The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Perhaps moral philosophy is the most perilous of all philosophies

Three-quarters of a century ago, Bertrand Russell wrote a piece of polemics, with the title, “Why I Am An Atheist'” or some such. If memory serves right, Russell’s argument denying the existence of god went somewhat as follows. God is supposed to be the fountainhead of all good, noble, pure and beautiful attributes; how come then she/he could drive herself/himself in to creating apparitions like Sir Winston Churchill, the Bolshevik Party and the Klu Klux Klan' Churchill was in that phase in political wilderness, given to mouthing loud imperialist, and often racist, bombast. The newly formed Soviet Union was still bête noire to most Western liberals. And the Klu Klux Klan was on the rampage in the southern parts of the United States; stories surfaced every day of insensate acts of torture, murder, rape and marauding committed by them. If there were a god, there could be no such specimens abroad; since these specimens were abroad, there was no god.

Controversy immediately reared its head. Sparks of impressive size started flying around Russell’s polemics. Be reasonable, since god was omnipotent, was it not after all natural that, tired of creating lovely, lovelier, loveliest animate and inanimate objects, he would occasionally seek diversion and give shape to aesthetically and morally less attractive objects' Besides, while Russell was an atheist, was he not a firm believer in free will too' Why should this great champion of free will deny poor god the prerogative ordinary mortals enjoyed, why should not god, in periodic bouts of free will, indulge in departures such as members of the Klu Klux Klan and Winston Churchill'

Others took the debate even further: well, accept the proposition that god was a bit of a puritan and did not stray from the norm of creating perfect things. Nonetheless, why should not Bertrand Russell, a firm adherent of the free will philosophy, not allow individual human beings the right to defy god’s intention and re-create themselves as evil creatures' Winston Churchill was presumably born a goody-goody boy, but, asserting the sovereignty of his free will, he still succeeded in transforming himself into a detestable imperialist pest; never mind if, later in life, he chose to don anther identity and provided leadership in the Battle of Britain.

Perhaps Bertrand Russell was cornered in that debate, perhaps he found a way out of defeat. Cannot however a situation be envisaged where a near-identical issue of polemics bestirs itself, but without bringing god almighty in the picture' Consider, for instance, the contemporary lie of the land. Confronted by the brutal larger-than-life presence of the Bushes and the Rumsfelds in our midst, it is difficult to avoid the agony of the query: can we honestly claim ourselves to belong to an integer which passes as civilization, in case it represents cultivation of the finer qualities of the human mind and the quintessence of culture, tolerance and respect for the point of view of others' A world held at bay by the Bushes and the Rumsfelds means the absolute negation of what we have been accustomed till now to describe as civilization. Their record is not buried in some ancient, worm-eaten documents; it is much more up-to-date. Only the other day, George W. Bush went into ecstasy; he was proud of his colleague Rumsfeld; the latter was doing “a great job” in Iraq. There is little point here to engage in polite, emotion-bereft after-dinner exchange of opinions and ideas. The bestialities, or what are regarded as bestialities by the overwhelming majority of the human population, are of scarcest relevance in the judgment of George W. Bush. Hang the provisions of the Geneva Convention and all that, his defence secretary was doing a great job, rehabilitating the Iraqis and making them eligible for entry into the precincts of liberty and democracy.

Should not this also help us to reach some basic conclusions' High levels of literacy, soaring income and wealth, luxurious living, magnificent strides in literature as well as in visual and performing arts, breathtaking advances in science and technology, et al, have nothing to do with civilization, as known to the neighbourhood. Idi Amin, we were told a couple of decades ago, was a barbarian. Maybe so, but under what logic can we ascribe the virtue of civilization to a society presided over by the Bushes and the Rumsfelds' It is of course possible to post a caveat: nothing is more unfair than to castigate a nation as a whole for the ill doings of its leaders. The caveat would have been weighty enough in case the administrative system in the country concerned was a full-fledged dictatorship. The United States of America, on the other hand, is, it is constantly dinned into our ears, no such savage order, it is based on the rule of law and its enlightened people elect, every two or four years on the basis of free will, their representatives who are enjoined to reach decisions, and execute measures, on behalf of the entire nation.

It is a tricky situation. As long as the American nation does not disown the barbarity perpetrated, or connived at, by its leaders, it will, in the view of at least some people, be guilty of sins both of omission and commission. A majority of American citizenry, according to the latest opinion polls, are still inclined to give the benefit of doubt to George W. Bush with respect to his Iraqi misadventures. A system which tries to combine the legacy of the Pilgrim Fathers and the Gettysburg Address with not just HighTech and Madonna, but also with the repulsive goings-on in west Asia, is reckoned as more of a non-civilization by not inconsiderable groups of people across the world.

The prospect is, if anything, of an impasse. Arguments will be trotted out on either side on the true contents of civilization. Besides, at any given moment, there are more polemicists who believe in free will than those who do not. In an ambience of tolerance, freaks like George W. Bush, it will be argued, are bound to come to prominence now and then, society will be in turmoil before deciding whether to respect their free will. A typical comment could well be: yes, we know the Bushes and the Rumsfelds have gone astray, but it is their free will which propels them to such deviant behaviour, human civilization, that is, human civilization as defined by American society, still remains intact.

To be believable, free will must be evenly distributed amongst all human beings. If American society would like to excuse itself from the culpability on account of the Bushes and the Rumsfelds — on the ground that free will is sovereign, those outside the orbit of the civilization as defined by the US will demand equal time; they will even send notice that they will not touch such a free will-laden civilization with a barge pole. This is precisely what large sections of Arabs are trying to tell the US administration. They are likely to be joined soon by many, many others, the world will then turn into an ever expanding battlefield of contending free wills.

Meanwhile, simply to create some more confusion, cannot it be suggested that the concept of free will itself is dubious to the fourth degree' In the final analysis, is not free will weaponry at the disposal of opportunists to justify whatever atrocious deeds they perpetrate' Free will has been, through the long centuries of history, deployed as explanation for the Seven Deadly Sins and many more. It has been the building block for a philosophy of amorality, in terms of which everything is permissible, not just in love and war, but under all circumstances and in all situations. All philosophies, so say cynics, are dangerous, but presumably moral philosophy is about the most perilous of them all. In medieval days, kings used to patronize chaplains and courtesans. Taking the cue from them, George W. Bush would perhaps do well to attach, for the remainder of his term, a professor of moral philosophy to his presidential staff. Moral philosophers possess the skill to raise torture, murder, rape and pillage to the level of holy, holy, holy.

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