Conflict Resolution and Gandhian Ethics


By : Thomas Weber

Table of Contents

About This Book

By : Thomas Weber
Published by : Gandhi Peace Foundation,
221/223, Deendayal Upadhyaya Marg,
New Delhi - 11002

Conclusion: A Gandhian Ethics

"He only earns his freedom and existence, who daily conquers them anew.

Goethe (Faust)

Satyagraha is a dialogue; therefore, listening to the other, treating them as a reasonable and reasoning equal is essential. This is an extremely important consideration in conducting conflicts along productive lines – that is, along lines that help to ensure that the resolution of any dispute leaves all the parties satisfied with the outcome. If a party feels that they have been heard and understood, if they have not had to "lose face" and have not been threatened or coerced, this is far more likely. Because satyagraha is based on the aim of seeking the truth in any given situation and employs only nonviolent means to arrive at this goal, the probability of productive resolutions are greatly enhanced.
It appears that satyagraha "works" within this framework, but it also does far more – it gives the individual mastery over their own life, provides them with a mode of conflict resolution that does not rely on expert and institutional methods over which their control is lost. The legal system "takes over" the conflicting process and decreases the probability of productive outcomes.
Gandhi believed that to a large degree individuals were masters of their own destiny, that they could transcend their social conditioning and that biological and psychological forces acting upon them did not leave them a machine that acted its life out according to a set plan. Most of all, however, Gandhi was convinced that people were not innately violent. The Gandhian individual has choice. This choice includes the ability to attempt the resolution of conflicts by nonviolent cooperative means even where this is not the background mode of operation within the social structure to which the person belongs. More than that, ways of behaving that go towards making the nonviolent action that satyagraha depends upon second nature can also be learned.
Satyagraha, then, from the Gandhian perspective, is a viable, autonomy-producing method of conflict resolution. Its stress on the shared humanity of all, including opponents, also makes it ethically superior to other methods of conflict solution.
The previous eight chapters, after briefly noting these reasons for the use of satyagraha as the way of resolving conflicts, focussed largely on how, in various situations, this could be done. For Gandhi, however, there was another and even more important reason for satyagraha. He saw the satyagrahi lifestyle, in which satyagraha is the natural way of resolving conflicts, as the life worth living.

Conflicts: Why Satyagraha?
Gandhi firmly believed that life could not be compartmentalised, that actions, and the reasons on which actions are based, whether they be political, economic or social, are interrelated, and that these actions have a direct bearing upon the achievement of the ultimate aim of life. Gandhi himself named this aim as Truth or Moksha,1 which in a Western perspective can be translated as self-realisation (or the "manifestation of one's potential to the greatest possible degree"2), and claimed that his life including his “ventures in the political field are directed to this same end".3 The ideal of conscientious action which is conducive to the ,attainment of this aim must, in Gandhi's moral philosophy, continually be borne in mind – and this obviously includes the way one goes about resolving conflicts.
Sharp and Gregg both point out that the conversion of an opponent may not be achievable in all cases – that occasionally they must be defeated first.4 The problem is how to know this in advance. How long does one keep up satyagraha before accepting failure? If a satyagraha action is commenced with the attitude that failing the achievement of the desired result within a certain specified period (that is, if satyagraha is used as a policy rather than a creed) another method will be used, then the desired outcome may be doomed to non-actualisation from the outset. Satyagraha, to be effective, requires complete effort.
The satyagrahi lifestyle is one which reduces the likelihood of conflicts reaching the grievance stage. It is based on humility yet it is designed to build self-respect, it teaches patience and toleration in the face of insults, it does not threaten opponents, it insists on compromise on all but fundamental matters of principle, and it acknowledges the truth in the opponent's position. Satyagraha campaigns, on the other hand, are methods of fighting where conflicts have reached this stage. That in this sense satyagraha is effective has, it is to be hoped, been sufficiently illustrated by examples throughout the preceding chapters, but it should be noted that as a method it guarantees no automatic and unfailing success; no method of conflict resolution does. Naess sums up Gandhi's probable answer to those who are pessimistic as to the utility of satyagraba as a solver of conflicts as: "Have you tried? I have, and it works.''5
Gandhi was quite aware that his belief in a better, more peaceful world resulting from the increased practice of nonviolence could not be proved by argument, but this did not overly concern him. His answer was that if satyagraha failed the attempt has not been pure enough:
Supposing I cannot produce a single instance in life of a man who truly converted his adversary, I would then say that it is because no one has yet been found to express Ahimsa in its fullness.6
The failure to reach an ideal, therefore, is not to be seen as the defeat of either the individual or the ideal. Personal victory comes from effort and although the ideal may remain ever unattained it is never unattainable.7
This along with his assertion that "sometimes men of truth appear to have failed, but that is no more than a fleeting appearance'',8 may well leave empiricists grossly unsatisfied. Iyer, however, quite correctly points out that it would certainly be wrong to judge satyagraha "entirely on utilitarian grounds, on the practical results achieved", because the doctrine depends essentially "on non-utilitarian assumptions".9 Even where satyagraha does fail to resolve a conflict, the subjective benefit of dignity that comes from leading a moral life, is always present and this is missing with other methods.

