July- September, 1999 , Volume 1  No. 1

Politics , violence and morality

Mrinal Miri

I. There are many cliches about violence doing the round in our country: cliches such as, our country has always believed in violence (Nirad C. Chaudhury), violence is no solution to any human problem, violence breeds violence; no religion preaches violence against other humans whatever their religion might be, and so on. Also there are correspondingly pious exhortations to our youth, to political groups, to our ethnic religious communities, to desist from violence to each other – exhortations by politicians of all hues, by religious leaders, by people who call themselves Gandhians and by intellectuals of different persuasions. Then, there are the "analysts" who seek the "cause" of this or that particular outburst of violence, this or that "ethos" of violence which seems to have come to stay in one part or another of our country. Much of this analysis is reductive, and, therefore, if not entirely invalid, is at least inadequate.

II. In this paper I shall not be interested in examining the cliches, or the pious exhortations or the analyses. Instead I shall try and explore – no doubt in an extremely tentative way – the relationship between politics, violence and what most of us would agree to call the moral life.

Let me begin by placing before you two contrasting views of politics, or, rather, the practice of politics: one I venture to call the classical, expounded with great clarity by Aristotle, and, in modern times, perhaps by Gandhi; and the other I simply call the "modern" or the liberal-humanist-individualist-secularist view of politics. The former can be schematically presented thus: (1) the fulfilment of a human life lies in the achievement of the highest degree of integrity or swaraj; (2) but such achievement can be the result only of a common pursuit – a pursuit in which the community as a whole is engaged in seeking goals which are seen not just as satisfying the selfish desires and interests of individuals or groups constituting the community, but as embodying common goods – goods which enhance, as it were, the life of the community; (3) such a common pursuit requires a vigorous exercise of the virtues, e.g., honesty, courage, intelligence, temperance, patience and so on;(4) but the virtues are just not means (in the utilitarian sense) to the achievement of the common goods insofar as the pursuit of common goods is essentially linked with man’s pursuit of the good for man. "For what constitutes the good for man is a complete human life lived at its best, and the exercise of the virtues is a necessary and central part of such a life, not just a preparatory exercise to secure such a life."1(5) an ideal political community is a community which is engaged in the common pursuit of such common goods;(6) such a community will naturally be characterized by harmony rather than conflict and thus violence will not be a natural part of such a community’s life.

Frequently (1) is also linked with metaphysical (Aristotle) or spiritual (Gandhi) fulfilment – with the realization of as Aristotle would put it, man’s ultimate or essential telos. But this I shall not discuss here. It involves larger questions of assessing metaphysical claims or claims about spirituality, which, while it is vitally important to go into, might be more appropriate to discuss elsewhere. But one must say at least this: the metaphysical ‘link’ is not just an incidental accompaniment of their theories, but an essential underpinning of their views of man and his destiny.

(2) is arguably correct. Insofar as the fulfilment of a man’s life consists in achieving integrity rather than fragmentation; swaraj as opposed to unfreedom, this can happen only in and through one’s relationship to other human beings. (There may be exceptions such as the lonely artistic or literary genius; but we also know how unhappy, and in many cases fragmented, the lives of most such people can be, in spite of their great achievements.) And the best such relationships are those which involve the pursuit of a common good in togetherness. For Aristotle, friendship is just such a form of togetherness and we all know that Aristotle regarded friendship as the highest form of human relationship. Think also of Gandhi’s insistence that seeking the truth is necessarily a cooperative activity truth not in the sense of discovery of facts, but in the sense in which we talk of discovering the truth of oneself, of authentic self-knowledge. It involves an active dialogue with the other and with one’s own tradition; a realization that true swaraj recognizes no foe.

