Ethical Idealism and Moral Dilemma

The Indian answer to moral dilemma is relativistic, but also realistic.  No absolute, regimental ethical idealism will help anyone to resolve moral dilemmas in life.  Scriptures give absolute, idealistic ethics to encourage everyone to follow, but in real life, these scriptural ethics are interpreted according to the situation and not in a regimental way.  The one Indian word that would define both the absolute, idealistic ethics and its realistic nature is ‘dharma’.1  The famous Upanishad mantra which is given for every brahmachari (bachelor) after completion of his studies at a Gurukulam is ‘Satyam Vada; Dharmam chara’ (Taitiryoupanishad).  However, in real life this convocation address is never expected to be implemented both in letter and spirit.

Bimal Krishna Matilal’s (Philosophy, Culture and Religion: Ethics and Epics: The Collected Essays of Bimal Krishna Matilal, ed. By Jonardon Ganeri, New Delhi, Oxford, 2002) discussion about the question of moral dilemma, based on the Mahabharata, throws some light on this issue.  To summarize his point: the end justifies the means.  The main point of his discussion is: justice needs to be done.2  Neither the victim (Pandavas) or the assailant (Kauravas) are completely innocent; both have played a part in escalating the rift between their clans.  However, when compared, the Pandavas deserve justice.  No amount of fair play is going to achieve the desired end (justice), so Krishna plays tricks to get the desired, even resorting to unethical means.3  The Mbh. records his diplomacy more than his divinity; he never claimed omnipotence.4  Even if he wished, he could not stop the war and the destruction, as both the parties have reached the point of no return.5  Using the characters of this story, the Mbh. presents a more realistic solution to a moral dilemma, rather than an idealistic one.6

It is true that irrespective of scriptural teachings (of any faith), no one can uphold and practice idealistic ethical values in her life.   Ethical idealism is like the Law of a land.  In the court, the verdict is not given based on the letter of the statuary law, rather it is interpreted based on witnesses, circumstance, and intension of the crime.  The verdict is based on the spirit (interpretation) of the Law, not the letter.  In most cases, judges refer to a past verdict rather than implementing the Law as per the letter.

What, then, is the purpose of giving absolute ethical values through scripture?  They are to remind us of the fallen nature of all humans (and the world); helping us to not become self-righteous.  They make us seek the grace of God to reform ourselves.  They motivate us to make progress to satisfy our own conscious, rather than to sit in judgment about others failures in upholding the absolute, idealistic ethical values (that too, we must remember, is according to our expectation and interpretation).

If my understanding is correct, then the main thrust of the Mbh. (and Indian ethics in general) is to bring maximum happiness to the maximum amount of people.7  The suffering and sacrifice of some are inevitable in such an approach.  However, though it may seem a bit idealistic, for me, seeking justice for the weak and suppressed, irrespective of their shortcomings, should be the practical solution to moral dilemma. Interestingly, the Mbh. promotes the idealism of ‘maximum happiness to maximum people’ by giving a practical solution of doing justice to the victim.  Such paradox is the landmark of the Indian solution to every life issues.8

There are a few things that need to be considered when arriving at a conclusion regarding any moral dilemma based on idealistic ethics—particularly based on Hindu scriptures.  First, the Mbh. is not a single work by a single author.  As there is a lot of interpolation, arriving at any over-arching conclusion based on such vast encyclopedic scripture is a difficult task.  Second, the contradictory doctrine playing side by side is not a philosophical problem for a common man.  For example, the acts done both by the Kauravas and the Pandavas set the action in motion to arrive at its own logical conclusion—where the god Krishna, or a friend of the Pandavas, or a statesman trying to do justice to the victim could not change it, even if he wished.  The confession of Krishna that he himself cannot stop the war and the destruction not only shows him to be human, but it also shows the power of ‘karma theory’ in which gods cannot interfere or do anything.

For me, the central issue in deciding any moral dilemma in the Indian (Hindu) worldview rests with the doctrine of karma and kala, before which even gods are helpless.   Once we understand this, understanding any moral dilemma and the solution that Hindu ethics subscribe will be easy.  It is on the two tracts of KALA and KARMA that the Hindu worldview moves.  This is the only unchanging, absolute principle for anyone to understand the Indian (Hindu) worldview.9  It must be noted that both maya (for Vedanta) and divine lila (for bhakti vedantas) could add values to these kala and karma, for a philosophically minded Hindu.

