Absolute moral standards or 'moral values' as benchmarks?

Absolute moral standards or 'moral values' as benchmarks?

Wednesday, 21. July 2010

K Haridas NairIs there a distinction between moral values and moral standards? While the word 'moral' is common, the distinction lies in the use of the words 'values' and 'standards'. The words 'moral values' is an apt description. This often denotes beliefs of a person or the social group in which they have an emotional investment. So moral values as benchmarks will mean different things to different groups.

On the contrary, the use of the words 'moral standards' bring into focus something that could be measured, a basis for comparison, a stated benchmark or a reference point against which other things can be evaluated. Moral values as benchmark does not stress any basis for evaluation. An exercise in introspection and reflection that I was introduced to required of me to look at my life in the context of absolute moral standards.

Initiatives of Change emphasises the four absolute moral standards of honesty, purity, unselfishness and love. Is this becoming increasingly unfashionable to introduce or even speak about in Europe and perhaps in the West in general? Is this because people feel more comfortable referring in general terms to moral values? It is no easy task to realize your sins of omission and commission, especially in the context of absolute moral standards. There is implicit in this a very high standard of challenge.

What is the call that IofC inspires people to undertake? I resonated with the idea that the problems, challenges and inequalities in the world need changing. It was to become an effective agent of change committed to taking initiatives to deal with issues that prompted my interest in IofC. That I had to start with myself was an obvious reality. The call was not faith-based, nor was it to find God.

In this context perhaps the faith-secular divide could be a red-herring. In order to be an agent for change, it seemed very logical for me to know myself and to develop a sense of clarity about issues and needs - personal and social. The obvious divide for me was between those who wanted to start with themselves and those who felt that changing society and dealing with current issues were more important, and that this had little relevance to how they lived.

I took the hypothesis of absolute moral standards and put this to a test in my own life, only to realize that I soon had thoughts of where I had short-changed myself. This realization helped me take ownership for these standards in my life. Had I considered looking at my life in terms of moral values, the whole experiment would have been a lot more fuzzy.

When we talk about 'change starting with oneself' or even 'Know Thyself', this experiment revealed to me a lot about myself that I had pleviously ignored or covered up. This knowledge of oneself is precious and is often a good starting point. However, knowledge and realisation while being important steps are inadequate in forging deep change because this requires the additional step, that of acting on one's realisations through apology, reconciliation, forgiveness or restitution.

Honesty was very real for me when I returned money to the railway company, as I had often travelled on trains without buying a ticket. This became more meaningful when I wrote to my parents and informed them on how I had spent money they had sent to me for my education. As I took these small steps I realised more needed to be done and the courage from these small steps helped me to clarify the moral standards that I wanted to live by.

There was a lot more to do when one considered the remaining absolute moral standards of purity, unselfishness and love. In a world of relative values and a culture obsessed with immediate gratification and greed, how does an individual find his sense of moorings? The most challenging option is to step back and to have a deep reflective look at oneself. To start with oneself is the most challenging, painful and courageous step anyone can take.

Absolute moral standards clarify for anyone who is ready to take the journey of knowing themselves, this being a fundamental requirement for any who wants to be an agent for change by becoming an example through their own living and conduct.

Only that which can be measured can be improved and by expressing subjective values in the context of objective standards, Frank Buchman the initiator of IofC possibly gave countless individuals a knowledge of themselves which then became critical in their understanding of the issues in the world as well as inspiring a spirit to contribute to change the world. Hope in their lives became a factor that continued to motivate them to take initiatives.

When we miss this dimension then we settle for lesser options and soon ask ourselves why our work is not flourishing. This may have much to do with the lack of personal work that we do with individuals rather than with the content of our message. I personally identify with this lack.

Buchman so candidly says, ‘Make no mistake. I do not say that this message will be wholly popular. It stirs the conscience. That is uncomfortable. It will always be open to misinterpretation by those who wish to escape it. But it comes as illumination to those who are ready.’

K Haridas, Malaysia

Read the other four articles on this topic by K Haridas:

'Satyam' - or absolute honesty
'Brahmacharya' or absolute purity
'Karma yoga', or absolute unselfishness
Ahimsa - the basis for absolute love

Download Moral Values from an Eastern Perspective, featurning all five articles ( PDF)