What about (3)? It is not difficult to see that the common pursuit of the common good, as is conceived by Aristotle and Gandhi, would require, in a strong sense, the practice of the virtues. Thus take an example from modern life, say, setting up a school in a village. I do not mean setting up a school as a business venture – which is more often than not the case in our cities at least --, nor do I mean as part of government "welfare" activity, but as something which is perceived by the community as constituting a good for all, and not for any particular individual or group of individuals in the community. It is clear that the exercise of the virtues cannot be separated from a venture such as this: there must be as clear and unambiguous recognition of the good being pursued and of its nature as a common good, and a willingness to redefine it in the light of new insights (intelligence); the pursuit must not be identifiable as the seeking of purely selfish interests of an individual or a group of individuals (unselfishness); cheating or deceit of any kind will defeat the very purpose of the common pursuit (honesty); there must be courage to take risks and bold decisions, and humility to learn from one’s mistakes and from others. The virtues are thus integral to the pursuit of common goods as we have conceived them.

(4) and (1) are connected. The eudaimonia of the good man, or the fulfilment of the man who has achieved swaraj, is open only to the man of virtues. Therefore, the relationship between the virtues and man’s fulfilment as man cannot just be a contingent one of a utilitarian means to some independently conceived goal. (e.g. doing vigorous exercise to build muscles – the latter can also conceivably be achieved by, for instance, taking drugs, or having oneself massaged.) What, as it were, necessarily fills the life of human fulfilment is the vigorous exercise of the virtues. The truth of this is, of course, not self-evident. What about, for example, the successful man, who enjoys vicious means to see (as such a man would unsurprisingly have to do), that his ensured position is not threatened. To answer these questions would involve going in some detail into questions of moral psychology and phenomenology of morals, which would take me too far afield from the scope of this paper. I would content myself with saying just this: although it might be thought to be easy enough to produce examples of the vicious man of wealth, and power who also is happy or "fulfilled", it is also possible to produce fairly powerful non-circular arguments to show that only the virtuous can be truly happy: and such arguments, will, in large measure, have to be empirical in nature.

Both Aristotle and Gandhi firmly believed in the truth of (5). The polis for Aristotle, therefore, was the only proper arena for the pursuit of eudaimonia; and it is arguable that for Gandhi too it is the village republic that provides the most natural stage for the pursuit of swaraj.

The liberal humanist response to Aristotle and to Gandhi is predictable enough. Its main thrust will be as follows: their (Aristotle’s and Gandhi’s) conception of political life is too simplistic and unitary to be realistic; there are many human goods, some of which are in irreconcilable conflict with one another; the common pursuit of common goods cannot therefore characterize a political community of any complexity, sophistication and devoted to the pursuit of a plurality of values. This may seem to be a response with which it is difficult to disagree.2 But in defence of the Aristotle-Gandhi vision of the good man and the good life one can, perhaps, say the following: for both the good man is one who has achieved a stable harmony of the virtues in his life, and, therefore, a high degree of integrity and autonomy (swaraj). Both believed, perhaps unrealistically, but not at all surprisingly, that this unity of the moral life ought to be reflected in the life of the political community. Conflict and, therefore, violence must not have a place in the polis or Gandhi’s ramarajya.

(6) thus is a natural consequence of (1), (2), (3), (4) and (5). In a political community such as Aristotle and Gandhi envisioned the severest form of moral punishment will coincide with the severest form of legal punishment, that is, banishment or excommunication. Perhaps in summing up, we can say, with D.H.Lawrence, that the health of a nation and of its people depends centrally on "a common purpose and a common sympathy".

III. Let me now try and present the contrasting picture of politics which I called modern liberal-democratic-humanist-individualist-secularist. This picture I shall present once again in a schematic way. It will, therefore, have many rough edges; many qualifications will have to be made and many voices of reservations will be raised. But I believe, the picture, on the whole, is a correct one. Also I shall not be interested in expounding the liberal humanist philosophy as such or in its justification. I am more interested in placing before you an idea – rough as it will necessarily have to be – of the socio-political milieu which finds one kind of articulation in such a philosophy. The main features of this picture, as I see it, are as follows:

  1. there is not just one supreme human good – there are many goods, many values; and they have all to be respected; these values are connected with the different "interests" of different groups constituting a political community

  2. a political community will thus be characterized by conflict rather than harmony.

