In the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, overstepping the bounds of one’s domain or authority is a common phenomenon and it manifests itself in ways more than one in daily occurrences. Because of this tendency, the line between public and private morality has blurred to a large extent. What is essentially considered a part of personal morality, in developed societies, is often subjected to rigorous public scrutiny in our country. And the public conduct on the other hand, which should legitimately be under surveillance, is left unregulated. Corresponding to such distinction is the difference in availability of means to guide and enforce conduct in each case.

In societies where individual freedom and liberty are held sacrosanct, the realm of private morality is exempted from intrusion by law or public condemnation. Only, if a person’s actions do have effect on the public interest, compliance of code of conduct becomes the function of law. Private morality should depend on nothing else but the will of the concerned individual. J. S Mill provides a guideline in this regard stipulating that an individual’s act is not fit for condemnation unless it harms others who are not voluntary participants in the activity.

The debate has become pertinent recently when Komal Rizvi has been harangued and reviled on social media for taking a selfie with a sick Abdul Sattar Edhiat the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation (SIUT) hospital. Some criticized it as an act of unnecessary publicity, while others disparaged it as crass insensitivity on Ms. Rizvi’s part. The social networking sites were flooded with her selfie memes. Before choosing to condemn or refrain from condemning Komal Rizvi’s act, we should ask two questions to ourselves. First, was Abdul Sattar Edhi forced to be part of the selfie? Second, did the selfie damage public interest? If the answer to both questions is in negative, we have got no right to issue public disapproval of Komal Rizvi’s conduct.

The latter’s good faith is evident from a later online post, saying, “Both Edhi Sahab and I were happy taking it. We were laughing and joking and singing and talking about other celebrity visits and how I can possibly participate in the future with their foundation…Edhi Sahab wanted to sit up for my pictures.. I quickly asked him to keep lying down… I didn’t want to inconvenience him even one teensy bit…while his beautiful wife was making funny jokes and talking about Sean Penn and Anupam Kher’s visit… I took tons of pics and selfies.”

Even earlier posting her photos, she wrote, “I cannot thank Almighty enough for giving me this unforgettable moment and opportunity to meet the most important man in Pakistan”. This clearly demonstrates the respect and regard, which she has for Mr. Edhi. But the vigilante group on social media didn’t relent or appear apologetic in its unjustified criticism of Ms. Rizvi.

A certain act may offend the social sensibilities of a section of society but that does not arrogate to them a right to censure or besmirch others. The Komal Rizvi episode is not a singular instance of moral policing, rather the cases keep coming up every now and then- a trend which must be discouraged. A couple of years ago, in a frantic race of public ratings, Maya Khan, a TV anchor aired a show in which she and her team went running after young men and women having leisurely moments together in a public park. The media team went to the extent of harassing them and asking if they were married or not. As if the controversy that ensued Maya Khan’s show was not enough, a year later, another self-righteous anchor, Dr Maria Zulfikar, embarked on raiding a private accommodation purportedly housing a massage center to find out whether illicit encounters were taking place there in the guise of a massage center. A police party that acted upon the orders from the anchor at the moment, to take allegedly ‘sex-workers’ into custody, also accompanied Dr. Maria.

The real question in both cases aforementioned should have been: were women being forced to come to the park or the massage center? Instead of sitting in judgment on morality or immorality of a private action, the key consideration should be that, in any situation, an individual is not deprived of his capacity to exercise free will.

Another related point is that the society does not have a right to pass judgments on any sort of moral actions. A majority of people may consider an action of an individual that does not impinge on public interest right or wrong but they should not caste their judgment in terms of good or bad, moral or immoral. Not every action of an individual, poses a threat to the integrity of society, the preservation of which generally constitutes an argument for intervention of the moral brigade.

Jamshed Dasti, a populist MP brought to the fore the issue of immoral activities happening in the lodges of Parliament. He also showed empty bottles of liquor on a live show that he claimed to have recovered from those lodges. Instead of what an MP does in his private chamber, the issue of debate should have been why most of the parliamentarians don’t take interest in legislative business, which is an affront to the electoral mandate given to them through public vote?