The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi: Volume L, by Mohandas K. Gandhi

The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, 1958-c.1988/1999, 98 vols in one, 47006 pages

Volume L of this collection contains all the writings of Gandhi from June 1-August 31, 1932, which is pretty much all correspondence from prison, since he is still incarcerated for this whole time.

Throughout this period, he receives no visitors. As a protest to the prison picking and choosing who may visit, and excluding people he believes under the rules he should be allowed to see, he has refused all visits from anyone.

In general, though, he is an extremely cooperative prisoner, and all of his correspondence with prison officials is, as one would expect, faultlessly civil and respectful.

As I read this volume, I made notes along the way of various points that struck me, which I’ll mention here.

He’s not nearly as anti-suicide as religious types usually are. His position is that “A person suffering from an incurable disease has the right to commit suicide if he cannot perform any service whatsoever and lives only as a result of the ministrations of others,” though he adds that someone with a sound mind can generally still be useful through thought and communication even if physically disabled, so it will be uncommon that someone will be in the position of having nothing whatsoever to give.

He adds as well that that decision has to come from the person and not under pressure from someone else, and that it’s a right and not a duty to commit suicide. Though later he also briefly defends active euthanasia.

Another sense in which a sort of suicide can be justified, he holds, is a “fast unto death.” This can be thought of as a slow motion suicide that can be halted at any time depending on the actions of others. Gandhi contends that it is not a violation of the duty to remain alive and give service as long as one is able, if it is done in a way which itself constitutes greater service than the person is likely to be able to give without running this risk of death. A “fast unto death” will meet that condition, he holds, very, very rarely, and only for a tiny number of people who have earned a certain level of influence.

He also more than once defends the actions of women who kill themselves when they are about to be raped, praising them for choosing death over dishonor.

Though I see the point and I agree there are times voluntary death is the least of the evils of our available choices, I find this last point objectionable in multiple ways.

One is the inherent sexism of it (though in most respects he’s admirably non-sexist in his philosophy). I notice he never gives the example of men committing suicide to avoid homosexual rape, or any other treatment which will somehow dishonor them. It’s as if only a woman’s loss of some kind of sexual purity can render her sufficiently damaged goods that death would be preferable, which seems to me a kneejerk reaction coming from someone steeped in the typical religious taboo system of morality that’s far too concerned with sex and how it makes people dirty.

But more important, it’s objectionable on the basis that he’s implying we can somehow be lessened morally by what is done to us against our will, rather than just by what we freely choose. My message to rape victims and potential rape victims would be instead that there is zero dishonor, zero shame, zero loss of moral status in being victimized by that or any other form of violence. The perpetrator places himself on a lower level through his behavior, but he does not lower the victim one iota.

That to me is more in keeping with Gandhian morality. Heck, I’d have more sympathy for his position if it were more along the lines of: “When someone is about to commit such a horrible wrong as to rape you, and you love him enough to sacrifice yourself to prevent that from happening, it is justified to martyr yourself to keep someone from being a rapist.” Not that that’s unproblematic, but I could see Gandhi, who’s all about martyrdom and accepting suffering to reform others and morally educate others, saying something like that. I could see him being impressed by someone being willing to die to keep someone else from being dishonored by being a victimizer, easier than I can accept his saying it’s good that a potential victim be willing to die to keep them from suffering the dishonor of being a victim (because there is no dishonor in that, I contend).

And if it wasn’t women, and it wasn’t sex, I think that’s exactly the kind of thing he’d say.

But anyway, returning to the issue of suicide in general, there’s a sense in which it’s really not surprising he would be as accepting of it as he is. Death itself isn’t a big evil in his philosophy. Indeed, he sees clinging to life as rather unseemly. To stay alive in order to perform service yes, but to stay alive just to be staying alive, just because it’s better as an individual to be alive than dead, no.

He continues to be dissatisfied with himself on this score, dissatisfied that he hasn’t reduced his selfish will to live quite to zero. The case he routinely cites, correctly in my estimation, of his own weakness is his reinterpreting a vow years earlier to allow taking milk when he was convinced by his doctors that he needed to do so to stay alive. He didn’t blatantly violate his vow on that occasion, but he did some pretty serious fudging.

