Moral thinking, in practically every known culture, tells us not to place undue emphasis on our material concerns. All of us are aware that economic development, industrialisation in particular, and more recently globalisation often brings undesirable side effects, such as damage to the environment or the homogenisation of what used to be distinctive cultures. However, this thinking is incomplete. The value of a rising standard of living lies not just in the concrete improvements it brings to how individuals live, but in how it shapes the social, political and ultimately the moral character of a people. Economic growth-meaning a rising standard of living for the majority of citizens—offers greater opportunity, tolerance of diversity, social mobility, commitment to fairness and dedication to democracy. Many countries with highly developed economies, including America, have experienced alternating eras of economic growth and stagnation in which their democratic values have strengthened or weakened accordingly.
The consequence of the stagnation that lasted from the mid-1970s until the mid-1990s was a fraying of America’s social fabric. During this period, popular antipathy to immigrants resurfaced to an extent not known in the United States since before World War II and in some respects not since 1880s, when intense nativism spread in response to huge immigration at a time of protracted economic distress. After three decades of progress towards bringing the country’s African-American minority into the country’s mainstreams, public opposition forced a rolling retreat from affirmative action programmes. For a while, white suprem-acist groups were more active and visible than at any time since the 1930s, anti-government private ‘militias’ flourished as never before, and elected political leaders of America were reluctant to criticise such groups publicly. With the return to economic advancement in mid-1990s, many of these deplorable tendencies began to abate. In the 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns, neither anti-immigrant nor resistance to affirmative action played any role like they did in 1992 and 1996.
The history of each of the large western democracies America, Britain, France, Germany is replete with instances in which this kind of turn away from openness and tolerance and often the weakening of democratic political institutions, followed in the wake of economic stagnation that diminished people’s confidence in a better future. The main story of the last two decades throughout the developing world, including many countries that used to be either member states of the Soviet Union or close Soviet dependencies, has been the parallel advance of economic growth and political democracy. The brutal violence suddenly inflicted on Ludonesia’s Chinese minority when that country’s economy stumbled was only one demonstration of the dangers inherent in falling incomes.
In much of Africa, living standards are stagnant or declining. In many such countries, the familiar claim is that proper institutions rule of law, transparency, stable government that is not corrupt must be in place before economic advance is feasible. But if it takes economic growth to make these institutions viable, then seeking to implant them artificially in a stagnant economy is likely to prove fruitless. Since 1978, when Deng Xao-Ping’s economic reforms began, the Chinese have seen a five-fold increase in their material standard of living. The improvement in nutrition, housing, sanitation and transportation has been dramatic while the freedom of Chinese citizens to make economic choices—where to work, what to buy, whether to start a business is already far broader than what it was ? With continued economic advance, broader freedom to make political choices too will probably follow.
Traditional lines of western thinking that have emphasised a connection between material progress and moral progress (as the philosophers of the Enlightenment concieved it) have always embodied a powerful optimism about the human enterprise.
Economic growth benefits the rich. But it also transforms the lives of the poor. Because of economic growth, we not only have less poverty and hunger, but less disease and increase in life expectancy. Morality has been defined as issues that have to do with right and wrong, good and evil, acceptable and unacceptable etc. It is the mental disposition or characteristic of behaving in a manner intended to produce morally good results. According to Benjamin Friedman, morality is gauged by such elements as openness of opportunity, tolerance, economic and social mobility, fairness and democracy. He further stressed that morality is income-elastic and has nothing to do with the image of God in all of us or with personal salvation. People will act nice when they can afford to. Another author has also stressed that those from the economically privileged groups tend to be better educated, ‘more cultured’, have higher social status, more ‘successful’ professionally and politically and tend to be interested in preserving the existing social order.
Economic theory and policy can help provide virtue in the market by ensuring that markets one competitive and that producers of products which have the potential to harm people are closely regulated. Thus, pro-competition and anti-monopoly rules and regulations beocme supportive of virtue and thus moral.
Jeremy Bentham, a proponent of utilitarianism, stated that ‘utilitarianism is more specifically applied to the proposition that the supreme objective of moral actions is the achievement of the greatest number’ (this objective is considered as the aim of all legislations and the ultimate criterion of all social institutions also). In most of the under developed and developing countries these objectives are not achieved due to lack of good governance, corruption among leaders, widespread moral hazard in public and private institutions, inadequate law enforcement etc.
Since every nation, state, community, organisation or individual is guided by one moral standard or the other which have evolved over time to achieve a particualr goal of growth and development. Therefore, adherence to moral values is a key indicator to achieving economic development.
Economic backwardness is typically associated with a wide range of institutional, organisational and government failures. In numerous poor or stagnating countries, politicians are ineffective and corrupt public goods are under provided and public policies confer rents to privileged elites, law enforcement is inadequate and moral hazard is widespread in public and private organisations.
Philosophers since the time of Aristotle have drawn a line separating economic life from a life that is virtuous or well lived. Aristotle wrote in the Nicomarchean Ethics, “The life of money-making is one undertaken under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking.” These philosophers note that people often work only to make money for such human necessities like food, shelter and clothing. In contrast, they point to a range of freely chosen human activities that are better aligned with virtuous behaviour : love and friendship, art and music, bravery in war, participation in the community, healing the sick, helping the poor and so on. However, this view is not complete. Ralper Waldo Emerson said in 1844 : “whether thy work be fine or worse, planting corn, or writing epics, so only it be honest work, done to thine own approbation, it shall earn a reward to the senses as well as to the thought : no matter, how often defeated, you are born to victory.” The work of John Woke is explicitly opposed to the Aristotlean tradition as it views work and material activity not as the amoral and grim drudgery of wage, salary and money-making, but as a way individual humans relate to the world around them and shape themselves.
