Ought entails can (and prohibitions imply possibility) in Kumārila (and Śabara)

Within TV ad 1.3.4, (Mimamsadarsana 1929-34, pp. 192–193), Kumārila discusses a seeming deontic conflict and solves it by appealing to the different responsibilities (adhikāra) of the various addressees. He explains that the prescription to learn the Vedas for 48 years does not conflict (virodhābhāva) with the duty to get married and have children, because it addresses people who suffer of disabilities and who therefore cannot become householders. This is a further evidence of how O(x/a) implies that a is actually able to perform x. If a is unable to perform x, the obligation is not incumbent upon them (the background, ableist, assumption is that a blind or lame person cannot support a family.

Kumārila also discusses the prescription to learn the Veda by heart in order to get svarga (heaven/happiness) and explains it would clash against the ones prescribing complicated sacrifices for the same result, since no one would engage in them, if learning the Veda by heart were enough. Here, we see several principles at work:

  1. No prescription can remain idle.
  2. Translative (?) property of duties: If x implies z and O(x), then O(z). In fact, performing sacrifices \emph{presupposes} learning the Veda by heart, so that O(sacrifices)—>O(learning Veda by heart).

Because of 1., it is clear that the former prescription necessarily only applies to people who cannot perform the latter. Thus: If there are two seemingly contradictory obligations (both aiming at the same result), that is:

(i) O(x/in order to reach s) and
(ii) O (x3/in order to reach s),
then one needs to postulate for the former an additional condition that states something like “Unless you can perform (ii).

As for the converse, namely that prohibitions imply possibility, Śabara (ŚBh ad 1.2.18) explains that the seeming prohibition “The Fire is not to be kindled on the earth, nor in the sky, nor in heaven” cannot be taken as a prohibition, because fire cannot be kindled in the sky nor in heaven.

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9 Replies to “Ought entails can (and prohibitions imply possibility) in Kumārila (and Śabara)”

    • I am not following, Paul. Are you saying that:
      1) Wittgenstein was right about everything, hence we should all just study Wittgenstein?
      2) Kumārila, Śabara, Mīmāṃsā are something “we cannot know”?

      If the latter, why? Are they intrinsically unknowable?

  1. Thanks for this interesting post Elisa. It raises several questions for me.

    Why does Kumarila think that there is a conflict between two conditional obligations for the same desired result? Why can’t they be thought of as alternative ways of obtaining the same result? Is it because fulfilling one of these two obligation to obtain the desired result obviates the need for fulfilling the other, as I think it is? In that case, the conflict seems to arise on pain of having to accept that one of the two prescriptions is pointless (vyartha).

    Why would people think that learning that Veda is enough, thus obviating the obligation to performing complicated sacrifices? I mean this as opposed to the following: Why wouldn’t people think the other way, that performing complicated sacrifices is enough, thus obviating the obligation to learn the Veda?

    Is it because learning the Veda by heart is easier than performing complicated sacrifices? (Given my bad memory, I would think learning the entire Veda by heart is more difficult than learning the steps of a complicated sacrifice and performing them.) Or is it because one is first a student that learns the Veda by heart, and then becomes a householder that performs sacrifices, so that one has to learn the Vedas by heart at an earlier stage in one’s life? Or is it because, as you suggest, learning the Vedas by heart is presupposed by (or is a necessary means to) performing complicated sacrifices?

    How does the “translative property of duties” arise from Kumarila’s discussion? It looks like Kumarila’s example deals with two conditional obligations, one being the (O1) obligation to learn the Veda by heart if one desires heaven, and the other being the (O2) obligation to perform complicated sacrifices if one desires heaven. But the conditional obligation derived from the translative property of duties is (O3) obligation to learn the Veda by heart if one ought to perform complicated sacrifices. Here O1 and O3 are different obligations, if we individuate obligations not by the content of the prescribed actions, but by those conditions under which they become applicable. It is not clear to me exactly what role the introduction of O3 is meant to play here.

    Your point about translative property of duties, etc. was not easy for me to follow. So here is my attempt to understand it in general terms. Namely:

    There are two prescriptions for obtaining the same desirable outcome, one more difficult than the other. But acting on the easier prescription also happens to be a necessary means for acting on the more difficult prescription. In that case, everyone who cannot act on the more difficult prescription may perform just the easier one, and need not perform the more difficult one (this is the ought-implies-can part). But those who can act on the more difficult prescription should perform both the more difficult prescription and the easier prescription that is the necessary means to it. For otherwise the more difficult prescription would become pointless (this is the avoiding “vyarthatva” part).

    Have I understood correctly or is there some mistake? I will have to revise my understanding based on what you say in regard to points (1), (2), and (3) above.

    But there is a problem with what I suggest in (4). As per my suggestion in (1), suppose that the conflict between two prescriptions for the same result arises due of the pointlessness of acting on the second prescription after performing the first. In that case, how can that conflict be resolved simply by claiming that the second presciption should be performed so as to not render it pointless? If doing it would have been pointless to begin with, then actually doing it cannot give it a point.

    So there must be something more in Kumarila’s response to the apparent conflict and yours that I am missing.

    As for prohibitions implying possibility, in the particular example about the fire I wonder if the reason for its not being a prohibition is due to the *impossibility* of doing it, or due to the *pointlessness* of prohibiting something that is not possible anyway.

    It would be neat to find a discussion where possibility and pointlessness considerations come apart for prohibitions. That would show that the possibility consideration is really at work, and not merely shadowing the work done by the pointlessness consideration.

    How about this example, which I seem to recall (though I have a bad memory!) from one of your discussions? It is certainly not impossible to kill animals, so the prohibition againt killing animals is not pointless. But in difficult times when people are suffering from scarcity of food, this prohibition can be waived. Presumably because it could be humanly impossible to observe the prohibition under such circumstances.

