Four ways to deal with deontic conflicts

Mīmāṃsā authors deal with conflicting commands according to a decreasing scale of preferences, which seems to me comparable to the scale of preferences according to which one deals with legal conflicts. Starting from below, 4) The least preferred option is to say that the commands at stake are meaningless or purposeless (nirarthaka). This is the least preferred one because it leads to the fact that the commands are not fulfilled.

Then comes 3) vikalpa, which is equivalent to flipping a coin, i.e., arbitrarily choosing one of the two commands to be fulfilled. This is also not ideal, because one of the two commands is not fulfilled and because this is arbitrarily done.

Then comes 2) bādha, which is equivalent to temporarily suspending the more general command and applying the most specific one. The suspension allows one to retain the general command as the default one for future undetermined instances.

Then comes 1), i.e., understanding the conflict as due to a failure in understanding the commands. One then rephrases the seemingly conflicting commands in a way which shows that no command is even suspended and that there was an exception embedded in the first command. 1) is only applied in the case of conflicts between a prescription and a prohibition.

By contrast, the most favoured solution for conflicts among prescriptions is samuccaya, i.e., fulfilling both prescriptions (e.g. “Do x given a” and “Do y given a” can be solved by doing both x and y given the situation a). If this is not possible, Mīmāṃsā texts speak of recurring to vikalpa (equivalent to flipping a coin to decide which prescription to fulfil). This is the least preferred option, because it implies disregarding one of the two prescriptions. Hence, vikalpa is reserved to the limit case of exactly equivalent prescriptions (e.g., “bake a rice-cake” and “bake a millet-cake”) which fulfil exactly the same role and are interchangeable.

What about the intermediate cases, i.e., cases in which the two prescriptions cannot be both fulfilled, but there are reasons to prefer one over the other? One applies bādha, i.e., suspension of the more general prescription in favour of the more specific one. Suspension is generally not the most preferred solution for deontic conflicts, because it implies the temporary suspension of a command. Mīmāṃsā authors prefer to rephrase both conflicting commands in a way as to embed one within the other in order to respect both. This embedding of one within the other implies the embedment of an exception within a general rule. I.e., out of the conflict between “Do x in every case” and “Don’t do x in case a”, one embeds the second command as an exception of the first as “Do x in every case but a”. This device is called paryudāsa and it is the preferred way to solve conflicts between a prescription and a prohibition.

But why is it the case that the conflict between two prescriptions cannot be solved through the device of paryudāsa (i.e., embed the more specific command as an exception of the more general one)?
Is it because paryudāsa is by definition reserved for cases of conflicts between prescriptions and prohibitions? Is it an a priori decision or a reasoned one? I am currently working on this topic (reasoned suggestions, as usual, are welcome).

About elisa freschi

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8 thoughts on “Four ways to deal with deontic conflicts

  1. Elisa,

    Not being familiar with Mimamsa, I have trouble understanding the device of paryudāsa in the fourth method. Whatever I know about it is drawn from Staal’s “Negation and the Law of Contradiction in Indian Thought”, pp. 58-9. So, I have three questions, to check if I am understanding things correctly.

    (1) Prescription is vidhi, and prohibition is nishedha/pratishedha?
    (2) If “Do X!” is a prescription, and “Not-do X!” is a prohibition, then is the paryudāsa here “Do non-X!”?
    (3) Does the device of paryudāsa convert what looks like a prohibition into a prescription? (In other words, does it involve interpreting the negation so that the apparent prohibition is read as prescribing something different from X, and not as prohibiting the doing of X?)

    I don’t know much about Mimamsa, though I have downloaded a bunch of your papers for future reading. I am learning about the Vyakarana tradition, so I will write on the basis of what little I know from that tradition, however misleading it might be.

    In the Vyakarana tradition, the basic principle of interpretation seems to be this: Every rule must be interpreted so that it finds some application, for otherwise there would have been no point in Panini’s stating the rule in the first place.

    So, if a general rule says “In every case C, do X”, and a more specific rule says, “In this kind of case C1, do Y”, then the general rule and the specific rule enjoin us to do conflicting things in C1. But if we apply the general rule in all such cases of conflict, then this will not leave any scope of application (niravakaasha) for the specific rule, and thus will render the specific rule entirely pointless. But since Panini has stated the specific rule, it must have a point or purpose, and thus the general rule must be restricted to make room for the specific rule. As Patanjali puts it, the general rule that is set aside (utsarga) and the specific rule that sets it aside(apavaada) should be read together as constituting an ekam vaakyam, so that we can suitably restrict the scope of application of the general rule to those circumstances where it does not conflict with the more specific rules. I think something like this is going on in the third Mimamsa method.

    And if I might venture a further guess, I would think that something similar is also going on in the fourth Mimamsa method, where a prohibition is converted to a prescription, more specifically an apavaada that restricts the application of a more general prescription in certain specific circumstances. To restrict the scope of application of the more general prescription to make room for the application of the more specific prescription, in this way is to take the specific prescription and general prescription as constituting ekam vaakyam in Patanjali’s sense, or to “embed the more specific command as an exception of the more general one”, as you put it. Or, at any rate, that is my suggestion coming from the Vyakarana side.

