the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world
NOTES ON THE “ETHICS” OF RELIGION
Assuming that the Analects were written by disciples of “the Master” (id est, Confucius), then we are already talking about a tradition, about a collective interpretation of the “Confucian” ideas and ideals. The text is bound to be reverent, even hagiographic. The Master is presumed to be correct, but more importantly, the disciples assume that they know what the Master intended. And this may come down, in the end, to what “everyone knows”.
Book IV describes an ideal person, one who is wise, proper, respectful, presumably male, gentlemanly, faithful to the Way, and in all of this, Good. Is this in fact merely conventional wisdom, unbound as all such tenets by the rules of logic and consistency, or is it a coherent set of qualities? Is it a goal to be achieved, or an innate quality of Goodness that is only manifested?
‘Wisdom’ (whether mistranslated or dependent on English ambiguities) is at one point (2) mere shrewdness, the trait of the man who pursues Goodness pragmatically, but at another point (1) the quality of the (Good) man as he exercises his will to choose Goodness. Unwise is the man who can choose Goodness and does not; but is that a foolish and correctable decision, or an absence of inherent Goodness?
The Master extols the Good man, but claims never to have met one ― even remotely (6). The Good man adheres to the Way without even a moment’s failure (5); the real man cannot adhere to the Way for as much as a day (6).
Wealth and appearance are not concerns for the Good man, though they are for the real man (5,9). But is it an accident that the language refers to gentlemen and commoners, proprietors and peasants? Is it only the privileged who can be Good? Do the Good naturally become privileged? Or is this just the aristocrats’ rationalization for privilege? Waley indicates immediately (12, note 5) that the aristocrats are doomed to arouse discontent because they act from expediency alone. But the text itself seems conditional. The most reasonable assumption is that the ‘gentleman’ of the text is, indeed, a gentleman, born and bred to the upper class.
Filial piety is crucial to much of Book IV, and its conception of Goodness. A good son is loyal and deferent. He may question occasionally, but only can he do so succinctly and persuasively (18). A good son manages his father’s household just as his father did (20). He “does not wander far afield” (19); while Waley takes this literally, it may well be a metaphor ― the good son remains solidly within the fold, following the family’s guidance. And this can be extended, perhaps, in Tsêng’s interpretation of the Way, with loyalty (“to superiors”) being paramount (15), and Tsu-yu’s admonition to defer to the ruler (26).
What we have, therefore, is a system in which the wisdom (shrewdness) of deferring to power is taken as the wisdom (sagacity) of following a higher moral order. The Way is the way of obedience and tradition. The Good man who has power uses it as it has always been used. The Good man without power, if that is even possible, does as he is told.
The obvious contrast with Augustine is the absence of a god ― or at least an identifiable supernatural force. The Confucian text is entirely an ethical document, describing behavior of humans on Earth; it is a temporal ethics. Augustine, of course, is a theist, and derives all goodness from God. But Confucius and Augustine alike are reverent of and submissive to their own higher orders, to the Goods that they identify ― to authority, whether temporal or spiritual. Goodness lies in submission to authority. The established order is supreme and perfect.
THE PERFECT GENEROSITY OF PRINCE VESSANTARA (521-68)
It is to be expected, perhaps, that the jataka tale of Vessantara does for Hindus what the New Testament does for Jews. Buddhism, like Christianity, is a revealed religion emerging from, and in its believers’ minds supplanting, an older, evolved-traditional religion, the defining beliefs of the people in which the founder and the early disciples were raised. The portrayal of Hindus, specifically brahmins, is in part surely designed to discredit the older religion. Brahmins, the highest caste of Hinduism and its supposed practitioners of holiness, are presented in a caricature of selfishness and deceptiveness. Jujaka sharply depicts this himself. His marriage results from such an act: as compensation for the loss of a hundred kahapanas, he accepts Amittatapana as his wife from the parents who are in his debt (521). She, too, is a brahmin, so it is notable that she is a party to Jujaka’s misconduct. Her initial service, in the standards of the time, may have been well-intentioned, and her treatment by the other wives petty and mean-spirited; but she negates any merit she may have exhibited by refusing her husband’s offer of return service and demanding slaves instead (523), and doing it in a demeaning way. Jujaka negates what slight merit he may have exhibited with the offer of service by eventually acceding to her demand, and much more so by the reprehensible way in which he executes it. As is typical for a brahmin in this story, Jujaka is underhanded about the appeal to Vessantara, waiting until Maddi is gone to approach Vessantara (540), hastening to depart before she returns, refusing to visit Sañjaya (544-5). His first lie, to the Cetan, may have been in self-defense (527-8), but the second lie, to Accuta, was nothing more than an expedient (533). And he begins abusing his future slaves before they are even given (542).
