If we introspect on questions related to ‘ethics’, we often land upon fundamental questions, such as, how to live, or what to do, how should we live, what should we do?

Philosophers attempt to understand these questions, to figure out exactly what it means, how it can be answered, if at all, and to answer it systematically. So, I believe that these questions, what should I do, how should I live, etc. are very broad questions. It takes into account all of the pros and cons of all the different things you might do, all the different reasons you might have for and against the different actions you might perform.

We might say the question is, what should I do all things considered? Hence, it needs two types of consideration- considerations of morality and considerations of well-being.

We also shouldn’t assume the questions of morality and well-being exhaust all the kinds of reasoning in our lives. There may be other kinds of reasons that don’t have to do with either morality or well-being.

But at least two kinds of factors that we take into account when we’re asking, what should I do or how should I live, are considerations of morality and considerations of well-being.

Hence, ethics is primarily about pleasure and pain; Desire-Satisfaction theories of well-being, on which what’s good for you is getting what you want; and what we’ll call objective theories of well-being, on which what’s good for you depends on wanting the right things.

Can there be objective answers to ethical questions, objective answers to questions about how to live and what to do? Unfortunately, Ethics as a subject is not ‘objective’ in nature, rather is some way relative or subjective. And we hope you’ll see how thinking systematically about ethics can help you to live a richer, more self-directed life.

I am writing this blog in midst of unlockdown process and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, and, it is particularly built upon my repetitive thoughts, which I dealt with during the entire process of Lockdown. The pandemic has given an opportunity to explore in depth  about Ethics, the practical and moral flaws of the global economy and its applicability in the ‘very ethos of sustainable Development Goals’ which shall be examined through the lenses of Religious philosophies.

Ethics come from the domain of ‘Common Goods’, equity, development for all, which are expected to be illuminated with the lights of wisdom, from the established ‘school of thoughts’-ranging from religions to spirituality, moral code of conducts to sustainable living. Hence, this blog, will be quite unique from that perspective, as we will deal with most of those ‘cardinal principles’ of Ethical   theories and practices.

Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living” and that’s the way I think of the impulse behind philosophy and Ethics in general, that we want to reflect on and examine our lives.

How does it relate to us today? Well, two ways, I guess I’d say.

As many of you know that, Socrates dies in 399 BCE–so you do the arithmetic– about 2,300 years ago is what we might think of as the period in which classical Greek philosophy reaches maturity in these three philosophers: Socrates, who is in some sense Plato’s teacher, and Plato who was in some sense Aristotle’s teacher, and then Aristotle is famous for being Alexander the Great’s teacher. Now Alexander the Great–talk about ethics in action. Well, he was in action, and he conquered the known world and got to the north of India, but how does this period relate to us today?

A 20th century philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead said, “The safest generalization to make about Western philosophy is that it’s a series of footnotes to Plato.” That lineage isn’t direct, but I think what we see is not only the emphasis in philosophy, on knowing oneself, on critical inquiry into why one is doing what one is doing, and also an extraordinary emphasis on the virtue of justice.

Let us discuss a bit the concept of Justice. The notion of justice in modern world was started out in the Book of Plato’s REPUBLICA.  In the first chapter of REPUBLICA, Plato raised this question:

“What is justice?” And various definitions are given, and one definition that is

given is just giving each person his due. Plato in the REPUBLICA through

Symmachus, one of the Sophists– Sophist is where we get the word “sophisticated,” “sophistical”–appears and he says, “I’ll tell you what justice is. Justice is whatever those in power say it is, and that will differ from country to country, from place to place. It’ll be one thing in India. It’ll be one thing in the United States. It’ll be one thing in China. It’ll be one thing in 1500. It’ll be a different thing in the 20th century. And so Plato then goes on to say,

“Whatever justice is, it’s some kind of ideal.”

And this is in the modern time, we say as moral relativism. Is morality variable from place to place? The ancient Greeks were aware of the fact that there were customs and habits that varied a lot from city state to city state, and the question– one of the questions they had is whether or not ethics and morality are universal, or whether they just involve local rules and things like etiquette.

