Exploring Ethics in a Time of Cynicism and Violence

Rajeev Bhargava's 'Between Hope and Despair' is a collection of the author's meditations on some of the basic infirmities eating away at the vitals of our Republic.

In Marcus Tullius Cicero’s Republic (Book Three) we are sufficiently warned: “Teachers of philosophy give the cloak of tradition and authority to folly and crime.” That warning, dating back to 106–43 BC, came immediately to mind as one picked up Rajeev Bhargava’s Between Hope and Despair. Bhargava taught political theory for decades and would like to think of himself “as a social and political philosopher”. But at the very outset he makes it clear, “I don’t see myself as a salesman of dreams or an advertiser of ideas.” And this assertion of a clean intellectual slate is borne out on every page in Between Hope and Despair.

In this collection of articles, a compendium of newspaper pieces written for a non-academic audience, Bhargava addresses some of the basic infirmities eating away at the vitals of our Republic. We have regressed and we can all do with a philosopher’s ethical ministrations.

A few years after the Republic came into being, Jawaharlal Nehru had told an interlocutor that he thought his biggest challenge as leader of the newly freed country was how “to create a just society by just means”. That ancient conundrum remains unsolved.

Rajeev Bhargava
Between Hope and Despair
Bloomsbury, 2023

Bhargava tries his hand at it, though. What perhaps sets his weekly meditations apart from the 7,000-odd thought-pieces inflicted on us each week is that he approaches the task wearing the philosopher’s hat, with a robust faith in “ethics” as the most valuable guide.

The power of ethics

Can ethics help in this time and age of cynicism and violence? Bhargava thinks it can – because there is something objective about ethics and that can be arrived at by reason. “I reject the idea that ethics and morality are mere opinions, that all morality, ethics and truth are relative to the subjectivity of individual persons.” Ethics and philosophers are not for sale.

That argument is sound but does not help us a great deal in navigating the violent and bitter animosities building up in every society, especially in ours. It is not altogether clear if there is a clear-cut ethical path for all citizens and the country to follow. Each group claims righteousness for its cause and denies it to other groups.

For example, we know there are several upright, competent IPS officers who have refused, occasionally, to do a minister’s dirty bidding because they thought what was being asked of them was “naajayaz” (illegitimate). These officers had the courage of their own righteousness and their own understanding of the law to say no to the politico crowd; and more interestingly have survived to fight another battle in defence of righteous action.

As opposed to this minimalist view of an officer’s role and responsibility, there are very many officers – say, the current Enforcement Directorate leadership – who righteously insist on bringing a messianic zeal to their job. The law is there and it is being enforced firmly and vigorously, they will argue vehemently and righteously.

Both sets of officers bring a sense of righteousness to their respective minimalist and maximalist view of their job.

If called upon, can Bhargava help arbitrate who is more ethical than others?

At the very beginning, he suggests that ethics and ethical behaviour are not relative, not malleable as per the exigencies of the week or month; but he ends up referring us to the Constitution and its values.

Does that really take us forward?

Who will determine and define a constitutional value; are these so well thought out as to be beyond doubt and questioning? Not all of us seem to be convinced of the soundness of the “basic structure” doctrine. The Supreme Court itself keeps changing its mind and its definitions of constitutional values. We know, and have learnt painfully to our sorrow, that a Ranjan Gogoi as the chief justice ended up selling the store away.

How, then, are we to settle different views and divergent perspectives to what values are to be cherished and prioritised?

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Like a good teacher, Bhargava believes the hope lies in conversations based on reason. He rightly points out that civilised societies are known and defined by the civility and protocols of dialogues and conversations among the state-holders.

No quarrel.

But, then, how does one deal with the distortions, abuse and brutalisation of this very spirit of dialogue, night after night, by a bunch of power brokers who masquerade as journalists, editors, anchors, bloggers, etc.? Abuse of democratic processes has become a deliberate strategy to undermine the sanity and nobility of the idea of a common good.

The seductive charm of partisanship is that its practitioner does not believe that she is being partisan; she appropriates for herself, her cause, her dogma and ideology all the attributes of a reasonable interlocutor.