More surprising is the patently-discrediting behavior of Vessantara. He is held up as a model of generosity, but he is in fact a model of selfishness. In search of his own ultimate prize, identified (547) as omniscience and placed beyond measure (“a hundred thousand times more precious to me than my son”), he throws away everything at his disposal, not considering the merit of the recipient, and certainly not the effect of the gift itself. Vessantara is cursed with both “perfect” generosity and appalling judgement. Even when he is giving away material objects, such as the wealth which must have an origin in some form of seizure, he is not taking into account the deprivation of those beyond himself.
But Vessantara does not just give away wealth. His actions consign sentient beings to misery and slavery; it is one thing to have a lack of concern for his own suffering, another to be indifferent to the suffering of others more directly affected. The “gift” of persons exhibits an adherence to patriarchal ownership that must have been evidently immoral to some even at the dawn of Buddhism. This is not the first example of Vessantara making such a bequest, as he previously gave away the attendants of the great elephant, “five hundred families in all, together with mahouts and keepers” (489), and seven hundred each of village-headmen charioteers, beautiful women, female slaves, and male slaves (503-4). Neither is this the only tradition of such ownership, as Lot gives away his virgin daughters (Genesis 19:8), and Abraham moves to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22). The view is always the same: the subordinate person belongs to the patriarch, who disposes of the subordinate at his own discretion and for his own purposes, which are not generally not taken (in the religious tradition) to be self-serving, though each ultimately is.
Vessantara’s giving is a pathology. It is an egocentric expression of his desire to feel either the joy of giving or the sublime pain of martyrous deprivation. It is described as such, with Vessantara “like a drunkard eager for a drink” (541). Like other addictions, it encourages further pathological behavior, especially lying, as when he deceives Maddi about his anticipated enslavement of their children. He also rejoins Maddi’s distraught concern for the children with an unjust rebuke (562); this is characterized as a means of helping her forget her grief, but it is, nonetheless, an act completely undeserving of admiration, and carried out cruelly.
The supposed enlightened one (if he is not perfectly enlightened yet, he is certainly credited with superhuman wisdom) demands of his son: “fulfil my perfection” (546). It is, for Vessantara, all about him, selling his children into slavery for his own purposes. Is this a sale, rather than a gift? It surely is in the preexisting tradition, to which Jujaka alludes: “It is by giving treasure to someone like me, O prince, that a man goes to heaven.” (544) We know, by benefit of hindsight, that Vessantara is destined not for heaven in Jujaka’s conception, but for enlightenment in the yet-to-be-established Buddhist conception. This, for Buddhists, and of course for the Buddha himself, is a higher aspiration, both more accurate and more noble. It is a greater reward, but it is nonetheless the standard barter of charity for karma that Jujaka is trading on. Vessantara wants omniscience. It is worth more to him than his son, or presumably than anything. But giving a person into slavery is not perfect generosity; it is perfect self-indulgence. “Joy floods over me”, says Vessantara (541), thinking, as always, of the only person who matters to him.
