Is morality intuitional?

Recruiting the penniless to queue up outside ATMs is a moral choice. Or, is it an innate response to another human being?


While Donald Trump’s triumph in the US presidential election made pessimism democratic, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetization drive left many of us Indians optimistic.  File photo: Reuters
While Donald Trump’s triumph in the US presidential election made pessimism democratic, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetization drive left many of us Indians optimistic. File photo: Reuters

It has been a week and a few of exclamations, lament and bewilderment for me. My cat Indiana Jones, or Indie, a mischievous little tomcat, who would snuggle up to me to sleep and meow in disapproval if I broke into a Bollywood dance, suddenly left us one evening.

As the evening became night and night stretched into 10 days, I was heartbroken. Indie was a stray cat. He had come home with me one day not so long back after we exchanged cheeky pleasantries in the garden outside. He adopted us without much ado and turned out to be a fan of the human embrace unlike the proverbial cats.

He loved the view from the balcony and we fed him chicken soup. My love for the golden coloured Indie with a bottle brush like furry tail was instant and intense. After he disappeared, I felt “morally guilty” for extending him the warmth of a home while leaving him on the terrace garden during the day as his stray instincts resisted being locked up in an apartment. I have been fighting back a strong ache as my fervent calls to him on the now empty terrace remain unanswered.

A time of lament—as all those good books tell us—lends itself as easily to self-recrimination as to deep reflection. Loss is an astute teacher. Warm hash browns (always potatoes over chocolates for me), black coffee with heaps of sugar and frantic exercising helped and then all we can do is wait till the hurt becomes numb.

So, when our world officially got a bit jangled in these last two weeks, I was raw enough to be ready for overstated reactions. Donald Trump’s triumph in the US presidential election made pessimism democratic while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetization drive left many of us Indians optimistic. I am a self-declared hater of President-elect Trump’s racist swagger and misogyny; so, it was relieving to vent the feeling of outrage over his win through shrill debates with the like-minded. On the other hand, Modi’s attempt to wipe out black money—whether it defeats corruption in India or not—began to restore feel-good normalcy.

Most colleagues in the Mint newsroom used different decibels of exclamation for the demonetization drive. Our observations largely buzzed around long queues, underfed automated teller machines, the vehement panic of the cash-rich and the ways in which people were seen twisting circumstances to their favour.

Where anecdotes go, I had a prickly one to share. One of my gym mates arrived gasping and stung by the venom of envy. “Do you know any beggar or labourer who can queue up for me outside the bank?” she asked.

Know a beggar! What kind of question is that?

Ms. Why-should-I-queue-up claimed that she had seen some people pay beggars and casual labourers to queue up for them. “I saw hundred rupee notes being handed out for these services,” she said. So, she was hunting for a poor person to recruit. It turns out she was not the exception. One of my colleagues, too, had noticed a bunch of street-dwellers outside an ATM, too; they had been given food and some money by a well-to-do family.

Ostensibly, it feels easy to trace a moral divide between people who brought water and cakes for senior citizens standing for hours outside banks versus those who recruited the city poor to stand in for cash. People who pay the penniless to stand for money obviously are strangers to irony. But if such an insult to fellow human beings is so apparent, why don’t people err on the side of what’s socially and morally right? If it is so clear that he stands for disrespect and ignorance, why did a clear American majority vote for Trump? If it was so important to me that a stray animal should not be locked up inside a house, why am I morally punishing myself for Indie’s disappearance? The “apparent”, then, is not always simple. This itinerant thought brought some comfort, some temperance to my loose cannon state of mind.

And if a time of befuddlement is indeed the time for reflection, as good books say, I have found a good book to tell me more. The reference of Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity by Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor was tucked into a recent piece by Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker.

Titled How to Restore Your Faith in Democracy, Rothman’s article, a sensitively argued piece on how to remain sane after Trump’s victory, evokes a certain curiosity about Taylor’s work.

You may like both, Rothman’s article and Taylor’s many writings, especially if the fallacies of the human mind engross you.

For me, Sources of The Self has been brutal awakening. Most specifically, Taylor’s thoughts on “moral intuition” and how our moral reactions are almost like instincts comparable to our love for sweets, or our aversion to nauseous substances or our fear of falling.

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