Andrej Rapacrynski says, “what labour produces is not just goods or commodities, but the very autonomous human beings who now live the lives they themselves design and determine. Thus, labour, which is at the basis of economic life, far from enslaving those who engage in it, is the prime expression of human creativity, a true production of new reality governed by human intellect and imagination, in which we can recognise and shape ourselves in accordance with our own will.
Modern economist philosophers have compiled a list of virtues that can be intrinsic within market behaviour. Dlirdre McClosky wrote of seven virtues of material life : love (benevolence and friendship), faith (integrity), hope (entrepreneurship), courage (endurance and perseverance), temperance (restraint and humility), prudence (know-how and foresight), and justice (social balance and honesty). Similarly, Luigino Bruni and Robert Sugden have suggested that participation in material development is conguent with such virtues as self-help, enterprise and alertness, trust and trustworthiness, respect for wishes of others, and perceiving others as potential partners in a mutually beneficial trans-action. Material development and moral development reinforce each other.
“Increase of material comforts, it may generally be laid down, does not in any way whatsoever conduce to moral growth.”
Agreeing with the words of Gandhiji, this short essay argues that material development and moral development are independent and
mutually exclusive. This is because development, as it is defined and widely understood today, does not coexist with morality in almost all practical scenarios. In the three major intertwined domains of development —economic, environmental, and social material principles and the desire for profit reject and renounce any scope for universal moral values. This is true in the cases of inter-generational equity, economic justice, and personal choices, as is illustrated below.
The year 1992 witnessed a historic commitment being made by nations at the Rio Earth summit under Agenda 21 to the concept of sustainable development. Defined by the World Commission on Environment and Development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future genrations to meet their own needs,” sustainable development has become the guiding principle for global economic development for the past decades. This is mainly manifested in the phenomenon of globalization that facilitated the flow of everything from capital and goods to ideas and culture across the globe.
However, more than a quarter-century and several summits later, sustainable development that was supposed to promote the wellbeing of both people and their environment, has hardly stayed true to its definition. What it sought to achieve was economic development, social development, and environmental protection in a balanced manner. But what occurred in reality was widespread inequality, overpopulation, unplanned urbanization, rising unemployment, unjust resource distribution, and exploitation of the environment, among many such irreversible damages.
If globalization brought increased wealth, it also brought gross income inequality, so that today the world’s richest 1 per cent own 50 per cent of its total wealth. This settles the argument that the universal moral values of choosing the best interests of the people and the world failed in the face of superficial material development. If globalization made greater economic development and inclusion of developing economies possible, it also sharply increased the gap between the haves and the have-nots. This also proves that despite material progress, morality seems to be on a sharp decline.
The second most important dimension of development was supposed to be environmental protection but which in reality led to irreparable ecological destruction and imbalances. This is most visibly manifested in global warming. Even though globalization led to emerging economies like India and China having bettered the quality of life of their citizens, it also projected development exclusively in terms of consumerism and material possessions. This has invariably led to increased carbon emission adding to the current state of humanity on the verge of ecological collapse.
Does this mean the developing nations should forgo what the developed world has defined and enjoyed as ‘development’ for so long ? Then how will we move towards sustainable prosperity equitably shared among all even as our population grows, our cities strain to accommodate more people and our ecological systems decline ? Environmentalist and Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai provided the simplest but best solution to this quagmire, “We need to promote development that does not destroy our environment.” We need to come together as a world of nations and employ technological innovations to create alternate energy solutions to our neverending needs without any compromise.
But even such a noble and urgent aim will not find many takers because material development in terms of greed and possession will overtake moral obligations and the sense of responsibility. The recent United States withdrawal from the Paris Agreement by President Donald Trump stating that an action plan for climate change mitigation will put his country at a ‘disadvantage’, proves once again that opportunistic material interest will trump altruistic moral commitment even in the face of impending ecological apocalypse.
The final dimension to the sad truth of material and moral pursuit being unable to go together is evident from our own daily personal lives. The adage, “the softest pillow is a clear conscience” takes a backseat, sadly, in the choice between the material and the moral for an average person. While aiding or engaging in corruption for obtaining one’s goals or for one’s own personal interests may seem the most common instance of this, a simple high-handed act of cutting in line is also a minor example of this inherent mentality in us.
Even though nations simply shy away from the basic moral quality of kindness by ignoring the refugee crises in certain parts of the world citing logistics, it is the people who propagate hatred and fear among communities by ‘othering’ the outsiders for their own vested interests. Racism and sexism are varied manifestations of this desire to overpower others in the pursuit of one’s own interests. We also seem to internalise that power and money are better than basic morality as is evidenced by the paradox in India of several rich defaulters of bank loans worth crores going scot-free while destitute farmers commit suicides for meagre amounts of the same bank loans.
However it would be wrong to assume that everything and everyone is corrupt and morally bankrupt. For every bank fraud, there is a Raghuram Rajan supporting transparency; for every corrupt officer, there is an E. Shreedharan working tirelessly in the government; for every oppressed girl, there is a Malala demanding education; for every marginalized community, there is an Irom Sharmila willing to give up material comforts; and for everyone too scared to stand for their beliefs, there is a Gauri Lankesh who ended up sacrificing her life for speaking her mind.
As Gandhiji said, “The greatest of humanity is not in being human, but in being humane,” no amount of material development can justify the moral deficit that comes alongwith it. Whether it be reckless environmental destruction, or extreme income in-equality, or the increasing polarization we see in today’s world, moral development of universal human values like tolerance, acceptance, honesty, kindness, decency, hard work and courtesy, is the need of the hour.
Created at: May 24, 2019
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