As I mentioned in the beginning, Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” A friend of mine added that the unlived life is not worth examining. If you really look at this you know long arc of human history, then, is our ethics intrinsic to who we are?

Who we are in the context of Global Economy and our commonly faced Ethical dilemma of ‘right or wrong’ good or bad’ rich or poor? 

I want to talk about this dilemma in three ways. Quite simply I’ll talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly, to be completely original.

Let’s start with the good.

In terms of the good, we have never been richer or more prosperous than we are today. Our global economy today is about 128 trillion dollars measured at international prices. That is an enormous sum of money which leads to an average output of around 17,000 dollars per person in the world. Though, of course, that’s extremely unevenly divided between countries and within countries. But let’s be honest about progress over the last few centuries.

If you use the World Bank’s definition of absolute poverty, which is set at $1.90 a day–again, measured at international prices–in 1800, at the start of the Industrial Revolution, about 90% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty, and life expectancy was only about 35 years old. The world is so much better today. So much better.

So, absolute poverty fell from around 2 billion people in 1990 to around 736 million in 2018-19. About 10% of the world’s population. That was driven mainly by Asia, mainly by East Asia, and especially by China, which in a few decades transformed from a village-based impoverished nation to a middle-income country with a low poverty rate. Hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. We’ve never seen anything on that scale and speed before.

Quite remarkable.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, too, poverty rates have fallen not quite as fast but still substantially from around 54% in 1990 to around 41% in 2018-19. So good progress, but slower.

And a lot of the credit there is due to the Millennium Development Goals, which contributed to major improvements in health outcomes. Child mortality has also declined dramatically over this period, again, since 1990, and the number of children who die before their fifth birthday has fallen from around 12.5 million each year to just under 6 million each year by 2015. Again, a declined by around half. So that’s the good. You know, an immensely prosperous global economy with great progress in reducing poverty.

Well what about the bad?

Despite this, you know, immense wealth and despite this progress, we still see massive levels of poverty, deprivation, and social exclusion. I talked about the decline of absolute poverty, but it still sits at 736 million people. That’s staggering, and that’s a moral outrage.

About 820 million people are classified as hungry. That’s one out of every nine people in the world. Life expectancy, yes, it’s about 70 years today. That’s really good. But there’s about a 20-year gap between the richest countries and the poorest countries. And 6 million children still die before their fifth birthday, and almost all of these could be saved by basic medical interventions that cost very, very little.

And when we look at inequality–I mean Oxfam told us that last year the richest 1% took home 82% of the wealth in the world, and the bottom 3.7 billion got nothing. The World Inequality Report tells us that, since 1980, the top 1% took home twice the gains from growth as the bottom 50%. So vast levels of inequality.

And on fairness, this is the complicated story. Of course, you know, inequality is actually falling between countries as, you know, as countries like China converge with richer countries in the advanced world. But it’s rising within countries. So while people in Asia might gain, the middle class in some of the advanced countries are losing out, and we’re actually seeing a hollowing out of the middle class caused by such factors as technological change, globalization, but also policies that tend to benefit the rich.

And these are policy failures that reflect ethical failures. I’ve talked about exclusion. I’ve talked about poverty. What about the environment?

Of course climate change is the most dangerous here. We know every report that comes out, the news is just worse than before. And the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now higher than at any time in the past 800,000 years, probably in the past 3 million years, at a time when the Earth’s climate was far hotter and more hostile. We are on a path of disaster. Catastrophe. This is the great existential crisis of the 21st century, and our global economy is simply–seems oblivious to this challenge. So that’s the bad. I’ve talked about the good. I’ve talked about the bad.

What about the ugly? Well, by ugly I mean, what are the ethical flaws that are leading to this situation? What are the ethical flaws that are causing so much poverty and exclusion among so much wealth? What are the ethical flaws that are causing us to drive over the cliff of environmental disaster? Well there’s no simple answer to that story, but I think one possible answer is, freedom becomes about the maximal extension of individual choice. It’s “leave me alone!”

