ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Gandhi as an Exemplar?

Akeel Bilgrami’s theorisation of M K Gandhi as an exemplar who, by his actions, sets “examples” for others explains the exemplar morality of Gandhi as non-violent, as no moral criticism is generated when examples are not set, and contrasts it with the morality based on universalisable principles, which causes contempt, hostility, and violence when the principles fail to universalise. This paper questions the exemplar thesis and shows that it does not explain how satyagraha as a political strategy could be both exemplary and political, that the conception of non-violence which inheres the thesis is deficient, and that the assumption that universalisable principles coerce others is not true insofar as Kant’s categorical imperative is made to represent the principle-based morality. It also argues that reading Gandhi as an exemplar is inconsistent with his view of swaraj.


In his 2003 essay, “Gandhi, the Philosopher,” Akeel Bilgrami theorises M K Gandhi as an exemplar who, by his actions, sets “examples” for others. Gandhi makes a distinction between the concepts of “principle” and “exemplar,” Bilgrami says, and uses it to provide a theoretical basis against moralising, which results from universalisable principles and generates psychological attitudes responsible for interpersonal violence. Gandhi’s morality was guided not by principles, as it was for, say, Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill, among others, but rather by his conscience. Morality is about acting on one’s conscience, according to Gandhi, and it is not necessary that there are underlying principles behind every act of conscience (Bilgrami 2003: 4162). The concept of the exemplar, which guides Gandhi’s morality, therefore, provides a “wholesale alternative” to the body of thought that derives morality based on principles (Bilgrami 2003: 4162−63).

The principle-based morality assumes causal connections between moral judgment and moral criticism, and therefore, violence is implied if moral judgments fail to universalise, that is, when others do not commit to sharing the judgments made by the agent. The guiding principle for this form of morality is: “when one chooses for oneself, one chooses for everyone” (Bilgrami 2003: 4162). Gandhi, however, denies the assumed connection between moral sense and moral judgment and advances an alternative “bold” proposal, which is implicit in his writings: “when one chooses for oneself, one sets an example to everyone” (Bilgrami 2003: 4162). This is the exemplar view of morality, and it does not create general principles that
others may run afoul of. One may be disappointed if examples are not set, but this will not cause “contempt, hostility, and eventual violence.” In this form of morality, even criticising others is taken as violence. Gandhi appears to be making a “highly integrating” suggestion here, that “there is no true non-violence until criticism is removed from the scope of morals” (Bilgrami 2003: 4163).

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Updated On : 23rd Jan, 2024
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