The Rise and Fall of Values in Public Life

  14 min 34 sec to read
The Rise and Fall of Values in Public Life

It is inconceivable to think that that the president of America has taken these boisterous steps in ignorance.


In his commencement address at the United States Naval Academy on May 25, US President Donald Trump remarked to the graduates “Winning is such a great feeling, isn’t it? Nothing like winning – you got to win victory. Winning beautiful words, but that is what it is all about.” During one of his presidential speeches also he had emphasised to his audience that under his leadership “they will get bored with winning.” He predicted that his fans “would grow so sick and tired of winning.”  “You’re going to come to me and say, “Please we can’t win any more. And, I am going to say, I am sorry but we’re going to keep winning, winning, winning.”

Against the background of his election slogan “Make America Great Again” the words of Trump become very significant in terms of assessing his personality of leadership and also how much he cares about the national values of trust and friendship that the United States has so far proclaimed. His unilateralism in trade, immigration, climate issues etc is provoking other nations to be reactive as well as to distance them from him. As a diehard narcissist, he is perhaps enjoying his aloofness and thinks that America has started becoming great again. 

It is inconceivable to think that that the president of America has taken these boisterous steps in ignorance. He is consciously bringing about a paradigm shift in the value system of American statesmanship riding over the wave of popularity he enjoys among certain masses. This paradigm shift in governance, some may say is a decadence in values in public life, while many others may differ and say these are revisiting and moulding them to present requirements. Some may even risk it and say that these changes are new values of statesmanship which were due for many many years and, thanks to Mr Trump, they have been boldly announced. 

In contrast, Henry Kissinger writes that, “In Wilson’s first state of the union address, on December 2, 1913 he laid down the outline of what later came to be known as Wilsonianism. Universal law and not equilibrium, national trustworthiness and not national self-assertion were in Wilson’s view the foundation of international order. Recommending the ratification of several treaties of arbitration, Wilson argued that binding arbitrations, not force should become the method for resolving international dispute. “ 

President Wilson always advocated peace, not rivalry but consensus, not power but arbitration. He thought that consensus among nations can only safeguard global peace. These enunciations of the principles of live and let live gave USA the global leadership it has enjoyed since Second World War and maybe it is to his credit that the principles he advocated in international relations are still the beacon which guide the interrelationship of the ever widening community of nations. 

Does Wilson still represent the validity of these values, ideals and principles in the conduct of national and international affairs or does Mr. Trump’s advocacy of winning at every cost represent the rise of a new value in the present circumstances. Chankya advises, “Prudence should always govern choice of policy” and “Peace is always preferred to war”. Should these words of wisdom be the leitmotif while giving a judgement on the issue of values in public life. 

Should Mr Trump triumph or should Mr Donald Tusk, the president of European Council have the day when he says, “those people seem to forget that the world is a better place thanks to all those – American and European alike – for whom politics wasn’t and isn’t just a game of interests and brutal test of strength and who sacrificed a great deal to preserve our values”. Definitely in these turbulent times the European Union has shown higher standards of moral behaviour to the distressed humanity in terms of their policies than USA which had been God’s crucible, the great melting pot in which all the races of Europe melted and reformed. 

What are values? Are they the same as virtues? Value has been defined as beliefs about what is right and wrong and important in life. Virtue is a behaviour or attitude that shows high moral standards. Morality is again concerned with the principles of right and wrong behaviour, based upon your own sense of what is right and fair irrespective of what is contained in legal provisions. The standards of behaviour which are considered acceptable and right by most people constitute a value system in society. If we go by these definitions it will open-up a pandora’s box as right and wrong are subject to personal choice, social norms and the necessity of the hour.

