Secularism: Its Content and Context:

Gandhian fraternity

posted by Akeel Bilgrami

This post continues and extends Bilgrami’s earlier reply to Uday Mehta.—ed.

In expounding his misgiving about the humanism I proposed, Uday Mehta seeks—I think with some strain—to find an incompatibility between my ideal of fraternity and what I say in another essay of mine on Mahatma Gandhi in which I point out that, for Gandhi, one overcame relativism by presenting the moral truth (as one sees it, though, to repeat, that goes without saying) to others through exemplary living up to it in one’s actions and not by subsuming it under a universalized principle and generating an imperative. I don’t see any such incompatibility and I think that he only finds it because of the misreading of what I mean by fraternity that I have been trying to expose in this reply. He says:

He [Gandhi] made himself, as Bilgrami has…argued in another essay, exemplary and through that generated a convivial, one might say fraternal, radiance, which often moved his opponents.

And then later, after some examples and descriptions of how Gandhi went about being exemplary, he says:

This was also Gandhi’s way of going beyond the impasse of relativism and neutrality without having to rely on Hegel’s reason in history to sustain, as in the case of Bilgrami’s humanism, his confidence in secular liberal outcomes.

I don’t believe that Gandhi is well served by this conclusion.

When one sets an example to others by one’s actions, one tries to get them to perceive in one’s actions a reason for them to act in a certain way. So there is no incompatibility between the highly selective use that I make of Hegel’s idea of reason in history and Gandhi’s efforts at providing reasons by exemplary action. Mehta seems to think that Gandhi is opposed to providing reasons. He is not. He is opposed to a particular canonical conception of reasons that, as it happens, is found in a certain dominant strand in the history of Western thought (Kant’s moral philosophy being the most prominent and explicitly articulated representative of the strand). Being given a reason to act in a certain way by perceiving it in someone’s exemplary act is a form of access to reasons that is to be distinguished from access to reasons via the apprehension of universalized principles. It is to see the reason directly in the exemplary action; it is not to get access to it via some universalized principle that the action falls under (or generates). We would only fail to count perception as a source of reasons if we had a conception of reasons that regarded them as always flowing from some sort of reasoning. But it is precisely that sort of picture of reasons that Gandhi was denying and I don’t see why the selectively Hegelian picture I was presenting should always commit itself to deliberative forms of reasoning. No doubt sometimes reasons come to us via our deliberation. And, though I do mention deliberation in my paper, I have no commitment to internal reasons always being the outcome of deliberation. History can present us with encounters and situations that shift our way of thinking by our simply coming to see things differently than we hitherto have done.  The perception of someone’s or some action’s exemplariness is just as good a source of reasons for one as one’s cogitation and deliberation. Such a conception of reasons presupposes the idea that evaluative phenomena (values, in short) are properties in the perceptible world, which make normative demands on us (i.e., present us with reasons to act) when we perceive them. This idea is very important in Gandhi, as it is to me. But that is (and has been) a theme for other occasions. (I have written on it extensively in my writings on Gandhi other than the essay Mehta cites.)

Mehta says that he would like to extract something of relevance for fraternity from the fact that Gandhi “gave something of himself” in his effort to convince others of the truth, as he saw it. (At one point, his actual term is “wagering something of himself,” but that has too much of a ring of drawing up some sort of agreement, which doesn’t quite fit Gandhi”s way of proceeding.) I think this is a good thing to try and extract. But the bearing it has on my views is not what Mehta says it is. He is right to say that Gandhi did not simply pronounce that something is the truth, and leave it there. Since I was always clear that I don’t think humanism (even in my limited sense) is achieved just by caring for the truth, my position can’t possibly be seen as denying this. For him, Gandhi after fastening on some truth, went on to do those sorts of things that gave of himself so as to attempt to include others in the truth (as he saw it) and in doing so he signaled more human forms of caring and fraternity than my ideal. Let me for the sake of convenience simply dub this, as I already have, “the traditional” or “standard” form of fraternity,” which has its sources in things less “thin” (something Mehta seems to require fraternity to have, if it is to be any kind of fraternity) than “inclusion into the truth,” things such as compassion for others and “familial” (also Mehta’s word) forms of support in human relations. I don’t deny that Gandhi’s exemplary acts in which he gave of himself, signal this, though I wonder if “signal” is the best term to have used, unless one is clear that it is only a metaphor (“reflect” might be better since it doesn’t convey anything necessarily intentional). But even if they do signal or reflect these thicker sources of fraternity, that is, by Mehta’s own framing of it, in the service of the fraternity I have proposed—the fraternity defined in terms of wanting to move others to be included in what, for Gandhi, is the moral truth. Striving to include others in the truth, as he saw it, was often the point of his committing the exemplary actions in which he gave so much of himself, thereby signaling “thick” sources of fraternity.  When I presented the goal of including others in the truth as a kind of fraternity, I was not presenting a rival to the “traditional” form of fraternity that Gandhi’s various actions, giving of himself, signaled. And it certainly couldn’t be a rival if acts of giving something of himself by his exemplary actions (which signal the more traditional forms of caring and fraternity) were sometimes a way of his pursuing the goal of including others in the truth, that is, pursuing what I call the caring for others in this more abstract form of fraternity.

