Ethics

In my previous post, I had touched upon – in passing – the subject of a clash between Eastern and Western values. And in a comment on that post, you12 linked to a longish article by Infosys founder NR Narayanamurthy – “Western Values And Eastern Challenges”. It is an interesting article because while on one hand, Murthy is “proud to be part of a culture, which has deep-rooted family values,” he’s also heavily critical of the typical Indian take-it-easy, we-are-the-greatest, I-am-not-responsible and other attitudes – he has a laundry list at hand. Barring the “family values”, he prefers Western values to Eastern ones, and that includes a whole-hearted support for “the common good.” For that’s what most of his examples are about-

We are all aware of our rights as citizens. Nevertheless, we often fail to acknowledge the duty that accompanies every right. To borrow Dwight Eisenhower’s words: “People that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.”

Our duty is towards the community as a whole, as much as it is towards our families. We have to remember that fundamental social problems grow out of a lack of commitment to the common good. To quote Henry Beecher: Culture is that which helps us to work for the betterment of all.

Hence, friends, I do believe that we can make our society even better by assimilating these Western values into our own culture – we will be stronger for it. Most of our behaviour comes from greed, lack of self-confidence, lack of confidence in the nation, and lack of respect for the society.

To borrow Gandhi’s words: There is enough in this world for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed. Let us work towards a society where we would do unto others what we would have others do unto us. Let us all be responsible citizens who make our country a great place to live.

In the words of Winston Churchill, “Responsibility is the price of greatness.” We have to extend our family values beyond the boundaries of our home. Let us work towards maximum welfare of the maximum people – “Samasta janaanaam sukhino bhavantu”.

Murthy is an intelligent man and a well respected personality and many Indians look up to him. He was a socialist at one time, but an incident in one of the Soviet countries pushed him towards capitalism. He’s not an ideological capitalist though, but a believer in efficient government and “compassionate capitalism.” One of his pet sayings, and its a good one, goes like this – “a clear conscience is the softest pillow.” In spite of all this, the fact remains that he considers that individuals should be prepared to make a “modest sacrifice” for society-

As it is said in the Vedas: Man can live individually, but can survive only collectively. Hence, our challenge is to form a progressive community by balancing the interests of the individual and that of the society. To meet this we need to develop a value system where people accept modest sacrifices for the common good.

A value system is the protocol for behaviour that enhances the trust, confidence and commitment of members of the community. It goes beyond the domain of legality – It is about decent and desirable behaviour. Further, it includes putting the community interests ahead of your own. Thus, our collective survival and progress is predicated on sound values.

That, for him, is what ethics (morality, value system – call it what you will) finally comes down to. Sacrifice.

The concept of “value” presupposes a valuer; that is, without some one to value a particular object, it cannot have a value. That is why sacrifice is a perverse concept. I have written about it before, but a repetition is helpful-

Now “sacrifice”. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “an act of giving up something of value for the sake of something that is of greater value or importance,” (to whom?). And Obama uses the word in this context. But is this the correct definition of sacrifice? Consider an example – I have ten dollars in hand. I “give it up” for “something that is of greater value or importance” (to me) – a car. So I have sacrificed ten dollars for a car. Sounds right? Not to me; it is more like a bargain than a sacrifice; the only way that can happen is if we concede that both bargain and sacrifice refer to the same thing. I never thought about this till I read Rand’s book – The Virtue of Selfishness (It did not hit me when I read Atlas Shrugged). This is how Rand defines the word – “‘Sacrifice’ is the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a nonvalue.” And now it makes perfect sense. It also answers the question “to whom?” – to the beneficiary of the sacrifice. And that is why Rand says

It stands to reason that where there’s sacrifice, there’s someone collecting sacrificial offerings. Where there’s service, there’s someone being served. The man who speaks to you of sacrifice, speaks of slaves and masters. And intends to be the master.

Before I proceed further, I should say that there are no “correct” definitions of words. We invented language to think and to communicate and so words get their definitions based on how people use it over a period of time. “Gay”, half a century ago, meant happy; now its a reference to a “queer” person. So while sacrifice started out the way COED defines it, Rand’s definition is how it works in practice. But COED won’t change its definition because for most people a community or society or nation “is” greater than the individual. For them the valuer is not relevant – only the values are.

