Ethics, the householder’s dilemma, and the difficulty of reality

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Veena Das. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau4.1.031


Ethics, the householder’s dilemma, and the difficulty of reality

Veena DAS, Johns Hopkins University

Comment on LAIDLAW, James. 2014. The subject of virtue: An anthropology of ethics and freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

What I hope to do in this commentary on James Laidlaw’s (2014) brilliant rendering of the theme of ethics and freedom in anthropology is to invite him into a conversation on how to measure our closeness and distance on things that matter to us.1 I find myself in great sympathy with Laidlaw’s aspiration to make anthropology responsive to the ethical dimension of life as it is lived without carving out a subarea such as “anthropology of ethics.” Yet, because I find myself disagreeing with him on some issues and even experiencing, in places, a rawness of nerves, this commentary is as much to give expression to my perplexity as it is to pay homage to Laidlaw’s theoretical acumen and his respect for the ethnographic record. Since my own understanding of life is closely conditioned by my intimacy with lives I have documented in my own fieldwork and the Sanskrit texts I have read, I have taken the liberty of using these sources rather than sticking to abstract arguments.

I select two citations from Laidlaw’s text that provide the crucial points for my own engagement with his writing.

The first citation I call a meditation on the theme of disappointment.

I noticed early on in fieldwork that one point many lay Jains were keen to make clear to me was that “Jainism is impossible.” By this they did not mean either that it is unclear what its teachings are or that it is literally impossible to follow them.… What people meant by “Jainism is impossible” is that for them, still committed as they are to their this-worldly life rather than to a soteriological path out of it, none of this tells them how to be a good Jain.… [A] good, lay Jain … should venerate, protect, and materially support those renouncers who follow the soteriological path; but this, because it requires good public standing, political and material resources, … conflicts directly with the central precepts of virtuous ascetic life itself. The more you are a good lay Jain, the less you can be a true Jain. (Laidlaw 2014: 126, emphasis in original)

The second citation I offer is on what Laidlaw calls “conflict of values”—I want to rename it the “difficulty of reality” after Cora Diamond (2003) and Stephen Mulhall (2009).

This is not a point about the coherence or otherwise of Islamic discursive tradition. It is a general one about ethical values and what it is to live in the light of them. So for the very different case of Jainism, it would be easily possible to portray a coherent project for the formation of a self-consistent virtual self. Such a project is readily articulated in various levels of detail by Jain intellectuals (as no doubt it is by reformist Islamic leaders) and indeed by comparatively unlettered laypersons. What these Jains describe is elegant and in many ways compelling; a project for the attainment of spiritual perfection and enlightenment through the rigorous ascetic elimination of all desire, passion, and attachment; but it is literally unlivable. (Laidlaw 2014: 168)

Actually living a life requires doing so with reference to values that make conflicting demands, and managing the inherently irresolvable tensions between them.… A form of life such as this then, which answers to diverse and conflicting values, must needs be lived as something more internally complex and ironic than the execution of a consistent project and the achievement of a self-consistent moral will, and this is true even of a people who accept and articulate just such a self-representation. (Laidlaw 2014: 169)


Laidlaw’s friends and respondents tell him that Jainism is impossible. I read this statement as expressing disappointment—a feature I take as constitutive of the very texture of everyday life as lived by the householder. Perhaps the words I would use for what Laidlaw’s respondents tell him resemble something like “ordinary realism,” whereas Laidlaw sees here a conflict of values. Does this difference of words make a difference in what is at stake in our thinking of ethics? Why is it that it is the householder who is specifically the figure through whom the difficulty of reality is expressed? I want to suggest that it is not because the renouncer’s otherworldly aspirations are impossible for the householder to follow (they are), but that it is inhabiting the world, sustaining it, that is seen as the ethically much more difficult task. There are literally hundreds of stories in the mythic corpus of India that not only make this notion available, but also thicken it by its everyday use, including the famous retort to the homeless wanderer Narada by Maina (Parvati’s mother) in the Ramacharitamanasa: banjh ka jane prasav ki peeda – what does an infertile woman know of the pain of childbirth?2

