In the evenings, most households are taken by stories of bribery, cheating, lies or neglect encountered during the day. This is a common ritual in nearly all family and friends’ gatherings. Collectively, we hold a very low opinion about the integrity and truthfulness of our compatriots. As many observers have long maintained, ours is a very low trust society. This is most vividly visible in our politics. Mention the name of any politician, and most likely you will hear some invective about their corruption and unprincipledness.
Pakistan’s manyfold problems have one underlying reason. It has fallen into a moral confusion. The ethical foundations of Pakistan’s institutions have eroded, and individuals’ moral beliefs have little bearing on their actions. Lip service is paid to values and morals of religiously inspired precepts, but actions are guided by self-serving norms, and clan as well as friendship loyalties. Ideals often clash with actions. Material considerations have come to underlie most of public behaviour, despite proclamations of piety.
Institutions and moral contradictions
To illustrate the scope of immoral, also illegal, behaviour, l will point to a few but common examples. Our schools and universities are the exhibit number one. Teachers in public schools come irregularly, teach very little and recruit students for private tuition. Ghost schools are a hallmark of Pakistan’s rural educational system. The scandal of fake research papers, plagiarized research and mutually granted doctoral degrees of university professors has been widely documented. Many deans and vice-chancellors have been found to have fake degrees or plagiarized publications. Professor Hoodbhoy has been documenting these abuses for years in his newspaper columns.
Bribery and corruption are so rampant in governmental institutions that it is considered a condition of their working. A peon may ask for money to buy ‘mithai’ for his children, while a contractor has to add commissions for ministers and chiefs, all the way down to clerks in his bid. A patwari may own an imported luxury SUV on a salary that is barely sufficient to make ends meet. What to say of politicians and senior officers – whose properties abroad and lavish lifestyles bear no relation to their visible earnings. Even to get one’s pension, one must give bribes. The accounts of such acts are the staple of everyday talk and news stories.
Pakistan’ politicians have little compunction about switching loyalties, changing parties, bargaining for offices and material gains. Even the shame of an ill-reputation has ceased to affect them.
Goods and services provided in the market are undependable. Adulteration of foods and medicines is common. People routinely use the term ‘number two’ for imitation and fake goods, which are common. Accounts of doctors’ neglect are stories passed among friends and families. Daily life requires vigilance and personal contacts to negotiate. Crime and violence are rife and haunts citizens life. Accusations of irreligious behaviour are often used to settle personal or communal differences.
These few examples of our public life underscore the paradox of our awareness of the prevailing immorality and wrongness. But we rationalize such behaviours for ourselves by the common adage, “all do it, therefore I have to do the same.” This belief helps still our moral voice.
Scope of morals
My contention is that our problems are fundamentally moral. We are not exceptionally immoral people but have conflicting moral notions. Often the ethics of a particular action is muddled in our minds. We have moral confusion about the right behaviour in many situations.
Morals, at the highest level, are universal standards of right and wrong, good and bad, worthy and unworthy that contribute to the realization of justice, fairness and avoiding harm. Individuals internalize these notions and largely act on or refrain from them in their behaviour. Institutions incorporate them as codes of ethics. They become habits or inhibitions reinforced by feelings of honour and satisfaction on conforming to them, and guilt as well as shame for violating them. Durkheim, a 19th century pioneer in sociology, maintained that morals bind societies. Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, acknowledged that economic transactions are bound up with moral sentiments. The sphere of morals’ universals is increasing, with the international ideas of human rights and environmentalism.
Below these universal moral precepts are layers of moral conceptions varying by nations, regions localities, classes, ethnicity and institutions. These second level moral notions relate to everyday behaviour. They regulate how we transact business, treat our friends and relatives, perform our duties and obligations. Without the internalization of such moral guidance, social life will be chaotic and even dangerous. Ethical codes translate moral conceptions into guides for action.
Pakistani society’s cultural and economic evolution has not been accompanied by the parallel development of moral conceptions and ethical codes that serve our changing needs. Of course, we have religiously ordained moral conceptions backed by ideas of sin and piety. They are increasingly turning into rituals of praying, fasting, dress codes (Hijabs and beards) and charity. They are complemented by customs of ethnic or regional origins, which are also often invested with an aura of spirituality. Here l am referring to obligations to relatives, modes of earning, respect for elders, honour, status of women, honesty, clan/caste loyalties and other everyday behaviour.
Social change and ethical lag
Yet the question is: are our existing moral conceptions guiding us in our increasingly materialistic pursuits, individual ambitions, political and economic behaviour? It seems our ethical codes lag behind our changing roles arising from new desires, technological advances and realigning of our family and friendship bonds with increasing individualism. This lag between the ethical demands of social change and the prevailing moral codes is one source of confusion.
A look at our political class’s behaviour bears out my contention. What they say about their ideological and public service commitments are expressions of their beliefs of moral ideals. Their behaviour is guided by the pursuit of power, riches and personal gains, which are based on materialistic ethics. Now even naming and shaming does not produce any guilt. The materialistic ethics of no-holds barred pursuit overshadows the morals of promised ideology and service. Similar duality of interest and corresponding notions of morals is evident in the scandals of professors’ degrees and publications.