– – – – – –

Its in this context that I want to write about NRN’s reference to corruption and the Indian attitude towards it. A few weeks back, I was writing a post titled “C for Corruption” but deep-freezed it because corruption was a pretty boring subject. I tried to look at it from an ethical perspective, but lost interest. This article revived it. The following paragraphs, and even some of the later ones, including the reference to Kant are from that draft-

This Mint Quick Edit refers to India’s high rank in Transparency International’s Bribe Payers Index. A few days back, the same paper ran a story on how the Indian Patent Office was granting patents on drugs based on minor modifications to existing formulations-

The patents highlight inconsistency and lack of transparency in the functioning of India’s patent offices.

In October, Mint reported the findings of a month-long investigation that showed that some patents were awarded because of a nexus between so-called patent agents, or lawyers employed by drug firms to manage their patent application process, and patent officials. Under India’s patent law (specifically, section 3(d) of the Patent Act), patents cannot be granted to minor modifications or derivatives of known inventions.

A story in the Times of India talks of how cops allow vehicles to pass through check points by accepting bribes-

With protectors like these, who needs terrorists? In a shocking expose that has come at a time when police across the country are claiming to be doing their best to thwart a repeat of Mumbai’s terror attacks, traffic cops here have been caught taking money to pass on a secret code to drivers either written on their palm or on a piece of paper that would ensure them safe passage through all subsequent nakas. No questions asked.

The modus operandi is as ingenious as it’s simple. Pay the corrupt traffic cop the money he demands, and which is negotiable at all times, just like his honesty, and he will inscribe something on your palm, either letters or numbers. Flash this to designated cops in the next check post and he will usher you in without creating trouble. It really doesn’t matter if the vehicle is loaded with RDX and you are driving straight into the heart of India’s capital from the borders of Punjab.

Then there are the cases of ‘special interests’ pressurizing government to bail them out – the interest rate cut and how it will help India’s real estate sector for example; or the case of telecom licenses being issued without undertaking a process of auction.

You add to this the bribes paid to traffic cops, touts managing the process of issue of licenses at various RTO’s across the country, the bribes paid to officials of the different revenues – Income Tax Department (even to get your own refund for god sake), Excise Department, Sales Tax, Property Tax and god only knows what else – you can probably add the Food Corporation of India and the whole Public Distribution System to the list; and before I forget – the octroi nakas – octroi is still a major source of revenue for all major cities in Maharashtra; and we can conclude that without bribes India would shut down. V. Raghunathan has a nice article in the Economic Times of December 9 about it, but he makes a mistake by linking corruption to patriotism.

Now the question – its about morality, not law (Indian laws on this subject are notorious, and so are the judgments of the Supreme Court) – are both parties to a ‘transaction’ that takes place on the basis of a bribe “corrupt”? No, because the question fails to consider the concept of coercion, and as I said before, that of values. There are some who would say that paying a bribe is always a wrong thing to do. They would argue that giving bribes encourages the corrupt officials, and therefore increases corruption. But should we really be concerned, as NRN is, with what effect giving bribes has on corruption? Consider, for example, the motive behind the bribe-

  1. Is it to get something done which would have been done even without a bribe, but circumstances force you to pay the bribe – (say) getting a driving license.
  2. Is it to get something which you would otherwise not have got were it not for the bribe – (say) bribing the talathi to forge land records so that you can sell someone else’s property.

Case 1 is where you have no ill intentions at all. You simply wanted to get something done – a driving license, a passport, run your business etc. But the rot in the government machinery forces you to pay up – to a tout, a cop, or if you are running a business – to a long list of people from various government departments who will always find one regulation or the other that you have not complied with, and even if you have, people who can always ‘create’ problems; in simple words a ‘protection racket’. And it does not always have to be all about ‘corruption’. This case can also be extended to incidents like the notorious “Tata Tapes” scandal of 1997 where a government that treats terror groups with kid gloves goes ahead and targets a company that is trying to protect its employees, and where the company gets caught in a fight between the central and state governments, or paying a ransom in cases of kidnapping – both are incidents where the government fails in its primary duty of providing security to its citizens. And this is precisely the point Pritish Nandy makes in relation to the extortion attempt made on the Tatas-

Does a State that has failed to protect you from the militants have the moral right to punish you for succumbing to extortion? I say no.

If the Bombay cops were to look away when gangsters came with AK-47s and tried to extort you, can they (thereafter) punish you for paying up to save your life? Surely, every individual, every community, every corporate has the right to its own life and security and a government that cannot protect them has no right to punish them either, if they choose to make their own peace with the extortionists.

