Moral Policing by the State

If we view the state as a fossilized remnant of Man's not to distant vile and brutish past, then it is all right to imbue it with the right to apply the moral principle in matters of governance. Modern Man is rational and this invests him/her with the right to free choice. Often the more fortunate mistake the poverty of means that are the outcome of historical wrongs or mere chance with poverty of thought and the lack of capacity. This fires them with philanthropic urges. Needless to state, the existing order is very much a part of their scheme of things as this accords stability to their circumscribed existence. This story runs on in its endless periodicity. The hierarchy remains though the players continually change roles. The underlying script is rerun, only, each time it gets subtler and more in tune with the illusions of the times. This sets the agenda for those at the helm of affairs to provide for all manner of laws and regulations and the generally intrusive behavior of the state that scarce does anyone any good. The above sets the tenor for the enduring debate on the reasonableness (rather the lack of it) of moral policing indulged in by the state. 

Not getting into semantics one can confidently assert that the State as it has evolved over time is a necessary evil begot by Man's own selfish proclivities. Hence, it must limit itself to those functions which are essential. The counterpoise to this may then be as to who is to decide on what is essential. The answer is to be had in referring to natural justice, which simplistically put, confers on all individuals the right to unimpeded physical existence. This latter would include the right to life, property and the freedom to exert ones legitimate corporeal property and mental faculties to uses one deems fit in ways that do not impinge on the rights of others. Matters spiritual and by extension moral are not to be trusted to the State apparatus for this would lead to a creeping hegemony of one class of people ' the states functionaries - over all others. Whosoever is in the hot seat at a point in time would then be invested with the right to thrust their follies and foibles on an unwilling population. 

Morality is an article of faith. It cannot be enforced by fiat. It exists within the confines of an individual's self. It is seldom evident outwardly. When confronted by a situation that forbids specific expression, action in which it is manifest simply goes underground. 

When the public is sufficiently incensed by arbitrary moral tenets enforced by the State it could result in hostile retaliation where the wrong to be corrected may express itself in a form more virulent than in a less restrictive atmosphere. Ample evidence of this human trait is observable in the rebellious nature of teenagers. This is an inherent human trait that refuses to be confined to a niche segment but endures in the most unexpected of quarters. 

Again, connotations of morality differ widely among segments of the population and constituent's therein. Rarely, if ever, will two individuals hold an identical point of view on an issue. This range of diversity does not allow for exact articulation on a point without which it is impossible to make moral pronouncements that do not smack of arbitrariness. 

Across societies, individual or collectives thereof attach importance to alternate moral issues with varying degrees of intensity. What seems innocuous or of little consequence to an entity may be of utmost importance to another. Collectively these alternate phenomena make for a formidable array that encompasses the whole gamut of human proclivities and aspirations. How then is the State to choose from the myriad of issues and to what extent must the chosen list be administered. The situation becomes more vexatious when we consider the fact that often the views held by different constituents of the polity are variegated or even diametrically opposed. Any attempt to legislate or rule on this count could lead to conflict rather than serve the purpose of social solidarity. 

Democracy is no answer to this conundrum. There is something called brute majority as opposed to the enlightened minority. Democracy has given way tomobocracy in recent times. Vast swathes of the enlightened population are alienated from the political process and opt to stay out of the ballot process altogether. The sensibilities of the mob in any case is several notches lower than the individual and this makes for perverse choices when it comes to issues rooted in morality. Any pronouncement based on the contention of it having the backing of majority opinion is seriously flawed. 

These are some of the philosophical arguments that militate against the state arrogating unto itself the right to proffer judgment on moral issues. In any case, there is something intrinsically abhorrent about any entity dictating on moral precepts that possess little or no scientific basis. 

Another factor to take into account is the fact that Man is everywhere intrinsically hypocritical. He/She would always like to project a conformist countenance rather than the inner self with all its attendant urges and cravings. This leads people to articulate in public what they willfully disregard in private. For those who are less inclined to such subterfuge this could be tantamount to unnecessary hindrance on free thought and expression. 

In passing, we may refer to forms of moral policing by the state and concrete instances of this phenomenon. The most common instance of moral policing is to be had when the state makes pronouncements on the manner of sexual views and norms that its citizens must adhere to. This ranges from innocuous pronouncements on public exhibition of amorous advances to extreme positions on the conferment of gay rights and to issues that border on religious beliefs such as the admissibility or otherwise of the medical termination of pregnancy. This crimps the space for free expression of the individual and leads to a repressed psyche, which often expresses itself in socially deviant behavior elsewhere. What is lost track of here is that the reality of the individual is sacrificed at the altar of an amorphous construct called society, which in itself is fickle and scarce subject to the laws of certainty. 

The other contentious field relates to that of religion. More blood has been spilt on grounds of religion than on any other count in the short history of civilized Man. This continues to be one of the most volatile aspects of our existing social reality. Grave injustice has been committed on the free articulation of views and actions relating to the communion of mortals with the supernatural. and almost inevitably this has lead to the spilling of precious human blood in the here and now. Even today, the atrocities perpetrated by a subset of the Moslem world consisting of talibanized elements is sought to be combated by the evangelist crusade of resurgent Protestantism. The cases are altogether too numerous to go into here. All we can say is that the attitude of the State on how best to tackle festering political and social wounds has been dictated more by religious consideration and convoluted ideas of morality rather than on the basis of any incisive introspection on the issues that beget such virulent forms of protest and equally oppressive retribution. 

Another trend noticeable lately has been the increasing penchant of the state to conjure up the moral imperative under the omnibus concept of public interest. It then seizes the moral prerogative to legislate on all manner of social political and economic issues. On closer inspection of the policy measures that emanate from such interventions, it is found that the public good is seldom upheld and most gains are cornered by canny and vocal segments of the privileged classes. The policy issues range from licensing, subsidies and workfare to positive discrimination and ethical issues related to advertisements. This spills over to the food and drink we imbibe, the words we are allowed to author or read, our choice of entertainment and much else besides. In fact, one begins to wonder where exactly the state makes a transition from playing nanny to becoming the keeper of our conscience. The upshot of all this is that in the ensuing populism and emotively charged atmosphere, harder issues related to good governance is lost sight of. 

Therefore, we flounder from one iniquitous and inefficient system to another. In fact this is the sum total of the State's achievements down history and freedom is still an elusive word for much of mankind. 

In conclusion, one can contend that there is no reason in the state to usurp the citizen's right to personal choice in matters private. Our spiritual and moral imperatives are ours alone. Just as we cannot impose our moral virtues on others, so must we be accountable to ourselves for the transgressions we commit. The state can only be a helpless bystander and not exacerbate the fragile peace that the individual covenants with society.    


More by :  Bijoyeta Das

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