Business Ethics & Lessons from Ramayana

Yes, Ramayana has a few episodes which may have relevance to business ethics.

First let me narrate the relevant parts of the story from Ramayana which relate to business ethics.

Ravana, in Valmiki Ramayana, received several solicited and unsolicited advice from his kith and kin. Let us see who all dared to advise him on what is morally right:

It was the turn of Maricha to advise Ravana first. When Maricha was ordered to take the form of a golden deer to entice Sita,
he told Ravana in no uncertain terms that the power of Rama is unparallelled and therefore Ravana should simply patch up with the lord to save himself and his race. This advice was given in the background of the severe blows he received from Rama on a different occasion. However, when Ravana gave him an ultimatum, Maricha decided to go ahead and obey his command which ended his life.

However, not all Rakshasas gave him good counsel. Several Rakshasas including Mahodara(a renowned counselor of Ravana), readily supported Ravana glorifying his strength and giving him extraordinary confidence to face and defeat Rama. Vibhishana , on the other hand, had a totally different advice to offer. He talked at length about dharma and Rama’s divinely stature and advised what was the right thing to do for his own sake and for the sake of his race. As Ravana refused to budge and on the contrary rebuked Vibhishana for moralising, the latter had no hesitation in switching sides, though surreptitiously. Vibhishana, in fact, gave away valuable state secrets to the enemy camp!
Kumbhakarna’s response was markedly different and somewhat interesting. When Kumbhakarna woke up from his sleep lasting over months, Ravana explained the background to the situation leading up to Rama’s invasion of Lanka along with Sugriva’s army of monkeys. Kumbhakarna did not mince words and his immediate response was that Ravana ought to have consulted his ministers and close relatives before he abducted Sita, which is an immoral act. Curiously, though, after pointing out his immoral act, he threw in his lot with his elder brother and vowed to defeat Rama.
Clearly one can see a widely diverging viewpoints and advice being offered here.

I am tempted to draw parallels to business ethics in our corporates and the moral dilemma faced by senior executives. I am sure several of us, as senior managers, might have faced such ethical dilemmas wherein the organizations go astray and indulge in unethical and sometimes downright fraudulant methods to make money. Faced with such a situation,the moral dilemma is whether one should conduct oneself like Maricha & Kumbhakarna or like Vibhishana or like Mahodara? One might think the obvious answer is Vibhishana. But I am not too sure. One can readily dismiss Mahodara type of conduct. But it is difficult to support Vibhishana type of behaviour or that of Kumbhkarna or for that matter Mareecha. Vibhishana’s conduct is not above-board because of his secret dealings with Ravana’s enemies. Kumbhakarna condemned Ravana’s unrighteous act but decided to go with him for war against Rama because of a feeling of unquestionable allegiance to Ravana. I think Ramayana does not offer an ideal solution to such a problem. It would have been nice to see someone like Vibhishana with guts to cross over to the enemy camp openly. Perhaps the other great epic Mahabharata with its several intricate plots & counter plots would provide satisfactory answers.

The real dilemma in business arises because of the times we live in. In the present day context, it is hard to believe that any business can be run without resorting to unethical conduct in some degree. If a company deliberately chooses to conduct business unethically (like in the case of Satyam), it is obvious that one should desert the ship if one’s good counsel goes unheeded. On the other hand, in most situations, it would be difficult to apply absolute standards of morality and ethics, given the kind of business compulsions. To take one well-known fact about manufacturing companies, even when a company complies with all regulatory requirements, corrupt factory inspectors have to be bribed to get a clean chit.

Published in: on July 29, 2017 at 11:11 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Ethics in the Context of Cruelty to Animals

Last week I wrote a post condemning the cruel sport Jallikattu involving bulls. The post was incomplete in some respects. For one thing, I did not elaborate my stand on cruelty to animals. I thought I will do that here.

