Normative foundations of human endeavor

Apologies for the bad sounding title, just came out that way. I had a few queries in the comments section about two things, one was about efficiency and the other about my ‘appraisal’ of the Honey Bee Network. Well, I can hardly consider myself competent to do anything like the latter, but the Honey Bee Network is an excellent example of what I want to put forward here. Thanks to the person who reminded me of it!

Some of you may have heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It is a diagrammatic representation of the way our needs progress, from the crassly utilitarian to ‘higher’ spiritual and moral needs. It is assumed that every person goes through this hierarchy, and most stop at some level where they are satisfied. Correspondingly, your value system gets shaped by the needs that you think are most pressing, or where in the pyramid you lie. Almost all human endeavor has had some normative scaffolding supporting it, and I think it is necessary that we examine these value systems for a clearer understanding of conflict and cooperation: how a Prakash can rationalize the present state of development looking at the Dalits at home, and how a Deepak can speak out against the present development paradigm, which to him is disenfranchising the same Dalits. One has a narrow view, the other a much broader one. One concentrated on the materialist values, another acknowledged the importance of material well-being and went beyond it. Thus, two people who essentially wanted to achieve the same thing go about in different way depending on what values they hold dear. Co-operation, even with similar goals can occur only when we agree on a similar path. Else, an uneasy truce which will eventually break down into conflict will result.

This contradistinction is nowhere as stark as in the role of science and rational thinking which were purported to represent ‘progress’ (by the children of the Enlightenment, like ourselves) vis-a-vis traditional knowledge systems. We have to understand the historical background that the Enlightenment was set in: the Dark Ages preceded it, with a repressive Church which could only maintain its own dominance by curtailing free speech and the right to question authority. In an almost reactionary stance, the great thinkers of the period put forth the ideas of liberalism, scientific method and rejection of all metaphysical and theological stances, and everything else that the Church stood for. (This was followed by a reactionary Romantic movement, followed by an era of logical positivism, followed by postmodernism, i.e, oscillation after oscillation which always resulted from a re-evaluation of value-systems the then dominant paradigm held dear. After the Sokal hoax, postmodernism is quite a bit under attack. Westeners are crazy.) Other highly developed systems of thought, especially in Asian societies have hardly seen the kind of paradigm shift that the Enlightenment (in the form of its torch-bearer, science) has brought forth.

The value systems of science are clear: a mechanistic interpretation of nature, rejection of things that cannot be perceived, dichotomy of natural and normative principles, universal applicability, and a cumulative body of work which progressively controls nature to serve man’s interests. Principles of liberalism take man to be the fundamental unit of analysis, and deal with his freedom and rights.(Women did not figure too much in discussions then). Take the example of certain set of people in India who break stones for a living: They beg the stone’s forgiveness before they break it, since it is the way for them to earn their daily bread. For them, nature is not a set of atoms, but has values that cannot be measured empirically. Logically speaking, there is no reason to accept either conception of nature as correct or incorrect. These are values which cannot be talked of in terms of logic.

At another point in the spectrum lie systems of thought like Ayurveda and Yogasana. From a ‘scientific’ point of view, it is hardly clear how standing on one’s head can lead to good health, but seems like it does. Homoeopathy is another example. Modern medicine ridicules it, but it does work! Now, these systems of knowledge have utmost respect for nature and her ‘healing powers’ , do not differentiate empirical and metaphysical levels of thinking, and tries to harmonise man’s relationship with nature, rather than controlling it. Indian metaphysics hardly gives any importance to an individual as a unit of analysis, and rather opposes all phenomena to the unchanging Brahman. Importance is put on the realisation of the unchangeable than to indulge in the transient material existence. (Ecologically speaking, an individual is part of a huge web of life, and you will never find individuals being taken as a unit of analysis, but populations and their relations with other populations. Thus, one sees more correlation between actuality and philosophy when we take Indian philosophy and Western ecology together.)

We have now reached a point in time where the Western systems of thought, with all their baggage are being accepted uncritically by cultures worldwide. Since it is essentially the doctrines of liberalism and rationalism which have brought such material wealth to Western Europe and the USA, it seems logical that we follow it without questioning. Not that the Enlightenment’s contribution is immoral or invalid (modern science and medicine deserve more respect than being called nonsense), but that it creates a conflict of values, values which are deeply embedded in us. Thus, one cannot be opposed to Brahmin students conducting dissections, but Brahmin students taking up non-vegetarianism because of peer pressure when the West is turning vegetarian is a pathetic sight. Gandhi was deeply troubled by his experiments with meat eating and regretted it thoroughly. Our traditional knowledge systems are losing their value simply because they cannot be quantified and are not ‘valuable’ in the economic sense.

This is where organisations like the Honey Bee Network play such a vital role. HBN is trying to bridge the gap between disparate systems of thinking and trying to find common ground for dialogue. Keeping the western values of systematic enquiry and while not belittling the cultural wisdom of the native is what HBN has been doing successfully for some time now. The results of their untiring work is there for all to see on their website, with traditional wisdom being documented for posterity and rural inventors and entrepreneurs being encouraged. I have run out of my quota to speak about efficiency, will keep that for later. Too much indulgement in philosophy is dangerous, will stop here ;)

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