But his philosophy is that death just isn’t that big a deal. That’s why he has always been able to put himself and his followers in positions of vulnerability during civil disobedience campaigns and such with a fair degree of equanimity.

One can say that stems from his Eastern religious beliefs that after you die you’ll just be reincarnated anyway, but believers in Western religions typically believe in continued existence after death as well, albeit not reincarnation specifically, yet it’s never more than a minority of folks East or West that are able to calmly act on such beliefs when the time comes and accept dying for what they think is right.

Gandhi takes the expected, but to my mind mostly misguided, anti-divorce and anti-birth control positions typical of religious conservatives.

I say mostly because it’s not like I think there’s nothing to be said for, say, the opposition to divorce. I’m attracted to the notion that marriage should be a solemn vow that you agree to be a team from that point on, regardless of whether the option of being apart instead might later seem more appealing. I think it’s valuable to be able to rely on the fact that that status of being married is a permanent one, not one that’s perpetually up for reassessment.

As he says, he and his wife have had very severe differences over the years, especially in the early years. (He was something of a hothead before he gradually reformed himself in the direction of nonviolence, and so at times succumbed to a sexist dictatorial interpretation of his role in the marriage. Furthermore, they clashed greatly over his pro-Untouchable position; she took a very long time to accept that Untouchables could be equal to caste Hindus like them, or that caste Hindus ought do work associated with Untouchables.) Had they not regarded their marriage vows as absolute, they would surely have divorced, but now they are both very glad they stayed together.

But mostly he’s just anti-sex about these things, and I’m not. To his mind, something like birth control is a strategy for getting a supposed good—sexual enjoyment—while avoiding undesired consequences that can come with it, such as an unwanted pregnancy. Whereas he rejects the notion that sex for pleasure is good in the first place. (He’s not much into pleasure in general, at least as it distracts from service or focuses people more on their material than spiritual selves.)

For him, birth control would be like if large numbers of people were deluded into thinking that a harmful substance was in fact an effective cure for cancer, but it came with some side effect like nausea, so you altered it to eliminate the nausea. You’re missing the point that the substance itself is harmful. The idea isn’t to make it more palatable, but to explain to people that it fails to cure cancer. (As sex and other pleasures of the body fail to bring true happiness, since they hinder rather than facilitate our living a life of truth and nonviolence in tune with our spiritual side.)

Maybe. But I still like sex. Or if it does eventually have to go in order to be an ideally moral being, I’d think it would be way, way, way down on the list of priorities of things to jettison, rather than being at the top where religious folks tend to put it.

Plus I do wish that he’d more clearly take a libertarian stand on these things. Like that birth control and such ought to be allowed to those whose values allow them to use it, and he should be free to not use it and to explain why he thinks others shouldn’t use it. Or that someone may be doing something noble and wonderful by remaining in a marriage when he or she seems to have better options, but that it’s not so admirable if it’s happening because the government has made it difficult or impossible to get a divorce.

Just like one can be pro-choice without being pro-abortion, it’s entirely possible to be pro-choice about divorce or birth control without being pro-divorce or pro-birth control. (Indeed, you can with consistency be pro-choice while being anti-abortion, anti-divorce, or anti-birth control.)

I think you can generally put that spin on what he says—that no one, including the government and its laws, should coerce people from doing these things he opposes—but I’m routinely disappointed he doesn’t make clearer that that’s his position.

On women’s rights in general, certainly he has blind spots, certainly he’s not ideal from a leftist 21st century perspective. But he’s fairly good for his time period and country, and he’s extremely good for being a devout religious person of his time period and country. From a letter to young ashram resident Premabehn Kantak (whom I like, because she’s always full of questions for him and criticisms of him):

A wife is not a servant; she is a friend with equal rights, a partner in dharma. Each is the guru of the other.

A daughter’s share should be equal to a son’s.

A husband and a wife have equal rights in what either earns. The husband earns with the wife’s help, even if she does no more than cook for the family. She is not a servant, but is an equal partner.

