I recently met a deeply troubled elderly person on a flight to Vijayawada. “I still can’t get over the fact that a child was raped in a temple in Jammu. Not long ago, thousands of people had come out on the streets in Delhi, appalled at what had happened to ‘Nirbhaya’, but in the horrific temple incident, it seemed it was business as usual soon enough,” he said. “The health of a society is not all that different from the physical health of individuals,” he continued. “Neglect the early signs, ignore the symptoms of a serious disease, and it will surreptitiously take root and spread its tentacles. One day you appear to be fine and before you know it, you are incurably sick. We are fast losing our sense of outrage, our civility. Before we realise, we will lose all sense of even minimal decency. Barbarity is always lurking around the corner in every society. Do you think we too are becoming barbaric?”
I pondered what he had said. “We are a fundamentally decent people but zones of barbarity appear to be sprouting everywhere,” I said. Why else would we tolerate the savagery in Unnao, the merciless killing of a family in Murshidabad, and the lynching of a man in Jharkhand? Societies with people living economically degraded lives have often bordered on the indecent. But now it seems even societies with economically aspiring lives are getting there, falling well short of minimal decency. “Unless we put ourselves on moral red alert, we are sunk,” I added.
Basic procedural justice
The phrase ‘minimally decent’ implies that the best available ethical standards in a society, even according to its own lights, remain unrealised. A minimally decent society is not free of exploitation or injustice. It need not embody political equality. Yet, it possesses one singular virtue: it prevents excessive wrongdoing with the help of effective injunctions against killing, maiming or ill-treating others. It also has a system of what the English philosopher, Stuart Hampshire, called “basic procedural justice”. This is an elementary form of justice that involves fair procedures of negotiation and arbitration that permit the recognition of untidy, temporary compromises between people who differ vastly. Basic procedural justice enables different conceptions of the good life to coexist “without any substantial reconciliation” and “without search for the common ground”. This coexistence is possible by virtue of a restraint on “unmeasured ambition, on limitless self-assertion and on the obsessive desire for an ever-larger slice of the cake”. This enables almost every voice to be heard, ensures some visibility for everyone in the political domain, and guarantees that even the most marginalised and exploited remain part of negotiation, howsoever unequal the conditions under which it takes place. In short, a system of basic procedural justice keeps conversation and negotiation going amongst all members in society. People involved in even the fiercest of disputes are “prepared to recognise the need to balance argument against argument, concession against concession”. Basic procedural justice “makes possible a minimally decent life, which has a value independent of any wider conception of the good”.
Flattened moral landscape
By contrast, a society where minimally moral constraints are thrown to the wind is barbaric. This happens under degrading economic conditions, but shockingly minimally moral rules are also abandoned by groups in pursuit of greatness or, simply, economic or political success. (For them, Dharma must not come in the way of the vastly more important Artha or Moksha). Once moral constraints on action — for instance, notions of basic fairness and procedural justice — are eliminated from public life and from the minds of people and a “bombed and flattened moral landscape” is created, nothing is forbidden or off limits, and the way is fully open to violence and domination. One now witnesses evil: “A force not only contrary to all that is praiseworthy, admirable, and desirable in human lives but which is actively working against all that is praiseworthy and admirable”. In a barbaric society, where basic procedural justice is dismembered, conversation is replaced by an oppressive silence and the entire mechanism of negotiation and arbitration vanishes. Hampshire was compelled to draw this conclusion in the midst of the Second World War and in particular, in the face of the horror of the Nazi regime. “I learnt how easy it had been to organize the vast enterprises of torture and of murder, and to enroll willing workers in this field, once all moral barriers were removed by the authorities,” he wrote. Force, inducement of fear, or prolonged conflict often create pliant, demoralised masses fit for domination, and thereby destroy morality in public life.
Amoral private life
When morality is destroyed in public life, it does not leave the rest of the social world unaffected. Evil spills from the public to the private domain, pervades intimate realms. Friends, lovers, members of the family can all be complicit in dubious actions. Indeed, the very distinction is blurred between friend and enemy. The sociologist, Veena Das, reporting on victims of the massacre of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 talks of how the traumatic violence of the crowd suddenly revealed to one of its victims the fragility of her kinship universe. Shanti, the victim, disclosed that “it was my own mama (mother’s brother) who first advised my husband to hide and then revealed the hiding place to the leaders of the mob. He bartered their lives for his own protection.” Pulitzer Prize-winner Tina Rosenberg gives a moving account of Vera and Knud Wollenberger, husband and wife, dissident members of the peace circle in communist East Germany who risked their jobs and their freedom and were constantly spied upon by the State security police (Stasi). After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Vera joined the East German Parliament and campaigned for Stasi victims to access their personal files. When she eventually succeeded in accessing her own file, it was full of reports from a Stasi informer with the code name ‘Donald’, containing information that could have been known only to one other person. Donald was her own husband! The horror of this monstrous universe can hardly be overstated. The misfortune of distrust amidst general friendlessness and lovelessness is the greatest evil that befalls human beings.
I wish I could assure my older friend, with greater confidence, that we are a minimally decent society and more. But as I witness more zones of indecency grow around me, I am myself troubled, filled with fear and anxiety that we might be regressing. As societies lose minimal decency, it is hard to pull them back on the road to freedom, equality, justice or emancipation. All these substantial ideals that only the other day were propelling large-scale collective action are suddenly rendered vacuous as people scramble to put together conditions of bare life. Yet, precisely in such uncertain times, rather than reach out for higher, near perfect ethical standards, it is crucial to remain grounded if grave wrongdoing is to be avoided. Gandhi remains our moral compass on such issues. Though aimed primarily at deeper self-transformation, his fasts were also practical instruments to cement the fragile social agreement that brutality must be eschewed at any cost.
Rajeev Bhargava is Professor, CSDS, Delhi