Saturday, 8 April 2017

Roopen Majithia on the Gita

The Gītā opens with its protagonist, Arjuna, the preeminent warrior of his time, facing a classic moral dilemma: should he or should he not go into battle against his Kāurava cousins and extended family, his former friends and teachers? Arjuna stands between the battle lines with his friend and charioteer Krishna, sees his family, friends and teachers arrayed against him, and finds himself faced with the full force of a moral dilemma. Going into battle will allow him to fulfill his personal duty (svadharma) as a warrior (kshatriyā), or what is also referred to as his class duty (varṇadharma). But he sees very clearly now that this civil war will also involve the death of many members of his extended family, and the possible destruction of society as he knows it (BG 2.39-43). This has often been conceived as a violation of the universal duties that all human beings have qua human, or what is called sādhāraṇa dharma. If he were not to fight, then he would not have the blood of his family and loved ones on his hands, though he would not be living up to his obligations as a warrior and a brother. He can either fight or not fight, but he cannot do both. Yet any choice he makes violates his obligations in some way, which is precisely what is meant by a moral dilemma. It is no wonder then that he sets his bow down in despair and seeks the advice of his friend and charioteer Krishna, who also happens to be the Divine incarnate

This is from Prof. Roopen Majithia's cogent, well researched, paper here which summarises how contemporary philosophers view the ethics of the Gita.

The tenor of his own views may be discerned from his comment on the following verse-

3.25 While those who are unwise act From attachment to action, O Arjuna,
 So the wise should act without attachment
 Intending to maintain the welfare of the world (lokasaṁgraham).

 This is an important verse not simply because it presents the consequentialist principle of world-welfare, but because it does so in the context of the deontological sounding language of detachment. 

Krishna can advise those who are wise and in pursuit of perfection this way because detachment has to do with how duty is undertaken which is always agent-relative to her state and station in life. 

Whereas the principle of world-welfare is the basis of how duty is justified, which is agent-neutral because it holds for all agents regardless of their stage and station in life. 

So now we can see how the Gītā marries deontology with consequentialism. The deontological sounding aspects of the text, we saw, conceives right action in terms of rule following without concern for personal consequences, whereas consequentialism understands right action in terms of whether or not a good state of affairs are promoted by such action. The Gītā asks us to follow dharma regardless of a certain kind of consequence and at the same time recognizes that dharma is grounded in a different kind of consequence that promotes world welfare. So it is not unreasonable to say that the text’s seeming deontology is ultimately grounded in consequentialism, even though detachment’s exclusion of a certain kind of consequence might lead us to think otherwise.

Majithia is Indian and, unlike most Western philosophers, knows the Mahabharata well. Yet he thinks Arjuna's dilemma can't arise from a conflict between kuladharma (duty to obey his eldest brother- Karna) and svadharma (his own self-chosen duty to kill Karna, in obedience to Karna's wish, while in a state of manyu (dark anger) and contrary to the rules of war).

Majithia could argue that Arjuna does not know that Karna is his eldest brother. However the Mahabharata deliberately includes an episode where Arjuna is given the boon of chaksushi vidya which enables him to see anything he wishes in the manner which is best for him. If Arjuna did not use this boon to gain strategic information then his 'Vishada' (depression) is a result of his own hubris or hamartia (character flaw). In that case, the Gita is not a philosophical epoche but a Tragic, though magnificent, coda of a type conventional to Iron Age bardic traditions.

The Hindus had a well elaborated deontics. Conflict between kuladharma and svadharma or sadharana dharma have been well discussed. However, no definite conclusion was reached because the Hindus have always accepted that the 'Common Law' of the region- or 'best practice of the best people'- or 'what is necessary to survive' (apadh dharma)- is what is normative. 'Nyaya'- the Law- is not 'artificial reason' as in the English tradition though parts of India had a Navya-nyaya tradition which hoped to make it so.
Still, it remains the case that the Law has no separate existence but is a 'samskar' simply. Thus no Dharmic dilemmas can arise by reason of the lack of an equitable remedy because the Law- as distinct from the Vow- was never general or a priori but rather pragmatic and empirical. It might result in individual injustice but 'samskar' could always cancel 'samskar'. Eventualities were defeasible even if procedures weren't.

