The Outreach Programme, Jamia Millia Islamia conducted a talk by Professor K. Chakrabarty on the topic, “Ethical Theories: East and West” at the Yasser Arafat hall, JMI on Friday, Jan. 13, 2012.
About the Speaker
Mr. Kishor Kumar Chakrabarty is a professor of Philosophy and a distinguished scholar in residence of Davis and Elkins College in USA. He is the author of six books including “Definition and Induction,” “Classical Indian Philosophy of Mind” and “Classical Indian Philosophy of Induction.” He has also authored seventy-eight research papers on topics of epistemology, metaphysics, logic and philosophy of language. He has previously taught at Calcutta University, University of California at Berkeley and the University of Maine. He has also been a fellow of the Australian National University, University of Pittsburgh and the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton.
K. Chakrabarty spoke on the subject of ethical theories and distinguished between the theories of the east and the west.
He started with explaining his duty as a philosopher, which is to distinguish between wrong and right, and good and bad. Then he came to the significance of the discussion being conducted, saying that “there is no sphere when a person would be interacting with another person or a group of persons where the ethical issues are completely irrelevant. They seem to be important for a very large range of activities that we engage in routinely.”
He went on further to say, “Philosophers from both the east and the west have tried to give us general theories that can throw some light on this very controversial subject that affects us deeply all the time.”
Western Theories of Ethics
He spoke of the three most influential western ethical theories: the first is of Immanuel Kant an 18th century German philosopher, called “The Deontological Theory of Ethics.”
‘Deon’ – the Greek word meaning duty, i.e. we must perform our duties, and we shouldn’t be concerned with the result or consequences. This theory is based on duty and duty alone. The intention is what matters here, not the result.
Mr. Chakrabarty commented that this is a very powerful theory; but a morality that never permits any exceptions.
To explain further he used an example. He referred to the duty of truth, and how we can’t always speak the truth and certain situations must permit telling a lie for the greater good.
Second, is the Utilitarianism Theory. This was developed by two British philosophers: Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.
‘Utility’ is defined as useful, practical or beneficial; i.e. should do what benefits most. There should be no egoistic choices, individual happiness, prosperousness and success; it should make most people happy.
Moral standard here is greatest benefit of the greatest number. This is a theory that opposes that of Kant’s, as here the result is all that matters.
Difficulty in this is that it does not give proper protection to minority rights; prosperity of the nation is important at the larger level.
Third is the Virtue Theory by Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher. According to Aristotle’s theory of virtue, nobody is born good or bad. What’s important is the kind of character we build. It’s the kind of life we lead that shapes our character.
Over here basic personality is what matters for morality, and the individual chooses right or wrong.
In a situation, one should view the options available, from extreme to middle. His advice is to try to stay in the middle. An extreme outlook is not the right kind of character.
“There is no fixed golden mean; it changes from person to person,” said Chakrabarty.
Mr. Chakrabarty commented that this theory is much older than the previous two and has many strong points but is problematic in the sense that one can’t always choose the middle ground. Extremism can’t be immoral all the time. Here he alluded to Mahatma Gandhi and how his life was one of extremism.
Eastern theory of Ethics
The three western theories are one-dimensional and narrow. A more broad-based, multi-dimensional ethical theory developed in India takes a unified approach to morality. It was developed by a good number of Hindu philosophers, who were inspired by the Bhagwad Gita.
Mr. Chakrabarty chose to take an analogy from the world of religion. He stated that religious monoism stands for only one true religion existing. But there are many religions and thus there are many true faiths varying from individual to individual. This is the theory of religious pluralism. Through this he came to the question that if there can be religious pluralism, then why not ethical pluralism? This is the argument by Hindu philosophers who say that there is no need to fight over ethical theories. Reason, duty, affection are all important parts of human nature, thus we must embrace all the theories instead of choosing any one of them.
So the non-western ethical perspective is to unite all perspectives, take a multi-dimensional approach. We as human beings are complex and need to include everything. Another analogy he used was that of a surgeon, who has to make choices everyday of his life and who can’t follow only a single approach in his life.
In conclusion he said:“The competing ethical theories are not opposed but compatible.” We have to respect the rights of the person, the consequences, and we also have to make choices again and again to build a strong character.