A wife has the right to live separately from her husband if he ill-treats her.

The two have equal rights over the children. After the children have grown up, neither of them has any. If the wife is unfit to exercise her right, she loses it. And so does the husband.

In sum, I do not admit any differences between men and women except those created by Nature which all of us can see.

Gandhi’s “black sheep” eldest son Harilal pops up infrequently in the correspondence. In a letter to one of his other sons, Gandhi notes that Harilal is a drunk and a woman chaser, is using all means fair and foul to pressure his estranged wife into giving him custody of their child, and is always trying to bum money from anyone he can.

Gandhi’s position is that while it hurts him to know that Harilal is like this, he tries not to let it affect him any more than if it were a total stranger, since ideally one should feel equally close to everyone. He also continues to partly blame himself, since he (in his eyes) lived a much worse life morally when Harilal was young than later, mistreating his wife—Harilal’s mother—in front of him and such, and so Harilal, as the oldest, was adversely influenced by a worse home life.

Speaking of Gandhi’s remorse about his treatment of his wife when he was younger, and his struggle to overcome his early sexist cultural influences, there is an interesting passage in a later letter to one of his sons, urging him not to repeat those same mistakes with his wife (Nimu):

My ideas about the relations between husband and wife have changed of course. I would not like any of you to behave towards his wife as I did towards Ba. She has lost nothing through my strictness, of course, for I never regarded her as my property. I always had love and respect for her. I only wished to see her grow spiritually. However, she could not be angry with me, whereas I could with her. I did not give her the same freedom of action which I enjoyed and she did not have the capacity to exercise it either. Hindu women never have such capacity. That is a defect of Hindu society. I, therefore, wish that you should treat Nimu as having the same freedom which you have. I once wrote to her and asked her jestingly not to regard herself as dependent and harass you for every little thing. She replied saying that she was dependent and that you knew that it was so. The language is mine, but this is the meaning of what she said. This sort of dependence ought to be removed.

He even goes on to say that husband and wife should be equally free to “enjoy immoral pleasure” with another person, and should refrain from doing so by choice, never due to fear or coercion. Certainly one party, the wife, shouldn’t have to fear the consequences of cheating while the other party, the husband, is allowed to be governed by conscience only.

Moving on, as a philosopher, I find it interesting that Gandhi is somewhat dismissive of hypothetical questions. People write to him to ask if his nonviolence means you should do this or shouldn’t do that, often in some extreme and unlikely situation, and he generally answers the question as best he can, but with caveats that it’s really not a proper question because we should be focused on reality and not dreaming up obscure situations to ponder.

My initial reaction is that Gandhi, like most non-philosophers, is simply missing the point of hypothetical questions. Questions about how to apply principles, whether to actual situations or hypothetical situations, help to clarify principles.

Someone might say it’s wrong to torture monkeys because it makes them squeal in pain, but then if you ask “What about torturing monkeys whose larynx has been removed?” the person will likely examine his intuitions and realize that that would be just as objectionable, and thus maybe it’s the causing of pain that’s bad rather than the causing of squealing in pain.

If the person instead were to dismiss the hypothetical as irrelevant (because we’re a lot more likely to run into a monkey with a larynx than without, because monkeys can still make squealing-like noises without larynxes, because it’s possible to head off the issue by passing a law against the removal of monkey larynxes, etc.), they’d be missing the point. We aren’t asking the question because we anticipate having to decide how to deal with larynxless monkeys; the question is merely a linguistic device to tease out what precisely it is about torturing monkeys that’s wrong.

It would be like saying the paradox of Schrodinger’s cat is a waste of time to address, because “There’s no record Schrodinger even had a cat. And if he did, there’s no way he would ever have been mean enough to put his cat in a box where it could be electrocuted.”

So when Gandhi urges a correspondent not to waste time with hypothetical questions, but to feel free to ask him anything he wants about actual moral decisions he’s having to face in life, he seems to miss the point in this same way.

But some of what he says gives his position a little different nuance.