The vulnerability of human action is a theme dear to theorists of action in Indian philosophy, as it is to philosophers such as Austin (1969). From both these sources, I take the idea that failure is a risk of all human action—it is what makes action human. Austin tracks this to the fact that our bodies make us vulnerable to the world. The list of conditions he gives under which our actions might get misdirected—the predicates of excuses—constitute a veritable geography of these conditions. Cavell enumerates them as actions done unintentionally, unwillingly, involuntarily, insincerely, unthinkingly, inadvertently, heedlessly, carelessly, under duress, under the influence, out of contempt, out of pity, by mistake, by accident, and so on (Cavell 1994: 87). Whether I shot my donkey accidentally or by mistake points to the fact that I am vulnerable to my body and to the world in different ways. For the theorists of action in the Indian philosophical canon, one could be present at the start of an action but one could not say where the action might end. Stopping the proliferation of the effects of an action independent of the intention of the agents (karta) is the great theme of the Mahabharata.

Asceticism offers one way in which one might gain a mastery over the body, but it is also a way of dramatizing what I call the difficulty of reality. How can one act so as to not injure the world by the very demands our bodily existence makes on the world—by the very fact that we exist? In my earliest work I examined the debates between Jains and Brahmins in a thirteenth-century text where the Brahmins contested the criticism against sacrifice by arguing that “life feeds upon life,” and asking who can exist without causing some injury to the other—whether human, animal, plant, or the earth itself (see Das 1977, 2013)? This is a melancholic view of what it is to have human existence—and the idea of conflict of values or the choice between different values simply does not capture this sense of melancholy that one has offended the world just by existing—yet the cure for this melancholy, the householder seems to assert against the ascetic, is not escape but an embrace of this difficulty of reality. The difference between our reading of “Jainism is impossible” hinges more on the tone, pitch, and physiognomy of words and what they imply about being awakened to one’s existence—making a choice between one set of values versus another simply fails for me to capture that sense of melancholy which surfaces off and on in Laidlaw’s own ethnography.

What would it be to be faithful to the ordinary in pursuing a moral life, over all? One thought that I have pursued over the years is to imagine the task of philosophy and of theory in general as something attuned to the task of living—thus generating concepts that are humble, low, everyday, near. One picture I have of this work of theory is in Emerson’s (1844) marvelous essay on Experience, in which the name of his dead son is buried, never identified, yet everywhere in the essay. Cavell’s (2003) stunning interpretation of this essay shows us how the essay’s idea of itself as “pregnant” generates categories of experience that quietly contest the majestic categories of space and time in Kant. Such categories as use, surprise, surface, dream, are offered here in a diminutive tone as if the human voice or voicing of them must perform their fragility (Cavell 2003). Is this a vision of what one’s moral life might be, given what I alluded to as the difficulty of reality? In that case does one need to lower the pitch from something as grand as “conflict of values” to the idea that one must learn to bear or endure the knowledge, as does the householder, that one’s very existence might harm the world, however carefully we tread on it?

I suggest then that what I find insufficiently elaborated in Laidlaw’s discussion of ethics as a dimension of everyday life is the category of experience. Because our experience is never transparent to us, and because we can so often mistake our performance of allegiance to higher ideals—be these those guaranteed by the state, the party, or religious authorities—as somehow corresponding to our true need, conflict of values is too tame a description of the impasse in the light of which we must craft our moral lives or our lives as moral. Laidlaw is acutely aware of this dimension, as is evident in his reflections on the dark side of positive liberty, but stifles the full development of a discussion of the dangers of and in ordinary life.