You’re not linking that freedom to the freedom of others. You’re not linking that freedom to a greater sense of social responsibility. Modern economics also creates this character called Homo economicus–this rational economic man–which says that we’re supposed to be self-interested, egotistical people seeking our own advantage, maximizing our own welfare. And welfare, of course, is identified with material goods, stuff you can buy in the market. And we’re supposed to want as much of that as we possibly can get, we possibly can afford. In other words, our appetites are voracious. And corresponding to that, firms, corporations are supposed to maximize profits.

Milton Friedman famously said that the only purpose of business is really to maximize shareholder value. A very kind of narrow and short-term outlook. This is all about the self over solidarity. Think about it. It’s self-interest, self-determination, self-improvement, self-actualization. We live in an age of the self, I would argue, to the detriment of the common good. It’s the Age of Me, rather than the Age of We.

And if we’re to solve these problems of exclusion and environmental sustainability, we need to change this outlook to a more common good approach than merely looking to short-term, selfish desires.

Economics or “oikonomia,” “oikos nomos,” is really about the ethical rules for managing our global economy, our private and our public households. For Aristotle, economics can never be distinguished from ethics, can never be separated from ethics.

And, I think, this is a 2500 year old insight, but I think it has a lot to say for what’s going on in the global economy today. If you just think about–in recent years, think of the global financial crisis, where the financial sector, sometimes they engaged in fraud and swindling their counterparts, engaged in reckless risk-taking detached from the common good, you know, not interested in creating social value but only interested in short-term profit, heedless of how it would affect the broader global economy. These are kind of the ethical flaws of the moral economy. And I would argue that that’s not only bad ethics. That’s bad economics.

 Because if you’re focusing only on short-term profit and maximum desire and acquisitiveness, it means you’re not going to be looking to the environment, which is really about the longer-term. You’re not going to be looking at longer-term trust or social cohesion, or that can create social tensions. You’re not going to invest in longer-term prosperity, which of course is what sustainable development is really all about. And it’s also bad ethics because, you know, we all agree that you should be nice, benevolent, kind, generous people in our social world. Nobody would disagree with that.

But isn’t it kind of weird to say that when you step into the economic domain, you’re supposed to be motivated by self-interest, by competition, by greed, by materialism? We are creating a bifurcated life, a bifurcated reality, and you’re creating a human being divided against itself. And that’s really, really absurd.

We also need to have the wisdom and insights from Adam Smith, who is considered as the Father of Economics, who wrote the wonderful book called “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.” Adam Smith argues that what really matters for human beings is our reputations. We want to gain social approval. We want people to like us. And how do we do that?

By being nice, decent people, by acting morally. Ok. So far, so good. But there’s one major flaw in that.

There’s one kind of bug in that system. And Smith says this is because we tend to admire the rich simply because they’re rich. No other reason. Smith says this is the major corruption of our moral sentiments. But the rich, they know that, so they don’t need to act morally. And moral norms degenerate. And, of course, people admire the rich, so if you see the rich acting that way, then you start, you know, acting less morally. And moral norms in society as a whole will falter. And I think that, you know, that’s a real powerful insight from Adam Smith that can explain some of the insights today as to why we have this ethical blindness when it comes to issues like social exclusion and environmental sustainability in our global economy, which is richer and so much more prosperous and with so much more potential than ever before. So, these are the moral flaws of the global economy. it doesn’t need to be that way. We could easily reorient our global economy around the common good. And that, in a sense, is what Ethics is really all about and this the ‘point of beginning’ of the very notion of sustainable development goals (SDGs).

As we move into the challenges of Ethics, let’s recall the history of sustainable development. It is, after all, the core organizing principle for global cooperation, and we should understand why it has become so central for our modern thinking.

