Merciless justice: the dialectic of the universal and the particular in Kantian ethics, competitive games, and Bhagavad Gītā

Journal of Indian Philosophy and Religion 18:124-143 (2013)
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Morality is traditionally understood as comprised of two components: justice and mercy. The first component, justice, the universal component of the form, is frequently seen as foundational for any moral system – which poses a challenge of explaining the second component, mercy, the particular component of content. Kantian ethics provides an example of this approach. After formulating his universalist theory of ethics in the Groundwork of the metaphysics of morals and further developing it in the Critique of practical reason, he attempts to use it in order to establish the morality of mercy in the Metaphysics of morals. Yet can universal morality of justice necessitate particular ethics of mercy? Using the example of competitive games, the relations between the ethics of justice and that of mercy are demonstrated, and it is shown that the former does not lead to the latter. Moreover, the universality of the rules of moral behavior can serve as a form for blatant brutality. Analyzing the characteristics of particular morality, we can conclude that physical humanity of the moral object, perceived as such by the subject, is a required condition for mercy. Removal of object's humanity is a necessary step toward an ethical system that allows cruelty – a system that can still be based on universal moral rules. Bhagavad Gītā, on the other hand, can be seen as an example of combining nīṣkāmakarma, the formal, universal ethics of desireless action, with a variety of particular motivations originating in the nature and social context of the moral agent.

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Michael Yudanin
Free University / Brīvā Universitāte


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