Perhaps I can take one more example—this time from the Mahabharata and the category of noncruelty that emerges in the text. When Yudhisthira, the protagonist of the main story, is asked what is the highest dharma (righteous conduct), he responds the highest dharma is noncruelty (anrishansya). Elsewhere I have argued that through this and other stories, the text seems to suggest that when principles like dharma are elevated to become absolute, they themselves become productive of the annihilating violence that the text documents (Das 2013). Thus noncruelty rather than nonviolence is offered as the highest dharma as a scale more appropriate to the human. What the text offers is not a choice between nonviolence and noncruelty as two distinct values, but a mode of being that can make it possible for humans to dwell not only with each other but also with the animal, plant, and mineral world. In everyday life, the text seems to suggest, we are fenced off from certain experiences—we cannot know with certainty, for example, if we are truly loved, or what past karmas attach to us. Falling into the tempo of skepticism, we are capable of unleashing unprecedented violence—through the literary device of side-shadowing, the text suggests that our present actions might leave reservoirs of dangerous potentiality that will play out in the future (Hiltebeitel 2001).

Laidlaw’s repeated references to the fact that ethical systems are not in the nature of coherent wholes is very well taken and demonstrated with the help of ethnographic examples; but then the experiential dimension of this incoherence is shortcircuited in the notion that one can control this incoherence through an exercise of choice, as if life offers us a set of commensurable values among which we can choose. Laidlaw is right to emphasize that cosmologies might appear as coherent and well integrated when they are narrated but not as lived. I add that if we are fenced off from certain regions of life, then this coherence yields to other ideas, such as those of luck, chance, and other contingencies that shape our lives. What does the contingency tell us about the shape of our moral lives? Ahead I offer an example of what this implies for constituting the ethical or moral subject and align the example with a discussion of an important ethical concept in the Mahabharata, that of noncruelty, that seems to suggest that our obligations stem not from contracts between sovereign subjects but from our willingness to accept responsibility for an other whom fate has placed in our vicinity.

Conflict of values or the difficulty of reality?

Laidlaw makes a compelling point that the ethical subject need not be the individual—it could be any system with the capacity for conscious self-formation. Further, he argues that when notions of rebirth, circulation of souls between animal and humans, and karma are taken seriously, or when the dead are incorporated within the domain of kinship, the ethical subject may extend beyond the lifetime of an individual. He asks: What kind of technologies of ethical self-fashioning might be available for the imagination of the shape of one’s life under these conditions? One must appreciate the manner in which Laidlaw is able to clear a lot of ground around Michel Foucault’s notions of the care of the self and the play of power and freedom—but is Foucault a good guide for the range of issues touched upon here? Would Ramchandra Gandhi’s experiments with sexuality, such as the migration of the ideas of celibacy from religion to politics, provide a different way of thinking about the relation between the renouncer and the householder (see R. Gandhi 1982)? My point is not that one has a different readymade theory of ethics that can emerge from outside the Western corpus. I ask, instead: Would one think of freedom differently if it was a matter of taking Gandhi’s experiments as pertaining to literal freedom from colonial rule as relevant for a theory of ethics?

Finally, let me take the liberty of an example from my ethnography among low-income families in Delhi to show that in the kind of ethical questions that house-holders (especially women) face in securing everyday life, the norms of the ascetic/ renouncer do not provide any kind of guidance. As we shall see, issues of karmic circulation, debt, and noncruelty circulate in this story, but they are firmly within the householder’s way of inhabiting the world.

