hindu perfectionism, the Gandhian gradually moving from the enkrates state to that of the sophron.  Theoretically, however, the neo-Vedantist position requires that we view the Atman as already morally perfect, so this would be a "recovery" rather than a "developmental" view of the virtues.  I personally support the latter and that is why I propose the Gandhi=s ethics of nonviolence be reformulated along Pali Buddhist lines, for most Mahayana Buddhist schools have reinstated the Higher Self of Vedanta.



Returning to the proposal that Gandhi=s vows could turn into virtues that people could enjoy, a critic might raise an obvious objection.  Why did the Mahatma himself never make this transition and why did he have to struggle with temptation all his life, even to the point of frequently striking out against himself for his failings?  His closest associates uniformly attest to frequent outbursts of anger.  Here is one of Manu=s observations: AWhile he was pouring out his soul like this [objecting to good wool used as garlands], he looked the very picture of a volcano in eruption.@ This is not an image of Aristotle=s sophron.  Before 1906, when he took the first the vow of brahmacharya, he admitted that he was an akrates, one who not only lacked the will to deny himself the pleasures of sexual intercourse but also one who had insufficient faith in the grace of God. In 1939 he spoke of evil as a real force in the world and admitted that he had much of it in him. Here is strong evidence that Gandhi cannot join Confucius, the Buddha, or Aristotle in a humanistic developmental virtue ethics. With their emphasis on evil and divine grace, the passages above are strong support for a Christian rule and duty ethics.

Gandhi believes that vows Acan be taken only on points of universally recognized principles,@ and they are taken with the higher self as witness and the lower self and its desires as the object of control.  Typically, Gandhi moves from Vedantist monism to personal theism with no hesitation. God is the perfect model of inflexible resolve, because, as Gandhi explains, AGod is the very image of the vow.  God would cease to be God if He swerved from His own laws even by a hair=s breadth.@ Gandhi, according to Suman Khanna, believed a vow to be a Asacred commitment to God@ and that Abreaking a vow is tantamount to a breach of faith with God on the one hand, and being untruthful to oneself on the other.@ Taking a vow is a way of grabbing hold of the Good=God and not letting it go.

The Sanskrit word for vow is vrata and its earliest use in the Rigveda is linked to divine will or command.  For Khanna a vow is an internal sanction: a Acommitment to an injunction voluntarily imposed one oneself.@   For Gandhi a vow means having Aunflinching determination [that] helps us against temptation,@ so vow taking for him appears to be a form of duress virtue. It is a way of storming the fortress of virtue and overcoming all odds and succeeding. Presumably it is the only possible way to coerce yourself along the way of moral perfection.  Brahmacharya does not become the effortless disposition required by the sophron; rather, Ait is like walking on the sword=s edge, and I see every moment the necessity for eternal vigilance.@ (Here again is the Hindu dramatic vision of extremes rather than calm Buddhist Middle Way.) While in South Africa he convinced himself that he could maintain his vows with Ano effort@ by simply holding to his diet of fruit and nuts, although he did find that adding milk made the vow difficult again.  But these suggestions that humans on their own power can consummate their vow are undermined by the strong assertion that brahmacharya is Aimpossible to attain by mere human effort.@

Gandhi=s language is ambiguous and not always consistent, so it is always difficult to determine whether this is a Stoic-Kantian model or a traditional Christian one, in which a transcendent God is directing the moral life.  The Christian view is seen in Gandhi=s strong hints that divine grace is necessary: AWin divine grace for us in good time, and all artificial tastes will then disappear with the realization of the Highest.@ The Vedantist Gandhi would of course follow the Stoics and Kant, with Atman as the immanent divinity giving itself (=gracing itself) the same cosmic laws that others in tune with their higher selves would do.  When we read that "the straight way to cultivate brahamacharya is the Ramanama [repeating the name of the god Rama]"; or that the initial vow of 1906 was successful only Awith faith in the sustaining power of God,@ then the theistic perspective appears to dominate.

Before we analyze Gandhi=s principal vows, we should discuss the additional vows that Gandhi added, consistent with his contextual pragmatism, for 20th Century India.  The addition of these vows can be seen as the direct result of Gandhi=s experiments in truth: they are, as he says, Adirectly deducible from Truth.@ Furthermore, each them stands in considerable conflict with traditional Hindu dharma.  The phrase Adeducible from Truth@ implies logical deduction and a necessary relation between premisses and conclusions.  We have seen, however, that Gandhi=s experiments in truth is thoroughly empirical and, in addition, as Athey are enjoined by the present age,@ it is clear that they are fully contingent.  Indeed, if the socioeconomic conditions that caused the need for these addition vows change, then the vows would no longer be necessary. Therefore, we can establish a distinction between basic and necessary vows, such as brahmacharya, based as they are on certain facts of human nature that will not change, and contingent vows determined of the conditions of the Apresent age.@