The right starting point in current times takes us back almost fifty years to a very important, indeed a watershed conference in Sweden in 1972: the UN Conference on the Human Environment. This was a wake-up call for the world, when world leaders came together and, for the first time, heard a message which really had not been heard before—at least not at a global scale, and with such clarity. And the message was, “we’re on a collision course. The world economy, the world population are growing. The Earth is Limited. The Earth’s resources are therefore going to be under stress as a growing world economy with more and more human activity, more use of primary resources, more burning of fossil fuels, impacts our finite planet.” And that was the year that a pivotal book was issued: Limits to Growth, by the Club of Rome, which said that if the geometric growth of the world economy continued with the technologies that were in place, using more and more physical resources, that the burden on the planet would eventually become so great that the world economy would overshoot the carrying capacity of the planet and lead to a deep crisis, an ecological resource crisis in the 21st century.

Well, we’re here now and a lot of what was written in that pioneering Limits to Growth book and spoken of in that pioneering conference in 1972 is now upon us. Twenty years after that conference came what is now referred to as the Earth Summit or the Rio Earth Summit.

It was another UN gathering. It was the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. Now, this was seen as setting in motion an action plan that took note of what had been declared in 1972 as an impending collision course. After 1972, many scholars went to work to understand the environmental threats ahead. And in 1987, a global Commission led by Norway’s Prime Minister and great world statesperson Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland called on the world to adopt the concept of sustainable development. And the way Dr. Brundtland’s Commission put it in 1987 was that sustainable development means “meeting the needs of today’s generation in a way that will enable future generations to meet their needs.” The focus was, “don’t wreck the planet and leave a disaster for future generations.”

Well, Dr. Brundtland’s call to action was picked up in the 1992 Earth Summit, when the world’s governments adopted three major environmental agreements. The first, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, to fight human-induced climate change; the second, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, to head off an impending disaster of ecosystem destruction and species extinction; and third, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, the spread of degraded lands and the spread of deserts in the dryland regions. Well, one might have thought after such a successful meeting in Rio in 1992, “Job’s done. Three big treaties–we’re on our way to sustainable development!” If only life were so easy.

Because the three treaties were made, but suddenly vested interest politics, geopolitics, greed, short-sightedness, and so many other barriers came to bear, meaning that these treaties were not effectively implemented. Another twenty years passed, in fact, and the world’s governments assembled again, this time at a conference called Rio+20 to review what had happened since the Earth Summit.

The government’s met in June 2012–I was there from UN Industrial Development Organisation–in what I regard as one of the saddest conferences I’ve ever been at because, the main message of Rio+20 was, “Oh my God. Twenty years ago, with all of the optimism and aspiration and three major agreements, we thought we were looking forward to turning the world direction to safety, to avoid the overshooting that had been forewarned in Limits to Growth; but twenty years on, we see that these treaties have not been implemented.” And it was at the Rio+20 Summit that the governments adopted an idea–an idea to build clear, shared goals for the world that would become the Sustainable Development Goals. From 2012 to 2015 the UN member states deliberated, discussed, negotiated, debated what should those goals be, and–as I noted earlier–in September 2015 adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Now this whole period has been, therefore, an arduous one of recognizing a growing crisis, and yet finding it very difficult to move the world in the necessary direction.

And from the time of Dr. Brundtland’s Commission report and the Rio Earth Summit till now, yet another phenomenon has become very clear, and that is that the world economy is not only creating environmental threats of a devastating dimension, but is also creating gaps between the richest and the poorest that are absolutely startling, and in many parts of the world unprecedented, in the measures of inequality that are resulting. And so, by 2015, governments put the emphasis not only on resolving this challenge of economic progress combined with environmental safety, but added in the third basic pillar of social justice and social inclusion so that, as economies develop, as living standards have the potential to increase, those benefits should be very widely shared, not just grabbed by the top 1% of the richest people in the world.

The 2015 Agenda became an agenda of economic, social, and environmental objectives combined. That brings us together wonderfully in understanding the challenges of sustainable development in a technical and a scientific and a social scientific manner, together with understanding the challenges of sustainable development in ethical and Economic manner.

Here is also a philosophical and religious dimension to this theory of development. The illustrations made as per the religion principles might be different from religion to religion, but the fundamental governing rules are same. Let us look from the view point of Indian civilization and Hinduism.