Manju’s eldest son was having an affair with a girl in the neighborhood who was from a different caste. Also, rather than being a dutiful son, he was more of a vaga-bond, a footloose character who could never hold a job for long. In contrast, his younger brother was very sober and stable and contributed consistently to the fam-ily income. Manju and her husband were completely opposed to the prospects of a “love marriage” for the elder son, but the boy used all kinds of threats, including that of suicide, so they bent to his will. Unfortunately within two days of the marriage the girl ran away with another man with whom she was also having an affair, taking away with her the jewelry that had been gifted in dowry and also stealing the jewelry that Manju had given her for wearing during the wedding. I will not go into the de-tails of the negotiations with the girl’s family, the police reports they had to file, the suicidal depression in which the son fell, but, instead, fast forward to an event one and a half years later. It transpired that the man she had run away with sold all the jewelry. They ran out of cash at the end of the first year, having traveled to various places and lived lavishly in fancy hotels. The girl became pregnant and at that point her lover abandoned her. Neither his parents, nor her parents were willing to give her refuge. Her parents did support her till the birth of the child, but then threw her out of the house. Manju said that one evening she found that the girl had come back and was sitting on the doorstep with her infant daughter in her lap. Manju was furious, but after a few hours of enduring this disturbing scenario, she invited mother and daughter to come into the house. As she explained, she could not bear the idea that the woman might have to turn to prostitution and that this or sexual abuse would mark the infant girl’s future. Since the family had kept the details of the elopement secret from the wider kin, though there must have been rumors, Manju was able to receive the girl back in the family without incurring enormous shame. Manju’s son, too, said he was reconciled to the fact that in his past birth he had “owed” her and her daughter something—a debt or a restitution for his own bad behavior toward her in an earlier birth—so their conjugal relation was reestablished. From a wayward daughter-in-law, the girl became a dutiful wife, mother, and daughter-in-law. Manju said with some ferocity that if the girl had given birth to a boy, she would not have accepted her, for “she should have been punished for what she did.”

This is the bare bones of the story but it will suffice for the moment. It seems clear to me that a retrospective rendering of this story might be able to cast it in terms of Manju making a “decision” to accept her daughter-in-law despite her transgres-sions, but what she emphasized in her account was the existential pressure she felt at the sight of her daughter-in-law sitting on the doorstep with an infant in her lap, without food, without water, and unable to protect her daughter from a bleak future. If the ethical subject here is the set of relations rather than an individual who is the locus of decision, then a moral life is crafted as much out of the affective force of an attunement to this other who is not wholly other, who could be me—and to whom I may owe a debt from my past life whose nature is unknown in the here and the now.

I think the usual paths that moral theory takes with its “ought” and its “should” simply do not suffice. The paths to a moral life do not lie here in either rule following or taking recourse to technologies of self making, but rather in the attentiveness through which one ties one’s own fate to that of the other. I did not expect to find an example of noncruelty in the slums in Delhi, but just as in the Mahabharata, non-cruelty is demonstrated in the story of the parrot that does not abandon a scorched tree though other trees with fruit and flowers are there, or by Yudhishthira, who does not abandon the stray dog who attaches himself to him on his last journey to heaven, so Manju could not turn away from the woman and the child who at-tach themselves to her. The point is that Manju knew that accepting the love child of another man whom her daughter-in-law had borne would put pressure on the entire family, but a moral life for her was the ability to bear this knowledge and to remain faithful to the contingency of caring for a child whom fate had attached to her. It is clear in the stories of the Mahabharata that no one would have blamed the parrot for abandoning the tree or blamed Yudhishthira for abandoning the dog, but each remained faithful to what fate had joined them to. I am inclined to say that what Manju demonstrated was the quality of noncruelty as described in the Mahabharata, but to put the weight of the ethical on a moment of choice seems alien to the feel of the event. Manju did end up by making a commitment to sustain her daughter-in-law and the child, but the family, too, had to be drawn into this agreement, which then turns out to be much more than an agreement in opinions about what is right and what is wrong. Why some women like Manju are able to accept such events as what they were fated to bear while others cannot do so is a very difficult issue to resolve.

