My granddaughter, Neha, who will soon be sixteen and goes to The Harker school in CA does occasionally send me an email. I like it because she is a thoughtful person and more often than not, she asks me about some questions that may have bothered her or shares with me some experiences in what she considers would be areas of my interest. Recently she sent me a message that did make me think. I am presenting below her message and my response for broader sharing.
“I am taking an ethics class this semester at my school. We’ve been learning about western and eastern ancient philosophy. This week, we’ve been given an assignment to interview someone who we look up to philosophically. I’ve chosen to interview you. I have a few questions that I feel are important for the project:
- What are your core moral values?
- Where/how did you acquire them?
- Are these the values you hope I adopt?
- How do you attempt to convey them to me?
“It would be great if you could answer these questions for me. Feel free to answer them in depth. They’d help immensely with my ethics project.”
Neha you have put me on the spot. First I do not know much about philosophy, ethics, morality and related subjects. Next I do not know if I can, with good conscious, speak of moral values that I may encourage others to follow reflected in my own life and social behavior. In other words I will try to answer your questions the best I can, share with you the dilemmas they pose in practice and then move onto the position that even if an ideal is not easy to achieve or is just unachievable, it does not mean we should not try to come as close as we can to that cherished ideal in our life.
Ethics deals with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation. Intrinsically it embraces a set of moral principles or values; their underlying theory and resultant code of conduct for individual, group or society.
Moral implies staying in conformity with established norms or accepted notions of right and wrong. Ethical takes it to a shade broader plane where the question of fairness and equity may also become part of the debate. For our purposes we would not split hair on moral or ethical and use the terms in a sort of generic manner to mean to point the same set of values, albeit with minor differences in detail. Values are understood to be things like principles that are intrinsically valuable.
CORE MORAL VALUES
The first thing that comes to mind here is that as a Sikh I have learnt from the young age that the moral universe plays out in the temporal universe and therefore all moral values must relate to life as we chose to live. In this it is not only our beliefs that are important but also our thoughts and action choices. So I will try and keep this in mind as we discuss this subject.
I would not be able to create a hierarchy among the more compelling values that may have guided me in my life but I think they include:
- Trying to help at least not to harm
- Trying to be truthful
- Trying to be self reliant
- Trying to restrain ambition
I will try and explain these with simple illustrations. I remember when I was around your age we were living along Lothian Road in New Delhi. Across the road were sprawling playgrounds, Ferozeshah Kotla and the beginning at that time of the forest surrounding Delhi. One evening as I accompanied my father for an evening stroll we came across a man who had been stabbed and lay bleeding in the woods. My father who was a doctor tried to tend to him and asked me to run and find some transport to take him to hospital. I think I found a rickshaw as I ran to the city, brought it over and then helped my father carry the man to the rickshaw and on to Irwin Hospital nearby. Incidents like this left an instinct within me to try and help people. I have tried little things that I could – not always successfully and not limited to this kind of help. There are not many things that have given me greater satisfaction than an attempt at helping especially where I felt that the help was deserved and the cause was not wrong. This judgment is difficult but I think it is important.
This helping attitude may also apprehend some related values like compassion, sharing and even love in an abstract manner. Virtues like patience and forgiveness also would influence your action when thinking of helping someone who may not have been always nice to you. Each one of these values is very important by itself but I am just lumping them together from the limited perspective that in action they would perhaps best manifest in a helpful disposition unmindful of personal relationship, reward, recognition or recompense.
Trying to be truthful is easy to say but is so difficult in practice. For one thing truth is only ONE and that is why philosophers think that the only truth is God – unchanging and eternal. Sikh belief is that we emanated from God and His spirit abides within us as our higher or real self. We tend however to be guided by our baser self – haumain – that tends to lead us away from God and Godliness to love and attachment with all that is illusory and transitory i.e. worldly attachment. It is this haumain that we have to control and bring it in line with Divine will to improve ourselves spiritually and morally.
