Customary morality cannot be a guide to modern life [2018]

The progress of a society depends on harmonious living of the members of the society. When people follow the moral principles, they take care of one another and create a loving, peaceful and progressive society. These moral principles make clear distinction between right and wrong; proper and improper; or good and bad behaviour. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Morality is the basis of things and truth is the substance of all morality”. No society can stand together without morality and no morality can stand for long unless it stands on the edifice of truth.
Morality represents a body of standards or principles derived from a code of conduct prescribed by a particular philosophy, religion or culture, or it can derive from a standard that a person believes should be universal. However, morality is not static but evolves with time and space. Some people find it difficult to change with time and they stick to the old standards of morality imbibed by them from their ancestors. Such moral values can be called customary morality which comes from the old customs, tradition, and religion of the society, state or nation.
Customary morality flows from ancient culture and traditions. For example, ancient Indians followed the professions based on their caste and married within their own castes. The roles of women were limited to taking care of the family and be a homemaker. Women were expected to be confined to their homes and cover their face whenever they had to go out. Such traditions may appear to be oppressive to the modern women. The American author Letty Cottin Pogrebin wisely depictured this condition of women in a traditional society, “When men are oppressed, it's a tragedy. When women are oppressed, it's tradition.”
In traditional Hindu society, marriage is considered sacred and irrevocable, while divorce finds no mention in any scripture. One has to keep the marriage intact till death even if one finds no compatibility in the relationship. Similarly, children must unconditionally obey their parents. Parents often marry their sons off in exchange for a good dowry while love marriages are considered inappropriate. Much of customary morality comes from religion. For example, it is considered a sin to drink alcohol in Islam and a sin to eat meat in Jainism while these are permissible in other religions.
While traditions are important to give continuity in the society, they should not be static and rigid. The Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti warned, “Tradition becomes our security, and when the mind is secure it is in decay.” The concept of morality must also change with time in a progressive society. If an individual does not adopt the modern values of morality, he is unlikely to achieve success in terms of the present world.
It is, however, not easy to reform the concepts of customary morality since we learn our moral values at an early age from our parents and elders. Moreover, when a large number of people in a society are following the same old values, it is not easy to follow a path less travelled. We feel secure following the moral values which people around us follow so that we are comfortable and acceptable in our society.
The modern world is getting fast globalised and people of different cultures and traditions are coming closer to learn from one another. They often work in the same organisation and live in the same society.
In the era of globalization, internet, social media, consumerism and modern science, we are witnessing emergence of many new moral values, some of which would have been considered immoral by our ancestors. The fusion of various cultures, emphasis on freedom, and development of scientific tempers have given rise to modern moral values that are quite global.
Today, democracy is the most popular form of governance in the world which treats all people as equal possessing the same power to elect their leaders or to occupy any position of power. In the modern times, individuality and freedom are considered non-negotiable values and it is not acceptable to discriminate people on the basis of caste, religion, race or gender. You need not even follow the religion of your parents; you can always choose your religion and faith. In the same way, people are not bound to follow the profession of their parents or their caste, and they can pursue the profession of their choice. A modern society considers it illegal for parents to force their children to marry against their wish as each adult person has been given the right to choose their life partner. If a marriage is not found to be compatible, the couple is allowed to choose divorce and even remarry. In most of the Western societies, marriage itself is getting outdated and couples are opting for live-in relationship before marriage. Many societies are even accepting same sex marriages and giving them legal rights comparable with traditional heterosexual marriage.
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said, “Compassion is the basis of morality.” The modern world is indeed more accommodative and inclusive than ever before. We can’t use the old yardstick to measure the moral standards of today’s generation. In recent years, Supreme Court of India has redefined many concepts of customary morality; a step that had become necessary due to the evolution of a modern society. It has rightly granted women of all ages the right to enter Sabarimala Temple, where traditionally only the women of non-menstruating age were allowed. The age old practice of Triple Talaq has been declared not only illegal, but also a criminal offence giving long-desired justice to the Muslim women. The Supreme Court has also decriminalised Section 377 dealing with unnatural sex and thus accepted the right of LGBTQXI community to live a dignified life.
Morality based on customs and traditions is important for continuity, peace and stability of the society. However, it is also important that moral values change with time. Those who remain shackled in traditions and fail to adapt to changing moral values fail to fit into the evolving world. One has to follow the values that are useful in current times and discard those which have become outdated to be able to match pace with time. In the words of W. Somerset Maugham “Tradition is a guide and not a jailer.”
However, it is wise to remember that all that glitters is not gold. Everything that is modern is not necessarily good and everything that is ancient may not be bad. We must, therefore, make the right choices with due care and caution and adopt the best values. It is not advisable to blindly ape the West and adopt their values like live-in relationship, extramarital and premarital relationships, or resort to divorce without giving much time and consideration to reconciliation, and due thought to its adverse consequences. Divorce affects not only a couple, but also their children and hence must be the last resort after every effort to save the marriage has been exhausted. As for dressing styles, there is a certain beauty in dressing modestly which flashy fashionable attire can seldom match. And come what may, the high ideals of faithfulness, honesty, love and compassion will never get outdated. Therefore, we ought to learn to strike a balance between modern values and traditions to lead the best life and create a better world.
Customary morality cannot be a guide to modern life [2018]

Source: “Mastering Essay & Answer Writing for UPSC Civil Services IAS/ IPS & State PSC Main Exam” by Dr Awdhesh Singh, available at

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