Saturday, April 23, 2011

"The Entitlement to moralise"

If public figure A criticizes another public figure B on issues involving morality or ethics, or takes a strong position on any matter, A immediately lays himself open for a scrutiny of his own credentials to speak out against B or to take up the cause.. When some evidence of past wrong-doing or an act of impropriety is found, A relinquishes the moral right to criticize B, and the sting is taken out.

Some recent examples: Within days of his successful fast as part of his anti-corruption crusade, Anna Hazare’s past was examined and some evidence found of some observations made by Justice Sawant against him. Arundhati Roy who has taken on the entire State on several issues was found to have constructed a house on notified farm land in violation of law. So, she stands discredited.

The principle here is that as Hazare and Roy do not practice what they preach, they undermine their own message and are guilty of hypocrisy. He who hasn’t sinned alone can cast the first stone at others.

For the sake of this argument, if we concede that both Hazare and Roy are well-intentioned in their respective crusades, does the fact of their wrongdoings elsewhere in the past make them unworthy of taking up the crusade or cause? Will dismissing them thus not amount to commiting an ad hominem fallacy?

A.C.Grayling examines such a moral dilemma in one his essays (" Entitlement to moralise") in his book, “Thinking of Answers”. He says:

There is a point of philosophical importance here for the endeavour of trying to live an ethically good life, It is that there is such a thing as “doing one’s moral best’, which may and usually does fall short of what counsels of perfection require, but nevertheless constitutes a serious gesture in the right direction. A person who is vegetarian, but owns leather belts and shoes, may reason that being an habitual meat-eater makes a vastly greater slaughter-footprint than owning a pair of leather shoes, and trusts that this will make some degree of difference towards the good.

…What the idea of ‘doing one’s moral best’ comes down to, when it is sincere and genuine, is something close to Aristotle’s idea that, in effect, one lives an ethically good life by trying to do so. The trying is itself the succeeding; otherwise the only good people would be perfect people, and all those striving to do their moral best would not be good people.
…In a sin culture, even a suspicion of hypocrisy in the messenger is enough to harm the message. The tacit idea is that if the source of the claim is polluted, the claim itself must be questionable. In the Greek view, the value of what is said and the character and the actions of the person who says it are separate things, and can be independently evaluated on their merits.

…Human beings are a mixed alloy, familiarly enough; the very same person is capable of being good and terribly bad at different times or in different respects, and that inescapable fact makes the greatest moral philosophers almost at one in insisting that we should resist the mistake of thinking that anyone is wholly one or the other, even at their best or worst moments respectively.

I would rather have an energy-wasting Gore fighting to save the planet than an energy-wasting Gore not caring about the planet. People like Gore have a platform and the worst thing they could do is fail to use the platform in support of worthwhile causes, whether or not they are personally no better than the rest of us in doing their individual bit.

Applying what Grayling says to our context, we can disagree with Hazare on his methods, and also his insistence on extra-constitutional appointments, but should not invoke some past misdeed of his to discredit him in this situation. Same with Arundhati Roy.


PaddyPal said...

Thought provoking...!But Anna Hazare did not do anything un-constitutional! Where's the provision in the constitution to recall our representative or select nobody? As long as it is not there, no representative is absolute and represent the view of an entire society. When it comes to law making, it need to be more inclusive than making a law for the convenience of the ruler (whomever it may be- A King or A Representative). Of late, our ministers (they are no more honourable) behave & live like Kings...

Manoj John said...

Count the message, not the messenger.

Anonymous said...

Well spoken!!