If indeed Tata Tea did, knowingly and wilfully, pay for Pranati Deka’s trip to Bombay which itself is a matter of mere hypothesis as yet I see nothing wrong in it. Providing medical help to someone suspected of blood cancer and about to deliver a child is not exactly the same as bribing a terrorist outfit. In fact, if you look at contemporary history with dispassion, the Assam government has done far more to appease terrorists. In fact, if rumours are to be believed, they have often been hand in glove with the ULFA. There are some who claim that the loot is shared.

I do not know if this is true or not. Whether the Assam government shares the loot with the terrorists or not. Just as I do not know whether Tata Tea paid for Pranati Deka. But I certainly know one thing: A government that cannot protect its people and its corporates has no right to punish anyone who is protecting himself.

Here, nothing anyone does to ease the situation is immoral – it might be “illegal”, but not immoral or unethical. Two reasons, and we go to Rand for both – one, decisions on morality cannot be made under coercion (“Morality ends where a gun begins”) – someone who has no free will is not responsible for the consequences of his actions; and two, nothing you do to protect a higher value is immoral. My only problem with bribery “was” its futility- you will keep paying, or doing things you don’t wish to do, till hell freezes over. But then, if you don’t, you face the consequence, one way or the other (just think about the scene from Deewar where the young man who was saving money for his sister’s wedding dies over a few rupees).

Case 2 is where its you who plan to take advantage of the government and profit from its laws and monopoly on coercive force – in a way that harms others (the condition is important because a situation might exist where the only way you can do any business at all is with the government, and it should probably be covered by Case 1). So lobbying for contracts, or specific rights, and paying the people who help get the job done, the end result of which is a profit but at the expense of the citizens or honest competitors; influencing the passage of certain laws etc, is covered. Needless to say, this is unethical because there are no mitigating circumstances – no coercion, no values to protect.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy revolves around something he called the “Categorical Imperative”, and our very own Raja Harischandra – the man who refused to lie, ever – is a perfect example of this (and also of naivety and altruism). According to Kant (its CI’s first formulation) you must “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” So, now imagine a world where everyone lies all the time. Would you want to live in such a world? If no, then lying is wrong – always. And you can extend the same idea to corruption, stealing, murder etc etc. He doesn’t differentiate based on circumstances, and that can lead to absurd situations like telling the truth to a would be murderer (you should, he said). This deontological system of ethics of Kant is different from a ethical system based on consequentialism (“the ends justify the means”) or utilitarianism (that is good that ensures “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”). But all of them share a common attribute – they are baseless.

Ethics does not stand on its own. It derives (or should be derived) from two branches of philosophy – metaphysics and epistemology. Its only when you understand the nature of man can you derive a system of morality for him to follow. Unfortunately, while NRN, and even Kant, seem to have their heart in the right place, the first seems to believes that ethics are all about society, while the second tried to conjure up an a priori deontological system out of thin air.

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Comments

  • chandra  On January 23, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    Thanks great post!

  • you12  On January 24, 2009 at 10:08 am

    True. “Ethics does not stand on its own” I like this line its profound. All collectivist ideologies however noble they may be, fail to realize that their ideology can not affect societies as a whole but will only affect individuals and individuals cannot be made to conform to the whims and wishes of public morality.

    Forcing such a collectivist ideology on a group of individuals fails and becomes a tyranny for the ideology to survive, harming the same people it was meant to help.It is not a coincidence that all socialist struggles were and are violent and oppressive.

    Although what do you mean by nature of man?

  • Aristotle The Geek  On January 24, 2009 at 1:31 pm

    “what do you mean by nature of man?”
    Man is a rational “animal,” and he has to act rationally to survive and “flourish.”

    If he follows a philosophy which tells him drinking water is not essential to life, nor is breathing or eating, he will die. These are unalterable metaphysical facts about man’s nature.

    If he follows a philosophy which tells him he does not have to think in order to survive, he won’t survive. The only way man can know anything at all about everything, and do something about it – the world, his surroundings etc – is by using his brains. This is an epistemological fact. You have to use your brains even to deny it.

    Then comes living – survival and “flourishing”. The right to life, and to property are part and parcel of “man” by the very nature of his being born and are essential to his survival. If you deny man the right to property – snatch everything he produces away from him, he won’t be able to survive except in slavery. If you make this the core of an ethical philosophy – tell him that he lives only to fulfill the whims of society, you tell him to voluntarily accept slavery. This is what all collectivist philosophies do – make a virtue out of altruism, and this is against the “nature of man.”

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