Institute for Social Justice

News & Events

The moral coarseness of our public culture

Prof Rajeev Bhargava, CSDS and the Institute for Social Justice

This article was originally published by The Hindu

Our complex moral sensibilities are cultivated less within the family, more through systematic teaching in the humanities

If some wrong is done to people close to us, to our family or friends, we respond with utter horror, as we must. Why then do we react feebly or, worse, not at all when people beyond our little community are treated cruelly? More specifically, why has there not been greater collective outrage at mob lynching of a poor Muslim or the horrendous brutality regularly faced by Dalits?

Why is it that instead of a chorus of straightforward condemnation, we confront moral indifference or troublesome public statements such as that we must first or also condemn other instances of brutality in the past? Imagine Nirbhaya’s mother being told in the aftermath of the dastardly incident that any denunciation of what happened is conditional: we must in the same breath also condemn all brutal rapes in the past. The moral coarseness of this response simply jumps to the eye.

Our public culture

Has the savagery around us numbed our sensibilities to the suffering of others? Has the ‘dirty’ politics around these incidents put off ‘decent’ men and women, compelling them to withdraw into their shell, fall silent? I don’t know. I admit to having no direct explanation of this phenomenon. But I draw attention to two aspects of our public culture that contribute to our shared moral coarseness.

First, many of us, the metropolitan middle and upper classes, have begun to believe that moral values are individual preferences, a matter of subjective taste, something each individual can choose, so that what is valuable for one person need not be valuable or good for another. Moral values, it is claimed, vary from individual to individual. There is no objective morality — call it moral subjectivism. Two lessons are usually drawn from this: that (a) we can never arrive at a common understanding or agreement on moral values, and since there is no shared morality, (b) no one should pass moral judgment on others. One step further and we arrive at the calamitous consequence of presuming an absence of common moral judgment even on issues where agreement can easily exist, such as that it is wrong to be cruel to other human beings. This too is mere subjective opinion!

The second, equally serious, is the other side of the moral subjectivist coin. This is the widespread belief that while no common judgment is possible in value-laden human affairs, in the non-human domain, in the world of nature and things, where no moral values reside, a unique common judgment, one right answer is always available. Get rid of subjectively moral values from the world, free it of moral or human understanding, and shared judgment and objective knowledge will follow — objectivism. Furthermore, wherever humans can be viewed as objects or things, as in purely scientific treatment of human affairs, mainstream Western medical regimes or in the economic domain, a unique value-neutral answer exists, valid not just for one but for all.

Where both subjectivism and objectivism converge is that they make common human understanding either impossible or redundant. In the moral domain, subjectivism tells us, there is no common human understanding. And the objectivism of the scientific world view tells us that a common understanding is possible only in a world free of moral values.

But an urgently needed moral response to all kinds of social situations, including lynching or bombing of innocents, depends precisely on human-to-human or common understanding, the ability of one human to actually or imaginatively share a situation with others and to understand his pain, suffering or predicament. Moral judgment and moral outrage depend on empathetic understanding and compassion.

But we are not born with these capacities; they are learnt. Understanding the perspectives of others by their own lights and imagining their sufferings and predicaments is an acquired skill; we are taught to rise above one’s own provincialities, to respect difference and plurality, to value the social uses of reason that help explore new forms and levels of agreements or experiment with reasonable disagreements; to critically examine received knowledge, to make sound judgment in the face of complex dilemmas, to achieve greater self-understanding.

All these capacities depend upon thought and imagination that are cultivated. And for all this we need not physics, chemistry and mathematics, but philosophy, literature and narratives embedded in different religious traditions. We need to read and think with the Panchatantra, the Jatakas, the Mahabharata, with Plato, Buddha and Confucius, with Al-Ghazali and Rumi, with Annamacharya and thinkers in the Varkari tradition. In short, we need education in the humanities.

Not just employability

Our complex moral sensibilities are cultivated less within the family and more through systematic teaching in the humanities. An education system that neglects the humanities is slowly moving towards a moral disaster. But it is just this, a technocratic, humanities-free education system that devalues common human understanding, that many of us from the middle and upper classes wish to have for our children. By viewing education solely in terms of its employability quotient, how it helps us secure jobs — instruments of greater material prosperity for individuals, and tools for multiplying objectively measurable national assets (GDP, bigger profits and greater power) — we unwittingly invite moral coarseness upon ourselves.

When it comes to our family and close friends, our raw moral intuitions suffice. These intuitions are so strong that they overwhelm the moral vacuum encouraged by our humanities-devaluing education system. But when it comes to all other humans, our raw intuitions are too feeble. We desperately need a humanities-sensitive education to cultivate a sophisticated moral sensibility, for moral enlargement beyond kith and kin.

Alas, what we are receiving instead is further moral restriction. A culture that once treated all its elders with generosity and respect shows increasing sign of moral callousness towards even old parents. I fear this development may not be unrelated to the brutishness with which we treat those outside our fold.

Back to news