  3. the centres of political activity in a modern nation are the cities, and the lack of harmony of the political community is reflected in the life of the cities in a great variety of ways: one of the ways in which it is reflected is in the different, more or less unconnected roles that a citizen has to play at different times of a day of her or his life, or on different days of her or his life. (e.g. a wife, a husband, a petty bureaucrat, a teacher, a typist, a committee man, a "friend" and so on). It is also reflected in the disparities of many kinds that exist in a modern city.

  4. political activity is directed primarily towards the acquisition of power – of course, in principle, by liberal humanist methods i.e., through democratic elections, and remaining in power; and its primary concern is to reach a "just" equation of interests – which, in real terms, is "management of conflicts".

  5. conflicts – more or less unresolvable – exist not just within the political community, but between political communities – nations.3

  6. both these "demand" that actions of a certain kind which may be morally reprehensible in themselves, e.g., of economic and physical coercion, should be legitimate weapons in the hands of politicians – people who have acquired the power to govern. It is impossible to delimit the range of such actions; as we all know physical torture and killings (acts of violence, for short) are frequently not excluded.

  7. of course, one must not forget that a distinction is made between violence that is legitimate and violence that is illegitimate. This distinction is sometimes put in terms of "structured" violence and "unstructured" violence.4 The violence that is dispensed by the courts of law is part of structured violence. But the distinction, in practice, between structured violence and unstructured violence is anything but clear. Think of the acts of violence of the varieties of "police" forces that we have in our country, of the intelligence agencies, of the army – Are all of them cases of structured violence? I am sure it will be generally agreed that many, if not most, of them are not. I do not have to cite examples here. Thus it is an accepted – if sometimes only tacitly and unopenly accepted – fact that the politician who takes decisions or causes decisions to be taken has unstructured violence as one of the weapons in his armoury of weapons with which to govern the country.

IV. Given this scenario – incomplete and terribly impressionistic as it is – how are we to conceive of the relationship between the practice of politics and morality? Of course, politicians all over the world do all kinds of morally distasteful things – they take bribes, distribute favours to their relatives and friends, incite riots or have them incited, and, thereby, be the cause of the death of innocent people and so on. But these, it will be argued, are neither peculiar to politicians, nor do they have anything essentially to do with what would be considered political activity proper. There is a large element of truth in this. But the fact that politicians do these things and frequently get away with them is in itself interesting. No doubt, connected with it is also the fact that there is no – in any adequate or strong sense of the term – professional code of conduct associated with the practice of politics as there is, e.g., for the medical or the legal profession. It may be said that in the case of the latter, a strong code of conduct becomes necessary because these professions are concerned with vital interests of individuals and that not only are they so concerned but they must be clearly seen to be so concerned. This last is important and it shows that a strong and adequate articulation of a code of conduct in relation to these professions is motivated, in part at least, by powerfully selfish considerations. But isn’t politics concerned with vital interests of citizens? So it is. But these interests are allowed to be so diverse and frequently so cleverly manipulated – (often in conjunction with another equally ambiguous "profession" – ambiguous insofar as a code of conduct is concerned – the profession, namely, of business) that even to appear to be morally respectable may sometimes be a hindrance rather than an aid to the politician.

Let us then, leave aside these morally reprehensible deeds (including deeds of violence) which politicians do or at least initiate, but which, nonetheless are not peculiar to politicians or characteristic of political activity as such. It must, however, be said that our politicians seem frequently to be responsible for such deeds and sometimes they are even applauded for them. Our academics and intellectuals are occasionally outraged by them; but, for the most part, there is only a cynical acceptance of them. "Only crooks can and do get to be politicians – and what can you expect of crooks?" Such is the helpless response of many.

But supposing our practice of politics is miraculously cleansed – it would indeed need a miracle for this to be possible, but in logic, or as we say, in principle, it is possible – the question of whether the good man, the man of virtues, can be a genuinely effective player of the game of politics still remains. By a practitioner of politics I do not mean here the small-time party-workers or the lobbyist, but people who take decisions which are far-reaching – whether they recognize them to be so or not – and either implement them themselves or have them implemented.