This issue of moral values and behaviour in the context of public and private life has been debated from time immemorial. “What-so-ever things are true, what-so-ever things are honest, what-so-ever things are lovely, what so ever things are of good report, if there be any virtue and if there by any praise, think on these things,“ says the Bible. Buddha advocated the “eight paths to salvation” which are akin to the ten elements of Sanatana Dharma as enunciated by Hindu philosophy. The Koran does not differ with any of them. Emphasis changes but holistically the contents are the same. Confucius says, “virtue lies in being able under all circumstances to practice five things, these five things are gravity, generosity of soul, sincerity, earnestness and kindness”. These are absolute truths which have so far withstood the vagaries of time.

An individual’s moral behaviours determine the conduct of his private life as well as his quality of participation in public affairs. John Stuart Mill said that, “the worth of a state, in the long run, is the worth of the individual composing it”. Rugged individualism of the American coupled with the rationality as opposed to faith ushered in by today’s science has forced people to revisit their moral behaviour in the light of today’s compulsion, context and contradictions. The traditional values are no more as sacrosanct as they deserve to be.

The reason is not very far to seek. When President Trump exhorts naval youths to winning and winning only, he is subtley  reminding his audience at large that winning and winning only makes a man great and anything else is totally anathema to what, for example, Hindu philosophy has propounded in the Gita that an individual is to be confined to doing the work right and not worry about the ends at all. Winning at any cost in a ruthless competition is to be vulnerable to corruption by any means which the world manifests in varied forms of materialism and consumerism. As opposed to the austerity and spiritualism of the past, we are living in a world of pageant, a make-believe world, a virtual reality, whether we call them the erosion and fall of values or not.

The twentieth century has gifted to the world many values which are enshrined in the UN Charter and subsequently many of these have found their place in a country’s constitution. These values which are embodied in the constitution are enforceable by law. But the force of law always does not make them acceptable to the people. Prevention of gender, colour and racial discrimination, dowry, rape, untouchability sexual harassment at jobs have all been legislated but crimes of these nature are still not on the wane. These relate to the moral behaviour of an individual who still resists them because these issues are alien to him and has not become a part of his macho-culture. Many of these issues are intractable. Laws do not work. Old social disciplines are eroded and new one have not been built as yet to address them. 

It is not that traditional virtues have taken a back seat. The sad part is that merit has taken the back seat. In the absence of dignity of merit, these values have lost the cutting edge to win in today’s rat race of ruthless competition. The values of trust and credibility of an individual, the family, the society and the nation still hold good as these values bring the nations together and the people of all colours, caste, creed and gender become homogenous. These virtues believe in togetherness, peace and harmony. They respect the integrity and divinity of mankind.

The purity of means is equally sacrosanct. They still believe in upholding the values of the past even though it may mean defeat to them which in the words of Guruchacer Das is, “the difficulty of being good”. Winning is not the be-all and end-all of life to them. Participation and inclusion are more important. Values of the individual and the society may seem to have fallen but there are forces afloat which uphold hope that the downfall is temporary and the phoenix will rise from the ashes again. Society today is in a phase of transition. In the context of contemporary changing society the traditional values are being redefined and not discarded and some more universal values are being added. In China the resurgence of confuciunism supported by the state is very welcome. It is an admission that people to be more happy need to be guided by some ideals on which they can hang on.

The origin of values in the past had either been in religion or in the legacy of the family. In modern times with the breakdown of both these institutions, values are stressed. In the Gita, the most venerated book of religion for Hindus, Krishna says that whenever decadence sets in the tenets of Dharma in this universe, he, the lord himself, appears to set them right. This statement on the part of Krishna himself perhaps sets the tone for revisiting the traditional values from time to time. Whereas the Ramayan is very rigid in this approach, the Mahabharat has many instances where the traditionally held codes of conduct are breached for righteous causes. The dilemma between the purity of means is resolved in favour of the righteous end.

There are many burning issues roaming around the world calling for everybody’s attention as these issues remain unsolved despite legal provisions. Racial discrimination, gender inequality, job harassment and rape, corruption in public life, intolerance, terrorism, religious fanaticism are some of the areas which have defied solution by force or by legal enforcement.

