Thursday, June 6, 2019

Erosion of individual autonomy- II

Modernity  is characterized by such features as rationalism, secularization, industrialization, the scientific culture, individualism, technological mastery of nature and the drive towards globalization. Gandhi thought that modern civilization did the opposite of what a proper civilization is supposed to do. Instead of producing people who have self-determination, autonomy, self-knowledge, self-discipline and social cooperation, modern civilization did the opposite. By encouraging people to subject their powers to large organizations run by experts, it rendered men passive, helpless and heteronomous.

The impersonal institutions of modernity make some actions costly and others more welcome. They thus direct people towards certain choices but all the while pretend that people are free to make any choice they want. With their inducements to rivalry and ambition modern society forces men to put on a mask to hide the contradiction in their actions between their deepest convictions and the considerations upon which these institutions are founded and maintained. Instead of treating humans as autonomous agents, humans are treated as programmed robots who cannot deviate from the instruction of their operating systems.

What makes modernity especially dangerous according to Gandhi is that this constraining of available choices comes with a surface gloss which makes people blind to the costs that they are obliged to pay.  The modern industrial economy is engaged in an endless process of  producing  cheap consumer goods and maximizing profit. He argued that modern economic life reduced men to its helpless and passive victim and represented a new form of slavery, more comfortable and invidious and hence more dangerous than the earlier ones.  (To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism by Evgeny Morozov describes the lives of such 'over-sized ants' who are content to let institutions automate virtues for them.)

Gandhi resisted the idea that those who subscribe to these norms felt it their duty to impose these views on the the rest of the world. He attacked the idea that every technological and scientific advance implied ‘progress’. That doesn’t mean that he was anti-science.  He said in 1925, ‘I think that we cannot live without science, as long as we keep it within its limits.’ For Gandhi, ‘its limits’ were to keep it within his ethical norms and to ensure that its fruits are not enjoyed only by a minority. When the fruits of science are confined to a minority, they tend to dominate others and erode their autonomy.

It is not that he only criticized modernity and left traditions untouched. With traditions the problem was in ancient texts which people followed blindly and with  modernity the problem was its focus on production and efficiency. The problem was not about choosing one or the other but about taming the excesses of each. He said in Harijan, January 13, 1940, 'There is nothing to prevent me from profiting by the light that may come from the West. Only I must take care that I am not overpowered by the glamour of the West. I must not mistake the glamour for true light. The latter gives life, the former brings death.'

It is true that we do not have any definite philosophical scheme evolved by Gandhi which can be described as Gandhian Philosophy. He had his general philosophy of life; they are reflected in his writings and speeches, mixed up with other related topics. They have to be discerned more in his actions, which must be viewed in their entirety not merely in an isolated way. He lived day in and day out open to public view and none in history has left behind so much of documentation and direct evidence concerning everything he thought and did. Ronald Tercheck writes in Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy:
If Gandhi is to have a voice in the twenty-first century, then not all of his texts can be approached literally. Texts do not entirely speak for themselves, particularly those that teach and admonish, often by reaching to practises, problems and opportunities whose original home is much different than that of later readers. . . Anyone in the late modern world who is interested in addressing the issues Gandhi raises about autonomy and non-violence needs to interrogate him to understand how his commitments are transported to a different world and translated into their own idiom. 
The ideal society about which Gandhi is discussing is the society where the individual is of supreme consideration and all the other aspects of the society, either machine, industry, production or distribution, revolve around him. For him, an action had moral worth only if it was voluntary, was a product of one’s own thought and not done because of some external force. So if an individual loses his freedom, as happens inexorably in the above-mentioned products of human ingenuity, the person becomes an automaton, an ‘over-sized ant’.

Gandhi's defence of individual autonomy is due to his conviction that every human being has only a partial conception of the truth. For him, any conception of the truth will include a commitment to autonomy.  He rejects all claims to certainty and does not accept the contention that it is ok to inflict pain on a person for some future good. Compelling a person to live by the moral standards determined by others implies believing in one’s infallibility which was not acceptable to him. He said on 17-4-1924, 'I have repeatedly observed that no school of thought can claim a monopoly of right judgment. We are all liable to err and are often obliged to revise our judgments.'

For Gandhi the case for freedom was simple and the same as that for truthfulness. Respect for truth implied respect for human beings as they were constituted at a given point in time. It ruled out all attempts to ‘force them to be free’ or sacrifice them at the altar of an abstract and impersonal ideal. For him a person is not moral if he is good because of the fear of getting caught. As he understands it, one can only have a good society if all individuals in it are free.

If any group dominates the other, the society cannot be good. He said in Harijan on September 29, 1946, ‘The mind of a man who is good   under compulsion cannot be good; in fact it gets worse. And when compulsion is removed all the defects well up to the surface with even greater force. ‘ Although theoretically it is possible for a person to be fearless and resist domination (as he himself did), he recognized that it is not possible for most people to bear the costs of such resistance.

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