Contemporary Life and the Possibility of Moral Existence

By Mohammad Saalim Farooq

ARISTOTLE had declared that the state existed for the moral perfection of human beings; implying that humans were morally imperfect creatures. Human existence embarks upon different “states of being”. A “state of being” entails two concepts: one is state of “being as” (something) and second is a state of “doing” or a state of activity. Morality pervades both these spheres; “being” as well as “doing”. This means morality is a constituent of character/personality –which realizes some form of presence (or present-ness), and also activity of negotiating with life; we can be morally good as well as do morally good.

An essential question with which humans have been constantly grappling concerns the nature of moral life. In other words, what does it mean to live a moral life? Different philosophies, religions, ideologies from times immemorial have dealt with this question and provided some generalized opinions, yet it remains unresolved and pertinent to the mystery of life. There is a tendency among people to be indolent and apathetic to such questions, still, we cannot escape them altogether. Our ignorance or indifference would not cease the existence of moral dilemmas, for example, which we all face at some point in our life. Thus in an attempt to live, it becomes a necessity to try and negotiate with morality, consciously or unconsciously, perhaps on an everyday basis.

As far as the reality of existence is concerned, it is an undisputed claim that human beings do not live in an empty space; rather we are grounded or embedded in a context governed by some social, moral, and political idea. Moral issues come forth in a contestation of individual moral beliefs with the already present ‘ethos’ of a society. Developing from Theodore Adorno, Judith Butler in her work Giving an Account of Oneself argues that the questions about moral philosophy not only emerge in the context of social relations but also the form these questions take changes according to the context. What it means is that the occurrence of moral dilemmas, for example, is not only inevitable, it also keeps on upgrading itself. In other words, moral questions relevant to a certain context change their form only to be ever-present in a changed context. Imagine the question of abortion; it may be a moral catastrophe for some or freedom for others but the issue around its moral character still surfaces in public debates about abortion. Moral questions around abortion may have changed their form (as today we argue about the point at which life begins in such debates) but the importance and urgency of such questions don’t fade away.

When it comes to our contemporary life, a pertinent question one needs to ask is: what is the status of our collective moral existence? Where does morality stand in our everyday life? If we suspend much clichéd Existential or Postmodern critique (which has its own complexities and counter critiques) for a while, we will find that this question forms an immense relevance for a “fluidly modern” society like ours. It’s important because our experience of the ‘modern’ somewhere develops a tension with the ‘traditional’ or, the authentic mode of life. This authentic has an inherent meaning and purpose, an authentic life in other words is a life with a purpose which supplies it with a meaning. It is a life where ideals still sustain and constantly try to inform how to deal with our moral dilemmas, while on the other hand the ‘modern’ is where these ideals have lost their credibility and are no longer sustained because of an increased tendency towards a market oriented life. For the sake of argument let’s understand friendship. In its ideal understanding friendship is perhaps an association wherein two or more people are emotionally related to one another by sharing some commonality of, maybe, interests or vulnerabilities. It has its sanctity in the virtue of being exclusive, closed, and trustworthy. But how does the ‘modern’ experience corrode the ideals of friendship? A website namely allows its users to rent a local friend if they find themselves lonely in some foreign place, in other words you can buy a friend for some bucks to do away with your loneliness. The question remains, if we buy a friend even if she is loyal will this association be called a friendship? The point is when we add money to rent a friend for some time it loses its meaning. Michel Sandel highlights many other such cases in his book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. It then means that modern market forces can intervene with the meaning of otherwise abstract and morally intelligible ideals. Slavoj Zizek, in one of his interviews, makes a similar comment about the nature of love. He argues that the act of ‘falling in love’ which otherwise involved bearing the risks and vulnerabilities of its spontaneity, has now disappeared. We tend to look for someone to love as an arrangement of preferences and choices that involves conscious decision-making and remaking of it. This proclivity towards having a mechanistic consciousness of the world and things within it however abstract they are has a bearing on our moral existence. It makes cost-benefit analysis or sometimes even hedonistic calculus as the only metric of our ethics –a benchmark of making ethical judgements in the acts we do or the choices we make or even the ideals we hold.

This phenomenon is reductionist and minimalistic with respect to the complex human existence as it doesn’t allow an inherently vibrant human nature to express itself. Some important aspects of being human like simplicity, subsistence, altruistic care… are lost in a mad race for frivolous pleasures. For instance, consider the case of Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai, which was recently thrown public for common people to visit. The hotel is jeweled with kingly luxury where even toilets are plated with 24 karat gold. There is no utility of such a luxury other than creating a fetish around commodities and standardizing the cost of living in such places. The benchmark it creates leaves a variety of other human tendencies unentertained. We find people desire to visit such places and witness the luxury because the benchmark somehow even sets the sense of aesthetics for us.

This is precisely where the tension between the ‘modern’ and the authentic becomes apparent, which creates crises in our moral existence and makes us oscillate between being sensitive to the gravity of the situation and being apathetic to it altogether. The problem is; however insensitive we remain, these questions would resurface to us. The need of the hour is to have a deeper engagement with the question of moral and philosophical importance, and not shy away from the complexity of their nature. This is where a case for doing philosophy becomes almost inevitable.

  • Author is a postgraduate in Political Science with primary interests in Philosophy and Ethics  


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