Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Secular Morality - The Missing Ideal

One of the key functions of a modern university should be promote a Secular Morality. However, by turning technocratic, this often becomes the missing piece, the point that universities relegate to private sphere, rather than an active value that they need to promote.

The reason for this is obvious. We have three kinds of universities. The State-sponsored ones, while nominally secular in most countries, define secularism as equal sponsorship of all religious ideas. Their secularism is non-discriminatory, rather than an idea in itself. The other kind, private, charitable ones, often backed by religious founders or organisations, exist to promote one or the other religious ideal, or at the least, exist because of the religion-inspired social obligations of its founder. For these universities, the only kind of morality possible is inspired by religion, and indeed, their kind of religion. The third type of university is the For-Profit ones, set up as businesses to serve people who do not have access or opportunity of education. These universities, mainly technical, are focused on economic goals, and often discard morality as a private matter, to be explored in the context of individual's own disposition rather than a value to be imbibed through institutional intervention or social interaction.

I argued elsewhere that the indifference towards moral questions in education promote a religious morality, which causes two problems - the Us-and-Them mentality and the After-the-Fact ideal of morality (see post here). The reason why God Is (said to be) Back in modern society is primarily because of education's failure to address these questions adequately. 

I want to argue here that many of our current problems - social divide, irresponsible politics, indifference towards social challenges, corruption - are not at all caused by godlessness that leave us with a moral vacuum, but for the opposite, our failure to promote a secular ethic and tendency to search for moral answers solely within the religious domain. In fact, the state secularism, for example, in India, is often founded on an idea of a non-denominational public life combined with private religiousness, an attitude that may be responsible for the self-centredness of its citizenry and their failure to shoulder public responsibilities. The ideal of social responsibility and public service in a non-denominational way can only be imbibed through a secular and scientific education, which remains the missing piece.

I have more common ground with those who equate materialism and selfishness with science and would therefore reject my argument out of hand than could be seen at the outset. I am arguing as they do - that a scientific education without accompanying moral notions is dangerous and destructive - and we do need to develop a moral approach through education. Where we part ways though is the notion that such moral answers could only be found in Religion. My argument is that human beings are perfectly capable of finding out what is best for themselves and acting in a moral manner, and indeed, this is education's primary objective.

This argument, just to clarify, is not based on a view that science has all the answers. Clearly, it does not. We know very little of the universe, and of the atoms and genes. We understand little of the human body and the brain. We are still trying to grapple with consciousness and life. But, scientific attitude gives us the Known Unknown, the ability to acknowledge that we do not know certain things and the impetus to keep trying. This is in direct contrast with the religious approach - that of the Unknowable Known - the tendency to imagine a divine, strangely modelled as a human (often with the look and the voice of Morgan Freeman). This generates what psychologists would call Script-Think, a tendency to think that there is a purpose of everything, which, unsurprisingly, generates all the Conspiracy Theories. And, this blinds us - both of our role and responsibility to act, as well as the general dynamic of nature, which may have a cause but not a purpose (we know the cause of a storm, but tend to ascribe it a purpose, like Gods anger!).

The purpose of a modern education, whether one is studying physics, economics, business or engineering, should be enable its students to think that they have the responsibility to act in a moral manner all the time. This is not to be based on Pascal's Wager, you may go to haven if there is a God, but rather to be in harmony with nature, all life-forms and rest of the species. There may be no one prescribed way to behave, but a continuous striving to get better all the time, refining ones involvement with nature, others and oneself along the way.




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