    • Thank you, Boram, for this thoughtful reply!

      1. All Mīmāṃsā authors would like to construe a system of rules that eliminates whims. Having two conflicting obligations leading to the same result is in this sense a problem (because it puts too much pressure on the individual who is going to pick one over the other). Vikalpa is only accepted for minute details, where nothing else works.

      2. Learning the Veda is “easier” than performing elaborate sacrifices, because (if I am understanding correctly):
      —no expense of money for sacrificial ingredients, dakṣiṇās…(this point is not mentioned by Kumārila in this connection, but he discusses it elsewhere).
      —sacrificing presupposes having learnt the Veda by heart, hence keep on learning seems a better option.

      3. Right, but in the present case Kumārila does not discuss your O1. The analysis of why O2 can only be superseded in the case of disabled people is based on the fact that O2—>O1 because 2—>1 and therefore no one would prefer O2 over O1, given that O2 already includes O1. (Who would pick two duties instead of one?)

      4. perfect, thanks for rephrasing!

      5. Kumārila is puzzled because he has —using your terminology— a O2 (that implies duty to 1) and a O1 for 48 years (that implies the violation of several other duties). Picking cannot be a solution (see 1 above), nor can O1 just remain idle, in order to avoid the clash with other commands about getting married etc. Hence, O1 must be about a different group of adhikārins, one for which O2 does not make sense, because ought entails can and they cannot perform 2 (sacrificing). Does this make sense?

      6. Are you saying that the point is not asāmarthya, but the refusal to accept vyartha commands?

      • 6. Are you saying that the point is not asāmarthya, but the refusal to accept vyartha commands? It is a good point. I have to say that my reading of the prohibition mentioned above as “prohibited entails can” is also based to its symmetry with “ought entails can”. I will check the commentaries.

        (Sorry, I posted my reply before completing it.)

        • Kumārila on ŚBh ad 1.2.18 explains that the seeming prohibition should be instead interpreted as a stuti, because it is only possible (samarthana) to prohibit fire on earth, since that alone is suitable for it (aucitya). Thanks for prompting me to check it!

        • Thank you for looking up the language that Kumarila uses to explain that example. It does seem to show that the possibility consideration was foremost in Kumarila’s mind when he was presenting the fire example.

          My point, though unclearly expressed, was more about coming up with an example that would rule out the very possibility that a vyarthatva consideration could have been present in the background.

      • Thank you for the detailed and helpful responses Elisa.

        So, if I understand you correctly, Kumarila’s solution is to take the following two prescriptions:

        (1) Learn the Vedas by heart to attain svarga, &
        (2) Perform complicated sacrifices to attain svarga,

        as applying to two separate domains of adhikaarins. The first applies only to differently abled people who cannot support a household, etc., and the second is restricted to ordinary people. So neither prescription is pointless, because the first prescription is for the attainment of svarga by differently abled people, and the second is for the attainment of svarga by ordinary people.

        The second prescription is also pointless for differently abled people, because it implies learning the Vedas by heart, which by the first prescription is enough for attaining svarga. This is an additional argument for why differently abled people should peform only the first prescription.

        But this additional argument also works in favor of ordinary people performing only the first prescription, I think. If performing complicated sacrifices implies or presupposes learning the Vedas by heart, and it is possible for ordinary people to perform complicated sacrifices, then it must also be possible for them to learn the Vedas by heart. And if they can learn the Vedas by heart, they can attain svarga by fulfilling just the first prescription without the second, thus rendering the perfomance of complicated sacrifices pointless.

        Perhaps it can be replied that ordinary people can employ a priest who knows the Vedas by heart to perform complicated sacrifices for them, providing only the expenses and preparation of material for performing these sacrifices. Would that be the right answer?

        In any case, the point about the obligation to perform complicated sacrifices implying the obligation to learn the Vedas by heart remains puzzling to me. This point perhaps requires individuating prescriptions in a particular way. Namely, they are individuated only by the content of the prescribed actions: same prescribed action, same prescription. And the desired result plays no role in individuating prescriptions. This is how the prescription “Learn the Vedas!” for the sake of obtaining svarga can be identified with “Learn the Vedas!” for the sake of performing complicated sacrifices. Perhaps this could explain why you (or Kumarila) think that the prescription to perform complicated sacrifices both apparently-conflicts with and implies the prescription “Learn the Vedas”.

        But I thought the Bhatta position was that the normative force of a prescription derives from (or reduces to) its performance leading to some result that humans independently desire. If so, then it appears that prescriptions do not apply categorically, but conditionally, and therefore it seems plausible to assume that prescriptions take a conditional form: “if you want X, then you ought to Y.”

        If that’s right, then the specification of desired result is an essential part of a prescription, and it should also play a part in individuating prescriptions. Like so: if prescription X and prescription Y prescribe the same action, but have different desired results, then X ≠ Y.

        If that’s how prescriptions are individuated, then it seems to me like the prescription “Learn the Vedas, if you want svarga” is different from the prescription “Learn the Vedas, if you want to perform such-and-such complicated sacrifices”. Therefore performing one of these two prescriptions does not amount to performing the other. Even if we have “Learn the Vedas, if you *ought* to perform such-and-such complicated sacrifices”, this prescription seems to be different from “Learn the Vedas, if you want svarga”, because of the different conditions that differentiate the two prescriptions.

        • Thank you, Boram.
          The point, as I see it, is as follows:
          Ought entails can, hence if you are unable to perform 2, 2 does not apply to you.
          But “normal” people can perform complicated sacrifices (although not always in their full complexity, hence the yathāśakti provision), hence 2 applies to them and not performing them would be tantamount to not obtaining svarga.

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