However relativistic and realistic a Hindu ethical solution to a moral dilemma is, it is finally decided by the ‘absolute, arbitrary, objective, dogmatic’ criterion of Kala and Karma (added with Fate for the majority of Hindus).  Pluralistic Hinduism has room for both ‘objective’ and ‘relativistic’ approaches in life.  Ultimately, however, no one is responsible for anything as ‘apad dharma’ permits all kinds of lapses to make survival important.  As the Tamil saying goes, ‘Aapaddukku paavam illa’ (“nothing is wrong in emergency”).    Every situation is an ‘emergency’ for an individual, despite how it is viewed by others.

Db. Gurukulam. November 23, 2012


1.      …Let us regard Krsna as a moral agent here.  It was his duty to uphold dharma which also included justice, at any cost.  The exact nature of dharma has remained every elusive, for it was never spelled out fully….—p. 106

2.  …A god does not have to be omnipotent, but he could be noble enough to see that justice is done in the end….(p.102)

3.  …Courses of certain events cannot be stopped.  All that Krsna was able to do was to salvage justice at the end of the battle.  So the paradox became more and more underscored.  In order to save justice towards the end, many unjust and immoral acts were perpetrated….—p. 105

4.   According to the received doctrine, God is supposed to be omnipotent and he should also see that justice is done in the end. But Krsna in the Mahabharata did not always claim to be omnipotent. Apart from certain inspired speeches (e.g. in the Gita) he acknowledged his human limitations….Krisna’s own admission that he did not have any power to stop the battle or devastation….is an important evidence to show that the Hindu conception of God does not always include the attribute of omnipotence…..(p.99)

5.  …People with their freedom had acted following their instincts and thereby a ‘sad mess’ had been created.  Hence it was time to let loose the destructive power of the divinity.  He, acting as the inner manipulator of every being, would bring about the intended destruction.  Therefore he described himself as Kala.  Kala is also identified sometimes with Yama, the God of Death….(p.104)

6.  …the unprovoked insult inflicted upon the defenceless Draupadi in public was the last straw…It has already been noted that the Pandava side was comparatively weaker.  The weaker side can defeat a stronger side only with the help of a strategy, and strategies cannot always be restricted to fair and just means.  There is a touch of realism here. Idealism would have demanded that the good be the victorious over the evil by following the ideally constructed strategies, which should always be fair.  But our story-teller preferred realism.  Our world is really an imperfect world, and this is all we have.  Our story-teller’s conception of God was not that of an Almighty Deity….(p.104)

7.  …For a consequentialist opts even for a little bit of well-being or happiness (that is, utility) when he violates a well-established moral principle.

For the consequentialist, the consequence must produce more well-being or more happiness.  One can obviously produce an argument by which it will be shown that Krsna as a moral agent gave up the principle of moral integrity (assuming that moral integrity is an excellence or value) in order to ensure victory for the right side, that was the Pandavas… So one may say that Krsna as a moral agent gave up moral integrity to avoid a total miscarriage of justice in the end.

But this consequence can hardly be measured in terms of happiness or even wellbeing.  Anybody who has read the Mahabharata can testify to the fact that the conclusion of the war contributed to nobody’s happiness in particular.

8.  …Sometimes it is possible for a leader to transcend or breach the rigid code of conduct valued in the society, with the sole idea of creating a new paradigm that will also be acknowledged and esteemed within that order.  Our Krsna might be looked upon as a leader of that sort.  It may be that he created new paradigms for showing limitations of such a generally accepted moral code of truth-telling and promise-keeping.  Sometimes situational constraints and the risk of the loss of the greater good might influence a rational agent to transgress certain valued principles.   In this case one might say that a threat posed by Duryodhana’s victory and the consequential loss of the chance of the restoration of justice, might have (p.106) influenced Krsna’s decision to follow the devious course.  All these are speculations, but I claim that they are not entirely absent from the moral concerns of the Indian people…..—pp. 106-07

9.      48. O fowler, as the priests officiating at a sacrifice do not gain the merit of the act by offering oblations of clarified butter to the fire, so should I be considered in this mater. [The serpent who killed an infant to the Fowler Arjunaka]. (p. 3) …67-68. Everything is done under the influence o Kala.  I have said it before.  O fowler, the Kala is the cause of all and therefore we both [Mritya and serpent], acting under the influence of Kala, do our appointed work and, therefore, O fowler, we two should not be blamed by you [for the death of the infant who was killed by the serpent]…. 70. Neither Mrityu, nor this serpent, nor I, O fowler, am guilty of the death of any creature. We are merely the immediate causes of the event.   O Arjunaka, the Karma of this child was the exciting cause of our action in this matter…. 74. As men make from a lump of clay whatever they wish to make, so do men come by various results out of Karma. [Kala to the Fowler].— M.N.[Manmatha Nath]  Dutt, Mahabharata, Delhi, Parimala Publications, 7 vols. 1988, ANUSHASANA PARVA, Volume VII. Ch. I, pp. 3-4