Sunday, July 10, 2011

Victorian morals, Victorian ethics

Keen observers of Sri Lankan society may have noted a new emphasis on morality; a morality of a rather pious, preachy kind that is supposedly based on 'traditional' values. There has been a crackdown of 'obscene' content on television, film and some worthy even a proposed a ban on miniskirts.

Viewers of television have to put up with pixellated images each time someone lights up a cigarette, pours a drink or plants a kiss.

Never mind that the so-called traditional values are far from traditional but are based largely on the morality of Victorian England, something brought by the evil conquerors, together with a sprinkling of elements from Islamic and Hindu fundamentalists.

It is a pity that we should wrap ourselves in what is a fairly disagreeable aspect of colonialism while ignoring its far more worthy aspect, Victorian ethics.

As Charles Allen puts it, as far the military and civil administration was concerned, it was 'service, service, service, every time'. To quote:

The prestige of the Raj enhanced the status of the British in India...but it demanded a conscious sense of responsibility towards those under you.

...Victorian ethics of 'honour, decency, truthfulness and running a good show' persisted in India to a quite remarkable degree. ....'I would have no hesitation in saying that during the years I was in India , bribery and corruption were unknown among the British in India' asserts John Morris, one of the fiercest critics of the moral codes of the Raj.

...'Such attitudes created an administration that was 'probably the most incorruptible ever known'.

This attitude was strongest in the civil administration, in the business community, contemptuously referred to as box-wallahs, the moral code was "something akin to that which existed in England at the time of Pitt. It was not considered immoral to have a cut in every contract". Not everyone in business succumbed: .."there were always the established companies, well stocked with public school boys, where it was virtually unknown".

The attitude towards duty was mirrored in the Ceylon Civil Service (CCS), the counterpart to Indian Civil Service (ICS). Talking to the father of a friend, lets call him James, a retired man from the CCS, he was telling me of the high standards that were expected in the service. He said that since the service was fairly small (the annual intake to the CCS was 2-6 cadets a year, the entire ICS never numbered more than 1,300) word of the slightest impropriety quickly got around and a man who had a black mark found that no department would be willing to accept him, he would thus be transferred to the 'pool', a fate worse than death and would quickly resign.

James was in the service when they were first allowed to use their official cars for private work, provided they paid for the fuel. Previously officials who had no private cars would use their cars for their official work but rely on public transport for the private affairs. To do otherwise would be simply inconceivable.

V. L. Wirasinha, in his book on life in the CCS narrates a story where one officer, Ananda-Raja Hallock, was dismissed over allegation of incorrect expense claims. He had claimed the cost of bearers to carry his baggage when moving to a new station, which he was entitled to, but had claimed it at the rate of Rs.1 per mile rather than Rs.1 per bearer. Someone had got to know of this and complained. After an inquiry he was dismissed from the service.

I assumed that given its prestige, the CCS officers were very well paid. James said that this was not the case; had he worked for Lever Brothers he could have earned twice the salary, he preferred the CCS because he felt he would rather not spend the rest of his life selling toothpaste. Again, that attitude towards service.

Interestingly enough, one of the principles of administration: access to the humblest petitioner, was inherited by the British in the Mughal administration that preceded it.

This attitude may be viewed as paternalistic, it probably is but from the point of view of people subject to it, not a bad thing. The underlying principle in democracy is a series of institutional checks on the power of the rulers, to ensure that they act for the greater benefit of its citizens. If the rulers are fired with an ethic of service towards their subjects, then this will go at least partway towards achieving the substance of democracy, even if its forms are absent.

Is it time for us to tell our rulers to discard Victorian morals and embrace Victorian ethics instead?


Delilah said...

interesting :)

Jack Point said...

Glad you liked it, Delilah.