Gandhi’s ethics were shaped mostly by his experiences in India, England, and South Africa and they way in which he contemplated them. He was born Hindu, but he readily considered the ideas of other religions. Gandhi was a man of strong convictions, which came from the example set by his mother. It was these strong convictions that guided him throughout his life, even at a time when adhering to these convictions meant risking the life of his son.
Vegetarianism and Animal Rights
One of these convictions was his adamant belief in animal rights and vegetarianism. He was originally a vegetarian by tradition, but at one point he found that he was actually rather fond of meat and began to eat it unbeknownst to his parents. It was a pledge he had made to his mother when he left for England that brought him back to vegetarianism, a pledge that he adhered to religiously even when he was constantly being told him it was bad for his health. He did believe that eating meat would make a person stronger, but he would rather be weak and honest than strong and dishonest. Later Ghandi would come to vegetarianism by choice, and he went further than to simply practice vegetarianism, as he became involved in advocating vegetarianism and animal rights. In recalling a visit to a temple where sheep were being sacrificed, Gandhi recalled seeing a river of blood that made him feel sick. He was appalled to witness what he considered a heinous practice inside of a temple, and he argued that the life of an animal is no less precious than the life of a human. He felt sympathetic to animals, arguing that simply because they cannot vocalize their suffering to us, it does not mean that they do not suffer. Gandhi believed that being the stronger and more intelligent species puts responsibility on humans to protect and nurture animals. Thus, rather than eating and sacrificing animals for our benefit, we should be caring for animals and treasuring their lives the same way we treasure ours.
Truth and Integrity
Gandhi held the notion of truth above all things, considering himself a “worshipper of truth”. He came to the realization that everything is based on morality, and morality in turn was based on truth. He was inspired by the story of Harischandra and the difficult struggle to preserve one’s integrity through the course of life. It was this struggle, the many trials of his integrity and the lessons taken from them, that Gandhi called his “experiments with truth”. Gandhi thought it unacceptable for him to lie to or deceive anyone, and it was this honesty that he said saved him from many “pitfalls”. He made a pledge to his mother before leaving to England to stay away from wine, woman, and meat. He stayed true to his oath under all circumstances, and he felt an enormous guilt whenever he came even close to violating his oath, as he still considered this a “moral lapse”. Gandhi felt that many of the problems in the world stemmed from pledges, and the way in which people liberally manipulate the interpretation so as to absolve themselves from the responsibility of their pledge. Gandhi felt that it was the interpretation of the person who administered the oath, not of the person obliged, which is to be honored. He referred to this as the “golden rule” and argues that any person who is interested in truth will adhere to this rule. Another standard that Ghandi had for truth was that he should not do anything privately that he would not do in public, as in the case where his caste had imposed restrictions on his relations with members of his caste and family. Upon his return from England, Ghandi was apprehensive about practicing law in India because he felt incapable, and to charge someone for his service would by Gandhi’s standards, amount to fraud.
Early in the book, Gandhi tells of his father, and how his father would speak to people of different religions. Likewise, through the course of his life Gandhi would speak to different people about their religions. Whenever he encountered a new religion, Gandhi would make an earnest attempt to understand that religion and appreciate its strengths as well as weaknesses. He would read the books that came recommended to him about any given religion. He would attend group meetings and discuss the religion at length with its members. He did not denounce any one religion; he would only point out the parts that he did not particularly agree with.
Gandhi very easily fits the description of a “moral hero”. Unlike other moral philosophers, whose ethical theories are found in their writing, Gandhi’s ethical theory is found in his life. There is much to be said about the fact that Gandhi’s ethical theory is found in his autobiography and not in some manifesto. It would be impossible to overstate the significance of this. While the ethics of Nietzsche, Kant, and other philosophers were written in ink; Gandhi’s ethics were forged in the trials and tribulations of his life. It is deceivingly simple to sit at a desk with a pen, write out some elegant, abstract “theory” about morality, and then fancy oneself a brilliant moral philosopher. It is an entirely different affair to suffer a life of truth and integrity (suffer I say, for a life of integrity is far from a life of comfort) and then, toward the end, write about that life and the lessons to be taken from it. In this sense, Gandhi carries an ethos unmatched by other well-known thinkers.
Certain aspects of Gandhi’s ethics can and should serve as an inspiration for us today. First of all, Gandhi was unwavering in his convictions. He had an enviable sense of self-discipline and restraint. In a modern society of materialism, self-discipline and moderation are very foreign concepts. While we do value ethics in its abstract form, we allow little if any room for it in our daily lives.