Most philosophers approach morality using something like Rawls’s method of reflective equilibrium. This puts principles and intuitions about specific cases on a roughly equal footing. You apply principles in order to see how to assess specific cases, but you ascertain your assessment of specific cases in order to derive principles by generalization. It’s a never-ending circle where each is always modifying the other—principles are forever becoming more sophisticated and detailed as a result of feedback from intuitions about specific cases, and intuitions are being subtly altered to bring them into line with principles.

I don’t know that Gandhi would violently object to this, but his approach is a little different. For him you ultimately need to trust your intuitions, but there are things you can do to be the kind of person whose intuitions are most worthy of trust.

So his position is that you don’t just assess moral situations in a vacuum. You spend your whole life trying to become less attached to material possessions, to reduce your ego to zero, to feel equal love for everyone, to not be angry, to always speak only the truth, to not fear death, and on and on, and the better you get at that stuff, the more likely it is your moral intuitions will be on the money rather than being subtle rationalizations of self-interest, manifestations of unconscious bias, etc.

So basically his answer to the question of what he would do in these convoluted hypothetical situations is that he’d do what intuitively feels most consistent with his principles of truth and nonviolence, but that rather than worrying about some obscure, close call, gray area cases like that with different factors pulling in different directions, he’d prefer to try to purify himself in the ways that aren’t in the gray area, thereby putting himself in the best position to deal with whatever hard cases happen to arise in real life.

Those who are sincere in their desire to follow ahimsa will examine their own hearts and look at their neighbours. If one finds ill will and hatred in one’s heart, one may know that one has not climbed the first step towards the goal of ahimsa. If a person does not observe ahimsa in his relations with his neighbours and his associates, he is thousands of miles away from ahimsa.

A votary of ahimsa, therefore, should ask himself every day when retiring: “Did I speak harshly today to any co-worker? Did I give him inferior khadi and keep better khadi for myself? Did I give him imperfectly baked rotli and reserve for myself a fully baked one? Did I shirk my duty and throw the burden on my co-worker? Did I neglect serving the neighbour who was ill today? Did I refuse water to a thirsty passer-by who asked for it? Did I not care even to greet the guest who had arrived? Did I scold a labourer? Did I go on exacting work from him without thinking that he might be tired? Did I goad bullocks with spiked sticks? Did I get angry in the kitchen because the rice was half cooked?” All these are forms of intense violence. If we do not observe ahimsa spontaneously in such daily acts, we shall never learn to observe it in other fields and, if at all we seem to observe it, our ahimsa will be of little or no value. Ahimsa is a great force which is active every moment of our lives. It is felt in our every action and thought. He who takes care of his pennies may rest assured that his pound is safe.

So rather than contemplating hypotheticals, take care of the simple everyday stuff where it’s not ambiguous what’s right, and gradually you’ll become a person better suited to follow your conscience on more morally complex matters.

I’m often struck in reading these volumes how narrow Gandhi’s focus is. He has his moral issues, lifestyle issues, health issues, domestic political issues, etc., but almost never seems to devote any brain cells to anything else. Regular people know way more than they should about soap operas or their stamp collection or the NFL playoffs, or they follow developments in science and technology, or political developments in faraway lands, or they read mysteries or romance novels purely for enjoyment. But Gandhi is always seemingly intensely focused on the few areas he’s made his life’s work, with no time or inclination to explore anything else.

One of the rare exceptions to this occurs during this stint in prison. He develops a significant interest in astronomy, seemingly for no reason beyond intellectual curiosity. He obtains numerous books on astronomy—both Indian and non—all about science’s current understanding of the heavenly bodies, how to spot the constellations, etc.

Finally, I thought this passage was rather interesting coming from someone who was later to be assassinated:

I had opponents in the past and have them even today. But I have never felt angry with them. I have not wished them ill even in my dreams. The result has been that many opponents have become friends. No one’s opposition has had any effect on me. On three occasions they sought to take my very life, but I am still alive. This does not mean that no opponent would ever succeed against me in his plan. Whether he succeeds or does not is no concern of mine. My dharma lies in wishing well even to them, and serving them whenever an opportunity offers itself. I have tried to live up to this principle to the best of my ability. I think this thing is part of my nature.

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