But Mehta doesn’t see this. He seems almost to have an anxiety that stressing my ideal of fraternity would somehow cancel out the other form of fraternity, like one radio station jamming another, or ignore it, or downplay it. But nowhere do I suggest any of this. The most I said in this direction is that if one tried to exclude from human relations the ideal of fraternity that I was proposing, one would be left with the familiar pieties of traditional forms of humanism without the muscle and the power that comes from what I think is an indispensable aim of the moral life, the inclusion of all of humanity in something as fundamental as the moral truth. To say that is not to repudiate the more human and familial relations that make for traditional forms of fraternity. It is to say that one diminishes the latter to something less than what they are, if they are not seen as standing side by side with this other equally fundamental ethical goal found in the stance I recommend, a goal which reflects a different way of showing inclusiveness towards all of humanity.

I have said all this by way of saying that my ideal of fraternity is not only fully compatible with but an essential supplement to more traditional forms of fraternity. What I am quite emphatically repudiating is Mehta’s insistence that I need a supplement to make mine the form of fraternity that it, in fact, is. That insistence assumes that I am formulating something that needs us to struggle in some ways that Gandhi did by “giving of himself,” before it can be fraternity or be called “fraternity.” But no such struggle is required for it to be the fraternity I propose. The caring for others that my form of fraternity is defined as, is not defined on struggles of that sort, but in the very wanting to include others in the truth. If, as Gandhi’s life shows, he struggled and gave of himself, to get others to believe the truth to which he subscribed, that is a matter of how he went about trying to include others into the truth that he wanted them to be included in. But, I repeat, it is the wanting to include others in the truth in the first place (unlike the relativist who does not care to include others in the truth—”You can never be my brother,” “You can have your own version of the truth, which by my lights is falsehood”), that exhibits the caring for them which defines the fraternity I have proposed. To deny that this form of caring for others is, in itself or by itself, a form of fraternity just because its sources are more “thin” than the other form of fraternity that Gandhi’s giving of himself manifested, would be sheer prejudice, a hankering to make all fraternity take what I have dubbed the “traditional” or “standard” form. It is a prejudice and a hankering that cannot be attributed to Gandhi without reducing his thought.

The issue is not just one about how to interpret Gandhi. Quite distinct from what one should attribute to Gandhi, is the question whether there is or is not any point in giving the name “fraternity” to a large attitude towards all human others, which has such “thin” or “abstract” sources. There would be some point to Mehta’s qualms—that is, it would not come off as the sheer prejudice it does- if the sources were so thin and abstract that it would take nothing from anybody to succeed in having this attitude of caring that I have been trying to make more fully explicit in this response. Or to put it differently, he would be right to say that we don’t have a normative ideal (of caring, of fraternity) if nobody, at any rate no human being, can fail to live up to the ideal. The possibility of not living up to it is a defining condition of something being an ideal, at least as defining as the possibility of living up to it. So the question is: have I thinned out and abstracted the sources of caring and fraternity so much that they are ideals that are too easy to live up to, and therefore have no bite. Mehta would certainly be right to reject the humanism I offer, if being a humanist in my sense was so easy that it was enough just to be a human being to be one.

But, the entire framework of my essay, in which the humanism was proposed, had identified a looming and (at least in our culture) quite prevalent target that the humanism had defined itself against. And this was the relativist response to subjects in moral and political conflict. So, if you want, in a word, to describe he, who fails to live up this ideal of caring and fraternity, and thereby gives bite to the ideal, it is the relativist. I have expounded this relativism in my paper and earlier in this response, so I won’t recall it again. What I’ve tried to do in that exposition is to make more substantial what relativism is by introducing an ethical issue on which to take a stance, so that relativism, when it takes its stance on it, can no longer be seen as a dry and academic doctrine. It is a matter of ethics and of life. Here then, is the crux: if you actually live the relativism you espouse, if you adopt it as a moral position, you are uncaring. You will, for instance, see someone whom you deeply and irresolubly oppose on some moral issue, as someone merely of anthropological interest, perhaps to be studied from a detached point of view, but not to be engaged with such that perhaps—in a future that history makes possible—you may learn from her, or teach her, the moral truth. It is to that form of uncaring that the caring of my humanism is opposed. And Gandhi, who was constantly anxious that his own denials of universalizability and of an ethics of principles would be confused as a relativist uncaring of others, was strenuously keen to express his humanistic stance against it.