We have accepted that these issues have to be eradicated from our society but the change is very slow because their eradication has not become a part of our psyche, a habit in our day to day dealings. This may take one more generation to be an integral part of our personality. This transition period creates a conflicting situation for us in public and private life. What we say in public does not conform to what we do privately.

Pollution of any kind deserves everybody’s attention for prompt action but we are paying only lip service to them. Why this apathy to these burning issues?

The violation of human rights is rampant, widespread and systematic. Many of the totalitarian regimes show examples of torture and lack of freedom of speech. These remind one of the slavery of the past. In the name of professionalism, commercialisation has set in, for example, in sports, whether football or cricket or any other mass game, where, though the standards have definitely gone up, the sportsmen are no more the pride of a nation to which they belong. Globalisation, competition and winning combined together have removed a country’s star performers away from the national root. This type of emerging phenomenon does raise the question, is it a fall in the values of national pride or is national pride no more a virtue?

A glaring example is the issue of abortion. Catholics are divided on it as there still persists conservative groups of people who do not approve of it but the younger generation is universally unanimous regarding the necessity of liberal abortion laws and are leading protests and movements in favour of it. Here the values seem to be in conflict but the trend seems to be tilted towards the younger generation paving the way for a new value system in the 21st century.

However, these are only the remaining vestiges of the past which will tumble soon by a small push like a house of card. The winds of change which is blowing all over the world will soon reach these vestiges also. Traditionally, the human race has been hierarchical, male-dominated and self-centred and democracy, equality, liberty, freedom of speech are values of recent origin.

These democratic institutions are becoming acceptable and more efficient. People have started to believe in their integrity; but for these institutions to mature, sustain and be effective traditional individual virtues need to remain intact. After all it is an individual who matters. It was one Woodrow Wilson who alone introduced the world to a new value system which sustains the world even today and it is again one Mr. Trump who is trying alone to dismantle it. The irony is that these values of co-existence and co-operation no longer appeal to a section of the public as they want instant results. Democratic functioning is a mind-set which has not percolated to the bottom of the pyramid. In the context of the vacuum at the lower level where the majority of voters lie, self-centred authoritarian leaders can play their own game by objectifying their raw sentiments to their own advantage.

Every year the gallop world poll undertakes a survey and tries to measure happiness in almost 140 countries. In their survey they found that different cultures have different ideas about what it mean to be happy. The factor contributing to happiness were, a) Physical well-being b) Community connectivity c) Purpose for living d) Social inclusion and e) Financial security. Winning and competition were not among them. It was also found that more and more people are becoming happier universally. These contributing factors of happiness have an inherent capability to lift morals and the moral behaviour of people– personally, socially and nationally. If an individual’s set of values starts finding prominence in daily life, it can be safely assumed that the lagging moral behaviour of a society and a nation cannot remain far behind. It is only a question of time.

Women have long been treated in an objectified way, and they themselves enjoyed being part of pageants and shows. But the new awareness and conviction about the dignity of the female world has aroused a cultural revolution the world over in which women have found the courage to stand up and have their voices heard. They are more empowered and inclusive which is a totally new phenomenon created by today’s milieu. The stage is set where objectifying women is no longer a glorifying event and women are also refusing to be treated so.

Religion has always upheld moral pride in one’s own culture and nationalism. The values which were universally acclaimed to have helped mankind achieve today’s paramount status through the evolving journey of civilization suddenly find themselves face to face with the age of reason opposing them. Many of these beliefs are under stress and are required to prove themselves for survival in the new context.

These sentiments are a reflection of the evolving nature of moral behaviour which we call values. Mankind is revisiting values, redefining and reshaping them and this process is ongoing. This journey, which started in the age of faith with a solid conviction that values are absolute and unchangeable for all times, has become contextual and relative in this age of reason. Moral issues have become complex. Some of our old values are being redefined and a few new ones are being created and added yet the relevance of the old still remains intact.

The author is the chairman of Nimbus Group.

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