I entirely agree with Laidlaw that a moral life is not about living comfortably, but when he equates living sanely with living comfortably, I have an amendment to offer. I suggest one could interpret living sanely not as living comfortably, but as being able to overcome the trance-like character that everyday life sometimes takes. I have been often caught in painful situations in which a family comes to be in the grip of this trance-like character, as when a father who is illiterate is seized by anxiety that his school-going daughter is likely to bring shame to the family by an inappropriate affair. As he demands more and more proof that his daughter is docile, that her education is not making her arrogant, that she is not seeing any young man, he reads each gesture, each word, as proof of defiance or an imminent elopement. In the escalating violence against the daughter, the only resolution is for the father to stop demanding evidence of the girl’s intentions—for no proof is going to be sufficient to still his anxiety—and to accept her desire for school or for friendship not as a ruse for finding opportunities for an affair but for what it is. In this sense the only cure for the skepticism that shadows everyday life in which every sign becomes an omen of something bad to come might be the ability to live sanely, which is not the same as living comfortably. The ethical in this case is not measured in terms of the difficulty of living up to an ideal, but in terms of keeping at bay the skepticism that shadows relations by adopting an ordinary realism.3

I have deliberately taken a quotidian example, the kind I repeatedly find in the families I know. I could have taken the dramatic example from Valentine Daniel’s (1996) book on Sri Lanka in which young men relate how in the midst of a riot they necklace a terrified Tamil boy and burn him to death, and then, in response to a question on their ambition in life, declare that they want a VCR. Or I could cite my own work in which survivors of riots reenact the very words used by the killers who taunted the men they had cornered to kill (Das 2007). Falling into this kind of trance-like state is probably a dramatization of the way skepticism shadows everyday life. The response to such unimaginable harm that impressed me was the offering of small acts of care that allowed life to be knitted back pair by pair. This is perhaps different from how Jarrett Zigon (2010), whom Laidlaw engages extensively on this issue, might imagine living sanely, but this is a picture of turning away from madness that is worth contemplating.

Many powerful accounts of ethics make a division between being in the midst of action and standing apart in moments of reflection. Laidlaw seems to me to be in agreement with this picture of oscillation, but, unlike many others, he puts the weight of the ethical on both kinds of movements. The fundamental question for me is whether action and reflection are to be set apart. Consider Ludwig Wittgenstein’s thought in Philosophical investigations.

Well, what does one include in “thinking”? What has one learnt to use this word for?—If I say I have a thought—need I always be right?—What kind of mistake is there room for here? Are there circumstances in which one would ask: “was what I was doing then really thinking; am I not making a mistake?” Suppose one takes a measurement in the middle of a train of thought; has he interrupted the thought if he says nothing to himself during the measuring? (Wittgenstein 1953: para. 328)

I understand this observation to suggest that we are tempted by the idea that we can take a measurement to discern what is thinking and what is not thinking as if that measurement stood apart from the thinking itself. Instead of having to measure if I am right or I have made a mistake, I take Wittgenstein’s famous remark “My attitude towards him is an attitude towards a soul” (1953: para. 178e) as enough to describe what is ethical in my attunement to the other. I believe that this is what Manju displayed in her actions toward her daughter-in-law, showing that the ascetic might be able to transcend the world, but, by embracing the difficulty of reality, it is the householder who knows how to sustain the world in all its complexity.

At this point Laidlaw may well object that what I am offering is not criticism of his project but a fantasy of an altogether different project. I am sure, though, that he will also concede that this quarrel between the renouncer and the householder is an ancient one. Then my question is: Why must we be bound to the defining theoretical apparatus of MacIntyre and Foucault if the perplexities raised by the actions of ordinary men and women as householders challenge us to think differently? I am not in a position to offer an alternative theory to rival that of Laidlaw’s, and in fact have no such ambition, but this should not allow us to eclipse the need for a different way of speaking about the moral life of ordinary individuals we study and befriend. And Laidlaw would surely be up to the challenge.


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Veena Das
Department of Anthropology
Johns Hopkins University
404 Macaulay Hall
3400 North Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21218, USA


1. I thank Bhrigupati Singh for his astute comments and express my genuine pleasure that there is more light than heat in the small and large disagreements beween Laidlaw and me.

2. I cite this verse from memory.

3. I develop these scenarios in some detail in my forthcoming book (see Das in press).