Before I do that, I should point out that I’m a little surprised to see unequivocal support for Jallikattu coming from several religious leaders on grounds of culture. My surprise arises from the fact that Hinduism strongly advocates the principle of Ahimsa or nonviolence. Our scriptures declare – Ahimsa paramo dharmah, meaning, nonviolence is the highest virtue or value. Here’s how it is considered as the highest form of dharma? Ahimsa prohibits violence in all forms – thought, word and deed. And all other values – love, compassion, sympathy, empathy – are derived from this all-encompassing value.

One has to go back to our history to understand how this value got distorted over time. Hindus always talked about preferential treatment to be given to cows. That is, within the animal species, we select cows as being holier than any other animal. The question is why don’t we extend this protection to all life forms. Failure to do so has led to practices like Jallikattu, bullock cart races or cock-fights (famous in Andhra Pradesh) with religious sanction.

In a way human beings have all along been taking  similar morally indefensible positions in different degrees at different periods of history.Racists are convinced that the race they belong to is far superior to those of others and hence they deserve a better deal. If this defines a racist, do you know who is a speciesist? A speciesist is one who thinks that members of human species or Homo sapiens  deserve better treatment over other species like animals.

When a white man says life is precious or sacred, he means it’s the life of the white man that is sacred. Likewise speciesist are conditioned to believe the life of a human is more sacred than that of an animal. With a similar logic, a hard-core Hindu would believe that among animals, the life of a cow is more holy.

While Hindu scriptures discussed dharma at length, the philosophers of the West tried to systematise their thoughts on ethical values only in the last few centuries. Peter Singer, a contemporary philosopher who is regarded as the philosophers’ philosopher, in his famous book titled Practical Ethics, captures the essential principles of ethics spelt out by philosophers of the previous centuries like Emanuel Kant, Stuart Mill, John Rawls, David Hume etc and adds his own definition of an ethical action. He proposes that an action should be judged ethical based on the criterion of what he calls equal consideration of interests. Let us try to understand and apply this principle of ethics to, say, Jallikattu or any other similar animal sport. The interest here is the experience of pain by the bulls. The principle of equal consideration implores us to consider a bull’s pain on par with that of a human. It could be a bull in Jallikattu or a cock in a cock-fight. The same considerations should hold regardless of which species it belongs to. Normally, most of us don’t take into consideration the effect of our actions on animals which also have well-developed central nervous system to respond to pain or pleasure, although they do not have the language to express the same.

So, clearly, ethical principles are well laid out whether one relies on our scriptures or studies the philosophers from the West. It’s only our lack of sensitivity that makes us ignore and indulge in actions to suit our whims and fancies.

Published in: on January 29, 2017 at 10:58 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Kabali – A Review

If you see this film after all the hype and hoopla created by the media, you will be highly disappointed. Believe me, it’s a big flop show (with apologies to all fans of Rajanikant). But if you see it as yet another inconsequential movie of Rajanikant, then you will perhaps okay it. With mindless violence, stupid punch dialogues and pointless plots and counter plots, the film is a complete drag. Oh, no, I’m mistaken – as a fan of Rajani pointed out, there is a point that the film wanted to make. That is, the ends justify the means! So, our hero may be excused for taking law into his hands, killing a few gangsters and making murderous attempts on several others. By the same logic, of course, the director of the film may be excused for making sure the hero escapes unscathed in several violent encounters where he is badly outnumbered by tough looking thugs..It’s as if the hero is blessed with a boon of invincibility and immortality. Contrast this with how the bad men die without any effort on the part of the hero.