Manifestly, the uncaringness that such a lived relativism displays is not the uncaringness of someone who, say, leaves another to die in a ditch as he walks hurriedly, or nonchalantly, by. We no doubt need thick sources of fraternity and “give something of ourselves” to overcome some of these latter forms of uncaring. We sacrifice our time and expend some effort to help others in these ways. But not all caring and altruism requires sacrifice of that kind on one’s part. Ideals of altruism and caring do not emerge in an actuarial enterprise, where you don’t achieve the ideals without some measurable cost to yourself. Sometimes caring comes from a generosity that has no cost to oneself, at least no such cost as would count as thick. It does not cost me anything in that thick sense of cost, to see someone I deeply oppose on some moral question as belonging to the same moral world as mine, in a way that the relativist refuses to do. It is simply a kind of self-standing generosity of mind that is found in a willingness to engage. It is not easily present in all of us. It is an ethical stance that is difficult and deep, but necessary. The difficulty of taking it, however, is not measurable in any sense that would make us call it “thick” in the cost it lands on us, as Mehta seems to require. And—to return to Gandhi—though he talked much of sacrifice, he talked much of generosities of mind that required no sacrifice, as well. It is a travesty, which Mehta comes close to committing, to see his ideas of sacrifice as a necessary condition for caring and generosity in some sort of a zero-sum game, where you must give something of yourself in some “thick” sense, if you are to be counted as caring and generous.

One last thing. Mehta, towards the end of his essay, says:

When Bilgrami, in the concluding pages of his paper, refers to non-dominating and non-coercive forms of state behavior as following from his quasi-Hegelian humanism, this strikes me as an add-on, for which his thin form of humanism gives little internal warrant.

I don’t recall using the expression “following from” and I don’t have much idea what exactly Mehta means by it.  Still, there are two things that I said which are relevant to this question.

First, my “quasi-Hegelian humanism,” to use his term, is wholly embedded in the idea that we are dependent only on “internal” reasons to get others to share the truth as one sees it, and the idea is that, if at a given time no internal reasons are available, we must await history’s intervention in creating such internal reasons in a subject’s thought. (My example was the Indian constitutionalists” argument that they should put in a temporal proviso which allowed Muslims in India their own personal laws until such time as they, from within their own thinking, came around to a more secular code of family law. The two phrases I have italicized convey the bringing together of the Hegelian historical or diachronic element with the internal reasons element.) This centrality of awaiting something like internal reasons, I had said, “suggested” the relevance of certain non-coercive forms of implementation. Here is the passage:

One half of the idea, here, is that certain forms of justification suggest [italics just added] the relevance of certain forms of implementation. If secularism had an externalist justification, i.e., if secularism could assume that those who oppose it are not merely possessed of different substantive values but are failing by the light of a more general and universal rationality, then a secular state could perhaps regard itself as having more right to proceed in the implementation of secularism, without awaiting the consent of those who oppose it. But if secularism is stuck with only the resources of internal reasons for its justification, i.e., if secularism must acknowledge that those who oppose it may be fully rational from within their own substantive value commitments, then a secular state has greater obligation to exercise more carefully the scruple of seeking first to persuade them with internal reasons before proceeding with its adoption and implementation.

I leave it to Mehta to decide whether “p suggests q” is synonymous with “q follows from p.” “Following from” are his words and he should decide what they mean. Words apart, what he has claimed is that the non-coerciveness I urge is an “add-on,” which presumably means that non-coerciveness in implementation is not even “suggested” by the internalism that I insist on in matters of the justification of secularism.  Well, I have quoted the passage that elaborates what is suggested and why. Since Mehta gives no reason or argument to doubt the suggestion, I don’t know what it is that I am responding to exactly, when he says that my quasi-Hegelian humanism (the doctrine that is embedded in my internalism regarding justification) does not suggest non-coerciveness in implementation, but is an “add-on.” Rather than respond in a void, I had better wait to hear more from him.

Second, here is what I said, when I expounded the humanism that I found implicit in the idea of someone saying “You must be my brother,” with a view to expressing that she refuses (ethically, not predictively, refuses) to see history as doomed to failure in providing internal reasons to subjects she opposes on some political or moral issue (secularism, for instance):

I will admit that the rhetoric of “must” …to express the …values does not present the best option[s]. I did use the flamboyant rhetoric even so and presented the option[s] in…[its] most extreme form, in order to bring [it] out…vividly. To care about the truth, as one sees it and judges it, and to care enough for others who do not see it, to strive to share it with them, need not take on the vocabulary which has it that one thinks that they “must” be one’s brother and embrace the truth we see. But that vocabulary captures something of the caring that I want to stress here against the relativist form of pluralism, which precisely does not care in this way.

It should be obvious to any reader of this very self-consciously constructed passage that the “must” in “You must be my brother” is supposed to express the caring that I define my humanism upon, and not any form of violence or coercion towards those whom one wishes to convince of the truth. If this is obvious, then it requires no gallantry or special sympathy in Mehta, as a reader of “the concluding pages” of my text where he locates this “add-on,” to read it as saying this: if this humanism based on a “must” that indicates no coercive element but rather a keen desire to find internal reasons to change another’s mind grafts upon a diachronic, conception of human subjects, the implementation of a secularism that emerges out of such an internalist and historical process, can’t possibly be envisioned in coercive terms.

“Can’t possibly” is a good conversing expression to be paired with his “following from.” If so, an “add-on” is exactly what it is not.

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