Gandhian ethics
Ethics can generally be defined as the realisation of the need to justify one's life and the decision to be ethical entails the choice of a particular value: "the sense of satisfaction derived from knowing that one may judge his own life as he would judge another's and find it good".10 This requires some critical self-analysis and for Gandhi the quest for Truth largely depended upon the truth about the self. When Gandhi claimed that an individual's "highest duty in life is to serve mankind and take his share in bettering its condition", he added that this could not be done unless one understands and respects the self. True morality, that is, life based on following ethical rules, then, for Gandhi, consists not in conformity but in discovering the subjectively true path and in fearlessly following it:
It is noble voluntarily to do what is good and right. The true sign of man's nobility is the fact that, instead of being driven about like a cloud before the wind, he stands firm and can do, and in fact does, what he deems proper.11
Gandhi wondered how this "true morality" that disregards loss or gain, life or death, and is ever ready to sacrifice the self for an ideal, could be practised "without the support of religion". He concluded, in a rather circular fashion, that in order to survive the difficulties in its path such "true morality" had to be grounded in religion – it had to be a living creed rather than a policy of expedience. He included the non-orthodox religions in his definition by explaining that this in fact meant that "morality should be observed as a religion".12
The "highest form of morality" in Gandhi's ethical system is the practice of altruism (defined by the sociobiologist Wilson as self-sacrificing behaviour performed for the benefit of others13). The rewards for altruism/self-suffering are external to the extent that they aid the satisfactory resolution of conflicts, but even independent of these there are subjective rewards. From the view of existentialist philosophy even selfless self-destruction may provide a dramatic avenue for self-affirmation. Gandhi was firmly convinced that to suffer wrongs was less degrading than to inflict them, and he felt that degradation was most complete when injustice provoked individuals to fight back with further injustice.14
In the Gandhian analysis whether altruism is a function of sympathy and empathy or whether it occurs out of self-interest (even where the cost is self-destruction and the only benefit a prior enhanced self-image) is not important. Sympathy and empathy are tied to self-interest. The ability to feel them shows that one is near the Truth, and one becomes nearer the Truth by feeling them.
The rewards may not be those usually sought for specified behaviour but Gandhi was adamant that "a man does some good deed…not…to win applause, but he does it because he must": it is man's purpose for existence; we are what we do.15
For Gandhi it was never enough that an individual merely avoided causing evil; they had to actively promote good and actively prevent evil. The problems of the minority could never be over looked, the individual was of too great an importance to be disregarded in favour of the abstract "good of the many". His philosophy diverges from the utilitarian principle of striving to maximise the happiness of the majority. Truth could not be measured by majority vote, therefore
A votary of ahimsa cannot subscribe to the utilitarian formula. He will strive for the greatest good of all and die in the attempt to realise the ideal... The greatest good of all inevitably includes the good of the greatest number, and therefore, he and the utilitarians will converge in many points in their career but there does come a time when they must part company, and even work in opposite directions.
He uses the First World War as an example:
Judged by the standards of nonviolence the late war was highly wrong. Judged by the utilitarian standard each party has justified it according to its idea of utility . . . Precisely on the same ground the anarchist justifies his assassinations. But none of these acts can possibly be justified on the greatest-good-of-all principle.16
Gert, placing this argument in the context of the relationship of means to ends, warned that the harm done by the utilitarian talk of promoting good rather than preventing evil "cannot be overestimated''. Moral and utilitarian ideals are separate and must be seen as such. Failure to do this has
contributed to the mistaken view that promoting good justifies the violation of moral rules. It has also opened the way to the view that other ideals, even those that could not be publicly advocated sometimes justify the violation.17
In conflict situations it can be difficult to remember to forsake possible satisfaction by the active prevention of evil to the opponent by working for the good of all parties.
The question of why one should act in a moral way has occupied much time in the history of philosophical inquiry. Gandhi's answer that happiness, religion and wealth depend upon sincerity to the self, an absence of malice towards, and exploitation of, others, and always acting "with a pure mind",18 possibly does little to solve the dilemma. Others have attempted to close the debate with arguments reminiscent of Gandhi's. Taylor, for example, claims that the ultimate moral aspiration is "to be a warm hearted and loving human being", adding that it is the ultimate answer "because no question of why can be asked concerning it without misunderstanding it . . . It invites one to be", he continues, "rather than commanding him to do, and yet it cannot fail to enoble whatever one does".19