When we think of Hinduism, or we think of the Hindu tradition, we are thinking of a great, vast, and diverse tradition consisting of numerous micro traditions. So, it’s a tradition in which we see very clearly the interplay between unity and diversity.

Now, let me just quickly mention some of the broadly shared features of the Hindu tradition. First is a regard for the sacred texts, that we speak of as the Vedas, as an authoritative source of religious teaching. And these vedas are the sources of Hindu liturgical life– they are the places where the fundamental rituals of the Hindu tradition are described and elaborated, and they are also the sources of the earliest wisdom, teachings of this tradition. All Hindu traditions also subscribed to the doctrine of karma and samsara. This is very special and unique to the traditions that have come out of the Indian subcontinent.

First, karma: the teaching on karma has two important dimensions: one is that all actions produce effects. All actions have outcomes. Normally, we think of physical actions having physical outcomes but the karma teaching emphasizes that moral and ethical actions also have outcomes and effects. So, it’s a reminder to us that we have to be responsible, that we have to act responsibly and take our actions seriously because actions are consequential.

We have been talking about climate change, as an example, and its potentially disastrous effects, and it’s sometimes very difficult for us to think about how the choices that we are making, even the small choices that we are making in the present, are producing effects that will have long-term outcomes for our climate.

So, the second important teaching about karma is that the effects or consequences of our actions can stretch long into the future, that they are not always immediate. These actions don’t always manifest themselves, you know, very quickly, but they will manifest  themselves at some appropriate time, and that this is where karma gets connected  to the Hindu teaching about samsara.

So, samsara is the cycle of birth and death and rebirth. To put it simply, in the Hindu tradition, the opposite of life is not death but rebirth. So time is imagined and understood to be not linear, but cyclical. So from a seed, you have a tree, and then the tree generates a seed from which a tree is born again, and so the cycle of life proceeds in this way. So, potentially, the actions that I am performing in this life, or that we are performing as a community in this life, can generate results over a long period of time that we will come to experience in future rebirths, in a future world. How do we derive ethics in the Hindu tradition?

 And in this case, ethics–or virtue ethics, if we use that as our terms—spring profoundly from ontology, from the nature of reality, that the world as we experience it is not self-existent or self-explanatory– that the reality that  we experience–and sometimes in the Hindu tradition,  we speak of this reality as a reality of forms and names–has a deeper source, a deeper origin. We can say that the visible world has its source, and it abides and exists in the invisible reality. And that invisible reality, across the Hindu traditions, is referred to in Sanskrit as Brahman.

Brahman means “the infinite, limitless,” and so from this infinite, limitless reality, spoken of as Brahman, everything has come. In fact, the Hindu sacred texts speak of the universe as a multiplication of the one, the one brought forth the many out of it– out of itself. So the sacred texts of the Hindu tradition often speak of a desire or a wish on the part of the one to become many. “Let me become many.”

What is clearly established here is that this world of diversity has its origin in one–in a single reality, a single source, and the ethical implication of that is that the universe, and all living beings that constitute our universe, form a single community–Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam in Sanskrit–the world is a single family. Developing from that point, there is another very significant theological claim in the Hindu tradition that is very relevant for ethical thinking–that this Brahman is present equally and identically in everyone and everything, because it’s an unfragmented and unbroken infinite one. So that, at the heart of everything, that exists, and if we focus on human beings,  at the heart of every human being, at the most fundamental level of existence, there is this one reality constituting a fundamental unity in all things,  and this is the source of what we will speak of in the Hindu tradition as human dignity. Human dignity is not something that is granted by the state, it does not depend on economic or political circumstances.

 It’s intrinsic. At the core of the Hindu tradition is this claim that all beings have equal dignity and equal worth. Now, in saying this, I am not making a claim that in India, or in the history of the Hindu tradition, we have always been faithful to this core theological teaching with this ethical implications. Far from it.

