Of Moral Dilemmas & Leadership


All of us struggle with moral dilemmas. Such quandaries define and affect our lives and of the people around us. What’s more, most moral dilemmas are difficult, complex and demanding. They involve not only risk, but also discomfort, even when we are convinced that we have conducted ourselves in an upright manner. Remember — power could come from the barrel of a gun, just as integrity may infrequently emerge from a handbook.

Moral dilemmas have social or environmental connotations. They urge us to comply with cultural norms; they may also oblige us to defy them. No amount of futuristic change can obscure this fundamental moral choice, because our life addresses itself to the challenges of everyday life, the particular decisions we make and stand by, or from which we falter.

We are today, perhaps, much more than ever before, flooded by urgent moral questions. We are also, like our society, in conflict with ourselves. Yet, in the backdrop of such a predicament, there’s also hope. As W B Yeats echoed in his Meditations in Time of Civil War, there’s a profound need for peace and healing. Witness, the Israel-Gaza imbroglio in the Middle East, or other conflicts, a modern allegory far too gory, and the COVID-19 tsunami 2020, especially in today’s context:

“We are closed in, and the key is turned,/On our uncertainty; somewhere,/A man is killed, or a house burned,/Yet no clear fact to be discerned:/Come build in the empty house of the stare.”

“We had fed the heart on fantasies,/The heart’s grown brutal from the fare,/More substances in our enmities/Than in our love; O honey-bees,/Come build in the empty house of the stare.

Yeats’ poetry reminds us, just as Seamus Heaney, another great Irishman and poet, expressed that we are “Hunters and gatherers of values” too. This leads to another reality, “That our solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they too are an earnest of our veritable human being.”

The complexity of contemporary life does not yield itself to simplistic, formulaic solutions beloved of soap operas and movies. It confronts our moral purpose and resourcefulness with new challenges. Is there a time-tested mode of coping with them? Yes. We’d first begin by taking a journey into the past and consulting the ancient traditions of wisdom — the Upanishads, the Gnostic scriptures — that offer us the highest standards to sustain and guide us. It isn’t easy though. We have to make cogent, sincere efforts to bring their truths into our lives through the particulars of our time and our circumstances too, rather than through deceitful rhetoric.

While most of us labour under the illusion that a simple return to the certainties of tradition will deliver us from unease, the fact remains that tradition is not static. It grows and changes, and so must we with it. This is where imagination plays a crucial role, because the ideas we summon can free or imprison us and define who we are and what kind of society we live in too. The sad part, unfortunately, is we are clearly tearing ourselves apart. As scholars Colin Greer and Herbert Kohl observe in their anthology, The Plain Truth of Things, “We are [also] blaming each other at great cost to our sense of community. [Besides] we feel quite uncertain how and who must take the first steps out of the quagmire of self-interest and suffering which we seem to be floundering in.”

This brings us to Jawaharlal Nehru, the architect of modern India, on his 60th death anniversary [cf. May 27, 1964]. To paraphrase late UN Secretary General U Thant, “Nehru was one of the greatest torch-bearers of new concepts, new approaches, and new attitudes towards new problems. He realised more than anybody else that the old concepts etc., were facing a completely new set of circumstances. He, therefore, tried to lead humanity to new concepts with the needs and circumstances of our times. If he had bitterness, if he had temper, I believe they were directed against bigotry, fanaticism and extremism for which he had no tolerance. It’s universally recognised that Nehru was endowed with great wisdom and great moral virtues. His greatness lay in the fact that he was so adaptable and he was so capable of adjusting himself to new environments and new conditions that he was a tower of strength both in regard to intellect as well as in regard to moral values.”

This is, perhaps, the best prescription for us today — irrespective of one’s ideology.

— First published in First India