Changing Moral Codes Around Honour And Shame 

By withholding honour from those deviating from moral expectations and investing those following such norms with esteem and respect, we can begin a process of social reform.

Changing Moral Codes Around Honour And Shame 

Ours is a society that takes pride in personal honour and individual reputation. I am not alluding to the evil custom of honour killing, though it underlines honour being partially tied to the behaviour of our women. By honour, I mean our notion of self-dignity and respect. It is associated with caste and family standing, honesty, resourcefulness, charity, truth, fulfilling of obligations, affection, and piety. One earns one’s honour both by birth and one’s personal reputation by acting on foregoing values. What is striking is that the moral bases of honour and reputation are changing. 

A poor reputation is increasingly losing its sting of shame. We are becoming a society where shame and guilt are not closely associated with morals of honour and reputation. Power, money, status and opulence override an ill-reputation and its associated shame. Apart from laws and regulations, every society is organized around moral norms and values for social control. These non-legislated means include ‘naming and shaming’ as instruments of controlling people’s behaviours.

In a community as well as market, a bad name and ill-reputation bring shame. Normally, there are deterrents against bad behaviour. For example, New York city uses naming bad landlords, who do not keep their properties in good repair, as a way of publicly shaming them to enforce building regulations. A bad reputation is meant to bring political and many a times, commercial losses. But naming and shaming are losing their sting in Pakistan.

Naming and shaming

Our political and economic elite have led the way in eroding the dishonour associated with naming and shaming. There is near consensus in the media and popular narrative that most politicians are corrupt, getting rich with the misuse of their offices. For example, the Sharif family’s apartments in London are often shown with aplomb on TV. The dynasty has properties in other global metropoles, also as the Panama Papers alleged, they had rather large bank accounts in tax havens. President Zardari and Prime Minister Benazir were hauled in the courts in England and Switzerland over bank accounts, jewellery and properties. The family is fabulously rich. Even youthful Bilawal Bhutto Zardari listed his worth as one billion rupees in election filings, though he is not known to have worked for earning his keep. Maulana Fazlur Rahman is commonly believed to have acquired public land and oil permits. President (Gen.) Musharraf lived his retirement days in England and Dubai, with a rather luxurious lifestyle. It could not have been on the basis of his pensions alone. Imran Khan is now accused of profiting from state gifts. These are only illustrative examples of popular accounts of our leaders’ corruption. Yet ill-reputations have not brought them any visible loss of honour.

In today’s global world, it is not unexpected that someone would have interests in businesses and properties abroad. What is dishonourable for public figures is the reluctance to clarify the source of their riches and be open about their income. If individuals aspire to be rulers, why don’t they come clean about the sources of their wealth, acknowledging businesses abroad, if any? The standard response is to stonewall accusations, deflecting the answer by accusing opponents. There is no attempt to defend one’s name and little shame.

The loss of shame for a bad name is not just the way of the elite. It has become a social norm. Not long ago, income from bribes, hoarding and black market or trade in spurious/adulterated goods was popularly considered haram (forbidden) and such earnings could have made someone rich, but they were disreputable. People were generally weary of marrying in families of dubious riches. I know of one case from the 1950s, in which an engagement was called out, when the girl’s father found out that the betrothed had a motorcycle on the small salary of an overseer. The girl’s father felt that an income from bribery will compromise his daughter’s reputation and bring her ill-luck. Can one imagine such considerations now being entertained? Good income, regardless of the source is honoured for its own sake.

Shame as an emotion is now limited to sexual, religious (observances) and violent behaviour. It has been detached from everyday acts. Public officials take bribes. The merchants openly sell adulterated goods. There are workshops that make brand named handbags, imitation luggage, and spurious drugs. Neighbours know, but the guilty person remains respectable. Lahore has a big market for imitated brand goods, which in Lahore’s inimitable language of slapstick is called chor (thief) bazaar. Religion comes to our rescue, if one has money. Charity, umrahs and repeated Hajj are believed to wash out sins. One’s reputation is sustained with pious acts.

Moral reforms and codes of ethics

How can honour and shame be resurrected? This question is of course a matter of moral change. Yet, as we have revised morals downwardly, I am confident that if we are collectively determined to change, the process can be reversed. Social movements, media campaigns and community narratives can collectively change moral values. We should not only look towards legislation or public policies, but also social and cultural initiatives. The starting point is to change the moral bases of honour. 

Philosopher Kwame A. Appiah (Princeton) in the book, The Honor Code argues that changing an honour code can help bring about a moral revolution. He analyzed three historical behaviours, namely duelling in Britain, foot binding in China and the Atlantic slavery, which were abandoned with moral reforms and the change in the honour code. Appiah’s insights are equally workable in Pakistan. 

Through a wide-ranging and persistent discussions of our moral failings, we can change social expectations. The media, public leaders, Imams and educators may explicitly raise issues of our moral confusion, namely the ambiguities of right and wrong. This should be followed by proposing and establishing codes of ethics for various aspects of our public life. 

I believe that as a community, we are lost for guidelines of behaviour to be respected and honoured. Through community initiatives and legislation, we should formulate codes of ethics for public organizations and commercial as well as social activities. Honour and respect should be reserved for those who follow those codes, while violators should be socially ostracised. By withholding honour from those deviating from moral expectations and investing those following such norms with esteem and respect, we can begin a process of social reform.

Mohammad Qadeer’s book, Lahore In The 21st Century, will be released by Routledge in May this year.