In his book Hindu Ethics: A Philosophical Study (1998), Roy Perrett defends what he calls “Hindu ethics” against a range of contemporary western objections. In the second chapter of the book, entitled “Saints and the Supramoral,” Perrett develops an objection that is meant to parallel Susan Wolf’s objection to western moral saint ideals. Perrett’s version of the objection might be interpreted in a number of different ways. In this post, I offer what I take to be the most straightforward interpretation of the objection, and provide a supplemental argument for its central claim. I’d love to know what you think. Is the karmayogin subject to a version of Wolf’s objection to western moral saint ideals?
Susan Wolf (1982) argues that the moral saint’s single-minded pursuit of the general welfare precludes the pursuit of non-moral ends for their own sakes. Typically, the moral saint does not indulge in diversions, develop hobbies, cultivate close relationships, or pursue personal goals more generally, since such pursuits are usually not the best means to improving the general welfare. The moral saint might pursue a non-moral end if it improves the general welfare. Wolf’s example is the person who cultivates their golf game to secure a donation to Oxfam. Even in this case, however, the moral saint pursues the non-moral end only because it contributes to the general welfare. Such a person does not indulge in diversions, develop hobbies, cultivate close relationships, or pursue personal goals more generally for their own sakes. A life entirely devoid of every such pursuit might seem deficient.
Initially, Perrett develops the parallel objection in the context of the Bhagavadgītā. He says,
the moral ideal presented in the Gītā is to become a kind of saint. But the single-minded pursuit of such a goal would involve giving up too much of what makes a life worth living; even if we could achieve such a standard, to do so would be undesirable (27).
It makes some sense to assume that the moral ideal that Perrett has in mind here is the karmayogin – the person who continues to perform their obligations in virtue of their class and stage in life (varṇāśramadharma), but without desire. The most straightforward version of this objection simply counts the karmayogin as a moral saint, who single-mindedly pursues the general welfare.
Kṛṣṇa’s injunction to act for the sake of lokasaṃgraha alone (eva) (3.20) might seem to support this interpretation. The most common translation of lokasaṃgraha, after all, is ‘welfare of the world’. In his commentary to BG 3.25, Śaṅkara explains lokasaṃgraha in terms of parānugraha – the benefit (anugrahaḥ) of others (para) – and repeats the claim that the wise person pursues this goal alone. “The benefit (anugrahaḥ) of others (para) alone (eva) is to be done (kartavyaḥ).” The point seems to be that the karmayogin acts only for the sake of the welfare of others.
If the karmayogin acts only for the welfare of the world, however, then the karmayogin – like the ideal western moral saint – single-mindedly pursues the general welfare. And if the karmayogin single-mindedly pursues the general welfare, then presumably they do not pursue non-moral ends for their own sakes. If this is right, then the karmayogin does not indulge in diversions, develop hobbies, cultivate close relationships, or pursue personal goals more generally – at least not for their own sakes. If Wolf is right, then a life entirely devoid of every such pursuit is deficient.
One seemingly obvious reply to this objection notes that the karmayogin pursues lokasaṃgraha by performing their vaṇāśramadharma as a householder. The householder, however, remains embedded in a close-knit community that includes parents, spouse, children, and friends. They pursue a vocation. They have time to pursue hobbies, diversions, and other personal goals. If the karmayogin acts just as the householder does, then the karmayogin, too, indulges in diversions, develops hobbies, cultivates close relationships, and pursues personal goals more generally. This implies that the karmayogin is not precluded from pursuing non-moral ends.
As Wolf points out, however, the fact that the moral saint might pursue non-moral ends does not imply that they pursue non-moral ends for their own sakes. The moral saint pursues such things – if they do at all – only because they contribute to the further end of improving the general welfare. This point might be made in the context of the karmayogin by saying that the karmayogin indulges in diversions, develops hobbies, cultivates close relationships, and pursues personal goals more generally, but only because doing so contributes to lokasaṃgraha. This is what it means to pursue lokasaṃgraha alone. This implies that the karmayogin does not pursue non-moral ends for their own sakes. A life entirely devoid of every such pursuit might seem deficient.