An oft-quoted statement of Karl Marx, from his Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, expresses in a profound way how humans see and define themselves; not in abstract, but under conditions bred by the specific economic structure of society.
My allusion here is only to draw an introduction to a discussion on morality. Morality, by its upholders, is always considered to be written in stone. History reveals otherwise. The Aztecs considered it a matter of duty to eat their slain enemies, lest the sun shall not shine on them.
Human sacrifice in other forms - among Incas, Canaanites, and other civilizations was far more common for our comfort. One actually doesn’t need to go that far to get the point – Just note the colossal changes that have occurred in the last 50 years of entertainment media in depicting the role of an ‘ideal woman’.
Moral values and ethical norms are fluid. They derive from a gamut of causes and considerations. One must not be surprised to discover that a certain value inculcated in childhood as self-evident, turns palpably absurd as one grows up. These moral values usually come with an expiry date of their own.
They change with the change in the time and place in which they are manufactured. Building on the work of German psychologist Franz Carl Muller-Lyer, Bertrand Russell presses the same point. The ethical views of an average man he states,
...are those appropriate to the economic system existing in the time of his great-grandfather.
And morality, he professes,
...has varied as economic systems have varied, lagging always about three generations behind.
Take a contrasting look at how a person identified himself in the feudal vs. the capitalist/bourgeoisie society. In feudal societies and kingships, introductions began with a proud reference to lineage.
Entire subjects and books addressed the pressing issue of who our forefathers were. Taking particular pride in ancestry was reflected not only in elaborate genealogies but also in poetry, memoirs, and biographies.
To the contrary, in our age and times, when the economy has shifted (or, is shifting) to a capitalist mode, introductions begin not with a chest-thumping over noble ancestry, but a background of ‘modest upbringing’ which the subject’s ‘entrepreneurial skills’ transformed into a great success.
While the former had to (mis)own his genealogy to exert influence, the latter has to disown it, with equal vehemence (at least in public), to display his individual effort and enterprise.
One can (to a great extent) explain this stark contrast by digging into the economic underpinnings of the respective societies. In feudal societies, families and lineages were tied (literally) to the ground.
They owned lands and worked on them. Or they owned lands and made others work on them. Or they did not own lands and were made by others to work on them. In any case, the tenet of being tied to a piece of land ensnared certain values of togetherness, collective possession, patriarchal authority, and so on.
In times when the place of labor (increasingly for many) is not land but far away factories and offices – maintaining such an ethical disposition is difficult (if not outright impossible).
A gentleman of ‘noble descent’ manning his vast plantations, that have been handed down to him as a price of his noble lineage, will not (and probably cannot) perceive the world as a middle-class young person who studied in one part of the world and is working 9-5 in another part of it; based on his individual qualifications. The former needs to be tied to his land and lineage to wield power and acquire wealth. The latter needs to move away from it, for the very same purpose.
Patriarchal standards of chastity, as well, could have been enforced in large families coalesced under the dominion of common landed property. In the capitalist mode of production though, where one (despite his/her gender) is obliged to earn; consequently study, and work in places outside the confines of relation – feudal values of patriarchal possession zan, zar, zameen are virtually impossible to uphold.
As societies transition from feudal to bourgeoisie, we see marked changes in ethical norms. Family values, sexual ethics, financial requirements, spiritual ideals and practices, etc. all take a different course. For those who want these norms strictly fastened to their moorings, the very fluidity of its nature is petrifying. This results in a society that is de facto bourgeoisie, but wishes to abide by morals that have originated in the feudal past.
Two things follow: One - friction between what is desired and what is required. While the conservative side looks at its own set of rules (inherited from a certain past) with nostalgia and ethical condescension, the other side facing new realities finds itself fettered in the same ideals. Second - the vast change in the cultural landscape brews dichotomous behavior among people facing the conundrum of having one leg in the past and another in the future.
While they cannot carry the centuries-old baggage on their swiftly moving bourgeoisie treadmills, they also cannot (at least immediately) get rid of it as well. A compromise is struck. Some forms of old are retained, albeit in a new fashion.
One witnesses this inorganic wedding between the old and new - in attires, use of social media, travelogues, family gatherings, suitor’s resumes, and virtually everything – where this social dissonance is translated into a kind of mixed culture – which though slightly comical, is highly convenient.
However, one cannot escape noticing its tragic consequences as well. While it makes the skeleton of society function, it putrefies the core by stifling self-reflection, honesty, freedom, and creativity.
I do not suggest that there exist no humane values, beneath (and, mostly beyond) the ever-changing layers of social codes and mores; nor do I wish to present a picture of culture that is uni-causal and homogenous.
My argument only tries to sketch the reality of ethical norms with its fluidity and heterogeneity - depending not on an eternal law, but on the changing nature of society’s substratum.
For what it is worth, it should at least make us let go of our stiffness for something that itself is malleable. Tolerance and acceptance are the natural outcomes of this discourse. I believe, human history, is on the side of this argument.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.
The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.