Sunday, October 09, 2011

Morally Lucky

Joan’s husband Paul decided to leave her and the kids to realize his inner-self. Since he made the “brave” decision of “following his muse” and not remaining entrapped in the mechanics of worldly life, he expected his wife to take him back with open arms when he realized his pursuit led him nowhere. Joan asks, “You want to come back into our lives. But how can we do that when you are not even ready to acknowledge that you were in the wrong when you left us?”. Paul confidently says, “In my heart I know I wasn’t wrong. I followed my calling. You have praised great souls who renounced their family to achieve a greater purpose, haven’t you?”. To this, Joan retorts, “But you are not a great soul. You came back because you didn’t have it in you to realize what they could.” 
“But none of them would have become great had they not taken the first bold step. I wasn’t aware that I would fail. What matters is that I tried. Would my action be morally acceptable had I succeeded? Am I called a betrayer only because I failed?”
Is Paul’s decision morally acceptable? Or does luck play a role in differentiating right from wrong when one takes a chance?
(Original Source: The eponymous essay from Moral Luck by Bernard Williams (Cambridge University Press, 1981)

I have pretty strong opinions on situations like the one described. I have seen families being neglected by flighty, eccentric husbands who take impulsive, idealistic decisions to serve themselves. There was one man who used to spend his time and meager savings on religious rituals, bhajans and the like, while his family used to struggle to make ends meet. When asked of his responsibility towards his family, he used to take Saint Thyagaraja’s famous words - “Rama will provide. He is the cause of everything, even this desire in me to serve Him all the time  is all His doing.” No, Rama does not provide to such families by magically dropping gold coins from the ceiling. The man is accountable for the misfortunes of his family, not Rama. Another extreme is the man/woman who orients their time and energy on higher, nobler causes such as serving humanity and people in need, not thinking twice about the welfare of their own kids or spouse

I am going to make a rather blasphemous assertion here. I’m sorry if this offends anyone. The famous Tamil poet and freedom fighter, Bharathiyar is still remembered and praised for his progressive attitude, his fierce patriotism, his spiritualism, and scholarly verses. I deeply respect him for being ahead of his times and for imparting rich, wholesome knowledge. But, I find it unacceptable that he didn’t fulfil his basic role and responsibilities as a father and provider. He followed his idealistic principles and didn’t conform to conventional work. What little he got, he is known to have freely distributed to animals and others in need, when his own family would go hungry. While many applaud him for his generosity, I can’t help but pity his poor wife. Back then, women like his wife didn’t even have the resources and means to earn a living by herself. She was completely dependent on a man who put the needs of the country before his promise and responsibility towards her; That to me, is morally wrong in a sense. The pain and anguish his wife went through is very similar to what the women in the above two examples went through.

Charity begins at home. Once we make promises and are responsible for the well-being of somebody who is dependent on that commitment, we can’t afford to forget our duty. I am not against following one’s heart, realizing deeper truths or standing to higher causes. My opinion is that it is wrong to overlook our primary duties in the pursuit of “higher” paths. Even the Hindu philosophy doesn’t talk of renunciation until the worldly/familial responsibilities are taken care of. I would be perfectly fine if the men in the above scenarios were single, or didn’t have any duties that they accepted onto themselves. Or better yet, there are always ways of leading a balanced life without vacillating between extremes of materialism and detachment. I realize that my take has tinges of the “selfish gene” theory. It’s perhaps true. The  "natural-selectionists" would argue that my instinct to perceive this situation as “wrong” or “unethical” arises because it is expected to nurture one’s own gene-pool before helping another set of genes. It's due to these instincts that serve our genes that humanity developed the concept of Morality. But we’ll leave this train of thought for now.

True to Paul’s question on whether luck/success plays a role in exonerating one’s morally dubious action, I am sure there are plenty of lesser-known, hidden “Bharathiyaars” in every town who pursue similar ideals, but are just not recognized, and are hence socially isolated and condemned for ignoring their family. Think about it. Granted, if someone really possesses the talent and innate ability, the likelihood of them being an undiscovered gem in a pile of rubble is low. But luck/chance does play a role in one’s life, doesn’t it? There are misguided idealists who attempt to rise to greatness (inwardly and outwardly), but are either not blessed with the capacity to do so, or are thrown around by fate till they sink into utter oblivion. Such unsuccessful attempts are indeed mocked at, frowned upon, and censured - specifically with the accusation of betraying, hurting and disappointing their family.

