Why are we obsessed with morals and sexuality while turning a blind eye to so many other things that are wrong in society?

Over the last few weeks the issues of morals and morality have re-entered the Indian mind-space consequent upon the sudden decision on the part of the government to relegate reality television shows, or at least some of them, from prime-time slots to late-night viewing. The stated reasons for such a move are related to the issues of obscenity and inappropriateness for ‘ family viewing', the implication being that in such shows, moral codes are being, in some way, breached. Usually morality issues make news headlines around the time of Valentine's Day, which is the customary whipping boy of the ‘ goes-against-Indian-values' brigade. At this time, there is much discussion on television, the print media and the Internet, on Indian values, Indian culture, morality and the like, most of which dies down after a month or two. It is also around this time that concerned parents of teenagers tend to visit counsellors and therapists to seek solutions to ensure that their children's moral values are not eroded.

Fearing the new

It is not my intention to explore the nuances of the reality show issue, for, this is neither my area of expertise nor interest. However, what does interest me in this whole debate is the issue of morals and values and how we, as a nation, feel fearful of what we see as the inexorable osmosis of ‘ Western' or other ‘decadent' value systems into our social fabric, thereby ‘corrupting' our 5,000-year-old culture. What fascinates me is our assumption that a 5,000-year-old culture is so easy to corrupt. And what fascinates me even more is that when we refer to ‘moral degradation' or ‘ value erosion', we refer primarily to sexual licentiousness. Issues like corruption, dishonesty in personal as well as public life, domestic violence, child abuse, caste discrimination, disrespect for public property and the like seem to be accepted as part of the Indian social fabric and, in some indefinable manner, excluded from the purview of morality.

In its simplest form, morality refers to the distinction between good and bad, between right and wrong. For decades the touchstone, when it comes to the psychological study of morality, has been Lawrence Kohlberg, who described the process of moral evolution as going through six stages during the process of human growth and development. In the first stage, fear of punishment and the need for obedience guide moral development. Next, the child enters the second stage which is driven by a hedonistic orientation, where anything that satisfies self-interest is considered right. These first two stages are referred to as the Level of Pre-conventional Moral Development. As the child enters adolescence and begins to relate to peers and adults, the stage of interpersonal concordance (behaving in a manner that pleases others and increases acceptance by them) takes over. With further understanding and growth, one gets into the stage of law and order orientation, where one respects and obeys rules and regulations for the larger good, to ensure the smooth progress of society and social life. These two stages are called the Level of Conventional Moral Development, after which one enters the Level of Post-conventional Moral Development, which is predominantly an adult activity. In the latter level, the individual's approach is more principled and based on rational understanding and choices, and progresses to the fifth stage where the orientation is predominantly legalistic. Morality, in this stage, is understood by appreciating that rules and regulations are like social contracts that can be negotiated using democratic processes like compromise and consensus. Finally, one enters the sixth stage, driven more by abstract reasoning, where universal principles of justice define one's internal moral code.

Of course, there is much critique of Kohlberg's theory and there are many improvements made on it over the decades, and there is still little consensus on how much internal moral values reflect actual behaviour. That said, I believe it's still a very useful framework with which we can address the issue of morals and values. What we need to understand is that each of us can get stuck or fixated at any one of these levels or stages of moral development by virtue of our life circumstances and this may therefore influence the way we respond to moral or ethical dilemmas.

Obsession with purity

More important than whether Kohlberg was right or wrong is the understanding that higher levels of moral development take place within our minds and cannot be blamed on globalisation, Internet, television or government. Unfortunately today, by virtue of the pace of social change, our approach to our morals is dictated by fear and prejudice, and not introspection and thought. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who studied the impact of culture on morals and morality, identified five fundamental moral values that can be considered universal across cultures: care for others, fairness, loyalty, authority and purity. However, in contemporary life, we tend to be obsessed most about purity — predominantly purity of our sexuality and of Indian culture. Maybe the moral of the story is that we need to shift our focus a bit, and reflect on other parameters as well, all the time remembering that we can blame no one for our ‘ moral turpitude' but ourselves.

The writer is the author of The Fifty-50 Marriage: Return to Intimacy and can be contacted at vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com.