Gandhi's Ontology
An analysis of Gandhi's metaphysical thought shows that, for him, the reasons for being moral (that is, leading a satyagrahi lifestyle) are directly related to his views on the nature and meaning of human existence.20
Although Gandhi placed the individual at the centre of his moral thought as a free acting being, he strongly stressed that the nature of human nature was one of cooperation rather than individualism. In order to fulfill their nature the individual had to exercise their individualism for the good of all, and this included working towards the reformation and reorientation of society to enable a greater scope for the self-realisation of all individuals. Because of this relationship the converse was also true:
I do not believe that an individual may gain spiritually and those that surround him suffer. I believe in advaita [monism or non-dualism]. I believe in the essential unity of man and for that matter all that lives. Therefore I believe that if one man gains spiritually the whole world gains with him and, if one man fails, the whole world fails to that extent.21
Gandhi's ethics, therefore, stems not from the intellectually deductive formula "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" (or its variant, "Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you"), but on the statement of faith that "what in fact you do to others, you also do to yourself". This belief in the possibility of changing and perfecting the self, a possibility open equally to all, means that for him the choice of an individual is a choice for mankind because the self and mankind are ultimately one. Gandhi's approach to conflicts is, therefore, a major part of the quest for self-realisation, because
(1) Self-realisation presupposes a search for truth.
(2) In the last analysis mankind is one.
(3) Himsa against oneself makes complete self-realisation impossible.
(4) Himsa against another is himsa against the self.
(5) Himsa against another makes complete self-realisation impossible.22
This does not mean that at its heart Gandhi's philosophy is only applicable to monists. The concept of universalisability, of acting only in a way that one could publicly advocate all others should act, serves the same purpose. If morality is to move from the order of merely doing to that of being it presupposes in an individual the need to develop the ability to perceive others as persons "as important to themselves as we are to ourselves, and to have a lively and sympathetic representation in imagination of their interests and the effect of our actions on their lives".23 This does not depend on one's ultimate theological beliefs.
Gandhi’s claim that “faith in one’s ideals alone constitutes true life, in fact, it is man's all in all” is perhaps backed up to some degree by Bondurant's observation of some of Gandhi's followers. She claims that a life of ideals requires a good deal of self-discipline, and those who have mastered this to enable them to act constructively may find, she claims as many Gandhians have, "a sense of becoming, or realization of self that makes the demanding tasks required not only tolerable but also attractive". While noting that "the goal ever recedes from us” Gandhi likewise sees this as no cause for despair because "satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment. Full effort is full victory.”24
While the striving after nonviolence may be difficult it "is the only permanent thing in life,... [and] is the only thing that counts…[therefore] whatever effort you bestow on mastering it is well spent". The key to the attainment of nonviolence is courage· The following quotation from Gandhi, while originally said in a political context, serves equally well in illustrating this:
The so called master may lash you and try to force you to serve him. You will say, "No, I will not serve you for your money or under a threat.” This may mean suffering. Your readiness to suffer will light the torch of freedom which can never be put out.25
The freedom he speaks of can be read to mean the existential freedom that comes with the dignity of being one's own person, of making a commitment to live ethically, of standing up to the dictates of one's psychological masters and pressures to conform. In this sense satyagraha was, for Gandhi, "mainly educative" helping to train the soul and develop character so as to aid the quest for perfection.26
In the area of conflict this means straightforwardness, sincerity and acting from inward conviction. The opponent always knows where the satyagrahi stands and the satyagrahi becomes increasingly aware of the innermost drives that often dictate the course of conflict because they have taken pains to confront reality and face the truths that are relevant to the situation.27
Carl Rogers sums up this web of accurate and honest inter-relationships between experience, awareness and communication by the term "congruence". The greater the level of congruence, where one is aware of what one is experiencing and able tocommunicate it accurately to both the self and others, means that one is more "whole" or nearer the Truth. It also means that the greater the congruence within the parties the less likelihood inter-personal relationships have of being ambiguous. This means "a tendency toward more mutually accurate understanding of the communications, improved psychological adjustment and functioning in both parties; [and] mutual satisfaction in the relationship". Where the communicated "incongruence" is greater the ensuing relationship will have the opposite characteristics. Rogers goes on to point out that personal courage is required because to communicate one's full awareness of the relevant experience in inter-personal relationships can be threatening as it contains the risk of rejection. While it may take a long time and hard work to maximise the probability, still with no guarantee of automatic success, that awareness accurately reflects what one is experiencing "there is a continuing existential choice as to whether my communication will be congruent with the awareness I do have of what I am experiencing", and the direction of the evolution or otherwise of interpersonal relationships may well lie in this "moment-by-moment choice".28
The more congruent the person the greater the chance of successful conflict resolution along the Gandhian lines. The more one strives to live by the dictates of satyagraha the greater the congruence will be. The fully congruent person is one who has achieved their full potential.
Happiness in Gandhi's metaphysics is expressed in a similar vein; as "an enlightened realisation of dignity and a craving for human liberty which prizes itself above mere selfish satisfaction of personal comforts and material wants", while the meaning of life is based on striving to actualise what he calls the law of love in action:
The more I work at this law, the more I feel the delight in life, the delight in the scheme of the universe. It gives me a peace and a meaning of the mysteries of nature that I have no power to describe.29