Dharma- which was translated perfectly by Indians as Eusebia- which in turn became the Latin 'pietas' and the English 'piety'- does feature dilemmas but these dilemmas have no legal or economic dimension. Instead they point to the ever ongoing inward collapse of the boundaries of the secular and, in that crepuscular atmosphere, the increasing luminescence of that liminal space where Gods and Men die each others lives and live each others deaths. Even here, however, there was no real dilemma. There was a way out of this liminal bardo, barzakh or antarabhava. The paradox here was that the viyogini proved superior to the Yogi. Yearning for Union with what is beyond Eros turned out to be a higher Yoga than ascesis. The mad poet uttered sooth while learned pundits prattled nonsense.

That, however, was considered a later development. Still, in the Mahabharata itself it is made clear that a Warrior can leave his kuladharma and become an ascetic without incurring odium by reason of substitution- as for example if a son discharges his function. However, there is nothing to stop a Warrior- like Balram, Krishna's elder brother- saying the Sanskrit equivalent of 'sod this for a game of soldiers' and departing the scene of battle with a large pot of wine tucked under one arm while the other shoulders a wooden plough.

It seems, Majithia thinks Krishna is a 'Casteist'. A man's duty is determined at birth. However, if that man performs his hereditary duty with detachment, then he gains some benefit of an esoteric kind. The problem here is that Karna is not the son of King Pandu, nor the head of the Pandavas, if he doesn't want to be. This is because he was born before his mother's marriage. However, he remains the eldest brother of the three older Pandavas by reason of common descent. Karna keeps changing caste- now a Suta, now a Brahmin, now a Kshatriya. Yet the Mahabharata upholds his status as the one who determines the Pandava's kuladharma. It is he who wishes the Kurukshetra battle to go ahead as a ritual vishodhana or purgation by blood. Notice, neither he nor Arjuna act with detachment in their climacteric duel. Both are in the grip of Manyu, dark anger.

In other words, all this talk of detachment and caste duties is just hogwash. The Gita is an occassionalist text of a highly Theistic sort. It is foolish to look for consequentialism or deontology in it because God is the efficient cause of everything and, anyway, maybe the World isn't real at all.

This does not mean, however, that there is no philosophy in the Gita.
It references an open problem in Mathematics and therefore must have Philosophical content.

Krishna resolves Arjuna's dilemma which is of a backward induction type. To do his duty with detachment he has to kill the one who imposed that duty, that too while in a state of 'dark anger'.
There is only one possible path from the required outcome back to the depressive 'decision situation' featured in the 'Vishada Yoga' chapter of the Gita. I have argued elsewhere that this 'golden path' features a 'zero knowledge proof' of an exceptionally powerful kind and this is instructive when we consider ethical dilemmas we are currently faced with concerning encryption and block-chain technologies. Briefly, I believe that we can have a 'normative reason' based on something we suspect to be true- e.g. P is not equal to NP- which offers a Muth rational solution to a coordination problem of a particular kind. I think what Krishna is doing in the Gita is a concrete model for this but we can't prove this till we have the proof we currently lack. At that point, however, the 'normative reason' disappears. I think that's interesting. Smarter people may find yet more interesting things but only if they look for things which are open problems in Maths- and therefore Philosophy.

I suppose, if I were an academic, it would be convenient for me to say 'The Gita is a short book which tells you everything you need to know about Hindu ethics'. Certainly, this is a solution for an ongoing coordination problem. However, it is based on a stupid lie and so all the academic work currently being done on the Gita is utterly, hilariously, worthless.

Hinduism has deontology- lots of Niti Sutras and Vyavahara Sutras and so on- but its deontology is defeasible, empirical, and at the level of 'samskar'- i.e. is phenomenological merely.  No dilemmas arise because any stain arising from omission or commission is easily purged by 'right intention' (chetana) cultivated in community with like-hearted strivers (Yogis). Krishna himself is able to bring about the 'regret minimizing' outcome of the Gita because Arjuna appeals to him as the Lord of the Yogis.

