On ends and means, rights and duties

A quite generic model of a human is one who has certain ends that he wants to pursue (gaadi-bungalow, moksha, etc.,), and is looking for means to achieve these ends. Given this, your preferred ends are finally governed by your ethical, moral and metaphysical outlook, and the normal means are politics, economics and religion. For example, if national service is what interests you, you might want to look at politics (replace national with self, and still the same means holds. Politics is such an adaptive thing!). If you wish a comfortable life, you look to the market to sell your goods/services/labor to make money. A normal person will have many such ends, and we end up doing politics, economics and religion. Now, if we are to accept the axiom that each person must be free to pursue any end that she so wishes, the as societal beings, we must come up with a way to ensure that this axiom holds, atleast theoretically.

And thus we come to the concept of a State. Whether it materialized due a ‘social contract’ or as a necessity in a Hobbsean society, the main function of a State is to ensure the above axiom holds. Thus, the State has powers of coercion over its citizens, which is willingly given to it by the citizens themselves (who are given a fancy name: ‘polity’) to ensure that each can lead a fulfilling life. Why this is necessary has been written about before.

There cannot be a common set of ends for all, since each person is unique (not everyone wants the same brand/color of motor vehicles!). There are, in any sufficiently organized society, limited number of means, and they are normally classified as those that do not harm others, and those that do. Since we want each person to acheive whatever he wants to, provided he does not hurt anyone, each person is assumed to have a set of ‘rights’. There are some negative rights (‘right against something’, ‘something’ can be being cheated, murdered, discriminated, etc.,) and positive rights (‘right to something’, ‘something’ can be a good education, employment, etc.,). There have been arguments as to whether the State much only ensure negative or positive or both kind of rights, but that is a different story altogether. Get this if you want to dive into this stuff.

The Indian State is no different, and certain rights are guaranteed by the Constitution. Violation of these can be referred directly to the Supreme Court, without going through any lower courts. We also have certain duties, but these are not enforcable and citizens are ‘morally obligated’ to perform them. This is not the case with other countries, with Switzerland having compulsory military service for all male citizens.

In all political activity seen nowadays, the main cry is to demand for certain rights, whereas duties are never mentioned. Bangalore demands a positive right to water, but Bangaloreans have absolutely no interest even in a basic duty such as voting. The reason for this is a conception of humans as ‘possessive individualists‘, which simply says that people have to make money from their (god-given, or acquired?) skills, and owe nothing to society. Whether it be Dalit, Brahmin, tribal or industrialist, the political scene is full with clamor for rights, new rights, and redressal for their violation. Everybody wants good food at the mess, but nobody (including myself!) wants anything to do with how it runs. It should simply run itself, somehow.

Another approach is to say our duty is to pay tax and obey laws, the rest is the duty of the State. This has worked well in the Scandinavian countries, but in a country as vast and heterogenous as India, this amounts almost to escapism – no State of reasonable size can ever perform the duties of a billion people. The gradual withdrawal from society to ‘attain realization’ amounts to saying moksha can be pursued without the fulfillment of dharma. It is in this sense that modern economics and liberalism have been a liberating force: they have given theoretical justification for people to be liberated from the ‘shackles’ of dharma. Religions were the traditional body of authority which dictated the duties of an individual, but no longer wield the same influence as before.

Asceticism or the theory of karma cannot justify the non-performance of dharma. Renunciation, as taught by Buddha, Mahavira or Sankara, which involves a complete removal of oneself from society to attain moksha has found rebuttals by the actions of reformers like Basavanna, Rammohun Roy, Gokhale, Vivekananda and Gandhi. Even Buddhism requires of enlightened individuals to alleviate suffering by removal of ignorance, which is what Buddhism considers the root of suffering. While this purely mental view of human suffering may not be correct, but it is aleast something. The new age philosophers/activists, especially Gandhi, believed that only through active participation in civic duty can one harmonise artha, kama, dharma and moksha. Gandhi himself, though a continuous seeker of moksha (which he called Truth as well), used the instrument of politics to achieve this end. Of course, his idea of politics which was to uplift the underprivileged, unlike present day netas.

And thus from Gandhi comes the most clarifying present day articulation of what one’s dharma should be in this day and age:

I will give you a talisman. ‘Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test: Recall the face of the poorest and most helpless person whom you have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he be able to gain anything by it? Will it restore him the control over his life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj for the hungry and starving millions?’ Then you will find your doubts and self melting away.


4 thoughts on “On ends and means, rights and duties”

  1. “model of human” – quite interesting seems like you are a science guy studying social science
    (Something related: Newton said I can under equations but not human beings).

    Are you trying to say that a state’s framework should be such that everyone(at least the better ones) is put in position to help the poor.
    Or is it that you just highlighted Gandhi’s thoughts.

    I am asking the question because,in general, first a precursor is given and what comes at the end is usually a conclusion.

    1. Well, regardless of what anybody’s training is, isn’t that what we all do, try and build simplified, logically consistent “models” of our objects of study ? :)

      The point simply is that certain duties that have been handed over (for whatever reason – enlightenment, social stability,…) are necessary for the general welfare of the society, and a rights only based discourse simply cannot capture it.

      The generally accepted duties play a role in determining how ‘healthy’ a society is IMO. The primacy given to anyone of artha, kama, dharma or moksha, ignoring others causes an imbalance – e.g, India’s progress in economics pretty much stopped after the arthashastra, and one wonders how much the stress given to the ascetic way of life over the householder’s contributed to this.

      And thus, we see more recent leaders in India like Roy, Bhave, Vivekananda or Gandhi or Aurobindo moving away from this mode of thinking and making social uplift and progress an important part of the way to moksha, and thus the quote.

      Just making a point that one cannot reach a ‘higher’ plane of existence when everyone around you is going to the dogs – escapism is not enlightenment.

      1. “Rights only based discourse” — that summarizes it.
        [By calling them rights,perhaps, people take them for granted.
        Maybe they should be called advantages bestowed upon you, advantage given to education etc].

        But what would you look at as a solution. Once a colleague of mine questioned why he should pay tax, so that they sell rice at rs.3(Ya I am also against subsidies but not against helping).

        All in all people won’t be ready to help(barring a few) unless it helps their own ends as per your own model(that also raises the question: Are people good, do they have goodwill,btw that was the Q asked in Dark Knight). Maybe they are good but they also have fear(perhaps because of the system that has been created) so it gets down to his own survival first, I am not sure.

        So shud the duties be enforced or left to those few willing…can enforcing help, shud you care for people’s discourse of duties without their willingness to do so?

        -Most often we try to get huge insight into the problem and seldom propose solutions.

      2. Firstly, I would be wary of people proposing solutions – they are almost always wrong. The only truly correct answer is ‘ I don’t know the answer, but we can probably arrive at it together’

        Like you pointed out, ‘educated’ people like to bite the hand that feeds them. They despise the ‘uncouth masses’ and society without understanding that where they are now depended on everybody else doing their work. Each person, to a great extent, is an expression of a civilization that is, and will be much after any single person has come and gone.

        That being the case, the difference between ‘me’ and ‘society’ is very hard to judge, leading to some issues with the subject-object distinction that is required to ensure things like ‘self-interest’ make sense.

        simply put, self-interest will overlap social interest if one wards off the convenient image of a heroic individual and recognize that all of us are interdependent.

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