The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Modernity has to do with treating others as ethical equals

While the 'scientific temper' flourishes best in a modern society, it does not mean that a modern person is by definition one who is sceptical, materialist, rational, and demands proofs for everything. While this point of view has an instinctive appeal about it, one needs to be cautious in too easily equating science with modernity. There were great men of science in ancient and medieval periods who cannot be called 'modern' in any meaningful way. Even the great Isaac Newton has been quite persuasively likened to the last great magician given his predilection towards something quite as unscientific as alchemy. In fact, there are a number of great minds to whom modern science owes an enormous debt but who thought in a very pre-modern way, had very pre-modern relationships with their families, wives and children, and who probably saw nothing wrong in the fact that certain people should enjoy privileges of birth. Equally, there were people in the past, and not all of them were renowned, who were also inquisitive and generous to others, but that did not make them, or their societies, modern.

There is yet another reason why science should not be seen as a near synonym of modernity. It is here that we need to be a little self-critical, for not all modern people are actually scientific. It would be incorrect to categorize somebody as pre-modern simply because the person has faith in god, or believes in a particular brand of spiritualism, or who, on a day to day basis, does not question the authority of received knowledge regarding why wood floats or fire burns.

The truth of the matter is that most of us lead our lives trusting the knowledge that we have grown up with, and not seriously bothering to exercise an attitude of organized scepticism towards all forms of authority and with respect to everything our senses superficially behold. We do not begin our daily encounters by arguing over the validity of first principles. And, yet, we are very significantly different from our ancestors in the middle ages.

To get a true measure of what makes us different it is necessary to leave aspects of personal cultivation aside and think instead of how modernity alters the way we socially relate to one another. A modern society is one where relationships are governed by the fact that we treat other people as ethical equals regardless of their station in life or the circumstances of their birth. In other words, modernity is not about individual attributes such as inquisitiveness, scepticism, thirst for knowledge and so on, but rather about how we relate to others on a daily basis. The fact that we accord ethical respect to our social interlocutors does not come out of a cultivated disposition, but from a structural feature of everyday life. It is not as if a person makes a huge effort to treat the other as an ethical equal, even as such a person stands as an anonymous being, but rather the norms of interaction are socialized such that it is second nature to treat the other with a sense of dignity, as if the person could have been you.

It might help at this juncture to differentiate between morality and ethics. Morality can be privatized, and indeed, it is possible to carve out different moral principles in the same social environment. One might in fact even get a charge out of being the only moral being in an immoral world. A person may exult in being the only vegetarian, or the only one who believes in feminine chastity, or that children should be seen and not heard. In morality the other person does not matter as much as oneself.

Ethics, however, is very different. To start with, one cannot be ethical alone. To be ethical is to relate to other people and that is why the standards of ethics and those of morality are quite different. Ethical conduct is one where there is an in-built empathy and ability to share one another's fate.

Once this perspective is accepted it is easier to appreciate why modernity allows for greater tolerance regarding alternative viewpoints, knowledges and lifestyles. If, at a fundamental level, we are constrained to treat the other as an ethical equal then it follows that we must also respect opinions other than our own, even if we do not eventually adopt them. These views might range from scientific scepticism, to faith in god, and even to hitherto unencountered aesthetic preferences. They are all perfectly legitimate so long as they do not undermine the other as an ethical equal. If the ethical status of the other is in any way negated then it does not matter how much scientific progress a society may achieve at any point of time, it will be short-lived. Where social relationships are not governed by this in-built respect for others, science cannot sustain itself over the long run.

Scientific growth is possible in modern societies not because there are suddenly more sceptical scientists, but because people must now respect the other as an ethical equal. This person may be an anonymous individual, about whose origins we have no knowledge, and towards whose point of view we may have no sympathy. Surely this does not happen easily and that is why many societies that are industrializing are not yet modern in this very critical sense. On the other hand, without a thoroughgoing industrialization that overthrows every vestige of past relationships that were governed by status and birth, it is impossible to inaugurate an era where ethical equality can be a defining social motif.

There are certain structural conditions that favour the development of such modern social relations. It is difficult to imagine modernity of the kind outlined above when there are vast economic disparities between classes. Therefore, in societies that are generally middle class, as in western Europe, the chances of viewing the other as an ethical equal are very high. And yet when the same Europeans or Americans interact with people of vastly different backgrounds, they do not always accord them the kind of ethical status that they would to their own people back home. It is therefore not surprising that with only 15 per cent of the globe's population the West produces over 85 per cent of all scientific journals and roughly 96 per cent of patents worldwide. It would be incorrect to say that only bright minds are produced in the western hemisphere. Countries like India fall behind in scientific production because we lack the basic ethical quotient necessary for being modern.

This demonstrates that social relations of modernity thrive particularly well when there is greater economic parity between people. So if India is to move towards true modernity then it is important that we overcome economic and status differentials of the kind that prevail in this country. Modernity, in the ultimate analysis, is not about affectations, or about personal dispositions, such as being scientific, irreligious, or philanthropic; nor is it really about building big industries and dams. Modernity is essentially a sociological concept as it emphasizes, above all else, the conditions under which social relations based on ethical equality can be realized as a universal principle.

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