Hinduism has Positive Economics- Artha Shastra- and the Just King, Yuddhishtra, has to learn Statistical Game Theory to overcome his own 'Vishada'. He also learns, in the Vyadha Gita, that the common people should ignore Kings and Priests and pursue their own economic interests in a rational manner. This, as if by the Myserson Satterthwaite General Feasibility theorem, yields prosperity on the basis of consensual, uncoerced interactions in a repeated Game. There is no need for 'Prophets' when the 'Revelation Principle' obtains because agents in repeated Games soon figure out appropriate Vickrey-Clarke mechanisms. Just Kings should compete by setting up Tiebout models and ensure free Entry & Exit. Hirschman 'Voice' and 'Loyalty' will spontaneously appear or else the model crashes.

No sensible person mixes Positive Economics with Deontology- unless 'rule based consequentalism' counts as such- because that is the job of senile Professors obeying Rothbard's Law- i.e. specialising in saying the stupidest thing possible given their antecedents.

The Gita isn't about 'Niti' or 'Artha'. It is an epoche of a dramatic type which we could restate as a backward induction based 'regret minimization problem' subject to an arbitrary informational constraint. It does tell us interesting things about open problems in decision theory in the same way that the Talmud, thanks to Robert Aumann, tells us interesting things. Unfortunately, India's karma is so bad, we got stuck with Amartya Sen and can only dream of one day getting an Aumann of our own.

Returning to Majitha's paper, let us see how he arrives at his view. My remarks are in bold.

Even a cursory reading of the Gītā makes it clear that the language of duty based on one’s stage and station in life (varṇāśramadharma) is pervasive. The Gita is a chapter- one concerned with a highly melodramatic situation-  in a much larger text. A cursory reading of it is bound to mislead because the context is lacking to grasp its multiple ironies. Why is 'Ranchodh' (the one who flees the battlefield, an epithet of Lord Krishna) preaching belligerence? Is it a joke- like when Bhima dresses up as a woman? Furthermore, we already know Karna is the true eldest brother. He only has to reveal his true birth for the Pandavas to submit. Will Krishna give away Karna's secret? He is one smart dude, but he is also related to Kunti. Will his natural affection get the better of him? Or will he find a cunning way out? I will argue that these deontological elements in the text are concerned with how right action must be undertaken, which is distinct from how right action is justified. Hinduism already had a sophisticated literature on how actions are to be undertaken and how they are to be justified. There are extended discourses on such subjects within the epic. The Gita references them as it does the Vedas and Upanishads and so on but it is not principally concerned with either field. We can be sure of this because we have the dual of the Bhagvad Gita to make a comparative study. The Vyadha Gita says that there is no right way to do a thing nor is any justification necessary because nothing is intrinsically right or wrong.  The Vyadha is a butcher of animals just as Arjuna is a butcher of men. Both conduct their trade as they see fit and any fool who challenges them with talk of ethics is laughed at because both are very skilful butchers whereas the fool is just logic chopping empty air. Such justification comes in broadly consequentialist terms of world-welfare, as I have already hinted. Nonsense! The World may be wholly delusive and illusory- many of the greatest commentators on the Gita held that belief.  Nevertheless, auspiciousness can be discerned from inauspiciousness, piety from impiety.  World-welfare is linked to kairos- timeliness. This has nothing to do with consequentialism of the Western type which has no concept of kairos or even dialectic. But the point of this endeavour is not to reduce the Gītā’s ethical theory to a variant of a western theory, since the centrality of liberation or mokṣa in the Gītā’s position makes this impossible, as we will see. Rather, the Gītā’s is a transformative synthesis that shows what it will take to make an agent-neutral consequentialism work consistently. Utilitarianism doesn't have a problem with 'Moksha'- at least not since John Stuart Mill. There is a workaround even if we abandon cardinal utility.
 Agent-neutral consequentialism may or may not 'work consistently' but we know that if we permit the work to be done non-deterministically, then it has a consistent implementation- though what that might be is not effectively computable and may feature unknowable partitions.
The Gita does not mention anyone having to learn discrete maths. That happened in the dual episode concerning the Just King's Vishada. There is no 'transformative synthesis' here answering to a type of economic philosophy associated with Nineteenth Century maths. Andre Weil spent a lot of time reading the Gita in Sanskrit. If the thing was there, he'd have found it.