THE PERFECT GENEROSITY OF PRINCE VESSANTARA
Vessantara’s life, since it was (of course) a fabrication, and since it was fabricated as parable, is monochromatic; we do not need the signpost of the title to identify generosity as the virtue that Vessantara is modelling in his jataka tale. Vessantara does nothing but give away everything that he can even loosely be said to own. In a universalist sense (that all religions are in some way manifesting the same underlying set of ethics), generosity is a social good; religion is meant to teach behavior that is good for the group, not the individual. The ethic of giving selflessly is communally rational; it serves the individual’s self-interest through the individual’s stake in the community, and the community is served when each individual puts its own narrow interests second to those of others, as it would in lessening its own possessions (however defined) to increase another’s.
Buddhism has a particular interest in generosity, though, since its metaphysical doctrine is that the self, as embodied in the individual human, is illusory. A main goal of life is to achieve enlightenment and liberation, and these are conjoined. Enlightenment for the Buddhist includes the realization that there is no permanent self, no jina and even no atman, that life is a temporary illusion of individuality. Attachment to the illusion, and to accompanying physical and psychological comforts of this world, is something to be overcome. And in overcoming this attachment, and in achieving enlightenment, the individual is released from the cycle of samsara.
Generosity exhibits non-attachment to material things, most specifically to material possessions, but in Vessantara’s case, to his children, his wife, and his body as well. Vessantara is so selfless in the Buddhist sense ― so unattached to his transient physical existence ― that he gives away everything he possibly can. His story is meant to teach not just the social good of altruism but also the spiritual good of enlightened disinterest in the world.
There are two common uses of ‘justice’. One is for equity, an equal dispensation to all independent of what that dispensation is. The world will be just so long as everyone has the same ― though whether this includes a sameness of outcomes or only a sameness of potentials or opportunities depends on the ethical view of the user. The other use of ‘justice’ is for righteousness, which must itself then be defined. The justice that is most consistent is the one that is indeed equitable, at the least in potential or opportunity, and for which the outcomes are no less than the dispensation that occurs in nature, so that humans retain the rights and the requirements that they have as animals, and receive an equal say in, and an equal share in the benefits from, any deviation from the natural dispensation.
In that light, the most obvious injustices that Vessantara might be accused of relate to his depriving wife, child, and assorted retainers and servants their own due say in his “generosity”. He gives humans as if they were his own. These individuals are not left the right to determine for themselves, as even animals can do, what is to become of their lives. That they all seem inclined to follow the will of Vessantara does not alter the reality that he himself does not care whether they are so inclined or not. The gift is given without consultation. To Vessantara, he has the right to dispose of individuals, and does so, even though he knows well that they will suffer.
Vessantara’s second possible injustice has more to do with the lack of equity resulting from his inconsiderate disposal of material wealth. He gives anything at all to the first person who asks for it. In doing so, he does not consider the merit of the recipient (the greedy and undeserving brahmins especially), nor the relative merit of those who might otherwise benefit. The elephant can only bring good fortune to one community; Vessantara unthinkingly denies this benefit to his own community. The religious argument exists that all goods for the Sivis flowed from Vessantara’s presence; but this is not the way the physical world works outside of mythology. The wealth under Vessantara’s control was accumulated at the expense of the whole (and was thus a deviation from the natural dispensation), and he is not considering the interests of the whole when he gives it away.
These are real injustices, not merely possible injustices. Is there any mitigating justice to alter that perception? It is true that Vessantara embodies altruism of a sort, that he places the desires (certainly not needs) of others above his own needs, in what seems to be selflessness. But he does not reflect on the outcome of his giving, redistributing haphazardly in a way that not only has the potential to lead to a less-equitable distribution, but in the story actually does, does reward the greedy for their audacity at the direct or indirect expense of the common people among Vessantara’s (or his father’s) subjects. Genuine altruism is utilitarian, does not slight the majority of others in favor of one or two random others.
