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Morals and progress

Print edition : Jan 13, 2012 T+T-

The author applies Gandhian principles in his collection of essays to show why ethics should become the basis for economic development.

BOOKS on ethics are rare to come by. Books on ethics by economists are still rarer. Apart from Amartya Sen's On Ethics and Economics (1987) there is not any that comes to mind immediately. This is not the only reason for the significance of M.V. Nadkarni's book. Nadkarni the economist is a philosopher too, well acquainted with both Western and Indian philosophy. Writing from a Gandhian perspective, Nadkarni is more rooted in Indian philosophy.

Even those who are not familiar with ethics as a field of inquiry will know that it is related to how one orders one's life. Sen, writing on ethics and economics, had pointed out that for Socrates and Aristotle as well as for Kautilya the basic ethical question was, How should one live? That is a broad enough question indeed and hence, as Nadkarni points out, will deal not only with specific issues such as economic development and environment, but also with broader ones such as humanism and religion.

But Nadkarni goes a step further. He takes the position that both in the Indian concept of dharma and in the Western approach to ethics as moral philosophy, ethics is much more than a guide to good conduct. Ethics as a field of inquiry, he points out, is the quest for determining what is virtuous. It is in this sense that Bertrand Russell considered it a science. But since life consists of relationships, Nadkarni prefers to call ethics a social science which may not have the kind of precision that physical sciences claim to have, but is very much an ordered line of reasoning and inquiry leading to propositions that can be generalised.

As the Gandhian perspective informs Nadkarni's essays, his treatment of Gandhi's position deserves special attention. Truth and non-violence were the guiding principles of Gandhi's life and hence the essential principles of his ethics. He practised these twin principles in his personal life and put them forward as the basis for social life. The connection between truth as the principle for living and as the foundation for ethics can be seen from its Sanskrit equivalent satya, which is derived from the verb sat, which means to exist'. It is in this sense that truth is the essence of being and of ethics. Ethics as moral truth is inclusive of non-violence, honesty, simplicity, self-control, equity and justice. Truth is also the basis of knowledge. Says the German philosopher Herbert Marcuse: If a man has learned to see and know what really is, he will act in accordance with truth. It is this commitment to truth that made every aspect of Gandhi's life an experiment with truth.

Satya led Gandhi to ahimsa as its practical or applied principle. Ahimsa for him was not merely abjuring violence, but represented the positive virtues of kindness, compassion and care. In this sense ahimsa was complementary to truth, the two becoming two sides of the same coin. Because of this intimate link between truth and ahimsa, for Gandhi there was also an organic unity between ends and means.

Nadkarni applies these Gandhian principles to indicate why ethics should become the basis for economic development. From this perspective, economic development cannot be merely technological progress or the increase in things though both these may be necessary. To be meaningful and lasting, it will have to be the development of people, or human development in the broadest sense. Gandhi would have endorsed Amartya Sen's view that development must aim at enabling all people, including (and especially) the weak and the differently abled, to achieve the fullness of their capabilities. For this to become a reality, much more than increases in income or even provision for individual advancement is required. There has to be a collective effort, for in its absence the very process of development would become distorted with the few becoming acquisitive and the many being left untouched or even being pushed into adverse conditions. While Nadkarni emphasises this, he does not go into the necessary collective conditions. Gandhi on moral grounds urged those with excess resources to treat these as trust being held for the common good, but there is hardly any historical evidence to prove that this would become effective either through individual decisions (though there are some noble exceptions) or on the basis of public appeals alone.

It is being recognised that in the process of economic development special consideration will have to be given to the environment. That indiscriminate use of natural resources can lead to depletion and damage is now widely accepted as a matter of global concern. And even though there are no clear specific measures to avoid future catastrophes, there have been several rounds of discussions and negotiations to move forward with caution.

But there is a more basic question: is the only or even the most important reason to take nature seriously the fact that it is becoming limitational? We have the cultural tradition of referring to the earth as Mother Earth. Is this just a matter of reverence or is there a robust ethical basis for the respectful treatment of nature? To pose the question more sharply: human beings, of course, are dependent on nature and animals for their survival and well-being, but is that the only reason to respect nature and animals, or do they have rights of their own just as humans have their rights? To Nadkarni, that is the ethical question and his answer is clearly in the affirmative. If the basic aspect of ethical concerns is the transcendence of narrow self-interest and taking the interest of others also into account, these others' must include the animal kingdom and nature as well. That is Nadkarni's position and he finds support both from Gandhi and the Bhagwad Gita. The reach of one's caring for others in thought and action becomes the measuring rod of one's moral standing, says Nadkarni.

There are bound to be situations where decision-making will become difficult if this approach is taken seriously, admits Nadkarni. What must be one's approach to forests, for instance? Should it favour nature as was shown in the decision regarding the Silent Valley, or is it legitimate to destroy a part of nature for the sake of human welfare? Should rivers be let to take their course, or is it acceptable to divert their course, again to benefit human beings? In such instances, the ethical question is not merely nature versus humans but who among the humans must have priority: the urban dwellers who will have assured water supply, or the humans upstream whose dwellings will have to be uprooted?

Another dilemma that Nadkarni poses is that we who claim to have a rich cultural heritage which is eco-friendly do not seem to have any hesitation in polluting our rivers, including the ones considered to be sacred, and in callously piling up garbage in public places in urban areas.

One of the essays in the collection is a discourse on justice, taking off from Amartya Sen's The Idea of Justice. Indicating that while ethics includes compassion, courtesy, generosity, tolerance, forgiveness and equanimity, it is chiefly justice because justice is the basis of collective life. A moral order or dharma is necessary to sustain society. That is why justice has received the attention of philosophers of the East as well as the West. As a background to a critical appraisal of Sen's position, Nadkarni pays special attention to the philosophers Immanuel Kant and John Rawls. Sen admittedly builds on Rawls' emphasis on rights, but Nadkarni brings into the discourse the traditional Indian concern for duty, especially Krishna's advice to Arjuna in the Bhagwad Gita about the importance of doing one's duty irrespective of the consequences. Sen would not accept this position especially if it is raised to the status of niti, or absolute standard of justice. Sen's emphasis is on nyaya, or realisable justice. Nadkarni finds the sense of duty a more reliable guide for action as duties are more directly enforceable than rights.

To show that the concern for ethics is not confined to some higher realm removed from the ordinary pursuits of life, Nadkarni moves to its application in social science research. Understandably research in general, and social science research in particular, is on specific topics. Narrowing down' the scope of inquiry is a standard procedure in research. But Nadkarni points out that unless one keeps the larger domain in mind, inquiry into restricted aspects will tend to get distorted. He emphasises the need for a holistic approach' in social science research. Nadkarni quotes Tagore: When we see the wholeness of a thing from afar that is true seeing: in the near view trivial details engage the mind and prevent us from seeing the whole, for our powers are limited. In fact, this emphasis on wholeness can be traced back to the Gita. According to the Gita, knowledge that synthesises, which views the object of knowledge holistically, and finds what is unifying, common or universal from the diversity of particulars, and sees how different parts relate to each other is the highest form of knowledge. Meaningful research is totalising in essence.

Nadkarni deals with other issues also, conceptual as well as practical, thus demonstrating that ethics must be considered not as the exclusive domain of philosophers and savants, but as a guide to thought and action for all who take life seriously. Therein lies the value of this collection of essays.