Elsewhere, our author writes-

So it would seem that consequences of two kinds have a role in dhārmic duty undertaken with detachment: one kind that is explicit and helps determine the best fitting action that would instantiate that duty in a particular circumstance, and another that is concerned with world-welfare either implicitly or explicitly. 
Kings and Priests may claim that their actions are in line with their duty to promote world-welfare. If they are powerful and feared or their powers are effective, or believed to be effective, they may drop such claims or make them in a pro forma manner. 
The Veda itself shows that Priests who make a ritual mistake can escape the consequence if someone else writes a hymn which changes the law in this respect. What matters is skilfulness and timeliness. 'Detachment' lessens anxiety, permits delayed gratification, and improves attentiveness and dexterity. But this is true in all fields. The Vyadha became a very wealthy meat wholesaler living in a palace and worshipping his own parents as his gods because he had enough detachment to practice his craft in a rational fashion rather than let myopic greed lead him to commit fraud (Vyadha has the connotation of fraudsters because butchers were notorious cheats unlike 'Gandhi' green-grocers). He enjoyed the good life while gaining the highest knowledge described in the Chandogya Upanishad. Thus he is the equal to Krishna Devakiputra and can function as his peer in the dual to the Bhagvad Gita.
It is utterly foolish to think that a butcher who is good at his job and consequently thriving must also learn something called the 'duty of the butcher' which is further divided into ' most fitting actions for butchers' and 'role of butchers in promoting world-welfare'. I'm not saying the butcher's guild might not pay some Pundit to write some such screed and get it published. I'm saying everybody would recognise it to be mere puffery. Apprentice butchers might have to sleep through some such lectures but it would still be nonsense though, no doubt, it might serve a rationing or screening function.

Is our author doing something similar here?

Implicitly since consequences concerning world-welfare are built into dharma, and explicitly when it is unclear which duty will promote world-welfare. Right! That's what happens when a warrior is faced with a spear thrust by the enemy.  He makes a dharmic calculation as to whether to dodge the spear thrust or take it in the gut. This involves deciding which action best promotes world welfare.  Even in instances of the latter, it should be reiterated, it is still the case that action is undertaken without concern for personal consequences and in line with the spirit of scriptural injunction and therefore seems deontological to that extent. Not deontological but demented. Even Asimov's robots had a duty to preserve themselves though this duty was superseded by another such that a robot might sacrifice itself to save a human.

Presumably, Krishna thinks Arjuna’s fighting is required by the principle of world welfare because the world is worse off if Arjuna doesn’t fight, perhaps because victory cannot be secured without him, or, at the very least, because it would set a terrible dhārmic precedent. 
If this view is correct, the Gita is silly. Hindus are fools. Krishna could just teleport all the warriors to separate worlds where they slay simulacra of their enemies and die peacefully in their beds.
This understanding of detachment, with its built-in notion of world-welfare that is ultimately conducive to mokṣa, helps us see how obvious instances of detached criminal action at least are implausible; for such action would clearly be against the letter and spirit of dharma. I'm afraid this isn't Krishna's teaching as the author very well knows. Still, the author does go on to give a good account of the novel 'Samkhya-Yoga' aspect of the Gita which, when combined with Yuddhishtra's lesson in Game Theory, takes us to open problems in the Sciences and therefore actual  Philosophy, as opposed to arid Pedantry.

