In the philosophical tradition Gandhi is opposing, others are potential objects of criticism in the sense that one’s particular choices, one’s acts of moral conscience, generate moral principles or imperatives which others can potentially disobey. For him, conscience and its deliverances, though relevant to others, are not the well-spring of principles. Morals is only about conscience, not at all about principles.
There is an amusing story about two Oxford philosophers which makes this distinction vivid. In a seminar, the formidable J L Austin having become exasperated with Richard Hare’s huffing on about how moral choices reveal principles, decided to set him up with a question. ‘Hare’, he asked, “if a student came to you after an examination and offered you five pounds in return for the mark alpha, what would you say?” Predictably, Hare replied, “I would tell him that I do not take bribes, on principle!” Austin’s acid response was, “Really? I think I would myself say, ‘No thanks’. ” Austin was being merely deflationary in denying that an act of conscience had to have a principle underlying it. Gandhi erects the denial into a radical alternative to a (western) tradition of moral thinking. An honoured slogan of that tradition says, “When one chooses for oneself, one chooses for everyone”. The first half of the slogan describes a particular person’s act of conscience. The second half of the slogan transforms the act of conscience to a universalised principle, an imperative which others must follow or be criticised. Gandhi embraces the slogan too, but he understands the second half of it differently. He too wants one’s acts of conscience to have a universal relevance, so he too thinks one chooses for everyone, but he does not see that as meaning that one generates a principle or imperative for everyone. What other interpretation can be given to the words ‘One chooses for everyone’ in the slogan, except the principled one?
In Gandhi’s writing there is an implicit but bold proposal: “When one chooses for oneself, one sets an example to everyone.” That is the role of the satyagrahi. To lead exemplary lives, to set examples to everyone by their actions.
More here. [Thanks to Thomas Zipp.]