Conscience is the act of listening to the truth inside you. It is the inner voice that sustains your humanity, says SHIV VISVANATHAN. He wonders how the Indian legal system treats the Narmada Dam and atomic energy as examples of sustainability. Ethics in Law Schools is treated like a hobby, an annexure to more serious subjects like constitutional or criminal law. We need to revitalise the subject, he argues.
HERE are some words that seem so old-fashioned that they have almost been retired from the language of today’s professionals. Hardly anyone uses the word conscience. People prefer the pomposity of professional ethics, whether medical or legal ethics. These are taught like table manners or demanding etiquette something one has to be correct about. But correctness is more like a geometric formality, a guarantee against ordinary disturbance. Truth is something different. It is unsettling, undigestible. It makes correctness silly. Conscience is the act of listening to the truth inside you. It is the inner voice that sustains your humanity.
A leading scientist once told me, “Most sciences are correct, they barely ring true. Truth is located in uncertainty and risk. It needs courage, something you do not talk about when you discuss the scientific method.” He cited an example. He said, “The early Pugwash and anti-nuclear activists were men of conscience. They disturbed you. The later Pugwash was more like a club, an ingroup which lost its halo of truth and poetics.” A Pugwash committed to truth is satyagraphic. It demands the ethicality of an act like a Linus Pauling or a Russell created.
Ethicality is never welcome. It is a source of perpetual annoyance. I remember reading the ethics document of the Indian Science Academy. Despite hard work, negotiations led to compromise and the code reads like does and don’ts, mainly playing safe on gender.
There is no sense of dissent, whistleblowing, no reference to the challenges of ethics. It is as if the committee was cleared by the government of India. It is too sanitised.
An ethical act disturbs power, makes it nervous. One can hardly see Indian scientists do that. One misses the Amulya Reddys, the CV Seshadris today.
One senses this about the law. My first encounter with a major issue in law was the Bhopal gas tragedy. Indian law wallowed in illiteracy and even a distinguished lawyer like Nani Palkhiwala said that the Indian legal system was not ready to evaluate Bhopal. It was like deciding on a piece of plumbing. There was little sense of ethics as if ethics were not a part of professional competence.
In fact, even today I am surprised that the Indian legal system treats the Narmada Dam and atomic energy as examples of sustainability. If that does not deserve Contempt of Court, I do not know what does.
For me, conscience is a word that goes beyond professionalism. It is a personal act of ethics, a challenge to a group or institution about what is good and true.
There is a lot of talk of professional ethics, but conscience appears to be an anomaly or embarrassment. It is as if ethics is public, but conscience is privatised.
There is poetry, a poetics to conscience we do not acknowledge today. It is almost as if conscience is antinational, a preserve of urban naxals or unpatriotic nationalists.
Ethics in Law Schools is treated like a hobby, an annexure to more serious subjects like constitutional or criminal law. We need to revitalise the subject. There are so many handbooks of environmental and constitutional law floating around. I wish a Gopal Subramanian, an Upendra Baxi, an Usha Ramanathan or an Indira Jaising would edit a Hand Book of Law and Ethics beginning with a sense of injustice and the victim providing a much needed professional and ethnographic context to the issues involved.
Law literally needs ethical repair in this direction. I think in the annals of law, a conscientious objector or dissenting professional is rare. A handbook of ethics with all the living gossip of debate would bring ethics alive, maybe even revitalise other professions into rethinking what ethics means.
Imagine Socratic dialogues around ethical issues. The Courts and Law Schools might even lose their pomposity in the process. Ethics then becomes that perpetual pedagogy that law goes through. There are enough outstanding lawyers to do it. Civil society as a community must sustain them.
There is a drama to whistleblowing, to the dissenting imaginations of a Daniel Ellsberg or a Julian Assange that we need to sustain. Ask yourself how many ethical violations take place under the idea of security. Yet, security makes ethics sound vulnerable and obsolete. Ethics appears a confession of vulnerability while security fits the machismo of the Indian state and its middle-class male ego.
I remember as children we were constantly told about exemplars, ethical exemplars in particular. Socrates rubbed shoulders with Simone Weil, and Russell with the quaker resisters.
Satyagraha was something we took pride in. Today we have mothballed it along with ethics. I think it is now time to bring ethics back to the center of civil society and pedagogic life.
The social sciences should contribute to it by opening a center for investigative and experimental ethics, create a new gossip of ethics around the democratic imagination.
We need to make conscience and character-building part of the way we live and think. It would at least make words like sustainability feel less corporate and hypothetical and rights more authentic and substantive.
Networks of ethical exemplarism and pedagogy are the need now. This is the age of obsolescence, brutality, genocide, indifference conscience as an ethics of memory would help create a new imagination. Ethics as lifestyle, ethics as judgment and dissent, ethics as courage needs to be honoured not just in drawing room salons but as part of our tradition.
It is these few ethical people who keep institutions and democracy alive. We need to sustain these efforts when they are appearing even more thankless now. There is an epic drama and debate here which needs to be spelled out.
(Shiv Visvanathan is an Indian academic best known for his contributions to developing the field of science and technology studies, and for the concept of cognitive justice- a term he coined. He is currently a Professor at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonepat. The views expressed are personal.)