By VN Narayanan
We need to revive our moral voice today to help us resolve the eternal conflict between our impulses and judgments
Is morality irrelevant? This question haunts me. At a seminar in Delhi, India, Union Tourism Minister Jagmohan traced the demise of political and social institutions to unprincipled politics, amoral administration and apathetic public attitudes and pleaded for a ‘moral renaissance’. Not surprisingly, he was laughed out of reckoning, most people in the audience being derisive and almost contemptuous of the idea.
Speakers at sociopolitical seminars almost everywhere in the world cringe and fret when someone talks of the moral voice of humanity or of the nation. Talk of ‘concern’, but don’t invoke ‘morality’, said a wise, secular elder to me after the seminar. For him Jagmohan was what Time magazine defined in a cover story several years ago as ‘a busybody humorlessly imposing on others arbitrary (meaning his own) standards of behavior, health and thought’.
Despite their manifest cynicism, everyone is convinced that as a people our moral fabric has worn thin. The mutual awareness of mounting amorality is perhaps the reason that people are notoriously unwilling to make moral claims on one another. Former US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan calls this process ‘defining deviancy down’, wherein people have been constantly bombarded with evidence of political venality, societal evil and all-pervasive normlessness so that they have developed moral calluses, making them indifferent to immorality.
Therein lies a tragic paradox. All of us acknowledge that we are faced with an enormous moral deficit and at the same time we will not move to make even the minimum moral claims on one another. It’s somewhat like governmental concern for the sky-scraping fiscal deficit, which is accompanied by deliberate and calculated attempts by governments to expand the gap rather than close it in every budget. Finance Ministers sound, and perhaps are, sincere enough about controlling the deficit but they are constantly on the lookout for escape routes and for people and factors to be blamed for their predetermined failure. As with governments, so it is with individuals.
There is perhaps a plausible explanation for this. All of us see immorality not in ourselves and those near and dear to us but in everybody else everywhere. And moral outrage is often caused by personal affront. When hurt, we feel, like the lady officer who was slapped in the back by the state police chief, ‘if this could happen to ME, how can any woman be safe’. We internalize the hurt but socialize the injury, and we seek socio-legal revenge. In a transient way, the ME in us seeks a larger identity, an identity that has always been there, lying dormant because we have no use for group identity until we get affected or hurt in our individual identity.
When Indians talk of moral reform, they are almost always invoking religion and being ‘asociological’. They believe that the problem is one of individual conscience. If the young could be taught to distinguish right from wrong by parents, at school and college, if scriptural messages could reach them again, our moral and social order would become fine. They are right, but only partially. They do emphasize a major component of the moral equation: the inner voice.
In the process, however, most of the spiritualists, in conflicting collusion with secularists, have completely eliminated the vital role of society and the community in strengthening the individual’s moral commitments. Together, religion and secularism have hijacked the vast platform available to the people to pursue moral reform and conduct social debate. And the vital question, ‘who is a moral person?’ remains buried under the debris of the social edifice demolished by the communalist-secularist divide.
The basic difference between humans and animals, according to sociologists and behavioral scientists, is that while both species experience impulses, only humans have the capacity to form and pass judgments on their impulses. The difference does not mean that humans can control their impulses or that their judgments are always fair and correct. All it means is that humans can gain the time to postpone acting on their impulses long enough to evaluate the consequences of their response to impulse and decide whether to act on reason or impulse. Once such an evaluation takes place, sometimes impulses win and other times judgment; often both fail. The wide variation in the quality of human judgments is often the reason that people search for symbols, divinity, leaders, and so on, to slap responsibility for their actions, and place their trust on impulses.
There is a delectable Zen parable on the wisdom of human judgment in evaluating the reliability of human or animal impulse. A Zen master was out on a walk with one of his students when they saw a fox chasing a rabbit. The student said the rabbit was doomed because ‘the fox is faster’. ‘The rabbit will elude him,’ said the master. ‘How are you so sure?’ asked the student. ‘Because the fox is running for his dinner and the rabbit is running for his life,’ said the master.
The point of the tale is that the rabbit will not try to rationalize its impulses but humans always will. The moral voice of any society or community addresses itself to resolve the eternal conflict between our impulses and judgments. In making our moral choices we are influenced by the approbation or censure of others, especially of those with whom we are closely related. This collective moral voice, if spoken in clear terms and in unison, will shape our inner judgments and help raise the moral level of all members of a society. Afflicted with myopia, reticence or lack of interest, the voice is muted or becomes extinct. This is what has happened to all human society in this era and to India in particular.
When society or the immediate community loses its moral voice, the State becomes unaccountable to the people. There are, of course, too many individual voices of morality but not a collective moral voice. While those representing the State have the force of law behind them, the individuals affected by that have no countervailing force. A million ‘MEs’ can be tamed by a few militants or hoodlums or policemen because these million ‘MEs’ cannot convert themselves into one ‘US’.
The weakness of the moral voice is precisely that it lacks the force to compel but has only the duty to urge us, advise us and guide us. Ultimately, the individual is free to follow his or her own impulse or judgment whatever friends, lovers, teachers might say. The strength of the moral voice is that it does not seek conformism but offers a shared value and destiny. It is almost always the voice of the meek majority. In our times no one represented the authority of this voice so forcefully as Mahatma Gandhi; and nothing repudiated it so thoroughly as India has since Gandhi.
It is time for us all to take the first step to become weak and gentle so that we see the necessity to come together and acquire a collective voice. As Lao-Tze so wisely put it:
A man is born gentle and weak
At his death he is hard and stiff
Green plants are tender and filled with sap
At their death they are withered and dry
The stiff and unbending is the disciple of death
The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life
An army without flexibility never wins a war
A tree that is unbending is easily felled
The hard and the strong will fall
The soft and weak will overcome
Yes, India needs to restore its moral voice.
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