Ethical Universals and Postcolonialism

Arnab Dutta Roy, University of Connecticut

Ethical universals broadly refer to systems of ethical principles, patterns, codes, or moral deliberations that are presumed to have a cross-cultural relevance. The study of ethical universals is of two general types: descriptive and normative. This entry considers the latter, as it applied to the study of literature.

Normative or prescriptive ethics mainly concerns the intrinsic value of human conduct, seeking to establish what is morally valuable or politically admirable. While, there are many aspects to the study of normative ethics in disciplines of philosophy and various social sciences, in literary studies, such study is primarily applied to determine the quality of a literary creation, based on its ethical, aesthetic, or political worth.

Evaluations of ethical universals are commonly based on the presumption that humans share certain descriptive properties of emotions, cognition, experience, and reasoning (see Donald Brown for relevant descriptive human universals). While this presumption informs normative conceptions of universalism as broad ethical principles invoked by people cross-culturally (in a variety of situations and circumstances, socially or politically), this entry concerns universalism as it is invoked specifically as a response to oppression. More exactly, this essay concerns the invocation of normative ethical universals in cross-cultural activisms against colonialism as expressed in literary works.

Literary scholars such as Mukti Mangharam, Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o, Patrick Hogan, Lalita Pandit, Ashis Nandy, and Judith Butler centrally relate the study of universalism to literature. Some scholars such as Mangharam and Ngũgĩ consider literature to endorse a particularistic universalism that places individual differences and social practices in a broader human universalism. Mangharam, for instance, defines universals as a sum of lived particulars. She observes that in the universal scheme “every person is a particular, unique addition to a universal horizon of humanity” (Mangharam 82). More precisely, she emphasizes that this idea of liberal humanism is expressed in the social writings of many Africanist poets such as William Kgositsile, Amiri Baraka, and Aime Cesaire, in responding to the oppression of black communities around the world. Ngũgĩ declares himself as “unrepentant universalist,” advancing the view that “true humanism, with its universal outreach, can flower amongst the people of the earth” (xvii). This view centrally guides his vision for African literatures, in the context of decolonization.

Others develop universalism as an opposition to colonialism. Hogan and Pandit, for instance, find universalism as a pro-social cultural response to practices of absolutisms around the world, examined in postcolonial texts from India, the West Indies, China, Trinidad, and elsewhere (for a more detailed view on empathic universalism, see Pandit’s entry on empathic and hegemonic universalism). Similarly, Nandy distinguishes between the conceptions of homogenized universalism and distinctive civilizational universalism. He defines the former as a product of uprootedness and de-culturation brought forth by colonialism (Nandy x). He finds the latter “embedded in the tolerance encoded in various traditional ways of life in a highly diverse plural society” (Nandy xi). His justification of the latter as a preferred model of social interaction emerges from his readings of Tagore’s novels, Ghare Baire (The Home and the World) and Char Adhyaya (Four Chapters). Butler invokes a distinction between conceptions of wretched binationalism and diasporic binationalism in the poetry of the Palestinian poet, Mahmud Darwish. She finds that the former expresses colonial occupation, a social formation defined through strict boundaries between the colonizer and the colonized. She articulates the latter in the poetic conception of universal co-existence based on “a set of principles that would defend…the rights of all minorities and refugees… the opposition to coercive containment and expulsion, the necessity of dismantling colonial and military control over borders, natural resources, and human freedom” (41). As such, the conception of diasporic binationalism becomes central to Butler’s political reflections on the history of the Jewish-Palestinian conflict, as evoked in Darwish’s poetry.

Political thinkers such as Martha Nussbaum, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Amartya Sen also find literary analysis valuable in considering universal ethical issues of cultural identity, politics, and human rights. Both Appiah and Nussbaum approach universalism through political conceptions of cosmopolitanism. Appiah, for instance, finds cosmopolitan ethics developing from two interconnected moral views. First, human beings have obligations to others, “obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kind, or even the more formal ties of a shared citizenship” (Appiah, Cosmopolitanism xv). Second, humans have obligations to take seriously the values of not just of human lives in general, “but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the specific practices and beliefs that lend them significance” (Appiah, Cosmopolitanism xv). His views on cosmopolitanism are drawn in part from his readings of Arabic poetry by poets such as Haji Abdu El- Yezdi, who wrote in the poetic tradition of Qasida that advances a humanism by infusing “an Eastern version of humanitarianism blended with the skeptical or, as we now say, the scientific habit of mind” (Appiah, Cosmopolitanism 260).

Nussbaum defines cosmopolitanism as emerging from two distinct but interconnected spheres of human communities, the community of birth and the community of human argument and aspiration (Nussbaum 7). In the community of birth, she situates an individual within specific socio-political and historical contexts. In the community of human argument and aspiration, she articulates the individual’s place within a larger community of humanity. Nussbaum’s model of “cosmopolitan education” and, more generally, her cautions against narrow patriotisms, bear centrally on Tagore’s critique of the Hindu patriotic ideology of “Bande Mataram,” developed in his novel Ghare Baire. Such normative reflections allow both Appiah and Nussbaum to articulate cosmopolitanism as a model of global politics, that is simultaneously sensitive to particulars of culture and human universalities based on cross-cultural similarities of aspirations, moral beliefs, and so on.

