Friday, 6 November 2009

Morals and Values

This post follows a little tweetcussion started by a dear friend on morals. Now that word usually puts me off a good deal. Let me try and explain why. Morals as I see them are injunctions imposed by society on those who are its members. They make a pronouncement on good vs. bad, acceptable vs. unacceptable and more yins and yangs on the same lines. Nothing really wrong with that on the face of it. Every society or group of people or community needs definitions of the acceptable and unacceptable. However, why morals to me have become problematic is that over the years, societies have forgotten why they have those morals in the first place. They have come to be blanket injunctions enforced by self appointed moral policemen (and women... no gender discrimination here). We have examples aplenty. Some of the more trivial ones have been contributed by politicians in our own country. They have enforced the morals of Indian society through vandalism, force and verbal harrangues. Ask any of them why Valentine's day is immoral and they don't have an answer.

Morals have also become, over the years, a convenient way to avoid making a difficult choice or taking responsibility. "I have better morals than that. I don't want to upset people" or "What will people think of me if I say or do such and such". And so in the name of morality, we keep quiet, do nothing, or do things that we do not want to do.

But then doesnt society need some standards? Aren't there things that are acceptable or unaccpetable? Doesn't society need to pronounce judgment to keep order? True, society does need to keep order. That, and convenience, is the whole point of society. Else we might as well be living solitary lives. But what society should be talking about is values and not morals.

To my mind the difference is essentially this: values are things that prompt us to think, help make choices and answer to that eternal larger "purpose of life" question. Morals tend to be action points: do this, don't do that. And there in arises the problem. Action points are always relative. They don't work for everyone and they are not always good or right or acceptable. Values, on the other hand, stand for things define attitudes that are beneficial to society and to individuals. For example, learning or knowledge would be a value. And it is a value that is applicable across societies and cultures and individuals. However, how one chooses to learn is entirely upto each individual. You cannot pass a moral injunction claiming the study of say medicine as the only true path to knowledge (sorry... nothing against the profession of medicine per se). Peace is a value. The moral injunction of not killing proceeds from that. But if I were to pass a blanket injunction saying "Do not kill" it would serve no purpose (for there are times when wars are justified. Hitler could hardly be allowed to go on a rampage in the name of a moral that says "Do not kill").

Values in that sense are more objective and it is from value that actions arise. I'll end with a lovely definition of good and evil that I came across when reading Shantaram. I am going to take the liberty of paraphrasing: anything that helps the universe move towards greater complexity and order is good. Anything that hinders that is evil. For the exact quote refer here. I think that's a great starting point to get thinking on how to define that ultimate set of yins and yangs centering around good and evil (such loaded words both!).

PS: this post is dedicated to all those people who have used more question marks than full stops in their conversations with me. You know who you all are. Love all of you. keep the questions coming... they make me feel very vibrantly alive.
Special mention: Cynduja for starting the tweetcussion and this post. :)

PPS: I don't know how articulate I've been above. Would welcome comments and a debate. If all of you agreed with me it would be boring. ;)

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