16 May 2002, 813 words
Some weeks ago, I wrote a column in which I satirised various individuals whom I consider to be pseudo-intellectuals. Naturally, the University of the West Indies came in for its share of blows. Unfortunately, information which I mistakenly thought to be reliable led me to malign a certain post-graduate programme in UWI, which I felt was influenced more by pull string than by merit. But my information was wrong and, in any case, even if it had been right, I shouldn't have made it a subject of satire.
This was a case where a particular bee in my bonnet overwhelmed my judgement. Once my error had been pointed out, I felt terrible. There were three reasons for my mortification. One, that I had made a factual error, since I view fact the way most people view God. Two, that I had caused unjustified distress. But the third reason was the most mortifying: that I had broken an ethical rule.
While I would never claim to be a moral person, I am usually rigorous about ethics. I make this distinction because of the implied baggage that comes with the term 'moral': religious belief and sexual conservatism, neither of which I adhere to. But ethics are a different kettle, having to do with professional honesty and living according to certain principles. And I have frequently observed that the moralists amongst us are often the least ethical in their public statements and private conduct.
The distinction between public and private is crucial. In his ground-breaking work, Religion Explained, anthropologist Pascal Boyer writes, "Guilt is a punishment we incur for cheating or generally not living up to our advertised standards of cooperation with others."
This means that, despite the phrase 'individual conscience', there is really no such thing. Conscience is always influenced by our social group.
To argue that our conscience is given to us by God is as vacuous a statement as saying that God created the universe, because it explains nothing. Boyer points out, "Religious codes and exemplars cannot literally be the origin of people's moral thoughts. These thoughts are remarkably similar in people with different religious concepts or no such concepts. Also, these thoughts naturally come to children, who would never link them to a supernatural agency...To some extent, religious concepts are parasitic upon moral intuitions."
Our moral intuitions, or what we call 'conscience', are formed in the context of our social group. Human beings are the most social creatures on Earth, and living in a social group demands that you keep track of favours given and favours received - in economic terms, costs and benefits. (It may seem odd to say that humans are more social than all other animals, since ants and termites live in such large and well-ordered colonies and other animals supposedly don't murder their own kind. But no animal has created social groups as complex as even the smallest human tribe.)
One consequence of this mostly unconscious favour-tracking is that human beings have evolved into sophisticated cheater-detectors. We categorise people, from lovers to friends to acquaintances, as dependable or otherwise, and often do so on evidence that is really quite minimal. Yet, more often than not, our intuitions are accurate.
Another consequence of tracking costs and benefits is that human beings also have a strong sense of fair play. This is why people react with such outrage to Patrick Manning giving his wife a Cabinet post, as well as the latest round of jobs for the PNM boys and girls. But it is also why, when UNC nepotism and shady deals were rampant, that party's defenders so frequently used the 'PNM did it, too' defence. Paradoxical as it seems, this 'two wrongs make a right' logic also follows from our innate sense of fairness.
That conscience is socially constructed explains why what is viewed as a wrong action within the group is not considered a wrong action when committed on another group. Boyer says, "We should not be too surprised that moral principles in all cultures seem highly commendable in their formulation ('peace is most precious', 'a guest is sacred') and less so in their application ('let us raid the next village', 'let us rob this rich traveller'). This is not a symptom of unredeemed hypocrisy, but simply the consequence of the constraints imposed by commitment and cooperation."
So the same people who defend PNM profligacy will in the next breath criticise Panday's food bill, and the same people who defend Panday's violent rhetoric will in the next breath condemn Manning's phone call to the Marabella police station. And, because our society is so constructed that we do not apply our moral rules in a uniform manner, Trinidadians live continuously in a crisis of conscience, precisely because most of us do not consider ourselves Trinidadians first, but as Indians and Africans.
Copyright ©2002 Kevin Baldeosingh