First and foremost among the contingent vows is Gandhi=s demand that all Indians commit themselves to the elimination of untouchability.  Although many contemporary Indians still have great difficulty with this imperative, the central government has implemented, not of course without protest and controversial, a quota system for the scheduled castes, more generally known today as the Dalits.  The second vow of bread labor also conflicts with traditional dharma in that it requires all people regardless of caste/class to involve themselves in the dignity producing activity of physical labor.  Indeed, Gandhi recommends that every person commit herself/himself regularly to the lowest menial labor as a gesture to those who have done these jobs for centuries.  (Gandhi himself went one step further and prayed that he be reborn an untouchable.)  The third vow of sarvadharma samabh~va extends the elimination of caste distinction to the tolerance of all religious faiths.  The conceptual similarity is deeper at the practical level: Gandhi proposed that we not merely tolerate other religions but actually attempt to step into their precepts and their forms of life.

The fourth and final vow for the present age is the vrata of swadeshi, which is best translated as Aself-realization@ and is expressed personally and socially in a life of communal self-sufficiency.  In the context of Vedantist philosophy, self-realization is the discovery of the Atman common to all people, so that the traditional concept of autonomy is eliminated in the vow Aof selfless service. . . and the purest ahimsa, i.e., love.@ Gandhi appears to equivocate on the contingent nature of swadeshi when he states that it Astands for the final emancipation of the soul from her earthly bondage.@  This not only implies a necessary connection to human nature (thus making it a basic vow), but the Vedantist overtones make this move highly problematic for the social dimensions of swadeshi and the fully embodied self that this vow requires. 

These fundamental problems are occasion to reaffirm a basic thesis of this book: a Buddhist relational self is much better suited to swadeshi in that it prevents the loss of personal identity that all forms of Vedanta imply (and that Advaita Vedanta asserts) and fully situates the self in the body and society.  For example, it is hard to understand how Acultivating self-confidence@ has any meaning if the individual self is ultimately unreal.  This self-confidence, Gandhi claims, is necessary for courage, a virtue that is intelligible only on the basis of personal integrity and agency.  To say that Atman is fearless, when this entity has, strictly speaking, no qualities, is to say nothing at all.  Furthermore, a Buddhist interpretation would bring Gandhi=s ethics back from the extremes that his vows tend to take him and encourages the contemporary Gandhian to follow the Middle Way.

Returning to the basic vows, brahmacharya is the supreme vrata that essentially includes all the others.  It literally means Adwelling in Truth=God [brahma]@ and Nirmal Kumar Bose explains that it is Aconduct that puts one in touch with God.@  Generally taken to be a vow of chastity, Gandhi insists that it is much broader than that:

[chastity] is impossible without proper control over all the senses.  They are all interdependent. Mind on the lower plane is included in the senses. Without control over the mind, mere physical control, even if it can be attained for a time, is of little or no use.

Control of the mind is obtained by taking the vow and initiating willful power over the senses.  The goal of brahmacharya is nothing less than complete control of  Athought, word, and deed.@  In his Autobiography Gandhi claims that satyagraha would not have been possible without first succeeding in this supreme vow.

Gandhi offers a provocative connection between brahmacharya and nonviolence when he proposes that Alying naked with a naked member of the opposite sex is the ultimate test for not doing violence to another.@ The axiom appears to be that if you can overcome the temptations of sex, then you will also overcome the temptation to do violence and to retaliate.  It is also an expression of great courage, sufficient to withstand the criticism of those who objected to such a risky experiment. When it comes to sexual temptations, the isolated ascetic, according to Gandhi, does not fully trust himself.  He is actually a coward if he does put his self-control to the ultimate test.

Interestingly enough, Gandhi adds control of the palate (asvada) to the traditional list of Hindu vows. Its literal meaning is not to eat merely for the taste of food.  Gandhi firmly believes that food should sustain the body not please the palate.  It is clear that this amounts to more than Aristotle=s mean between gluttony and fasting.  It also raises the issue about Gandhi=s own fasting and perhaps yet another difference between vows and virtues.  Vows, at least in Gandhian practice, tends to the extreme whereas classical virtue theory sought the mean in all actions. Aristotle, Confucius, and the Buddha would all agree that Gandhi=s fasts unto death would constitute a vice and not a virtue. (It is significant that Aquinas also argued that fasting was a vice.) One could contend that such fasts do in fact violate asvada insofar as its positive implication is that food is required for human nourishment.  Gandhi actually sounds very Aristotelian, even Buddhist, when he proposed that we must always be mindful and adjust our food intake according to our own bodily needs.  (In terms of our discussion of experiments in truth, we could say that to eat more than we need is to be untruthfulBin the strict factual sense that our bodies do not need the extra calories.) The body must therefore be kept fit for spiritual service.  This positive imperative of asvada is therefore at odds with a political fast unto death in which the constant worry of course was Gandhi=s health.