Satyagraha and mere mortals
Mahatma Gandhi set high standards for himself and had faith in he possibility of achieving them:
…I am an irrepressible optimist, because I believe in myself· That sounds very arrogant doesn't it? But I say it from the depths of my humility . . . I am an optimist because I expect many things from myself. I have not got them, I know, as I am not yet a perfect being...30
Woodcock in his small popular biography of Gandhi summed up the core of Gandhi's philosophy in action when he noted that "with an extraordinary persistence he made and kept himself one of the few free men of our time".31 Is it possible for all to attain this freedom, to find the courage to undergo self-suffering and mercilessly seek the truth, and return love for violence? Or is this only possible for Mahatmas ("Great Souls")? In short, is satyagraha a viable method of solving conflicts for those that are not Gandhis?
Basham once noted that on his first visit to India, not long after Gandhi's death, he found cities, towns and railway stations displaying posters of his feet and the message, "He showed us the way". A few years later all the posters had disappeared and had been replaced by splendid statues of Gandhi.32 The process of neutralisation by deification had begun· No longer was Gandhi to be a source of inspiration for all to strive a little harder to lead a better life: after all he was far more than merely human, he had become a saint – and saints are to be admired or worshipped but not followed.
The Gandhi as saint myth has been as destructive of the spread of satyagraha as a method of conflict resolution, and the satyagrahi lifestyle as the foundation of a worthwhile life, as Gandhi himself had been in promoting them. Bose points out that Gandhi has often been "depicted as a man without traits which belong to common human beings . . . men readily take shelter under the view that while nonviolence is good for superhuman beings like Gandhiji, it is beyond the reach of the average individual".33 Many of the dozens of biographies of Gandhi are in fact hagiographies aiding the process of neutralization – destroying Gandhi's impact while glorifying his name.
Books that depict Gandhi "warts and all" have the positive attribute of showing that hewas human, achieving his greatness by immense struggle rather than by divine providence. Gandhi continually, throughout his life, rejected the superhuman claims made for him. He stated quite clearly that
The basic principle on which the practice of nonviolence rests is that what holds good in respect of oneself equally applies to the whole universe. All mankind in essence is alike. What is therefore possible for me, is possible for everybody.34
Gandhi maintained that eventually we would become what we believe ourselves to be. If we offer satyagraha "believing ourselves to be strong, two clear consequences result from it. Fostering the idea of strength, we grow stronger and stronger every day. With the increase in our strength, our Satyagraha, too, becomes more effective . . ." Towards the end of his life he concluded that his work would finally be finished when he had convinced "the human family that every man or woman, however weak in body, is the guardian of his or her self-respect and liberty" regardless of the odds.35
Perhaps Fischer pinpointed the essence of Gandhi's greatness, in relationship to these points, when he remarked that it "lay in doing what everyone could do but doesn't.”36
In the Introduction, it was stated that "If the world is going to be destroyed by war then a study of a Gandhian mode of conducting interpersonal conflict is irrelevant." This of course is true in the sense that if the world is destroyed there will no longer be inter-personal conflict because there will be no persons. Hopefully it has been demonstrated that by conducting these smaller conflicts in a Gandhian way, larger ones may be prevented. From the point of view of Gandhian ethics, however, it should be stressed that if the world is to be destroyed that makes it all the more important for the individual to retain his or her dignity by adhering to a personal belief in soul-force regardless of the odds. To the degree that this is achieved even the destruction of the world becomes irrelevant.