Morality vs Decency

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Context: Societies with people living economically degraded lives have often bordered on the indecent. But now it seems even societies with economically aspiring lives are getting there, falling well short of minimal decency.

Mains: GS IV-

  • The role of family, society and educational institutions in inculcating values.
  • Attitude: content, structure, function; its influence and relation with thought and behavior; moral and political attitudes; social influence and persuasion.
  • Aptitude and foundational values for Civil Service, integrity, impartiality and non-partisanship, objectivity, dedication to public service, empathy, tolerance and compassion towards the weaker sections.

Decency vs Morality: 

  • “Decency” is more about social conventions of propriety. It’s about manners and etiquette, how cultured people should treat each other – to show they’re cultured. It’s concerned with preventing offense to individuals, and offenses to propriety itself.
  • Morality is the recognition of the distinction between good and evil or between right and wrong; respect for and obedience to the rules of right conduct; the mental disposition or characteristic of behaving in a manner intended to produce morally good results.

In simple terms, for example, decency would be not committing a crime, while morality would be the courage to raise voice against the crime being committed. 

Basic procedural justice:

  • The phrase ‘minimally decent’ implies that the best available ethical standards in a society, even according to its own lights, remain unrealized.
    • A minimally decent society is not free of exploitation or injustice. It need not embody political equality.
    • Yet, it possesses one singular virtue: it prevents excessive wrongdoing with the help of effective injunctions against killing, maiming or ill-treating others.
  • It also has a system of what the English philosopher, Stuart Hampshire, called “basic procedural justice”.
    • This is an elementary form of justice that involves fair procedures of negotiation and arbitration that permit the recognition of untidy, temporary compromises between people who differ vastly.
    • Basic procedural justice enables different conceptions of the good life to coexist “without any substantial reconciliation” and “without search for the common ground”.
  • This coexistence is possible by virtue of restraint on “unmeasured ambition, on limitless self-assertion and on the obsessive desire for an ever-larger slice of the cake”.
    • This enables almost every voice to be heard, ensures some visibility for everyone in the political domain, and guarantees that even the most marginalized and exploited remain part of the negotiation, howsoever unequal the conditions under which it takes place.
  • In short, a system of basic procedural justice keeps conversation and negotiation going amongst all members of society. People involved in even the fiercest of disputes are “prepared to recognize the need to balance argument against argument, concession against concession”.
  • Basic procedural justice “makes possible a minimally decent life, which has a value independent of any wider conception of the good”.


Flattened moral landscape: 

  • By contrast, a society where minimally moral constraints are thrown to the wind is barbaric.
    • This happens under degrading economic conditions, but shockingly minimally moral rules are also abandoned by groups in pursuit of greatness or, simply, economic or political success. (For them, Dharma must not come in the way of the vastly more important Artha or Moksha).
  • Once moral constraints on the action — for instance, notions of basic fairness and procedural justice — are eliminated from public life and from the minds of people and a “bombed and flattened moral landscape” is created, nothing is forbidden or off-limits, and the way is fully open to violence and domination.
  • In a barbaric society, where basic procedural justice is dismembered, the conversation is replaced by an oppressive silence and the entire mechanism of negotiation and arbitration vanishes.
  • Force, inducement of fear, or prolonged conflict often created pliantly, demoralized masses fit for domination, and thereby destroy morality in public life.


Amoral private life:

  • When morality is destroyed in public life, it does not leave the rest of the social world unaffected. Evil spills from the public to the private domain pervades intimate realms.
    • Friends, lovers, members of the family can all be complicit in dubious actions.
    • Indeed, the very distinction is blurred between friend and enemy.
  • The misfortune of distrust amidst general friendlessness and lovelessness is the greatest evil that befalls human beings.
  • As societies lose minimal decency, it is hard to pull them back on the road to freedom, equality, justice or emancipation.
    • All these substantial ideals that only the other day were propelling large-scale collective action are suddenly rendered vacuous as people scramble to put together conditions of bare life.
  • Yet, precisely in such uncertain times, rather than reach out for higher, near-perfect ethical standards, it is crucial to remain grounded if grave wrongdoing is to be avoided.
  • Gandhi remains our moral compass on such issues. Though aimed primarily at deeper self-transformation, his fasts were also practical instruments to cement the fragile social agreement that brutality must be eschewed at any cost.

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