With regard to the vows of asteya (nonstealing) and nonpossesion (aparigraha) Gandhi proposed an experiment in truth that tested the full implications of these vows.  (The meaning of truth most appropriate for these two vows is the Greek sense of nonconcealment [aletheia]).  Gandhi=s special way to test his own and any possible thief=s commitment to asteya was to leave all possessions in the full light of day.  (In his controversial tests of brahmacharya he also insisted on open sleeping arrangements to demonstrate that his bed partners were not his sexual possessions. (This seems to imply that the veiling of women is a major violation of asteya.) Not concealing your possessions means that you confuse potential thieves in a way that can best help them overcome their temptations.  They would also be morally disarmed by your lack of concern for your possessions and could very well serve as a way of shaming them to realize their own extreme possessiveness.  In fact, it seems to be a rule that the more people possess the more they are forced to conceal and to secureBsometimes a great cost and inconvenience to themselves. Gandhi believes that to look with envy at the possessions of another is to violate asetya, and even the one who fasts sins if he casts a desirous eye at any food.  Gandhi makes the vow of nonpossession so comprehensive that he concludes that Aeveryone of us is consciously or unconsciously more or less guilty of theft.@  Again Gandhi=s ethics of vows tends to the extreme rather than the mean.  Even the most accomplished (=spiritual) fasters hallunicate about food, so Gandhi appears to be in strict agreement with the Yoga-sutras which requires that one not only control all conscious desires but also unconscious ones as well.

The fifth and final vow is fearlessness (abhaya) and the fact that this vrata is related to the virtue of courage allows us to make a transition from vows to virtues; or to anticipate our goal more precisely--to reinterpret the vows as enabling virtues later in this chapter.  Except for brahmacharya, each of the vows is expressed with the Indo-European Aa@ privative: no stealing, no possession, and no fear.  This form of expression intensifies the notion of extremes in Gandhi=s ethics of vows.  For Aristotle, having no fear could be foolhardy and dangerous and would not always be what right reason (phronesis) requires.  Suman Khanna, however, argues that Gandhi believes that the virtue (not vow) of humility is a precondition for all the vows.  Proper humility prevents foolhardiness because the humble person does not overestimate Aone=s resources of courage.@  We shall follow Khanna=s constructive proposal in the next section where will discuss Gandhi=s virtues.  Before we do so, there is one issue that requires attention.  Gandhi claims that abhayaAconnotes freedom from all external fear@ and the key to this freedom is to distinguish between our true spiritual natures and our bodies.  The reader should not be surprised that I encourage contemporary Gandhians to reject this advise and embrace a fully embodied self that an ethics of nonviolence and political engagement requires.



The evidence for a Gandhian virtue ethics is considerable.  Central passages are the following:   

Education, character and religion should be regarded as convertible terms.  There is no true education which does not tend to produce character, and there is no true religion which does not determine character.  Education should contemplate the whole life. . . . I have no faith in the so-called system of education which produces men of learning without the backbone of character.

I have felt during the whole of my public life that what we need, what any nation needs, but we perhaps of all the nations of the world need just now, is nothing else and nothing less than character building.

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.

Refusing to separate the private from the public, Gandhi insisted that spiritual, moral, and civic virtues are all united.

A Buddhist Gandhi would follow the developmental model of virtue formation found in Aristotle and Confucius.  The recovery model--found in Plato, the Stoics, a few neo-Confucians, some Mahayana schools, and VedantaBholds that moral education involves coming in touch with a higher self that its already perfect.  In terms of a Hindu ethics of nonviolence this would mean that one acts out the Atman of perfect virtue rather than a self-centered jiva.  In this model a vow is a life long requirement to keep the violent ego in control.  Only in the perfected yogi would the vows fall away as unnecessary. Suman Khanna suggests the developmental model for Gandhi when she states that the commitment of a vow Abecomes effortless, just as the forming of good habits first needs continual effort of the will but later grows into character, from which good choices issue forth with ease.@

If we analyze the list of Gandhi=s vows and virtues, we notice at least two interesting points.  First, Gandhi considers chastity both a vow and a virtue, and in his detailed comments on Hind Swaraj Anthony Parel calls the vow of nonpossession a virtue.  If these are virtues in the traditional sense of a disposition that becomes habitual rather than constantly self-imposed, then the developmental thesis is supported. Second, humility is a virtue not a vow, and Gandhi is very careful to distinguish between the two categories with regard to humility. Gandhi maintains that one cannot take a vow to become humble.  Humility does not involve a specific decision or course of action.  As he states: AHumility . . . does not lend itself to being deliberately practised.@ Objections immediately arise. Is not reducing ourselves to zero a specific decision and action?  Doesn=t Gandhi contradict himself when he states that Atrue humility means most strenuous and constant endeavor entirely directed towards the service of humanity@? We will return to the virtue of humility at the end of this section.

