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Rethinking ethics

Covid has robbed humanity of its ability to mourn
Representational image.

Shiv Visvanathan   |   Published 24.09.21, 03:28 AM

The Covid-19 epidemic has become a historical event, which we greet with awe. It has entered the global imagination as an act of crisis. Yet, at another level, Covid pretends a return to routine. The idea of the normal has acquired a sacred, official quality. We read ‘normalization’ as the role of governance. Yet, this idea of the normal is instrumental and lacks a moral imagination. A wise friend of mine reminded me that the two silences of the Covid era are the lack of a literary imagination and the absence of an ethical presence. The silence of ethics has been deafening, both in policy and in science.

One must realize that ethics is not merely a question of right and wrong; it is a way, a set of metaphors, for reading an event. The epidemic speaks the language of cost-benefit without articulating a sense of suffering. Despite the eerie demography of deaths, Covid provided no sense of mourning. In fact, in creating an Olympiad of body counts, it facilitated the language of triage and dispensability. In India, we treated the informal economy as disposable. Worse, science spoke in the spirit of exponential loss but had no sense of suffering, of care, of compassion. Ethics was the main casualty of the Covid crisis.


The question before civil society is how do we retrieve a sense of ethics. Our inability to make policy remember memory and the failure of memory and mourning mark the flaws of Covid policy. Yet, the old-fashioned ethics of earlier decades will not do.

During the national movement, we linked character-building to nation-building. Goodness was individualized in terms of personal roles. Most autobiographies, from the work of the chemist, P.C. Ray to Gandhi’s experiments with truth, were ethical narratives. What we need to add to it is an institutional and cosmic ethics. One realizes that corruption and evil are becoming innovative. Mere goodness becomes reduced to a form of correctness, an etiquette, a form of life that gets eliminated quickly. One sees this in the hard realism of a Bollywood movie where the good cop or the good father or the vulnerable teacher is dispatched before the interval. The battle of good and evil needs a different kind of goodness, a goodness based on an innovative and experimental ethics.

Let me begin by citing two brilliant examples of a search for a new ethics. In the last few years, there has been a spate of books on trees. One thinks of Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree, Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees or even Richard Powers’s Pulitzer-prize-winning The Overstory. All these books talk of trees in a different way.

The old idea of forestry was an insult to the forest as an idea. Forestry was constructed more as a law-and-order model of quick growth and productivity. Yet Simard shows that the forest is a mode of thought, of communication, of symbiosis, of trusteeship. A tree is no longer timber and paper. It is a way of life. A gift to the living. It is an act of generosity. A dead tree transfers its nutrients to neighbouring trees before it dies. Trees warn one other about beetle invasions. A tree, literally, is a system of trusteeship and reciprocity. There is no such thing as a tree that is a statement of illiteracy and individuality. A tree is a commons.

Simard shows that the idea of productivity, which we treat in hallowed terms, is instrumental, short-sighted. A tree is an act of cooperation. A science which sees trees as a lesser order of being is illiterate. Ecolacy has to be a part of ethics and science. We have to relate to nature in a different way. What is true for the tree is true for the earth. We need an earth ethics which tribes produced in sophisticated myths. We need an ethics of nature that mimics its generosity, its reciprocity, its celebration of difference. We need to immortalize the ethics of a tree as part of our constitutional ethics. We need myths and cosmologies, which are more life-giving than rights in a contractual sense. Ethically a tree, like any form of life, is a sacrament.

To the ethics of nature, we need to add an ethics of the body, the music of a sensorium, which will create an ethics of memory. In this age of obsolescence and genocide, we need an ethics of memory. Covid showed that we lack an ethics of memory. We had information as impersonal bytes but memory as the music of sharing is missing. Today, we need to create a wall of mourning for every species and language lost. This brings me to my second story.

This story occurred in a little town called Chirala, a weaving town close to Hyderabad. It was host to an international seminar between historians of science and weavers. On the first day, the seminar followed the predictable distancing but on the third day everyone sat on the floor. The workers also brought their looms to explain. This created a dialogicity that was different from the usual hierarchy of seminars. In this gift of conversation, one of the activists told the historian that you have stolen both our livelihood and our theory. He said that we have to reclaim our theories of knowledge to reclaim the forms of life we are losing. The taken-for-grantedness of obsolescence has to be challenged by a new ethics of memory and cognitive justice. We need to create a new ethics of diversity to challenge the linearity, the monoculture, that obsolescence is anchored on. We need a new experimental ethics.

It is only civil society that can create this new dialogic ethics, an ethics that looks at different sciences, theologies, languages, to create life-giving sensibility. Gandhi had a sensibility about it. He talked of accounting (money), accountability (honesty), responsibility, trusteeship and sacrifice. Ethics has to embrace all and go beyond cost-benefit within this world. Saving a weed, a fungus, a marginal group is a creative form of ethics. We go beyond the language of monocultural efficiency and show that an ethics of diversity is far more progressive than the Darwinian idea of the survival of the fittest. This search for a life-giving ethics has to be panarchic, different at different levels of life. One needs to alter the desiccated norms of professional ethics. The feminist reading of the body and nature should educate scientific ethics. It needs to be more than a collector of table manners.

The university must create a new realm of cognitive ethics, new debates — about violence, suffering and the consequences of knowledge. This cannot be left to technocratic experts. One needs the marginal, the housewife, the victim, the minority, to talk about their apprehensions as well as their stories. Their fears embody the cognitive understandings we have to bring into science. We need a perspective which is both aesthetic and ethical. For example, every school could be responsible for saving a lost language or a dying craft. The Kasturirangan Committee report is a dead end in terms of ethics.

Finally, literature has to create a new language, a poetics of ethics, to challenge the idioms of progress. It has to capture the exemplar and the dissenter challenging power. Ethics, in this sense, becomes both resistance and innovation, adding to the life-giving diversity of democracy.

Shiv Visvanathan is an academic associated with Compost Heap, a network pursuing alternative imaginations

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