Essays on ethics
By Manju Gupta
Ethics for Our Times: Essays in Gandhian Perspective, MV Nadkani, Oxford University Press, Pp 262, Rs 650.00
In this compilation of essays on ethics, which in a general sense means virtuous or vicious conduct, the author’s argument is that ethics deals with choice not only between what is good or what is bad, but also between different moral principles or values or ends, because there can be several moral ends, sometimes conflicting with each other. Ethics becomes meaningful only in the context of choice. For instance, merely not stealing by itself does not make a person ethical, but when the person knows that under the circumstances faced there is no chance of being caught and yet does not steal, only then is the person ethical.
The author quotes Mahatma Gandhi extensively throughout the book especially with regards to economic thought. Gandhiji was emphatic on the role of individual responsibility of all of us in all aspect of life. “Each of us must be the change we wish to see in this world,” he had advised. Further the future depends on what we do in the present and the past situation is not such as to make us complacent. The powerful continue to capture most of the benefits of economic development. It is an appeal to ethical principles and social justice, which serve as the most potent weapon of the weak.
In an overview of the book we find the first four essays, which compose the first part, present the state of the present world, which is undergoing globalisation at a fast rate in manufacturing, transport and communications, services, religion and culture. It is not merely economic development which would help achieve social justice but policy too, with both economic and politics tempered by ethics.
The second part with three essays, focuses on certain philosophical questions like what is justice? What are the different approaches to it? How does our worldview affect our ethics? Why is a holistic approach to knowledge needed in solving the problems of the world, including ethical issues?
Part III of the book titled ‘Ethical Foundations of Hinduism’ contains two essays which talk of neeti and dharma to convey the meaning of ethics. The author says that the core ethical foundation of Hinduism is ekam sat vipraah bahudaa vadanti (truth is spoken of variously by the wise) which expresses willingness to respect diversity of views and approaches. As Jawaharlal Nehru had observed, “Its essential spirit seems to be to live and let live.”
The first of the two essays in Part III is on ‘Humanism in Hinduism’ wherein humanism is taken to include moral responsibility of all human beings to themselves and to the world and concern for human freedom, human rights and well-being. The essay shows that Hinduism, far from being inconsistent with humanism, shows concern for both human responsibility and human welfare, not merely in scriptures and other literatures but also in practice.
The last essay is on ‘Ethics in Humans’, where emphasis is on the four goals of human beings (purushaarthas) – ethics as dharma comes first and it is insistent that two other goals – artha (wealth and material welfare) and kaama (other desires, especially the sensual pleasures) – should be pursed according to the dharma. Moreover, dharma is also a prerequisite for the fourth and ultimate goal that is moksha (liberation). It is possible to have ethics without religion but no genuine religion can do without ethics, concludes the author.
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