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On Moral Courage, Social Norms and Self Governance



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Kailash Satyarthi leads an organization called Bachpan Bachao Andolan, or Save the Children Mission, in India. On October 10 he learned he would share this year’s Nobel Peace Prize with the much better known Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan, an advocate of children and girls’ education. UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency, has suggested that about 28 million children, ages 6-14, are presently working in India. Many are doing so against their will and/or in terrible inhuman conditions. To date, Satayarthi’s organization has saved some 70,000 from such situations in his native nation.

One might expect that this circumstance—children working against their will and in horrific conditions—would occasion moral outrage and sustained efforts at local, national and international scales to address what seems on its face an abomination that any person of good will would wish to eliminate. But Satyarthi and Bachpan Bachao Andolan stand out precisely because there is so little political will to change this situation in India, or in many other nations. Here is how the New York Times described Satyarthi’s organization’s challenge and the underpinning of the lack of political enthusiasm it daily confronts:

As India undergoes swift economic expansion, a growing middle class has created a surging demand for domestic workers, jobs often filled by children. There is virtually no enforcement of labor laws, and newspapers regularly carry accounts of children sold into service and confined in horrific conditions, paid nothing and barely fed. They are sought-after employees, and in a population struggling with dire poverty, there is little will to stamp out the practice.[1]

This analysis suggests the utility of distinguishing between child labor as a business practice and the malicious greed and discrimination that often attend that condition, and such toil as a consequence of need. These two motivations apparently have become knotted in India and elsewhere, and when they do become entwined, it is the youngsters who suffer the horrific life results of penury and worse. This said, the Times article implied that the practice of child labor is primarily economic in its origins. While many families living at a subsistence level surely prevent their youngsters from attending school, most do so because they perceive it necessary for survival. But that incentive hardly fully explains these practices, especially those that result in active mistreatment and enslavement of children. Cultural norms also often support exploitation of children. The Gandhi-like Satyarthi’s original interest in what became the passion that has found him beaten and bloodied by those he investigated, began as a child himself:

Asked to explain the origin of his life’s work, Mr. Satyarthi sometimes tells a story from his childhood, when he proudly entered a schoolyard for the first time and noticed a boy his own age, the son of a cobbler, gazing at him from outside the gate. He screwed up his courage and approached the cobbler, asking why his son did not go to school. “He replied, ‘Look, sir, we are the people who are born to work,’” he said. “I was so disturbed. Why do we people have so many dreams, and they have none? This has gone so deep to my heart, and that is when I started working with poor children. It was a nonissue in my country.”[2]

This account of Satyarthi’s awakening to the moral imperative that has consumed his life, suggests that while the twin forces of need and greed may indeed underpin child labor and slavery, that motivation often exists alongside or is buttressed by a cultural disposition or norms that often convince the children’s families that their youngsters’ role in life is simply to labor— in sufferance, as their plight as minions or instruments, may demand. This worldview reminds one of the serfs of the Middle Ages who were convinced that their lot was a reflection of an ordained social cosmology and fate. Likewise, many in India’s middle class and among its industrialists appear to believe that these children are so contemptible and undeserving—as a result of their accident of birth and poverty—that they deserve their status as virtual or actual slaves. That is, the worldview and greed of these “employers” combine to lead them to treat other human beings as detritus and to rob them of all dignity. And, as Bachpan Bachao Andolan’s experience suggests, this reality is compounded by the fact that governments (in India and elsewhere), reflecting the perspective and norms of their constituents, exhibit little or no interest in changing the situation. This demoralizing scenario occasions the urgent need for someone to remind populations of the moral outrage their habits of mind are perpetrating and to articulate the need for change.

A quick read of any of many Charles Dickens novels or stories and a scan of our own nation’s history and current political environment, with its long-lived willingness to ascribe diminished standing to groups based on our cultural dispositions and on petty hatreds and fears, suggest that this sort of behavior is neither new nor unique to India. Human beings seem ever to have been disposed to view some in their midst as “less than” and to treat them with callous contempt and active hate as a result. This has been true for hundreds of years in the United States regarding how mentally ill and disabled individuals have been treated in practice (if not now in law). An often brutal discrimination continues against both groups in America today. Cultural norms in the United States have also supported slavery and segregation in the past and underpin today’s continuing willingness among many to discriminate against African Americans and immigrants.

At its core, this willingness to join economic calculation and cultural propensity to rationalize morally contemptible treatment of others poses a fundamental challenge to self-governance. Apart from the manifest and profound injustice at play in situations of bondage and maltreatment of children in India and elsewhere today, free societies simply cannot survive over the long pull if some individuals within them are denied their standing or rights as human beings. This is true of adults and children alike and appears to be particularly essential for the innocent and helpless among us, as it is treatment of these groups that reveals the relative sturdiness of our collective devotion to the beliefs in rights and freedom we otherwise profess. Tellingly, however, as the ongoing situation with child labor in India suggests, it is just these vulnerable groups that often occasion the most depraved behavior from their fellow human beings. I leave to others the search for explanations for how so many can rationalize their cruelty and callous orientation to those who can do so little to defend themselves. What must and can be emphasized here is how vital the role of societal leaders, such as Satayarthi, is to raise broader public awareness and salience of the injustice such views and actions represent.

It often suits individuals to demean and cast opprobrium on innocent or suffering people as innately meriting their lot because somehow “beneath” others. Such a stance rationalizes their mistreatment. Sanctioning such behavior, however, will always result in the enervation of freedom in the societies that countenance it for any period. Paradoxically, however, many leaders in democratic nations will find it in their electoral interest both to echo those beliefs and often to curry them, since such behavior implies political support. Changing such dispositions, rather than parroting or exploiting them, always requires leaders with the moral courage to confront and decry such attitudes, and to lead others to reflect on their beliefs in light of the values they claim to embrace.

Human greed, prejudice and avarice have ever led to corrupt behavior, and one may expect that will not change. What can shift is democratic governments’ complicity with the systematic oppression of such groups. Such social change demands the voice of leaders such as Kailash Satyarthi, who often must be willing to risk their own lives to bring such injustice to the fore. The Nobel Committee surely made an excellent choice, and highlighted a critical need in its selection of Satyarthi for its Peace Prize this year. His is work of the highest moral and democratic importance.


[1] Barry, Ellen. “Kailash Satyarthi’s Nobel Peace Prize Caps Decades of Fighting Child Slavery in India,” The New York Times, October 10, 2014,®ion=Marginalia&pgtype=article

[2] Barry,®ion=Marginalia&pgtype=article

Publication Date

October 19, 2014