And in any case, Vessantara is not selfless. He is acting, according to (pre-)Buddhist values, to achieve the enlightenment of self-abnegation. But though we know, in Buddhist tradition anyway, that his karmic progress will allow him to bring enlightenment to the world, and thus achieve some broad good from his actions, there is little or no evidence that Vessantara is acting out of intentional altruism in this pursuit. He wants to be enlightened himself, not to enlighten others. He wants all those around him to contribute to his success. He thrusts them to their hands and knees so that he might stand on their backs as he reaches for the shiny fruit of his own fancy. Possibly all turns out well in the end, from a Buddhist perspective. But this does not commend Vessantara, who commits many to slavery not to redeem many more, but to further enrich and aggrandize only one.
The moral high point of this section of Genesis, from a modernist’s perspective, is in Abraham’s bold conversation with Yahweh on the imminent destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (18:23-32), where he (rather tediously) argues for the sparing of Sodom on behalf of an ever-smaller number of worthy persons. Abraham is right on both counts: if there are some worthy persons in the city, they should not suffer for the sins of their fellows; and if it is unjust to destroy (or, perhaps, merciful to spare) a city that has a large arbitrary number of worthy persons, it is ultimately unjust to destroy a city that has any worthy persons. (The final number produced by the haggling, ten, may be taken as symbolic.)
The passage illustrates the charming and quaint nature of Yahweh as a personal, accessible deity, one with a special attachment to the Jews and one who is, by temperament anyway, one of them, which is to say human. Yahweh is quite powerful, as his eventual destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (19:24) demonstrates, as does his casual and whimsical transformation of Lot’s wife into salt (19:26). He is hardly omnipotent, though his power is not explicitly limited in these chapters, and he is once (14:19) referred to as the “creator of heaven and earth”. If Yahweh was ever merely the protector god of the Jews, one god among many, as his special attention to them and covenant with them (often repeated here, especially in chapter 17) suggests, he has transcended that origin in the beliefs of Abraham and his followers, who are approaching modern monotheism. But Yahweh possesses the idiosyncratic character that a single god in a pantheon might be expected to have ― and he is not, significantly, a moral exemplar. Yahweh in some ways seems to be struggling to do the right thing, to discern what would be just and execute it (18:20-1); but he is fallible. The conversation with Abraham indicates this: could not Yahweh see Abraham’s reasoning for himself? The self-aggrandizing demand for worship and obedience indicates this, as with the covenant and as with the prescription for the sacrifice of Isaac (22:2). The fact that he repeatedly promises Abram one reward ― that his descendants will be innumerable ― in exchange for an ever-changing list of tributes (12:2, 15:5-9, 17:10, 22:2-18) could well have been seen, even by the Jews of the time, to say nothing of moderns, as shifty and capricious. And in the end, as mentioned, he does destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, and kills Lot’s wife in the bargain for a trivial offense. He asks Abraham to do something atrocious, sacrificing his own son, and rewards him for being willing to carry out these instructions. (Would we not say, in the present, that Abraham had rather failed the test?) He essentially rewards Sarai’s petty jealousy (16:6), instructing the unfortunate Hagar to submit to this abuse (16:9), possibly because he has a history of mandating the abuse of women (3:16), or possibly because he is a master of petty jealousy himself. And while Hagar’s life is spared (21: 17-9) and Ishmael is given the usual promise ― innumerable descendants ― God has nonetheless orchestrated the cruel exile of Hagar and Ishmael and the latter’s disinheritance.
It is not surprising, then, that Abraham and his family are so little to be admired. Abraham twice attempts to save his own life, at the expense of others’ suffering, possibly eternal, through the pretense that Sarah is only his sister (12:11-20 and 20:1-18). He banishes Ishmael. He moves to sacrifice Isaac. Lot offers up his virgin daughters to the mob of Sodom (19:8). Sarai abuses Hagar. And the moral hand of Yahweh is in each of these actions.