An essential moral dubiousness seems, of course, to characterize the very hub of politics as professional practice, namely, the politician’s commitment to power. Frequently, of course, it is easy enough to see that a politician’s pronouncements and actions – although clothed in terms of "interest" of the people or the nation, are really – and quite obviously – in the interest of the politician’s personal ambitions. But a more pervasive and morally distorting face of political life is the impossibility to tell whether a particular issue – important to national life – has really ever been considered purely on its merit, because considerations of consequences (for power) of any decisions must form an essential part of the motivation behind the decision; or at least this must be the assumption of any intelligent onlooker.

But given this central moral ambiguity in the profession of politics – there are specific spheres, large and small, where the politician, in the course of his political activity, must occasionally take decisions which are in themselves morally undesirable and might involve large-scale violence, even if of a somewhat invisible kind. Take projects which are said to be "worthy" and in pursuit of "just equation of interests" that we talked about earlier. Think of the Narmada project. In this particular case, of course, enough alarm has been raised among enough number of people, for the politicians to have "shelved" the issue. But here again it is difficult for them to escape the charge of lacking the courage to take a decision one way or the other. But decisions have to be taken, and when they are taken there may be largescale victimization – e.g., when scores of villages are destroyed by creating an artificial lake, when thousands of tribesmen are evicted from their traditional homes in the forests. In such cases in spite of so-called compensations, the violence involved, though in a way invisible, may be so profound as to lead, first, to the degeneration, and then, to the virtual decimation of an entire population. The question, "what kind of people do we need at the helm of affairs who will take decisions such as these?", acquires special urgency, although we hardly ever ask it? If we insist – as, I suppose, most of us will – we need morally sensitive people even for decisions such as these, then there are only two possibilities: (I) that such people must suppress their moral sensitivities on occasions such as these (the possibility of this, in terms of moral psychology or phenomenology of morals, is extremely doubtful – to say the least); or (ii) that they justify their decisions in purely utilitarian terms, but (a) utilitarian calculations are notorious for their manifold uncertainty, and (b) moral sensitivity of the kind that we are talking about has, in any case, no place in the utilitarian scheme of things. Perhaps, then, the best we can say is that we need people who are ruthless and have irremediable moral blind spots, but are nonetheless disposed to act, in a large measure, at least, in the interest of the nation and not in his own interest. But I think, there is deep phenomenological truth in the suggestion that the combination of ruthless moral blindness and a disposition to self-less motivation is almost impossible to conceive.

I have not even talked about the "small" acts of deceits, of blackmail, of false moral postures – all done in the interest of the party, of the electorate, of stability and so on – which are part of almost everyday political activity in our country. This is because, here, we are interested primarily in acts of violence. But the line dividing the two is extremely thin, and frequently the former logically merges into the latter. It might be said that I am drawing a picture that is cynical in the extreme. There is, of course, a large element of truth in this. But the point really is that – given the liberal-humanist-individualist-secularist philosophy that informs – at some level – our contemporary political organization, and the objective of "just equation of interests" of the latter, with conflict rather than harmony being assumed to be the ultimate mode of human existence, a picture such as the one I have drawn seems inescapable. In mitigation one might perhaps say that whether or not the good man will rule depends very much on the general political culture of a nation. But, this latter, while it does vary from nation to nation, the difference – so it seems to me – is one only of degree and there is a dangerous tendency towards global uniformity – aided and abetted, of course, by the nexus of science, technology and big business.