So even as this concept can be pretty complex I will try and limit relating truthfulness to our daily lives for the purpose of this discussion. Let us take a simple example. There are times when the phone rings and we ask somebody else to pick it up and tell I am not at home because I do not want to be distracted or talk to the person. Another situation could be when we may do some thing that we know not to be right and deny having done it if asked. Such shades of untruths fill our days.
How do we judge ourselves in such cases? I think the criterion that may be a helpful guide is the motivation behind any parsing or embellishment or hiding ploy that we may employ – if the motivation is not to harm anybody or to hide a wrong doing, may be the distortion may be over looked; but if that be not the case we should stick by the truth and take the consequences. A question here may be asked if being polite or politically correct is being truthful. The value we are taught is that being nice, friendly and well spoken is a virtue. Humility is considered a higher virtue. It promotes harmony; does not arouse animosity and puts a person on higher moral plane.
Let me now come to the point about self-reliance. What I mean here is our taking responsibility for us; not only in terms of what we do or do not do but also for all our needs as individuals, members of family and at a higher plane of the society. I think it is an important social value that encourages one to be a productive and contributing member of the society. This inculcates the habit of hard work and honest effort and being in a position to share for in any case one cannot give unless one has some to spare. We are strongly enjoined by the Gurus to work hard, provide for the family and ourselves and share what we can spare with the needy.
Now this attitude is not limited to things material. It also should help develop courage, enhance our self-esteem, give us confidence to face adversity and bring succor to others. It might also reduce our inner fears that often inhibit us from taking a lead. Thus this value may help us change the way we approach many complex and risky situations in life. In any case one can help others only if one can help oneself.
Let us now go to the subject of restraining ambition. This may at first appear to be incongruous with self-reliance but in fact it is not. Important thing in life is to strike a balance between what one seeks to achieve with what may be achievable. All of us cannot reach the same level of success or accomplishment. God in His wisdom has given us the abilities to strive but also the ability to understand that results in life are not entirely linked to effort and therefore acceptance of what may come our way without losing faith in the need for effort or becoming frustrated and calling life as unfair.
In other words we should learn to be content and happy rather than being continuously driven by hankering for more. Our Gurus said that the desires and ambitions of even mighty kings could not be satisfied and made contentment one of the cardinal virtues in Sikh thought. This restraint may also motivate us to look at the merit in others, give them their due and promote respect for one another. This leads to development of fraternity.
HOW DID I ACQUIRE THESE
I would say mainly learning at home; listening to parents, watching them make their choices and of course listening to paath that was a routine as we were growing up at home. I do think I learnt a lot from school, friends but possibly more through reading. The earlier stage was accepting some things as social norms – but later as I started to go deeper into Gurbani, my understanding possibly improved though I would hesitate to say it made me a better person. I still keep struggling for finding a balance is not easy, nor is the balance found just within your own thinking. For the balance to be workable it must not create imbalance in your totality of relationships and that is why it involves some hard decisions. You may have to choose your society carefully – that is what we call sangat – one lives, learns, rises and falls with the sangat. That is a mini world within this vast creation where we matter and our choices make a difference.
WOULD I COMMEND THESE
Yes Neha I would but I would add that do not read my thoughts as commending denial or withdrawal. No it is not. You must be an active and impassioned participant. You must try and put in your best. You must have clarity of goals and go for them. But you must also be prepared to not take short cuts. You must also recognize that one may not be able to do all one wants to. Human flesh is always weaker than human flights of imagination or ambition. Be sharing, caring, content, kind, helpful but focused on your goals. These goals must be ethical and while they would be individually satisfying should be socially productive. Be magnanimous when you come out at the top and resolute when you don’t but never be bitter, resentful or withdrawn.
HOW WOULD I PASS THESE I really don’t know – talking perhaps when we can. But then we know that this process of transmission is complex. Two kids from the same family, going to the same school, with the same social circle may end up with different moral and social value choices. It is true in life as we experience and significantly even Guru’s progeny was not spared this sort of outcome. This only leaves two factors as important. The first is you yourself. You and you alone will be the biggest determinant of your value choices. The other is the Divine grace that guides us – Gurus called it nadar, kirpa, karam, daya of Wahiguru. We should all pray that this grace helps and guides us in life as we choose what we do or don’t.