Our (largely Christian, therefore Biblical) society is only slowly escaping from the picture of sexual criminality depicted in Genesis. While the mob of Sodom may be intending rape, traditionally its crime has been interpreted as (eponymously, of course) sodomy, an act which is decreasingly viewed as immoral but still remains sinful to many. Lot’s daughters are guilty of incest (19:31-5), which remains condemned by most in the present. And Pharaoh and Abimelech face grave punishment for adultery. Given the bizarre prominence of circumcision in the relationship of the Jews with Yahweh, remaining uncircumcised goes beyond mere sexual crime to profound spiritual crime. Curiously, Abram’s marriage to his half-sister is perfectly justified (20:12) at the time, but condemned today.
The frequent discourse between Abraham and Yahweh serves mostly to humanize Yahweh, not to elevate Abraham or his descendants, the Jews, and followers, the Christians. The continuity errors, as with the age of Ishmael (17:25 and 21:14-6), serve to humanize the authors of the book. Above all, the obsolete moral standards serve to humanize the early Jews. The Bible is folk history, and can be read as such for historical interest. But the Bible is also revered scripture for a third of humanity, and its ethical lessons are thus problematic ― that Yahweh and Abraham are flawed becomes less cute than catastrophic.
THE MOVIE ‘GANDHI’
As befits a movie that won the Academy Awards for best picture, best director, and best original screenplay (and was surely designed to do so), ‘Gandhi’ is an ennobling, simplistic hagiography. It is presenting a figure commonly accepted to have been saintly in more-or-less perfect accord with the popular conception. It is meant to inspire and uplift, and to associate itself as a work of art with the positive glow of Gandhi as legend.
Gandhi’s early and consistent support for the caste system is not mentioned in the slightest. Instead, the movie depicts only his steadfast opposition to untouchability, merely the most extreme element of caste, and his egalitarian communes, in which labor distinctions are erased. These depictions may be accurate, but they are clearly incomplete. His sexist views are only hinted at, in the absence of women in the Congress leadership entourage (arguably broken by his wife, though), and the implicit command within his marriage (arguably no different from his implicit command of the entire independence movement, though).
Time compression is unavoidable, especially in a story with such a long timeframe; but even so, and even with the dates noted onscreen, the reality of Gandhi’s delays in achieving independence is misleadingly masked. The choices made by Gandhi to insist on independence achieved according to his own vision of perfection, and to throw a tantrum (fasting, of course) otherwise, stretched India’s independence out by decades, perhaps. India, it is true, followed him, but he bears responsibility for leading thus, to the same extent that he is given credit for the actions of India as a whole. It is significant that the worst abuses of the system were visited, because of India’s population, upon a very large absolute number of individuals, and we should consider every additional year that those abuses were allowed to continue, in some cases for no better reason than that the British should be seen off “as friends”. This seems a high and unnecessary standard to say the least.
According to progressive ideals which thoroughly inform the characterization, Gandhi is portrayed with only two faults. The first he is seen to evolve out of, namely his ‘good citizen’ support for imperialist Britain, including its wars. When he supports the first world war, Nehru is allowed to comment on the hypocrisy. But this underlines Gandhi’s opposition to the second world war, a fact that is presumably meant to demonstrate the maturity and purity of his non-violent ideology by that point. What it demonstrates instead is the poverty of this ideology. As was made clear in ‘Passive resistance and anti-Semitism’ (from ‘Harijan’, 1938 November 26), Gandhi was willing to press non-violence upon even those who were suffering most dramatically. He originally supported a dubious war among rival powers, but failed to support a war of defense against a belligerent, atrocious régime.
His second fault is most likely not seen as a fault at all by the filmmakers. Gandhi tolerates and even encourages a worshipful attitude among the populace. He surely had the power to still the cries of ‘Long live Gandhiji’, but chose not to. He was ‘Bapu’ and ‘Mahatma’ as well, and he fronts only a modest reluctance. Vince Walker in particular is the voice of adulation, because he is Western and, as a reporter, supposedly objective and skeptical. As he watches the action against the salt works with anguished expressions, and later reports on it breathlessly, the mostly-white intended audience can see themselves as something other than a General Dyer, and this is important for a film with Oscar pretensions.