In conclusion, I want to talk about the more visible and palable acts of violence which are done at the instance or the nod of the politician – for the sake, as it is said, of internal and external security. Here again, the difference between structured and unstructured violence might be invoked. But this distinction, just as much as the distinction between internal and external security, is extremely blurred. Are killings in so-called "encounters" part of structured violence; and is the "execution" of a "criminal" carried out by ULFA, or the LTTE or the Naxals part of unstructured violence? And the foreign hand is espied everywhere just as much as the dirty hand. It may be said, when violence – and especially violence that is totally mindless and appears almost to be an end-in-itself – becomes so widespread and almost the way of life of substantial sections of the people, it can be dealt with only with violence – both structured and unstructured. There is obvious truth in this. But here again, for the person who still believes in the possibility of an internal relation between politics and morality, the question, what moral qualities must the politician have to deal with situations such as these, might still be a pressing one. And the answer, quite obviously, will be one that will be greatly discouraging. One mitigating consideration might be that the politician whose actions and decisions are informed by a serious contemplation of her or his (and her or his colleagues) role in bringing about situations of this kind is to be preferred to one whose actions and decisions are not so informed. Perhaps.

But suppose the situation in the country is dramatically changed; and instances of violence in the life of the country have become so rare as to be very minor aberrations. Even if such a situation were miraculously to come about, there would still be occasions when the politician – for "reasons of state", for the sake of internal and external security – might have to have acts of violence "organized" a murder done, a person "silenced" and so on. To say that such occasions need not arise is to fly in the face of large empirical facts – the very complexity of the organization of the modern state, the "delicacy" of international relationships, and the great variety of forces and interests at work make it palpably possible that such occasions would arise. The question, then, is: can a man of moral character have such acts organized and yet retain, phenomenologically at least, a sense of moral self-respect and rectitude? An inclination to answer the question in the negative would, I think, be largely justified. But an external, liberal-humanist justification of the case for the moralist politician can still be sought in the following way: A distinction must be drawn between ordering a criminal act done and doing the act oneself. A politician may certainly find himself in a position where the interests of internal and external security demand that he order a criminal act done. But a situation need never arise where he himself is involved actively in the act and, in fact, we may even imagine him to be actively morally reluctant in even the issuing of the order. So, the politician can still retain, as it were, his moral core even if he has occasionally – and no doubt with active reluctance – to have acts of criminal violence ordered. To have reached such a point of sophistication in the argument, is, I think, also to have reached a point of intellectual despair which seems to be the general destiny of what we call modernity.

V. Can we even imagine a transformation on the Aristotle-Gandhi line? The answer quite clearly is "No". Such a thing, given the nature of the energies animating modern civilization, is impossible even to imagine. There may be small communities here and there desperately trying to live a life of isolation from "civilization", which may still be informed by something like the Gandhi-Aristotle spirit. But such communities are rare and, where they do exist, the great march of civilization will soon swallow them up.

What then? I shall end by saying two things: (i) We must clearly recognize the fact that moral compromises of very radical kinds are part of the core and not just the periphery of the practice of politics: a clear awareness of this is certainly much better than a pious hope that one day we will surely have the good ruler. Secondly, it is conceivable that the moral ambiguity which I said was internal to the very heart of the practice of politics – namely, the politician’s commitment to power – might lose some of its practical dangers if the power is as widely distributed as possible. Decentralization of political power is something that we do indeed talk about a great deal, but it hardly ever happens; and the reasons for this, I suspect, are far deeper than we would normally like to think.5


  1. A. MacIntyre, After Virtue, p.140

  2. But see once again A.MacIntyre, After Virtue, p.142,

  3. They are more or less unresolvable because they frequently arise from divergences of interest of such radical kind, that there does not exist any common ground for a dialogue.

  4. Bernard Williams, "Politics and Moral Character" Moral Luck, Cambridge 1988.

  5. The reader will easily recognize the similarity between some of the arguments used in this paper and arguments employed by Bernard Williams in his paper, "Politics and Moral Character". But there are two remarks to be made here: (I) Williams appears to believe that there is a qualitative difference between the West-European-North-American situation and, say, the Indian situation. I disagree with him here; (ii) some of his arguments are held together by the thinnest of thread of sophistication. I hope I have succeeded in breaking this thread at some places – easy as the task might be thought to be.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                                   Astha Bharati