Such discrimination is definitely hypocritical to me. I think Paul’s decision to abandon his family to fulfill his muse or desire was indeed morally wrong, for he didn’t worry about breaking his promise to his wife or for overlooking his responsibility towards his children. My opinion will not falter even if he had been successful in his attempt.

One can argue that most moral actions are judged by the intention of the action and not through the consequences. The cliched example is using a knife to purposefully kill, versus using it to accidentally harm/kill someone. So although technically it wasn’t Paul’s intention to hurt or betray his family, he intended to leave them stranded, knowing that his actions will cause pain. It was an informed choice. Even if we are to consider the Utilitarian philosophy of weighing the consequences - Paul’s success will not outweigh the hurt and pain of his family, for he should have honored his commitment to his family. But then, measures of emotion and personal growth are subjective.

What do you think? Does luck/chance play a role in how morality is perceived?


Anne said...

True Neeru. Quite an interesting topic to debate. Whenever I read about people "following their dreams" I've also always wondered about their family and their commitments. It is very easy to say things like "follow your heart" and lots of people advocate that philosophy including Steve Jobs and Paulo Coelho. I admire their work but in the real world, it is not so simple. Whether it is towards divinity or anything else for that matter, not everyone can afford to ditch everything/everyone and run off in search of their calling.

In fact I believe that this is one advantage of being a woman. I know that in today's world women too need to contribute towards a household, but I think that compared to men, we can quite afford to risk following our dreams. If I was a man, I doubt very much if I would have quit a lucrative job and switched careers. Call it societal conditioning but the world would surely criticize such a man, unless of course the person becomes a phenomenal success - which is not a regular occurrence.

And yes, I think that luck also plays a big part. Of course, just being lucky is not going to help as luck will always run out. But there are so many people out there who are extremely talented and hard-working but lead mediocre lives as they have not been favoured by luck.

Neeraja said...

Thanks for your comment Anne!

I actually do advocate the true spirit of "following one's heart", but within pragmatic limits. Rather than swing to an extreme and quit a job when the action hurts someone you promised to provide for, I say reach a balance. I think it is true regardless of gender, as long as one partner can keep the family going. It's also subjective when it's a question of "how much" is good enough for the family - is it acceptable if I earn an average salary while pursuing my real interest, when I can earn much much more at the total sacrifice of my interest? It gets tricky. But "something" is better than total negligence of the promises one makes, I guess. Even a meager earning is better than abandonment.

Secondly, if one really is passionate to pursue their calling, all I'm saying is - be smart and practical, and plan for it :). One can't have such a drive and then rush into having a family and related commitments that obviously place more realistic, economic pressures.

It requires reaching a middle ground between honoring one's duties and being true to one's heart/calling.

Anonymous said...

I agree with every single one of your takes on morality. This line of yours would be the gist: "... it is wrong to overlook our primary duties in the pursuit of “higher” paths". Absolutely agree. Finish/keep fulfilling your duties, whatever it is that you've undertaken responsibility of, while balancing your own journey towards those "higher paths". A "higher path" is not really a higher path if you've shirked your primary responsibilities in order to start that journey. There's no point. And absolutely agree with this: "My opinion will not falter even if he had been successful in his attempt." My opinion might change if the family did not want or need this person, and it had found a substitute or if this person had provided a 1-1 substitution of his(or her) presence to this family. Considering the society might not allow it and 1-1 substitution is so hard to make anyway, I guess that route is closed.

Karthik said...

Men like Paul are hypocrites/jerks. To leave behind his wife and children makes him selfish and irresponsible and reveals a fundamental character flaw. I think whether or not he became 'successful' is irrelevant to the discussion!

I think any form of 'greatness' which does not apply to everyday living, and the way we are with our family and friends, is fake and shallow ! Actually , I think the only form of meaningful greatness is 'everyday greatness'. You said it with 'charity begins at home'.

SecondSight said...

Couldn't agree more! Though I'm a firm believer in the "having it all" life, I don't think this works if one lets go of responsibilities. I often wonder how such people can live with themselves,much less justify their actions to others!

Neeraja said...

Anonymous - thanks for the comment! Yeah, the question of morality wouldn't matter so much had the family not cared about his presence or participation.

Kathik - This is the first time I've heard you use such strong words and be close to being angry :).
"any form of 'greatness' which does not apply to everyday living, and the way we are with our family and friends, is fake and shallow" - very true!

SecondSight - Yeah, it irritates me more that they look upon themselves as martyrs who bravely sacrificed their ties to the ordinary and the mundane.