The film is at its most inspiring, to a skeptical person, when it depicts skepticism on Gandhi’s part. And it makes this credible by doing what movies do best, the portrayal of villainy. In this case, though, the villainy is a matter of historical record. The film’s first chronological scene, significantly, is an infuriating humiliation of a dignified and intelligent hero by ignorant, petty-tyrannical supremacists. Apartheid was a historical fact (though curiously blacks, its greater victims, are absent from the story). And the Empire was a fact, and Amritsar was a fact.
Whatever they do to us, we will attack no one, kill no one. But we will not give our fingerprints, not one of us. They will imprison us, they will fine us, they will seize our possessions; but they cannot take away our self-respect if we do not give it to them.... I am asking you to fight. To fight against their anger, not to provoke it. We will not strike a blow, but we will receive them, and through our pain, we will make them see their injustice. And it will hurt, as all fighting hurts. But we cannot lose; we cannot. They may torture my body, break my bones, even kill me. Then they will have my dead body ― not my obedience.Gandhi (and Kingsley as well) is certainly at his best when he is defying the rule of the British and their Afrikaner clients, and while he cleverly, in this scene, uses imperial patriotism against the South Africans symbolically, it is only as he transforms from an assimilated British subject to a gifted opponent of British tyranny that he becomes a figure worthy of guarded admiration. “I’ve warned you!” ― “We’ve warned each other.” His power is evident, a power that tyrants can never possess, deriving from his own courage and from the righteousness of his cause. And as this is accurate to history, and balanced and complete as well, it is biography that serves a purpose beyond simple piety, which the preponderant picture of Saint Mahatma does not.
GANDHI AND KING COMPARED
Martin Luther King was consciously imitating Mohandas Gandhi, so naturally they are much alike. This is particularly so regarding methods and means. Gandhi and King each attempted, and placed moral value on the attempt, to avoid violence in the achievement of their respective aims. They believed that justice must characterize the means as well as the end. Otherwise, each was fighting to end a form of colonialism, and to institute a form of self-rule; the role of the British in India was not fundamentally different from that of whites in the south vis-à-vis blacks, even though the histories were quite different. And Gandhi and King were both concerned not merely with civil liberties and the electoral enfranchisement of Indians and blacks, but with their economic success ― with economic equality as well as political equality. This latter exhibited minor differences, with Gandhi calling for an autarkic India, while King aimed to eliminate poverty by ending the exclusion of blacks from the majority economy. Politically as well, King was fighting to help blacks get in, and Gandhi to get Indians out; King was assimilationist, whereas Gandhi, once assimilationist himself, had come to view full rights for Indians as British citizens as a denial of full rights as humans. And more fundamentally, King offered an ideal of equality for all, while Gandhi, defending Hindu traditions, supported all elements of caste other than untouchability, and supported as well the traditional patriarchy.
The ahimsa of Gandhi is taught within Hinduism as a principle in itself, in part for its obvious social function, to prevent violence among humans as a disruption of society. It is taken further, though, as Gandhi’s strong symbolic emphasis on cow protection indicates. This is a requirement of a metaphysics of reincarnation, and the karmic system that is held to govern it. Life is precious to Hindus in part because they feel so strong a connection to other forms of life, who might after all represent themselves in preceding or succeeding incarnations. Beyond empathy; it is simply an extension of social requirements. The karmic law protects against, among other things, the physical attacks of one person upon another in a context where personality is not restricted to humans. And Gandhi’s abiding concern for the material well-being of persons and especially Indians is no more than compassion, which is a natural result of the belief in reincarnation.
