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Krishna’s Argument in the Gita: Gary Ostertag

March 1, 2013 @ 5:30 pm - 7:30 pm


The Elimination of Moral Agency: The Trajectory of Krishna’s Argument in the Gita


With responses from GARY OSTERTAG (CUNY Graduate Center)

Please join us at Columbia University’ Department of Religion on March 1, 2013 at 5:30 for his lecture entitled,


I argue here that, seen as a whole (which it rarely is), what appears to be the normative-ethical argument in the Gita is either nothing of the kind or a very odd specimen of the kind, inasmuch as what happens in it is that human moral agency, in the standard sense, is progressively undercut and finally eliminated. Krishna


(a) starts off with the usual description of human action oriented towards a particular consequence,
(b) moves to the elimination of that consequence and the substitution of other higher-level consequences,
(c) analyses those higher-level consequences and strips them of all individual human implications,
(d) proceeds to transform human actions themselves into impersonal events, and
(e) finally, dissolves the human agent himself into a matrix of causal determinations.

This line of argument, once isolated, must yield certain results: it must say that it is not normativity but strict necessity that governs what we take to be human actions, and it must say that, once this is recognized, moral duties cease to have normative force. And behold, this is exactly what Krishna does say in the end. What we have, as a result, is the elimination of ethics from the world properly grasped and the installation of a form of determinism.

What I now argue is that this manoeuvre is not merely an eliminative metaethical one; it swivels back and re-enters the domain of everyday human moral action and there plays a motivating role. After all, what all this has been in aid of is getting Arjuna to do his duty. There seems to be something like a psychological paradox that this presents: at least so far as the Gita is concerned, the view seems to be that we are likelier to perform our moral duties well not merely if we detach ourselves from the self-regarding consequences of such performance but also if we think that those duties are not really duties in the way that we generally understand them and, moreover, that it is not
we who are performing them (or, indeed, any actions) at all.

5:30-7:30 pm
Rm. 101 in the Department of Religion 80 Claremont Avenue



March 1, 2013
5:30 pm - 7:30 pm
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Columbia University Department of Religion
Rm. 101 in the Department of Religion 80 Claremont Avenue

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