This the 21st century curse.

Bhargava is at his thoughtful most when he meditates on the increasingly besieged concept of secularism. As he sees it, secularism should mean absence of inter-religious domination as well as a defence of minority rights and opposition to majority and minority communalism. He brilliantly notes that over the years those professed to abide by secularism pursed a flawed approach as they abandoned the issues of intra-religious domination – like religion-related patriarchy and caste domination, fanaticism, bigotry and extremism. The most unhappy consequence was that secularism began to be identified – by both proponents and opponents alike – exclusively with the defence of minorities rights.

Rajeev Bhargava.

And, till this day, this remains the secular politician’s Achilles Heel. To acknowledge that the extreme fringe among the minorities was conceded an undue and undeserved voice in shaping the debate on secularism, would mean validating the “appeasement” charge. The challenge is to rescue the idea of secularism from the follies of the past.

Because “secularism is needed as much to protect the Hindus from intra-religious domination, ‘fringe elements’ as well as proponents of religion-based caste and gender hierarchies as much to protect minorities from their own orthodoxies and extremism. Asli secularism plays that role; naqli secularism protects fanatics and legitimizes gender and caste-based domination.”

It is widely understood that a defence of secularism cannot be mounted without an aggressive advocacy of an egalitarian social order.

And, here again, the good professor is most forthright in putting his finger on “the oldest surviving Conservative ideology”, namely Brahmanism. A critique of this Brahmanism is not to be confused with any anti-Brahmin impulse. Furthermore, Bhargava introduces a nuance: the villain of the piece is “Dharamshastric Brahmanism”. This is “most perfect form of conservatism, a status quoist ideology”. Its adherents regard it as “the natural order of things” and, therefore, it follows that no one is allowed to move up or down the hierarchy. Anyone who tries to change the naturalness of this order must be dealt with accordingly. We can only note that even in recent weeks we find positions and postures hardening over the controversial passages of Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas.

With clarity and precision, he argues that “Dharamshastric Brahmanism and the Constitution (are) fundamentally opposed to one another”.

Accountable power

The other theme Bhargava addresses is the ideal of accountable power. In formal democracies, the name of the game is how best to go about “Taming the Prince” – to borrow the title of Henry C. Mansfield’s magnificent treatise on the ambivalence of modern executive power.

Each ruler – or any wielder of power, be he a party boss or a chief minister or a tycoon or a mafia don – insists that his or her departure from the norm is morally and righteously sustainable, if he can get away with the defiance. Anyone watching the prime minister’s performance in the Rajya Sabha the other day is bound to be struck by the unwillingness of power to respect the institutional constraints and to heed the tug of democratic expectations.  And this unwillingness is often sought to be justified by an invocation of personal honesty and integrity.

In a remarkably prescient passage, Rajeev Bhargava completely anticipated the prime minister’s exertions:

“What use is personal incorruptibility if the politician is partial to or discriminates against one particular community, abandons public reason, smashes dissent to concentrate power in his own hands, makes arbitrary use of force and lives in the illusion that he is greater than all the institution that surround him? What if he begins to believe that he alone passes the truth or knows the good of the entire community—and precisely because of the moral restrictions he has placed on his personal life, feels released from any restrictions on the use of power in the political arena?”

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We despair because there is no way out. The optimist in Bhargava the philosopher finds its inherently natural that society and individuals end up acting rationally. “Single-value rules are absurd because neither  of the values can easily supersede the other;” but then we have the demagogue breathing fire and brimstone and telling us that the values defined by him (say deshbhakti) are absolutely superior to any other value.

No need to despair. Hope lies in rationality. The approach must be to wade “through values, accepting potential conflict between them without allowing any one to trump the others, finding the right balance and endorsing ethically sensitive compromises is the hallmark of sound moral reasoning. This art is an integral part of being rational.”

The reader is tempted to say, “Amen.” These weekly morsels of meditation and reflection fluctuate between hope and despair but, together, make a sumptuous feast. Well said and well served.

Harish Khare is a former editor-in-chief of The Tribune.