I suppose if you’re going to post about Gandhi, the Jews, Nazi’s, and especially GOP Presidential candidates, you’d better expect some pretty passionate responses. After scanning the comments from the post (and yes, together with SM Intern, deleting some of the more inflammatory and personally insulting), I thought it would be interesting to spend more time on a central question — Was Gandhi Anti-Semitic when he recommended that “The Jews” “offer themselves to the butcher’s knife?”
Yesterday’s NYT details research which provides a bit more scientific basis to a divide philosophers have grappled with for centuries –
“…there are at least two systems working when we make moral judgments… There’s an emotional system that depends on this specific part of the brain, and another system that performs more utilitarian cost-benefit analyses…”
Gandhi’s intentions were absolutely NOT anti-Semitic. As the original post noted, “Jews were his friends”… he consistently prescribed the same strategy for Europeans as well as Indians & Jews… etc. In his heart of hearts, it’s clear from reading any of the linked material that Gandhi really did believe he was helping the Jews in the best way he knew how….. Heck, *he* probably believed he was pro-semitic. And for many, that’s the final litmus test.
The problem however, is whether good intentions let him off the hook when the consequences of his prescription are practically the perfect opposite. The glaring holes and leaps-of-faith in his policy would have undoubtedly led to an even easier extermination job for Hitler and his anti-Semitic ilk. Although it was the Soviets who took the technique to evil-brilliant heights (and to a much smaller extent, modern Jihadi’s), one can envision a hypothetical Nazi agent provocateur hired to spread Gandhi’s diatribes to the Jews (or any other Untermensch) just to speed things along. (how’s that for Machiavellian? )
So by which measure do we judge him? And how can this case be so spectacularly conflicted? Well, in part it goes back to that old Mind vs. Body debate….
As noted earlier, Gandhi was an extreme case of being “of-the-mind.” Death of the body was literally inconsequential to him as long as the mental faÃ§ade of passive resistance was maintained. He’d save their souls (and ours) by letting (their) bodies die from passivity.The dirty, grimy physical world was the rounding error to the pristine, beautiful mental and one day, if we all sat around and thought the right thoughts first, the malleable physical world would ultimately catch up.
Thus by mentally shoring up Jews for the holocaust with soothing talk of a “joyful sleep“, he really thought he was helping them out and leading the world to a higher, non-violent plane. He’d save their souls (and ours) by letting (their) bodies die from passivity. By making the Jews intentions pure and reducing ’em to nothing but intentions, he’d eventually make the Nazi’s pure too and together we’d escape the Hobbesian trap.
If your analytical toolkit focuses on intentions, it’s pretty clear that not only was Gandhi far from anti-Semite, he was trying to save the whole of humanity. In fact for many, it’s so abhorrent to use His Name and anti-Semitism in a sentence that the classic response is to turn the same toolkit towards divining the intentions of the “accuser” – real or otherwise (in this case, uh, me – e.g. Ayn Rand Brigade, hit job, neocons/right-wing hawks ideas, character assassination, Machiavellian, a desire to score points, etc. — alas in some cases, divining intentions was the entire content of the comment).
For folks “of-the-body” however, Gandhi’s advocacy of “collective suicide” is far from “heroic” and were it not so tragic, would just be plain stupid. He thought the passive surrender of a few (or 6 million) was a small proximate price to pay for a higher, ultimate goal his belief system promised would come….
But those who value physical existence a tad more have a different calculus. And particularly those at the head of the sacrificial queue for Gandhi’s experiment in alternative reality. Reality ain’t as malleable as Gandhi would like and particularly the human nature component of it.
As the post pointed out, Gandhi’s “policy” is predicated on rather shaky premises —
- assuming all opponents have at least a Brit “moral code”
- a naÃ¯ve view of “human nature” in general and the deep-rootedness of violence in particular
- not solving the game theory problem by messaging “these guys first“, etc.
These issues create a likely consequence (for the Jews) pretty diametrically opposite his intentions. The unfortunate result is to make people like Gandhi – to use Lenin’s memorable phrase – “useful idiots” for the opposition. The Nazi’s would never agree with Gandhi’s intentions nor vice-versa but the consequences would sadly be quite synergistic.
And for consequentialists, the primary measure of an idea is it’s physical, “of-the-body” result. Interestingly, in the Harvard study quoted by the NYT, localized brain damage in the Intentional side of the brain gave the Consequential free reign with results that would likely horrify Gandhi –
Damage to an area of the brain behind the forehead, inches behind the eyes, transforms the way people make moral judgments in life-or-death situations, scientists are reporting today….Those with ventromedial injuries were about twice as likely as the other participants to say they would push someone in front of the train (if that was the only option), or to poison someone with AIDS who was bent on infecting others, or suffocate a baby whose crying would reveal to enemy soldiers where the subject and family and friends were hiding.
Of course, this is far from saying that today’s Consequentialists must be brain damaged. On the contrary, the researchers believe the Consequential brain evolved after the Intentional.
So how do we sort all of this out? When do we use empirical Consequences to judge good vs. bad and when do we look at Intentions? At a prima facie level, the intentions side of the debate has one huge advantage — it’s pretty easy to stack rank values and it sure ain’t hard to rate “peace” above “war”. On the consequences side, we have to wade through the murky world of cost-benefit ratios and inherent twists & turns of Game Theory to rate likely consequences – that sort of talk just doesn’t get the heart going the same way.
Empirically however, many ginormously huge and successful social systems manage to work pretty well based on Consequences and despite radically different – or at the very least unknown – Intentions of the parties involved. If Gandhi’s position is the extreme case of “intentions first, consequences – don’t worry”, one opposite system which puts “consequences first, intentions second” was perhaps most famously articulated by Adam Smith –
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.
Just to point out one of the reasons why so many seemingly unrelated issues cluster together, anyone hazard a guess how Gandhi’s modern sign toting adherents feel about the role of Wal-Mart in feeding the country?
By contrast large scale, successful, durable systems predicated on aligned intentions are pretty hard to find & bank on – Communism? the Soviet Man? Political parties? Organized Religion? The UN? Culture? License Raj India? I dunno – I’m sure some Mutineers have their favorite examples…. While some may stand up in inherently cooperative situations, it’s tough to find big ones that can accommodate rather than wish away conflict – particularly at scale.
So to conclude, it’s probably no surprise from my first Gandhi post or, for that matter, any of my other posts that my decision rule leans heavily towards systemic, physical consequences (but not exclusively! strict utilitarianism has it’s limits!) and thus I’m literally aghast by Gandhi’s advice to the Jews…. The man might not have been anti-semitic in the true, intentional sense, but the consequential difference would have been, uh, academic.