Moral fury

Updated January 02, 2018


MORAL lenses are crucial for our survival. They ensure social justice by identifying wrongs. Sans them, we would have the rule of the jungle. But while they are necessary, they are insufficient used alone. They don’t tell us the best way of ending wrongs and how long it may take to do so. In fact, moral lenses create such self-righteousness that even saying they are crucial but insufficient irks the pious lot.

Used alone, they unrealistically demand a full, instant and unconditional end of all wrongs. When such moral demands fail to find instant success, they create frustration, which is the mother of anger. This is why so many techno-managerially educated people are so angry with politics. After a tiring day at work, as they start flipping TV channels at 7pm, channel after channel reminds them of the ills of our politics, eg, corruption, dynastic politics, weak democracy etc. Since most TV anchors too use moral lenses alone, this creates widespread anger and demands for instant change.

But demands arising from anger alone seldom find success unless supplemented with knowledge; instead, they produce wonky solutions, eg summary executions of politicians. Long ago, even disease and disasters were viewed morally as penance for sins, leading to the torture of patients and suspected witches. They are now viewed mainly via scientific lenses, but not so political ills.

Social science lenses can show how wrongs can be corrected.

Social science lenses can supplement moral lenses in this regard. Moral lenses prescribe what is wrong. Social science lenses can predict how and how soon wrongs can be corrected. This combination of the prescriptive and predictive based on bipolar lenses works best. Social sciences work on discovering root causes for social ills based on proof. Moral analysis identifies the poor morals of politicians as the cause of misrule and sees the political sphere as unconnected to society. The remedy then seems easy and instantaneous, ie eliminate inept politicians.

Social sciences see poor morals as mere symptoms and look for deeper causes, which relate to key societal traits, eg horizontal (ethnic, clan, racial and religious) and vertical (class and caste) divisions, literacy and income levels and most crucially the types of goods the economy produces. The greater the divisions and the lower the literacy and income levels the weaker the governance. Also, societies producing low-end goods usually suffer high lawlessness since producers can only earn high profits by breaking rules in connivance with politicians and bureaucrats.

Thus eliminating inept politicians will not produce instant solutions since societies with such traits will keep producing such politicians. Governance will only improve gradually as these societal traits change, which can only happen slowly given misrule.

Such analysis also cautions against aping strategies that worked in societies with different traits. It also helps in differentiating problems from structural societal constraints. A problem is an obstacle which can be resolved in isolation without the need for major changes in a large number of related systems, eg changing a fused bulb. Viewed morally, structural societal constraints also seem like problems but in reality they cannot be fixed in isolation and require simultaneous changes in a large number of related societal systems.

Unluckily, sleaze, dynastic politics and inept governance are not problems that can be fixed simply; they are structural societal constraints whose removal requires major changes in the key societal traits listed here. However, many people prefer not to grapple with these complexities but chase simplistic, often misguided remedies like technocracies.

Such analysis also cautions against placing hope on somehow parachuting honest, sincere leaders into the halls of power to achieve fast progress. Many long-serving such leaders achieved little progress in large, complex societies, eg Nehru, Nasser and Nyerere, while Lee’s success in tiny Singapore is irrelevant for very different societies like Pakistan. Improved governance in such societies can only come slowly if economic change occurs despite misrule.

Every year on Dec 25, patriotic Pakistanis lament our failure to achieve the Quaid’s dream of a prosperous, peaceful, participatory and pious Pakistan, as if this vision was easily achievable for us. But patriotism aside, we must realistically see whether deeply divided and messy societies like ours can obediently fall in line to achieve dreams even if they are the founder’s dreams. Not just us, but even our arch-rival India has not been able to emulate East Asian states despite its recent rapid progress, if that makes us feel better.

Unluckily, social science analysis doesn’t invoke misguided optimism and easy solutions. Perhaps, that is why so many prefer to rely solely on moral lenses.

The writer is a senior fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.

Published in Dawn, January 2nd, 2018