- Some Moral Minima
Some years ago I took part in an international meeting of philosophers. Around 180 thinkers attended. Many took the occasion to showcase their values. Socialism was still much bruited in those days, and several speakers scrapped their prepared remarks to sing its praises. I admired Hilary Putnam's courageous confession when he branded the socialist ideal as "now universally discredited." For many still imagined that civil rights and human flourishing were adequately served only when a single-party state controls law and politics, the media and means of production, science, inquiry, and the arts, the councils of labor, sources of capital, vehicles of distribution, land and marketplace.
Since ours was an intercultural as well as an international meeting, many spoke out for relativism, and its expected benefits in tolerance and cultural accommodation. Bimal Matilal, whom I remembered as a handsome young scholar at Oxford's Oriental Institute, now broken in health and pushed in a wheelchair by his wife, made a spirited effort to distinguish relativism from pluralism. Conceding that human norms must vary in their particulars from society to society and culture to culture, he scanned the traditions of India to help him sketch some norms worthy of universal support.1
He named four: respect for life, deference to truth, abhorrence of theft, and rejection of adultery. In each case, he sought to sculpt specific principles from the broad norms he drew from India's rich array of religious and philosophical traditions. Although he used Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, and at one point cited the moral and spiritual authority of Gandhi, he worked hard not to rely on the prescriptions of anyone's deity.
But sectarianism is not the only risk in a project of this kind. American courts will overturn a statute for unconstitutional vagueness, and ethical principles, as well, can fail if framed too broadly to specify what Aristotle called "the doable good."2 With the best intentions, global formulations can turn culture-bound. But, when couched too broadly, they turn vacuous, especially once duly hedged and qualified, and faced with pushback from interested parties.
Matilal's four rubrics are noble enough. Yet they do teeter on the edge of vacuity, begging for the specificity that only law or settled custom can impart—always at the risk of over—and falling prey to the relativist's charge that now they fail of universality. Do the claims of truth, for instance, debar all lies? And if lies are countenanced to spare a fugitive, can we debar other appeals to expedience—lying for political or personal ends, or pious fraud to aid others in this world or toward the next? Do we guard truth verbally but allow prevarication? Or does deference to truth die the death of a thousand qualifications, surviving only when unchallenged?
Setting aside dramatic confrontations and dropping down the memory hole any thoughts of, say, Lysenko and his Stakhanovite methods, we still must ask: Does the love of truth exclude white lies and false compliments? When does tact sink into fulsome cant? When does candor turn brutal, or honesty wax literal-minded? Can such questions even be asked outside an overarching ethos, and can an ethos subsist outside a culture or a community of language users? Is there an ethos without an ethnos?
Matilal's aim was consensus, which often carries blandness as its price—if not compromise of principle. Yet compromise is the stuff of politics. America might never have won its independence or framed its constitution if the slavery question had first to be settled on principle. If politics is the art of the possible, virtuosity in that art must lie in seeing to it that the compromises that build consensus do not immolate principle—so heavily paper over principled divides that ambiguity itself becomes a point of law and a juridical tactic, leaving vital issues to fester or smolder out of sight.
Not every compromise is praiseworthy or even tolerable. That is easy to see and say but harder to live by or die for in practice, in the clinches: There is no proper compromise with Nazis in full spate, or the Khmer Rouge. What can...