Scattered Thoughts on Moral Authority

Sometime back, I posted an article by Alexander McCall Smith (Old fashioned morals can rescue societies broken by bad behavior) to my Facebook wall. Smith, better known for his Bostwana based series, The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, although his other two series set in Edinburgh, Scotland, probably delve a lot more into the issues of modern society, and old-fashioned morality, through long monologues of their, (rather similar) mid-aged females characters each (Isabel Dalhousie, the philosopher/accidental detective, in The Sunday Philosophy Club series; and Domenica MacDonald, the reluctant archeologist from 44 Scotland Street series, who spends all her time thinking about the world around her), talks about the degeneration of social morality. He laments the ‘old fashioned morals’ like decency, good manners and so on. A voice, that his above-mentioned female protagonists seem to borrow from time to time.

Lost Art of Gratitude | The Sunday Philosophy Club

44 Scotland Street | 44 Scotland Street

Smith is hardly a religious conservative. His novels may ridicule post-modernist fads, psychoanalysis and other Freudian obsessions, feminist insistence on ‘gender neutral parenting’, and so on; yet on the typical modern issues such as homosexuality, gender equality, for instance, he sides with the liberals. And as I see it, he’s a quintessential liberal: believing in equality of sexes, rejecting social taboos of alternate sexualities, rarely bringing up religion, interested in music, arts, and so on, understanding of (even if mildly caricaturing) alternative thoughts, personal freedoms, and so on. Rarely do we see from him a cry for authority, moral or otherwise; quite the contrary.

And yet, the only reaction I got for that article rejected the lament, equating the ‘old fashioned morality’ with authoritarian social morality as a relic of religious stranglehold on the society. But religions don’t invent morality. They just borrow it from the society around, tweaking a bit here, a bit there, to create a brand-ready package, with a simple interface (before the hundred odd revision it’s bound to go through, as the time goes by, of course). What atheist call (and I’m one of them) the ‘secular’ morality, is not very different from a core teachings of many religions. I suspect, it also comes from the society around it, after applying bit of critical thought. In essence, what Smith is lamenting, is the loss of  civic values, that have nothing to do with religion, but with being ‘better’ human beings. Of course, it’s all very circular, and to define social morality is a tricky prospect. And yet, somewhere, we all understand what it means — we in a specific date and time and place, at least — don’t we? How else, do we long for ‘universal declaration of human rights’, if we have no idea, as society, what we’re talking about?

So, anyways, the comment got me stared on so many tangents, that I never replied to it. A brief viral fever meant I did not write about it, as I wanted to, and finally when I sat down to write about it, it was so jumbled in my brain, that I decided to write it down anyways. How bad can it get?

One of the points Smith brings up, is that of chaotic modern families, where children grow without a moral compass. Irony is, Bertie, the precocious kid from 44 Scotland Street series, does have a moral authority in the family, in Irene, his feminist mother who takes an almost pathological interest in his upbringing, taking ideas of Melanie Klein, as fundamentalistically, as orthodox religious parents might take their religious tenets. Maybe Smith was just attacking a modern religion, as his post-religious world (nowhere in these two series, is religion at the center of anything, so attacking a dead God would have been meaningless). And yet, he is yearning for a moral compass, a benignly authoritarian morality figure (or figures), of sorts. A central contradiction?

When I think of parenting — something which I have to think about more and more, as my kid is growing at an alarming rate of one day every day — of the kind of parent I would like to be, of all the literature I’ve read, of all the movies that I’ve seen (and I’m aware these are not the best places to look for that, but art tends to create social tokens that are easy to present to the other, without a need to have to explain yourself in a thousand words, to others, and more importantly, to oneself. So it’s convenience I’m after — although, I’m sure I’ll use more than a thousand words

The Moral Compass

anyways) , the image of Atticus Finch (for those who haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird, stop right here, obviously, you need to go read that, if you have the time and patience to read what I’ve written!) comes to my mind. Of course, Atticus is a single parent. But that’s somewhat inconsequential. Because, Atticus is in so many ways a father I’d want to be. Arch-liberal, understanding, clear in his thinking, gentle, approachable, trusting, always there when needed and yet ready to dissolve in the background when not needed,  never over-reaching or over meddling.

And yet, and yet, Atticus is the moral compass. By walking the walk, the unglamorous ‘right’ walk, the everyday, non-heroic walk, he is setting an example for his kids to follow (as we see James picking up bits and pieces from him, even though, as a kid he has all his big brotherly vices). And Atticus, although not overtly, is a moral authoritarian, slipping in his moral diktats every once in a while — making James serve his term with Mrs. Dubose, or letting them know in no uncertain terms that they are not to disturb the Radley’s, or indicating to Scout that you don’t comment on the eating habits of guests, and his tacit acceptance of Calpurnia’s authoritative regime as housemaid, to name a few.

For, can liberalism survive, if it lets ultra-conservatism thrive as just another valid viewpoint? Isn’t that the basic question our world is grappling with? Isn’t that what Smith is hinting at, through the article, and his novels? Don’t we all hope to stamp out ultra-conservatism, by espousing an authoritarian liberalism? That great contradiction in terms?

I don’t know if I will ever be even half of what Atticus represents, just as a father. But if I do, I know I will feel proud. Despite any moral authoritarian excesses, once in a while. For, a compass that just shows the direction is useless, unless there is someone who can decide which direction is to be taken. And sometimes, we all have to bear that cross.


5 thoughts on “Scattered Thoughts on Moral Authority

  1. Sumita Ambasta says:

    Amit, Everyone longs for something solid, whatever that might be? Noone who has not been responsible for the wellbeing of another, can even begin to understand the terrible relationship between power and ethics. I am loath to use the term morality, as it has become crushed in the narrowness of things. Can one develop a conscience? And what might that be? More questions than answers arise in this direction. Finch does walk that balance between allowing someone else to take the functional lead in behavior and stays with the openness of ideas in action. Interesting combination there. Gender neutral it is certainly not, and thank God for it.

    • asuph says:


      Glad to see you here. And comments themselves have become so rare, that a thoughtful comment is that much a rarity. Isn’t conscience a bit of morality internalized? Yes, the word has been abused, still.

  2. Poonam Sharma says:

    Interesting you’ve read Alexander McCall Smith – I do not much like his Botswana books. Mostly because ‘detective fiction’ is predictable – but I like cultural nuggets about Botswana in the books which is why I kept reading. But, I enjoyed the two books I read in 44 Scotland Street series – his ridicule of Irene and psychiatrist…there were other instances as well in this book that made it endearingly funny.

    • asuph says:

      Oh, I’m not fond of that series at all. Check out his “Two half Pillars of wisdom” — Portuguese Irregular Verbs and the rest. Awesome stuff. And then there is Isabel Dalhousie and the Sunday Philosophy Club series. Scotland is where he is at home.

      Check out. And I’ll suggest check out the Audiobooks. Very well done.

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