Sen is another noted social scientist who heavily relies on universalism to reflect on issues of global politics and economics. A prime example is his articulation of globalization as a system of ethical universalism that should ensure that “our global civilization is a world heritage—and not just a collection of disparate local cultures” (Sen 85). While this view is developed primarily as a response to the rise ethnocentric nationalisms in India, particularly sectarian politics of the Hindutva movement, it is also the basis of his conceptions of rationality and freedom informing his economic theory of social choice. Sen’s attention to literatures is widely reflected in his social writings. A clear case is his critique of globalization in relation to postcolonial Indian history, developed through a range of literary writings on India from ancient to modern times (including postcolonial readings of Hindu epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, travel writings by foreigners on India, modern works by writers such as Tagore, Bankim Chandra, and others).

There are several notable influences on these recent studies on universalism. Tagore’s universal ethics, as reflected in his literary and political writings, is foremost in guiding many theoretical approaches to universalism, including works by Nussbaum, Sen, and Nandy. His influence is also clear in Hogan and Pandit, as their positions on the topic are often informed by critical readings of empathy and universal ethics in Tagore’s novels such as Gora and Ghare Baire. Scholars of universalism are also indebted to writings of western philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and John Rawls. Nussbaum, Appiah, and Sen, in this regard, consistently evoke Kantian theories of cosmopolitan laws, world citizenship, and the categorical imperative (among other things) to formulate their views of the topic in politics and social justice. Similarly, contemporary theories on cosmopolitanisms are often developed in dialogue with certain Rawlsian conceptions of justice and social cooperation (either in agreement or disagreement). For instance, Nussbaum’s responses to systems of patriotisms are informed by implicit references to Rawl’s “veil of ignorance” in social contract (Nussbaum 134). Appiah, on the other hand, finds Rawl’s conceptions of justice overly reliant on systems of nation-state, thus posing a potential challenge to cosmopolitan conceptions at a more international scale (see Appiah’s “Cosmopolitan Patriots”).

Another major influence is Edward Said, particularly his later works on cultures and colonialism. In his preface to Orientalism in 2003, Said distinguishes two different forms of knowledge systems. One relates to ethnocentric knowledges informing “an overall campaign of self-affirmation, belligerency, and outright war” (xv). The other concerns knowledges reflective of the diverse voices of people, formulated through “understanding, compassion, careful study and analysis for their own sake.” (xv). Through such clarifications, Said establishes a clear separation between epistemologies that reveal culturally inclusive humanisms, and colonial practices of orientalism. This Saidian view centrally informs Butler’s positions on universalism, particularly her views on wretched and diasporic binationalism. It is also invoked by Hogan in his discussions on social universalism.

Historically, universalism has often been cited in anti-universal ways. To this end, cross-cultural claims of ethics are often the basis for discrimination against marginalized groups and populations around the world. However, recent studies have clarified that such coercive practices never really express universalism, rather, they demonstrate how in many ways cross-cultural practices of ethnocentrism are projected to have universal significance, ethical and otherwise. This is clearly revealed in the scholarships noted in this entry, scholarship that in different ways distinguishes between non-coercive universalisms or cosmopolitanisms and ideologies of colonialism.

Future Research

Research on ethical universals in literary studies is far from conclusive. A potential task in the field of prescriptive ethics is the organization and development of the emerging scholarship on universalism. There is a need for a research program that highlights universalism as a prominent feature of many ethically sensitive postcolonial literatures aiming to address issues of marginalization in the broader context of colonial histories. In this sense, there is a possibility for future research projects to develop a more detailed understanding of how universalisms are differently expressed in particular literary productions across the world, and how such studies can be valuable to enquiries concerning ethics and politics that go well beyond the scope of specific literary texts.

Works Cited

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “Cosmopolitan Patriots.” In For Love of Country? Ed. Joshua Cohen. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1996, 21-29.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. New York: WW Norton & Company, 2010.

Brown, Donald E. Human Universals. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991.

Butler, Judith. “‘What Shall We Do Without Exile?’: Said and Darwish Address the Future.” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 32 (2012): 30-56.

Dasgupta, Uma. Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Dutta, Krishna and Andrew Robinson, eds. Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Dutta Roy, Arnab. “Ethical Universals in Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies: A Posthumanist Critique of Universal Human Rights.” Humanities 5, no. 3 (2016): 64.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Colonialism and Cultural Identity: Crises of Tradition in the Anglophone Literatures of India, Africa, and the Caribbean. Albany, NY: State U of New York P, 2000.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge UP and Paris: Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 2003.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Trans. Paul Guyer and Allen Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Mangharam, Mukti Lakhi. “‘The Universal is the Entire Collection of Particulars’: Grounding Identity in a Shared Horizon of Humanity.” College Literature 40 (2013): 81-98.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedom. London: James Currey, 1993.

Nussbaum, Martha C. “Patriotism and Cosmpolitanism.” In For Love of Country? Ed. Joshua Cohen. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1996, 3-17.

Pandit, Lalita. “Caste, Race, and Nation: History and Dialectic in Rabindranath Tagore’s Gora.” In Literary India: Comparative Studies in Aesthetics, Colonialism, and Culture. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995, 207-33.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Sabyasachi, Bhattacharya. The Mahatma and the Poet: Letters and Debates between Gandhi and Tagore. New Delhi: National Book Trust (1997).

Said, Edward. Orientalism. London: Penguin Books, 2003.

Sen, Amartya. Rationality and Freedom. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Sen, Amartya. The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2005.

Tagore, Rabindranath. Four Chapters. Trans. Rimli Bhattacharya. New Delhi: Srishti Publishers, 2002.

Tagore, Rabindranath. Gora. Trans. Sujit Mukherjee. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2003.

Tagore, Rabindranath. The Home and the World. Trans. Surendranath Tagore. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2005.