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Rethinking Ethics

Published: 5th Oct, 2021


The Covid-19 epidemic has become a historical event. It has entered the global imagination as an act of crisis with lack of a literary imagination and absence of an ethical presence.


  • The silence of ethics has been deafening, both in policy and in science.
  • The epidemic speaks the language of cost-benefit without articulating a sense of suffering.
  • 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.

How do we retrieve a sense of ethics?

  • During the national movement, character-building was linked to nation-building. Goodness was individualized in terms of personal roles and all were ethical narratives.
  • One must add institutional and cosmic ethics to it.
  • The battle of good and evil needs a different kind of goodness, a goodness based on an innovative and experimental ethics.

In search of new ethics

Citing two brilliant examples

1. From the book of Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree

  • 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.

Explanation: 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.

2. Ethics of memory: 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 dialog city 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.

Learning: 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. We go beyond the language of monoculture 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.

What can be done?

  • The university must create a new realm of cognitive ethics, new debates — about violence, suffering and the consequences of knowledge.
  • One needs the marginal, the housewife, the victim, the minority, to talk about their apprehensions as well as their stories.
  • 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.


Literature has to create a new language, a poetics of ethics, to challenge the idioms of progress. Thus ethics, in this sense, becomes both resistance and innovation, adding to the life-giving diversity of democracy.

Verifying, please be patient.

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