But then do not forget that the hero had a mission. It appears that he wanted to rescue children recruited by the drug mafia and rehabilitate them in a school meant to give them complete freedom. But the viewers get no clue as to how this is achieved or even attempted. I’m perhaps naive to expect such details from a hero with magical powers. Well, my expectation is flawed and perhaps influenced by films such as TARE JAMIN PAR or THREE IDIOTS where Amirkhan goes deep into a social problem and tries to find practical solutions.
In one scene towards the end, a sensible child of the school puts an impertinent but very relevant question to the hero. She asks: OK, you have rescued us and given us school education. What will we do now after this. We will be jobless and again wander aimlessly. Evading an answer, our hero asks: “Why are you asking me this question. I’m only an unruly & disruptive rowdy”. What an honest confession to make by a hero with an almost flawless image!
In a surprising twist, the audience comes to know that the hero is after all fighting for justice for Tamilians. To depict the encounters with the mafia as a conflict between Chinese & Tamilians, is too far-fetched and seems too parochial.

While the film gives us no clue about how he reforms the children after rescuing, even the end of the film is left to our imagination. One wonders whether Rajani is alive or dead after all the heroics. Anyway it’s an inconsequential debate in my view.

I must point out, though, that I liked the film for a completely different reason. This film brought back the memories of an old English classic – Schindler’s list – released in early 1990s. The theme of this film is similar, that is, the ethical ends justify illegal means. The similarity ends there, of course. The film has a very powerful plot. It’s about an ethnic German industrialist by name Oscar Schindler, who moves to Hitler-occupied Poland to make his fortune. He recruits a number of Polish Jews as cheap labour to run his factory. He finds a local jew to finance his venture and befriends a Nazi military officer whom he influences to hire more workforce than actually needed by his factory. He bribes the local Nazi administration to get extra food to supplement limited food supplied through ration cards. Adopting all such illegal means, he saves about 1200 Jews from the trap of death in the concentration camps. Here is a businessman who comes to Poland to make his fortune, he makes his wealth and uses it up to save several lives of jews.(By the way, the film is based on a real life story)

Published in: on July 31, 2016 at 8:11 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Insiders vs Outsiders

The philosopher Peter Singer, in his book on Practical Ethics, narrates the following imaginary but interesting story to highlight certain ethical dilemmas: Let us imagine a city which gets ravaged by nuclear war and there is huge radiation leakagage. Anticipating such a scenario a small percentage of the population who are super rich invest in underground shelters. A few thousand of them get accommodated in these sprawling underground shelters each of the size of a village. The villages are provided with food to last for about 6 months, all luxuries and lots of open spaces to play and to entertain themselves. They just need to spend 6 months in those shelters since the radiation levels would reduce to safe levels by then. But this arrangement leaves out lots of people outside. They face an uncertain future as they are exposed to lethal doses of radiation. This is the problem of insiders versus outsiders. Through their television sets provided in the shelters, insiders can see the sad plight of outsiders pleading at the entrance to the underground to let them in. Insiders can easily accommodate about 10% more of their population without causing much inconvenience to themselves. At the most,they may be required to sacrifice some of their luxuries. Now the question is whether they should allow a few outsiders or none at all. There were different points of view among the insiders. Some said that the outsiders are inferior people with no intelligence and they did not plan for this eventuality. In any case why allow people who did not pay for it.  But there was a minority opinion which pleaded for allowing at least a few of the outsiders. However, many objected saying they did not want to compromise on their quality of life and the luxuries by letting in a few.

In this scenario what will you vote for?

The story aptly captures the moral dilemma which all of us face in our daily lives.I’m sure all of us have our own real life stories of insiders versus outsiders. Whether it’s the refugees knocking at the borders between nations even as the rich nations refuse their entry or the affluent among us not willing to share our excessive wealth with the poor, the ethical questions are of similar nature.

There are insiders and outsiders everywhere. One can see it even within a family among siblings and cousins for instance. One can see different versions of the same game being played in our offices, in our neighbourhoods or housing societies in general. It manifests as rich versus poor, high caste versus low-caste, One religion versus another religion etc.

It’s interesting to consider its origins. We are social beings before we became human beings with a sense of good and bad. As social beings we naturally started living in groups and developed group interests which were placed above everything else. This automatically meant that we considered outsiders as aliens who did not deserve any share of our goodies.

Published in: on July 24, 2016 at 5:48 pm  Leave a Comment  
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