Moral Double Standards and the Failure of Education

By Rohit Revi

How do we learn how to conduct ourselves in life? I begin with the assumption that it is primarily through schools and universities, and in the close proximity of classmates, colleagues, teachers and professors that our moral frameworks are formed. Educational institutions are places that shape our sense of an ideal human who we may strive to become for the rest of our lives. Our notions of virtue and virtuosity are formed in places and with people that we spend a large majority of our first 20-odd years.

So far, excellent. But, a very relevant criticism that we come to hear of academic institutions is that they fail to equip us to face the proverbial big, bad world. That the world as it operates, we believe, is manipulative and threatening, and we believe we do not know that until we graduate. So now we need to strive to operate successfully within this big, bad world, while maintaining our moral composure and improving upon our virtuosity points. This has often appeared as a principal dilemma within education. How can we use education to inculcate values that can foster individuals to develop a better world? I do not know If there is a more generic question that can be structured using conventional pedagogical key-words. But the solution seems to lie, very often, in the holistic development of individuals. The holistic development of individuals to being honest citizens with high moral and ethical qualities, seem to be our best educational bet on fixing the world.

Now, this introspection in centres of education may appear to be well-intentioned and harmless, on its own.  Its intentional transparency is a subject of faith but we can be sure about one thing. The focus on the individualizing values, of evaluating at the level of an individual, of scaling our moral rubric down to the holistic development of a person, is certainly not harmless. These are for two reasons.

Firstly, we think of individual values differently as opposed to organizational ones (say, a corporation, a university or the state). To us, actions by an organization are separable from each other and each action can be legitimately evaluated in isolation. This leads to an inherent paradox within the CSR Culture (Corporate Social Responsibility): Companies can market their specific activities as being socially responsible while at the same time participating in a system that is overall morally corrupt. For instance,  Reliance Industries Ltd is a monster conglomerate in India that has monopolized natural resources and multiple services in India, contributing hugely to degradation of ecological and economic stability in the country. But simultaneously, Reliance is somehow a value-positive figure when we see them financing the Teach for India campaign and winning awards by Vogue for having saved the world (that they made darker). This is because we see an organization’s CSR actions discretely, and not in the context of their impacts upon ecological, economic and political health. When we evaluate organizations, we have a tendency to go easy on the negatives and foreground the positives. This is because the negative is the norm, the standard background against which seemingly positive organizational actions naturally stand out as glorious.

But for individuals, the rubric is the exact opposite. The norm for individuals is that of the value-positive human, against which the value-negative stands out. There is a wonderful Irish joke illustrating how this works, which is too risqué to repeat on this blog! But the point of the joke is that one value-negative action shreds the prior evaluations of a person’s morality, in a way that we simply don’t think of with organizations.

When we treat morality principally at the level of individual virtue, we conceal the systematic source of the major problems of the world: organized actions within neoliberal capitalism. Given that our economic systems produce the problems of climate change, isn’t it stupid to look for the solutions in the realm of individual actions or individual values?

The second tragedy that results from individualizing values occurs in the multiple relationships that exist between individuals. In evaluating individuals relationally, we pit them against each other. Our values are inherently tied to our productive forces. For example, we know, the stress on punctuality and time-keeping became morally central with Taylorist management methods in industrial societies. The left has always been critical of the substance of value systems and their relations to economic conditions, at least since Weber spoke of the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. The Individual-as-a-holistic-package moral paradigm leaves us with individuals who are relationally value-positive (or negative) than other individuals. In the struggle for money, individuals of the same class are located in oppositions to each other in their attempts to please their employers, prospective or otherwise. And within organizations, the positions that individuals occupy render their value-evaluations different from each other. The employer can engage in misinformation, while the employees can only be dishonest with each other or with the company.

It seems more natural for us to treat individuals more harshly than organizations. As a result, organizations survive uncritically, while we force employees into deeper levels of competition and self-criticism. This, I submit, is a failure in education.

In a world where the rich have collective organizational super-networks, and the poor are individualized, we need context-appropriate rubrics to evaluate action. Within universities, students must be encouraged to form collectives and networks, and in learning to act in support or in resistance, they must learn to evaluate actions of collectives. If the big, bad world is a collective, universities and schools must learn that transformation cannot be individualized.



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