You know, we have had, and we still have, social hierarchies. We have the reality of patriarchy, all of which I regard as violating this core Hindu theological claim,  but this is what is at the heart, or that the ideal of the religious tradition. When we translate these Ethics and insights, we come, perhaps, to the most fundamental ethical teaching in the Hindu tradition and this is what is described in the Sanskrit word ahimsa.

Ahimsa means “non-injury, not-hurting, non-violence”; and I’m sure many of you will connect or recall ahimsa with the life and practice of Mahatma Gandhi. He said, as a Sanskrit word, it is a negative word literally meaning non-injury or non-violence. But he emphasized that this word also had a very positive meaning. You can think of it as a coin –one side of the coin is not hurting, not harming, not injuring;  but the other side of the coin, as he so beautifully explained, is love, is compassion,  and for him, non-violence also meant the practice of justice,  and the avoidance of exploitation of human beings.

Ahimsa is the most important, it is the cardinal ethical teaching of the Hindu tradition, and it springs directly from the sacred word, the sacred dignity of every human being. In other words, to intentionally hurt or harm another is to violate his or her sacred worth, his or her sacred dignity, and just as important is to violate oneself. It is not only the violation of the other, but the one who inflicts injury is also violating something fundamental in himself or herself, because he or she is failing to see himself in the other. If we look at history, one of the things that we see very clearly is that violence seems to require that we detach or we disconnect ourselves from the one upon whom we want to inflict violence. We want to say, “We are not like them. They are different from us.” As human beings, at some fundamental level, we find it difficult, if not impossible, to be violent towards someone in whom we see ourselves. And this is why I think non-injury flows directly from a vision of life’s unity, of the connectedness at the deepest level that we have with all human beings. So, in the listing of the ethical virtues in the Hindu tradition, non-injury or ahimsa precedes even truth.

What is the Truth? Truth is unbearable- painful-colourless- tasteless-arid. As T S Eliot stated in his famous book Waste Land (Para 64):

Here is no water but only rock

Rock and no water and the sandy road

The road winding above among the mountains without water

If there were water we should stop and drink

Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think

Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand

If there were only water amongst the rock

Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit

There is not even silence in the mountains

But dry sterile thunder without rain

It is dry and Sandy rock).

Eliot imagines the modern world as a wasteland, a land that has been mixed with ambiguity, aridness, and destruction. This land, according to some critics, gives no indication of purity, which neither the land nor the people could visualize.

Eliot’s reference was significant because he indicates people’s separation from nature. Also, it might reflect upon the disillusion moment he, among others, lived.

In this context of Truth, the ontological claims of the Hindu tradition, as well as its ethical values, especially ahimsa, to thinking about issues like poverty or migrants or stateless persons– one of the important ethical teachings also of the Hindu tradition is Loka Sangraha– it’s a Sanskrit term–Loka Sangraha.

So “Loka” in Sanskrit is a very inclusive term. It includes human beings, but it also includes the natural world, all of the elements. The entirety of the universe is described in this word, loka. And sangraha means “the well-being.”

So, Loka Sangraha means “the well-being of the whole, the well-being of the universe.”Today we may translate Loka Sangraha as “the universal common good.” In all things you do, in all of the choices you make, all of your decisions in life, however small a decision might be, and however great and vast that decision might be, always consider Loka Sangraha. Consider the universal common good.

Ask yourself, what are the implications of this choice, not only for me, but also for the universe that I inhabit? And linking such a question back to the doctrine of karma that I mentioned earlier requires me to think not only of the short-term outcomes, the short-term or ethical outcomes of what I do, but also the long-term ethical outcomes–those outcomes that might be generated when I no longer walk on this earth. In other words, can I be so considerate as a human being, can I be so compassionate as a human being, that in my decision-making I can think of generations and generations who will inhabit this earth, and who will find this planet to be a place with sustainable resources that will allow for their flourishing?

Are we capable, as human beings, of considering Loka Sangraha, the universal common good, in all that we do? This is the question that I want to leave you with today.

Keshav C Das

New Delhi, 1st October, 2020


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