The text’s utilitarian principle of world-welfare provides the basis for assessing the nature of one’s duty in a changing world, even when faced with competing duties as in the case of moral dilemmas. Nothing could be further from the truth. Both the Gita and its dual arise in response to a mental abnormality (Vishada) in an agent. They are therapeutic. There is no need to follow the therapy once one is cured- as happens to both Yuddhishtra and Arjuna. The former, however, still has to learn 'Niti' to bischarge his duty because, after the death of Karna, he is a principal not an agent. Of course, it helps on the grounds of consistency that the duties themselves are ultimately derived not from a deontological principle but a utilitarian one. Therapeutic, not UtilitiarianYet this raises another issue, for one of the problems that many versions of utilitarianism often have is that these result in agents being alienated from their own projects, since agents are required to pursue the greater good for all (even if, as we saw in the case of Mill, such a move is not always easily justifiable). A guy being treated for an illness is not required to pursue the greater good for all. However, he benefits by considering the world as interconnected and itself being healed. The Gītā actually converts this into an advantage since it justifies this implication by suggesting that the empirical agent’s projects are not of ultimate concern, since not pursuing the dehā’s (lower self’s) personal goals is actually conducive to mokṣa for the dehi (Higher Self). This is only the case where the deha is subject to klesha. Once the klesha are removed, no such infirmity arises.  Obviously, if you are in hospital you shouldn't be pursuing your lower self's personal goals- like getting drunk and punching people in bars- but thinking good thoughts and cultivating your higher self. In so doing, the text also gives a metaphysical basis for selflessness and other-concern, by pointing to an extended and ultimately empty conception of the dehā that is intricately interconnected with all of nature. Very important, because fear of death can weaken you when you most need your strength to fight off the diseaseFinally, the Gītā’s virtue theory shows how the sage is the culmination of a long process of training and what constitutes such training, in a way that completes its ethics. Nonsense! Some kids attain that moksha which eludes the greybeards. What's more, this can happen instantaneously even in Grace denying sects like JainismYet, we might wonder if we have an ethical theory here since ethical theories apply to agents, and in the final analysis, the sage can hardly be described as an ethical agent if in fact action is nothing but strands acting on strands. Why not? There could be a supervenience relationship and the action of the agent (pramana) is of an epistemological kind in recognising this to be the case. Perhaps recalling something else that Mill says might be useful here: that utilitarianism (and hence consequentialism) is essentially concerned with the assessment of actions and not of agency (Utilitarianism, 18). Mill's theory of responsibility has salience here.  Like Moh Tzu's it vitiates his project because it would justify 'noble lies' like indoctrinating people to fear imaginary punishments in an imaginary Hell But this can hardly be an ultimately satisfactory answer unless of course the agent is ultimately irrelevant, as is the case for the Gītā. The Gita is therapeutic. Only the agent matters. It is philosophic in that it is a concrete model for what we believe to be correct solution an open problem in Maths. Thus it can provide 'normative reasons'
The Gītā’s ethical syncretism captures something true about the ethical dimensions of our lives: that good action involves deontological, consequential and virtue-centric aspects. On the contrary, the Gita captures the truth that Pundits talking high falutin' nonsense are wasting their breath.  On the other hand, someone who takes the trouble to understand you when you are mentally ill and who does everything in his power to catalyse a salutary metanoia is well advised to use 'zero knowledge proofs' rather than indoctrinate you in whatever bogus theory he is using. The alternative is, like Winnicott treating Masud Khan, you turn your junkie into a pusher of your product. Moreover, implicit in the text is the view that these aspects may be combined in the moral or dhārmic life, in ways that I hope I have shown. In the main, though, the Gītā makes clear that the moral life needs to be contextualized in relation to mokṣa; where mokṣa, for the first time in the orthodox tradition at least, is consistently conceived as directly available to all. Nonsense! The carter may have attained Moksha- as in the Chandogya- or it may be a woman or a butcher.  Some have the capacity or willingness to pass on the gift. Others don't or won't because it is strictly worthless which is why Vaishnavs pray not to be Liberated but to be reborn endlessly to serve the Lord in the form of 'Daridra Narayan'- the God within us who is lonely and poor.

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