    The first (least preferred) method that you mention is also interesting, since it involves making both conflicting rules “meaningless or purposeless (nirarthaka)”. As I read it, this also presupposes what I take to be the basic interpretive principle in Vyakarana, namely, that all stated rules should be so interpreted that they are not rendered pointless. I assume that the rules that the Mimamsakas have in mind here are the Vedic injunctions, and I assume that the same interpretive principle should apply here (and perhaps it may even be that the Vyakarana tradition got it from the Mimamsakas).

    As for the basic interpretive principle, a modern way of understanding it may be through Grice’s conversational maxims. To state something apparently pointless, such as a specific rule whose scope of application is entirely covered by a more general rule, is to flout the maxim of quantity and the maxim of manner: Be as informative and brief as required, avoiding unnecessary prolixity. The flouting of these maxims gives rise to conversational implicature on the hearer/reader’s part. The statement of the specific rule must have a point. That is, the specific rule must have a use, and therefore, the scope of the general rule must be restricted to accommodate the specific rule as an exception.

    • Dear Boram,

      yes, well spotted! The niravakāśa principle is applied also in Mīmāṃsā on exactly the same basis (this is a further evidence of the shared prehistory of Mīmāṃsā and Vyākaraṇa (about which I wrote a book with T. Pontillo).

      Also the points about meaninglessness and Grice’s rules are well-put! You would be welcome as a Mīmāṃsā-scholar!

  2. On reading your post a second time, there is something important that I have missed about the difference between the third and fourth methods.

    On the third method, the general rule retains its character as a general rule, but is temporarily suspended. So the conflicting rules look like this:
    (1) In C, shall X.
    (2) In C1 (such that C1 ⊂ C), shall Y.

    But in place of (2), we can also have:
    (2*) In C1, ~shall X,
    because if we can temporarily suspend (1) when it conflicts with (2), it seems that we can also temporarily suspend (1) when it conflicts with (2*).

    On the fourth method, the specific rule is an apparent pratishedha reinterpreted as a paryudaasa (IF I understand correctly, but that’s a big IF), and this specific rule is embedded as an exception to the general rule. I am not sure how this embedding occurs according to the Mimamsakas, but I take it to mean that the general rule is reinterpreted as a less general rule conjoined with the specific rule, somewhat as follows:
    (1′) In C\C1 (the relative complement of C1 in C), shall X,
    AND
    (2′) In C1, shall ~X.

    Here, too, I don’t see why, in place of (2′), we cannot have
    (2*’) In C1, ~shall X,
    because the conjunction of (1′) and (2*’) looks consistent. After all, (1′) and (2*’) apply in disjoint circumstances.

    So, embedding as the conjunction of the specific rule and the general rule restricted by it seems to work equally well for (2′) paryudaasa and (2*’) pratishedha. This suggests that the Mimamsaka idea of embedding must be different, such that it works with paryudaasa but not with pratishedha. And I take it that this is the problem you are raising, and working on.

    Am I understanding things correctly or am I terribly wrong? I hope that I have not derailed the conversation to the point of confusion. If so, you can ignore these comments.

  3. Hi Boram,

    thanks for your comment. First an answer to your three questions:
    (1) Prescription is vidhi, and prohibition is nishedha/pratishedha?
    YES
    (2) If “Do X!” is a prescription, and “Not-do X!” is a prohibition, then is the paryudāsa here “Do non-X!”?
    EF: niṣedha=”Don’t do X!” (otherwise there will be a sanction). vidhi=”Do X!” *or* “Conceive the decision not to do X!” (in both cases, you’ll get a reward, hence the fundamental distinction between prescriptions and prohibitions). paryudāstavidhi= “Do X in all cases but z!” paryudāstapratiṣedha= “Don’t do X in all cases but z!”
    (3) Does the device of paryudāsa convert what looks like a prohibition into a prescription? (In other words, does it involve interpreting the negation so that the apparent prohibition is read as prescribing something different from X, and not as prohibiting the doing of X?)
    NO, see above.

    Does this make sense? I will reply separately to the rest of your comment.

    • Hello Elisa,

      So, the important thing here is paryudāsa has a different meaning from what I’ve read in Staal. Thank you for making me aware of it. It is interesting, could you let me know where I can read about this in the Mimsamsa texts? (Probably won’t have time to read it now, but for future reference.)

      I will try to correct and rephrase my second comment in light of your clarification. Roughly I am still interested in how you would formalize the embedding.

  4. Elisa

    Does this mean one can render *vikalpa as discretion? That would carry to the Yoga-sutra, where the term has occasioned much inconclusive speculation. It does seem to me that the Indian jurisprudence reached back all the way to Vedic times, and always influenced what we call the logic or philosophy.

    • You can use “discretion” if you mean by that an arbitrary choice between two completely equivalent alternatives (as in the case of Buridan’s ass). I am not sure I can see the connection with the YS use of vikalpa (I am thinking of vastuśūnyo vikalpaḥ). Could you elaborate on it?

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