Saturday, June 17, 2017

The emotional tail wagging the rational dog - V

Many nations and ethnic groups demand apologies for wrongs committed in the distant past. Germany has paid the equivalent of billions of dollars as reparations for the Holocaust. Japan has shown reluctance to apologize for its wartime atrocities in the face of growing international pressure. Debate has raged in Australia over the government's obligation to aborigines over past wrongs. Sashi Tharoor's speech about British colonial rule in India earned him fans even among his political opponents.

Should nations apologize for historical wrongs? There are worries about inflaming old animosities, hardening historic enmities, etc. There is the argument that people in the present generation should not apologize for the wrongs committed by a past generation. This rests on the notion that we are responsible only for our own actions and not for the actions of someone else.But are humans unencumbered beings entirely free to take decisions without outside influences?

If we think of ourselves as unbound by moral ties that we haven't chosen ourselves, we can't make sense of many things like family loyalty, patriotism, religious faith, etc. In Justice, Michael Sandel says that we are storytelling beings who are born in the middle of a continuing narrative. My decisions are influenced by larger life stories of which my life is a part. He quotes from Alasdair MacIntyre's book After Virtue:
We all approach our own circumstances as bearers of a particular social identity. I am someone's son or daughter, someone's cousin or uncle; I am a citizen of this or that city, a member of this or that guild or profession; I belong to this clan, that tribe, this nation. Hence what is good for me has to be the good for one who inhabits these roles. As such, I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation, a variety of debts, inheritances, rightful expectations and obligations. These constitute the given of my life, my moral starting point. This is in part what gives my own life its moral particularity.
...the story of my life is always embedded in the story of those communities from which I derive my identity. I am born with a past, and to try to cut myself from that past, in the individualist mode, is to deform my present relationships.
To illustrate this narrative account of a person bound by moral ties that he has not chosen, Sandel gives an example of a communal obligation. During WW II, members of the French resistance conducted bombing raids over Nazi occupied France. Although factories and military installations were targeted, civilian causalities were inevitable. One day a bomber pilot found that his assigned target was his home village. He asked to be excused from the mission because he felt that even in a just cause, he couldn't kill some of his fellow villagers. Sandel writes:
What do you make of the pilot's stance? Do you admire it or consider it a form of weakness? Put aside the broader question of how many civilian causalities are justified in the cause of liberating France.The pilot was not questioning the necessity of the mission or the number of lives that would be lost. His point was that he could not be the one to take these particular lives. Is the pilot's reluctance mere squeamishness, or does it reflect something of moral importance? If we admire the pilot, it is because we see in his stance a recognition of his encumbered identity as a member of his village, and we admire the character that his reluctance reflects.
I saw later this transcript of a speech by Bhikhu Parekh where his explanation of Gandhi's views about the interconnectedness of humans was similar to MactIntyre's quoted above (the entire explanation is in one paragraph but I have split it into three paragraphs for ease of reading):
Gandhi saw more clearly than most other writers both the interdependence of human beings and the ways in which systems of domination were built up and sustained. He argued that all systems of domination rested on a profound misunderstanding of human nature, and wrongly assumed that it was possible for one man or group of men to harm another without also harming themselves. Human beings were necessarily interdependent and formed an organic whole.

An individual owed his existence to his parents without whose countless sacrifices he would neither survive nor grow into a sane human being. He grew and realized his potential in a stable and peaceful society, made possible by the efforts and sacrifices of thousands of anonymous men and women. He became a rational, reflective and moral human being only within a rich civilization created by scores of sages, saints, savants and scientists. In short, every human being owned his humanity to others, and benefited from a world to the creation of which he contributed nothing. As Gandhi put it, every man was 'born a debtor', a beneficiary of others' gifts, and his inherited debts were too vast to be repaid.

Even a whole lifetime was not enough to pay back what a man owned to his parents, let alone all others. Furthermore the creditors were by their very nature unspecifiable. Most of them were dead or remained anonymous, and those alive were so numerous and their contributions so varied and complex that it was impossible to decide what one owed to whom. To talk about repaying the debts did not therefore make sense except as a clumsy and metaphorical way of describing one's response to unsolicited but indispensable gifts.
There is a school of thought which says that history is a field of knowledge which is a source of conflicts because it reminds people about episodes in the distant past which are best forgotten. An example is the Ramjanambhoomi movement where constant attempts to historicize a figure who had resided peacefully in myths for centuries unleashed atavistic tendencies in many people which had unfortunate consequences. Gandhi once said, ‘Happy is the country that has no history.'

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