Gandhi joins the ancient virtue traditions by strongly supporting the unity of the virtues.  To interpret this doctrine as the claim that the virtues have no differences whatsoever is of course absurd.  For the Greeks the virtues were one in the sense that virtue is knowledge.  Each of them is formed according to right reason. For Aristotle the moral virtues are the same because they are products of phronesis, and they are different because of the many different spheres of action in which phronesis works.  Phronesis operating in the sphere of self-worth becomes pride, just as temperance is the result in the area of controlling the appetites. I propose that Gandhi follows Aristotle by having truth unify the virtues.  Following Jean Porter=s analysis of Aquinas, I also concur with her emphasis on the dialectical relation between phronesis and the virtues: the former not only finds the mean for the latter but the development of the moral virtues aids practical reason in clarifying and fine tuning the goals of the good life.  The moral virtues embody truths just as much as practical reason itself does.

Alan Donagan=s maintains that unifying the virtues in phronesis produces only a trivial truth: ACertainly Thomas= doctrine of the unity of the virtues follows if every virtue is defined as a disposition that accords with right reason.  But why so define themBexcept to secure the result?@ It seems to me, however, that as right reason is always relative to individuals and their circumstances, then their moral truths are synthetic rather than analytic.  These propositions would obviously have specific empirical content as well as formal truth.  (This makes ANever eat too much@ a synthetic a priori proposition, because the formal truth is necessarily joined with unique and distinctive empirical content in every single eater.) If the mean between extremes were arithmetic and the same for all persons, a view that Aristotle explicitly rejects, only then would the results of practical reason be trivially true.

In chapter 4 we have argued that Gandhi=s experiments in truth is a contextual and pragmatic search for particular moral truths for particular situations.  This means that the traditional truths about brahmacharya are deconstructed and then reapplied in a constructive postmodern sense. Writing from the Yeravda prison in 1932, he states that Atruth is the end, love is the means thereto.@  For Gandhi true love is the Aactive state of ahimsa,@ and courage is following one=s own truth even to the point of ridicule and rejection. The virtues of integrity and sincerity, being true to oneself, are also necessary virtues in the search for truth.  We have already proposed a parallel between the relationship of truth to God in Gandhi to the Confucian idea of Heaven=s sincerity.  The sage or saint are sincere in the same way that Heaven is: they are both constant and totally predictable; they are both true themselves and true to the present age.

It is significant that Gandhi speaks much more of self-control than temperance; in fact, the latter is seldom found in his writings. In talk about the virtues the two are often conflated, when in fact they are distinct in a very important sense.  The very construction of the phrase Aself-control@ implies that one is engaging the will to restrain the appetites.  This describes the enkrates rather than sophron, who is essentially the embodiment of temperance (sophrosyne), the one who does not have to exert his will to stay in the mean.  Gandhi thought that one the greatest Indian vices was the lack of self-control. The Rudolphs diagnose the origins of this problem: "The severe emphasis on self-restraint [in the Indian tradition], on formality and harmlessness, may well be allied to the omnipresent fear of loss of self-control."[66] This emphasis on self-control rather than temperance indicates an ethics of vows and duties rather than virtues.

Raghavan Iyer offers an alternative framework for the Gandhian virtues in his observation that "Gandhi tended to assimilate all the virtues to that of moral courage."  Even in his time Aristotle had realized that courage was more than just the physical bravery of his Greek forefathers, who Astrutted their stuff@ with drawn swords.  Susanne and Lloyd Rudolph distinguish between physical bravery--not being afraid to use violence to defend one=s home and principles--and Gandhi=s nonviolent moral courage as the will not to retaliate in the face of violence. [68] Recall that Confucius warned his disciples that many people could be brave without being ren, the obvious implication being that truly courageous people know and trust themselves so well that the force of their virtue (the Chinese de expresses this idea perfectly) tends to pacify any dangerous situation.  We have seen that Gandhi was able to convinced the physically brave Pathan warriors to change their ways by his moral courage. In terms of the aesthetics of virtue and the power of de it is significant that Confucius and his disciples were able to fend off an attack simply by singing.

Gandhi speaks of active nonviolence as both love and truth, so yet another profitable way to see Gandhian virtues is through the virtue of love.  Here is a crucial passage:

In its positive form, ahimsa means the largest love, the greatest charity.  If I am a follower of ahimsa, I must love my enemy.  I must apply the same rule of the wrong doer who is my enemy or a stranger to me, as I would to my wrong-doing father or son.  This active ahimsa necessarily includes truth and fearlessness. 

Here we see the frequent trinity of truth, courage, and ahimsa as cardinal Gandhian virtues.

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