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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 7, February 11, 2023

Subjective Morality and the Murder of a Young Women | Chetna Trivedi

Friday 10 February 2023


by Chetna Trivedi *

The rising incidents of violence in the modern-day context speak to us in multiple ways. It forces society to question and revisit its discourse on morality. Do we have a moral ground to hold anymore? Or morality has become subjective to the extent that it has been relegated to the individual sphere to decide whether a particular action has an ethically warranted consequence. The barbaric murder of a 26year old woman in Delhi by her live-in partner unveiled in the month of November 2022 [1] compels us to not only revisit the intensity and continuity of contemporary violence against women but also the prevalent ideas of morality. Contemporary Indian society is reaching the epitome of intolerance, marked by immense frustrations among individuals, particularly the youth. This frustration and discontent are an outcome of many factors, including the collective failure of the society in political, economic, and social aspects, the frequent communal clashes, the effort to move towards a progressive phase, and being caught between the ideals of modernity and traditionalism.

These exasperations manifest themselves in distinctive ways in any individual or individual’s action, but one common feature of this manifestation is the rising discomfort, anger, and intolerance. As a result, we often come across such ferocious acts of violence that transcend all limits of human behavior and morality. The question then arises, is there no common basis of morality left in the society in a liberal democratic state? In ancient and medieval times, the roots of morality were bounded in the codes, norms and practices of spiritualism or religion. The source of morality was to be found in the religious teachings; even the everyday practices were marked and informed by the interpretations of religious instructions, which often contained an element of moral code and universality in them. Despite of countless ethical disagreements among the people, there were shared norms based on religion to resolve them. In the present scenario, there are larger disagreements over major issues consisting: of women’s emancipation and freedom, religious freedoms of the communities, abortion, treatment of the poor, and economic and social measures for the marginalized or displaced. The disagreements persist precisely because, even if the protagonist is presenting coherent arguments upon their ideas of morality, the assumptions they are relying on are absolutely incommensurable. The dialogue and negotiations over such issues are destined to be unworkable so long as the people continue to hold their respective underlying presuppositions. Moral virtues are indispensable in the pursuit of the individual and common good within political communities.

The moral basis of society and religion has been long forgotten in lieu of modernity globally. With enlightenment and the renaissance, society and religion’s moral code of conduct has been replaced by the subjective will of the individual. The religious revelation and the morality based on such claims of truth and belief were incompatible with the assumptions and beliefs of modernity. There is now, therefore, a vacuum; there is no basis or source of morality left which could be imparted to individuals through education or everyday practices. Once the religious basis of morality has been jettisoned, nothing in principles remains but the subjective human will and desire which have to be protected by the State in the form of bestowing certain rights to the individuals and collective.

Whatever is left in the name of religion today is a closed form of an organized cult. Religion is invoked contextually, only to determine a certain identity in an intensely polarized society that we are transitioning into. It is not possible to determine the basis of morality through religions; whose adherers are fundamentalist individuals equipped with the will of violent responses when faced with a critical assessment of their views. In the absence of any universal or particular base of morality, individuals are gradually turning their ’reason’ into what David Hume calls the ’the slave of passion’. The subjective individual morality conveniently liberated the individual from any threat and burden of judgements. Religious morality might have been replaced by a certain sense of morality, which could have emphasized the progressive nature of transformation, fairness, justice, egalitarian principles, freedom and liberation, but the society as well as political leaders and economic actors would have to challenge some of its own aspects and practices.

However, the State never aimed to concretize any basis for moral actions; it was more convenient for the state apparatus to provide rights, which were made to save the individual from each other or from those in power. Of course, the protection of human being through individual rights in modern liberal regimes is any day preferable to the distressing brutalization of men, women, and children in a modern dictatorship. As per Brad S Gregory, the modern, liberal states have, in important respects, used their political power (which is much greater than that of early modern states) and permitted a certain extent of genuine flourishing. This flourishing benefited has benefitted vastly more people than the hierarchical early modern regimes, which premised on privileges for small minorities.

However, in recent times, the vacuum of the basis of morality coupled with manufactured consensus (through political maneuverings and economic fetishism) has led to an era where individuals have nothing to hold onto; they are losing the sense of their actions. The actions are determined by the immediate or long term, discontent one is faced with; therefore, subjective morality devoid of a premise is becoming increasingly dangerous. Objective morality asses actions which are not context-sensitive to the agent, and subjective morality tends to undertake the festivity of the individual in consideration. The dichotomy between objective and subjective morality cannot be resolved unless there is a gradual process of transition in society, which is marked by imparting humanistic virtues through education in the individuals. The idea has to be to become intolerant to violence, not justify the same through individual subjective defenses.

The larger crisis posed by the subjectivization of morality in the present society will continue to make us witness such incidents. Especially against women, since it is the most convenient to justify or brush aside immoral, violent acts by stigmatizing the victims. Rather than probing the decision of a Hindu woman to choose a Muslim partner or deciphering the religion of the perpetrator. The question we should be asking must be related to the larger morality of the society, which is not able to constrain such merciless exploits of violence through its code of conduct and understanding of morality.

(Author: Chetna Trivedi, is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)


  • Gregory, B. S. (2015). The unintended reformation: How a religious revolution secularized society. Harvard University Press.
  • Shraddha Walkar murder: Police investigate body parts found in Delhi wood

[1Shraddha Walkar murder: Police investigate body parts found in Delhi wood

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