But Gandhi was also a defender of the caste system. This was explicitly religious, of course; he finds the caste system of Hinduism mandated in his own holiest text, the Bhagavad Gita. His attack on untouchability is presented, ironically, as a fundamentalism: he is pushing to restore a purer form of Hinduism, he thinks, one existing before the racialist prejudice against untouchables. This is admirable; but he cannot escape from the residual caste system; nor does he escape from the broader Gita-inspired notion of a divinely-sanctioned station for each individual. Each person (including non-humans) has a place in the world, a role as Gandhi sees it, a useful, dignified function to fulfill. But this is clearly hierarchical in result, and probably in design as well. In the end, higher castes outrank lower castes, and men outrank women. The Gita could not answer the charge that British superiority rested on the same set of arguments; Gandhi merely did not answer the charge.
While King emulated Gandhi in non-violence, he could also emulate Jesus, and draw upon the Old Testament as well. The Hebrew bible not only offers an injunction against murder in the Ten Commandments, but explicitly states the golden rule of reciprocal obligations. But King has also the more extensive non-violent strictures of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). The believer is given the golden rule, but is also instructed to turn the other cheek, to offer no resistance to those who cause harm. This is precisely the attitude that King takes towards physical violence. (It is notable that he rejects any extension of this idea to non-violent resistance, though the preachings of Jesus could easily be so extended.)
Christianity is, rhetorically to be sure, dramatically concerned with the plight of the poor and the downtrodden. The story of Jesus is filled with examples of compassion for the less fortunate. Jesus is even given to gestures of association with such figures, solidarity with the less fortunate of the same sort that some whites felt for southern blacks, and that King demonstrated in his less-publicized work for economic fairness throughout the United States, or for an end to colonialism in Southeast Asia. King could also draw upon the strong Old Testament concern for the poor, where the law mandated welfare in the modern sense not as charity but as justice, as an obligation equivalent to the repayment of debts.
Gandhi was sympathetic to all religions, and certainly acquainted with and sympathetic to Christianity; and King, of course, was a Christian minister. Each, therefore, could insist that a great problem facing them was that the British and the white southerners were not behaving as Christians, in the best sense, in the sense that the British and white southerners imagined themselves to be behaving. All humans are children of God. It is in the fundamental unity and identity of the divine and the creator of life that believers like Gandhi and King find the justification for their high valuation of humans, and specifically those who are not highly valued. If all are equally children of the same God, then it is contrary to the law of God to treat some as shabbily as the Indians and the blacks were treated.
Gandhi’s and King’s insistence on non-violent means (stronger in the latter case) fails the test of practicality. There is no reason to believe that mass murderers or autocrats respond to the appeal to conscience required for success of non-violent protest. A boycott certainly can be effective, if it can target economic interests of the powerful. But for the most part even boycotts are targeted at societies where power is diffuse. A democracy, even an imperialist democracy like Britain or the white south, can be influenced by various non-violent actions, because the unjust system depends on the cumulative actions of many, each with its own interests and beliefs, and more susceptible collectively to conscience (or, frankly, to guilt). An autocrat is generally, and a mass murderer is almost universally, without recognizable conscience. The oppression and atrocities that such individuals commit ― and always have ― are such that even Gandhi and King acknowledge them as reprehensible. And yet they persist in rating the immorality of using violence against such individuals as equal to or even greater than the immorality of allowing them to commit this oppression and these atrocities. And their methods, since they are not effective in ending something like the Nazi conquest and the Holocaust, must be judged morally on that count.
But in the least, King’s vision of an integrated society ― integrated socially, culturally, and economically ― is appealing, more so than Gandhi’s vision, even if the insistence on certain means is morally flawed. King proposes a United States, ultimately a world, where distinctions are largely erased, where individuals are full participants in the best society that can be created, each given a fair share and an equal role. Gandhi proposes an India where distinctions are celebrated and perpetuated, are determined by birth and cannot be challenged. King evokes God to elevate all to the highest level; Gandhi evokes God only to fix virtually all in perpetual strata. His was not a bold, imaginative dream. It was, rather, an upper-caste fantasy of eternal dominance, and Gandhi was not independent enough to dream otherwise.
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