“Dark times lie ahead of us and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.”is one of my favorite quotes. This quote is from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Albus Dumbledore says this addressing the students of Hogwarts after the tragic death of Cedric Diggory and  the return of  Voldemort.  The quote has a deep appeal, in part because it conveys that there is a firm right and a firm quite not right. I believe this underlines the belief that morals are concrete, that there is some absolute right, which is obvious to every human and always has been.  But has it really been this way?

If someone would have asked me what are morals? I would have said, something which we find inherently right, going against which is emotionally painful. The obvious question now, is that, how do we decide this right  or wrong? or do we decide at all? It’s very difficult to answer accurately what exactly shapes our definition of right. Yet, it is evident that the family we are brought up in and the society we live in contribute a great deal to our understanding of morals.  As we grow, we change this definition again and again based on our personal experiences and understanding. This definition shapes our personal morals and it changes with us throughout our lifetime. Social morals on the other hand are generally a little slower to change.

For example, people brought up in India before this century find nothing wrong with parents disciplining their children with beatings. Whereas people in the US or some parts of Europe might find it abusive enough to take the child away from such treatment. These kind of morals which are shaped by the social structure around us are termed as social morals. Likewise, personal morals are something specific to an individual. They spring out of our understanding of life and what we choose to find meaning in. They could be, to be considerate or always help when you can or to never give advice. It becomes clear if we think how our definition of right and wrong has changed since you were ten.

Sometimes our personal morals clash with the social ones thus putting us in a dilemma. I am by no means saying our personal morals are always unaffected by the region or time period we are born in, only that they can be unaffected. Let us discuss social morals and their journey of evolution.

Let’s start at the very beginning, after all it is a very good place to start. Researchers claim that altruism: a desire to help people not related to you by blood, has its roots in the times when man started to hunt in groups. Strictly speaking, co-operation defies the ‘Survival of the fittest’ law. Thus, it is assumed that, this quality of altruism was not omnipresent, but it proved to increase the survival rate of the groups that practiced altruism thus propagating it. There are some theories as to the origin of this desire, one theory is that it was a costly display of fitness to attract potential mates,  the other states that it was a calculated strategy to secure help when in need by providing it when you are able, a bit like how a flywheel works. I do not know if we were always this calculative in our approach but considering our relationships today, the idea doesn’t seem quite so farfetched. It could be that, we helped each other and we benefitted from it and so it became the norm. Then slowly it became a quality to be sought after, because it bettered your chances of survival, what was more important than that?

If we look at the moral shift, we see, they have almost always had their root in social conveniences. A hundred years ago hunting animals for entertainment was a sign of a highly entitled lifestyle. There were plenty of animals and lesser number of people with the requisite time, energy, skill and paraphernalia to hunt. No one was thinking about the animals dying without any reason. Fast forward hundred years and after contributing to near extinction of some species, we now feel it immoral to kill animals for sport. Thus, hunting, especially the species which we have helped to bring to the brink of extinction, has even been made illegal.  A hundred years or so ago, engaging in sexual activities without the social sanction or marriage as it is commonly known today was considered immoral, especially so for women. It is so, even today, in some of the more conservative societies. So much, so that it is higher than boiling puppies on their no-no list. But with the advent of birth control measures, it is no longer a point of consternation in most of the western world.

After having enjoyed the status of being a very popular and widespread punishment for crimes like murder, treachery, disloyalty and others, now many countries are questioning the morality of handing out death sentences to people.

Coming to countries, national pride or rather loyalty to, in essence a concept rather than a person is a relatively new development in our morals. Another thing the rise of twentieth century has brought along with it is our insistence on equality. It is an ideal we aspire to achieve. Just yesterday when I was watching a teaser for the upcoming ‘Anandibai Joshi’, I was astounded by the amount of control her husband had in her life. It even adhered to the social moral values of that time. I have no intention on commenting whether it was beneficial for her in the long run or not, never the less the fact remains, the amount of control the women allowed or expected in their life is dizzying sometimes and yet it was a norm, not even fifty years ago.

This is an incidence that can sum up what I mean well, I suppose. Once, my Grandmother asked me to, not do something, I asked her, “Why?”. In all seriousness she said that in her time children never dared to ask their elders impertinent questions like Why. And instinctively I had asked, “Why?”. This conversation had always perplexed me in my childhood, in hindsight I cannot help but find some humour in it. I believe that the mere fact that we had this conversation underlines that morals have changed, a great deal, in a span of just two generations.  Even the change made in section 377 is a prime example of changing morals. It was illegal and immoral to engage in homosexual intercourse, then there were a few people who believed it to be only illegal and not immoral. This is what I meant when I said our social morals do not always align with our personal morals. Now that, it no longer is illegal, it is only immoral for a part of the population.  I think this feeling that we have a right to dictate a person’s personal life will also change with time, starting from a person’s choice in dressing to their choice in their partners.

If they do manage to preserve human bodies and wake them up after two hundred years or so and if you end up signing for the ride, be prepared to wake up to a very different definition of humanity than what you are accustomed to. You might wake up to a world which considers consuming animal milk, honey and using silk and leather as immoral, where trees are considered as deities and harming one is tantamount to murder or a world where the population is fit to burst and so the government has made having children illegal, where if even some population has to survive then killing off a few million people is a must and the world leadership is debating what is the best way to choose the people who live.  The only thing certain, is that it will be different.