28 May, 2022


Failing Stage – A Time To Review Power, Wealth & Moral Responsibility 

By Lasantha Pethiyagoda

Lasantha Pethiyagoda

Sri Lankan society seems to have been turned on its head by a strange and addictive phenomenon. What might be this unwelcome development that is making this a topsy-turvy country? The problem is the over emphasis on economic success for the promoters of political power, mythology and the advertising media, which has resulted in a de-emphasis on profoundly important things such as our relationships with other human beings as well as with our natural environment.

This disease of significant proportions has in turn led to an unsustainable living environment where everyone who has the means wants ever more; submitting to their greed at every turn, rather than exercising control and consideration of others. Such irresponsible attitudes and consequent behaviour is applauded and admired in present day society which values enterprise over welfare.

This new hierarchy of values which reverse the traditional order, has infiltrated our fundamental institutional structures (education, health, exported labour, state and regional politics, economy) through which destructive social norms are endorsed and crystallized. People tend to take great pride in conforming to this socially-constructed emerging hierarchy of values, defining themselves, their worth and success in terms of volume of money and extent of power, proceeding blindly in the vain search for happiness.

Let us consider what the biggest ethical challenge facing us today is. The reality is that we have let personal economic success guide our lives, and in doing so, associated virtues of respect, cooperation, empathy, and compassion have been betrayed. The primacy that is allotted to materiality underlies and complicates daily challenges we face.

In our urbanized social environment, do the following – “stressed out and tired”, “exploited and vulnerable”, “juggling work and home”, “surrounded by selfish individuals and cut-throats”, “led by uncaring politicians”, “in strained relationships lacking trust”, “constantly pressed for time”, “never enough money and over-committed financially” sound familiar?

I am sure they do. Stated differently, we have been overwhelmed by the pragmatics of the “corporate bottom line” that dominate our life-stage decision-making, turning money, which is essentially a means, into an end in itself, while turning fellow humans, ethically understood as “ends in themselves” into mere means of self-gain, usually at public cost.

A hitherto virtuous concept that money is a resource that should be used in the service of ethical ends such as ensuring that society functions in a way that addresses universal needs, is increasingly losing its relevance. Instead, due to our collective preoccupation with money, we have discarded our responsibility to individual and societal development and lost touch with our values, morals, and relationships with our community and the environment.

The wholly selfish and sinister move towards market-dominated paradigms that aims at transforming an economically struggling and impoverished society into a ‘market society’, promoted by unscrupulous industrialists and their partners in exploitation has not only influenced the behaviour of individuals, government institutions, private organizations and multinational companies and domains of economic development, but also dampened intellectual diversity of ideas about what human progress actually means. Thus we witness a lack of public academic discourse on these issues.

Even the poor, struggling masses of Sri Lanka seem pre-occupied with money. We seem encouraged by parents, peers and societal norms to embrace wealth accumulation as our prime objective. Hence the notion of “becoming a doctor” so attractive in lucre and not borne of a desire to serve humanity. One dares not revolt against such paradigms created by the market culture although social costs are devastatingly ongoing and most palpable to all.

Stark examples are aplenty; these goals induce pressure on educational institutions to refocus their priorities in favour of the pragmatic goal of profiting by preparing young people only for the workforce, as if technical knowledge and skills are more important than history, identity, meaning, purpose, values, creativity, and vision.

A few thousand people, a miniscule minority of the population form the largely unscrupulous corporate business world. These opportunistic investors do not see investing as anything but a financial one. Instead of viewing investment as an opportunity to use excess funds to support socially responsible corporate entities, investors are motivated simply to use undistributed profits to make even more money for themselves. Their blind and narrow purpose is to exploit venture opportunities most profitable, regardless of ethical considerations or their reputation for corporate social behaviour.

The culture of greed and profits has reduced people to being mere consumers devoid of their humanity. Our addiction to consumerism is not only promoted, but also required by the capitalist economic process which is driven by the interminable desire for profits and consumption, and inherently dangerous and wholly destructive notion for a poor country that ranks lowest in economic growth in the region.

A lifestyle and culture that became common in Western Europe, North America and Japan in the twentieth century after significant structural preparation is going viral in the twenty-first century Sri Lanka.

In traditional economic theory physical resources are finite while our needs and wants are infinite. As such, failure to install another paradigm to consumption is a recipe for disaster.  But again, this is not an inherent or necessary problem: it is socially constructed largely by how we have prioritized money above values and relationships. Individuals can and do transcend this constructed dichotomy, and collectively we can choose to dismantle it by changing how money and power function in society.

Human development in every sense is about the well-being of a nation’s people, and so it is values, relationships, and ethics that should be the end while wealth and power are merely secondary kinds of means.  It is not unrealistic to hold each other accountable to this standard and insist that our financial policies and social institutions uphold this ideal as well. It is imperative that we see this through the mist of trashy television plays, irresponsible “news” bulletins and bana programs.

There is no inherent reason why living true to our noble and altruistic ideals or doing what is best for society, the community, or our planet should be economically impossible. On the contrary, there is every reason to believe that our fundamental task is exactly to pool our resources, financial and otherwise, to solve these problems. Reintroducing the idea of moderation, equanimity and spiritual growth into this highly commoditized and materialistic society is a battle of severe adversity. Writing these thoughts and reading them might be a start.

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Latest comments

  • 3

    Sri lanka had a very good system. It became worse since 1978. Even the British system was not that Disasterous

  • 6

    Thank you Mr. Lasantha Pethiyagoda for this brilliant piece on the crises which ails Sri Lankan society and what can be done to mitigate and turn the tide. It crystallizes the issue and offers a starting point. This is a task for true leaders in many areas, politics, religion, education, media particularly advertising, as much as it should be for each individual.

  • 5

    Lasantha Pethiyagoda; “Reintroducing the idea of moderation, equanimity and spiritual growth into this highly commoditized and materialistic society is a battle of severe adversity.”
    This is exactly what I have been thinking!
    Sri Lanka considers Herself a Buddhist Country; so where have all the Fundamental Qualities of Buddhism:- ‘Moderation, Equanimity and Spiritual Growth’ Gone?
    The Current Politicians Who should be Leading the Rest of us by Example, are Demonstrating the Exact Opposite!
    Making Ostentatious Offerings of Flowers at Bodhi Trees and Tying Pirith Nool is not Buddhism!
    The Buddhist Clergy should lead by Practice and Example instead of Pandering to the Extravagant Tastes of the Politicians!
    Money has become the Root of All Evil!

    • 2

      “Even the Struggling masses are preoccupied with money”…….. yes they are, to have their daily meals. But the rich and famous are struggling to hide their ill gotten money.

    • 3

      It is evident that the Buddhists seem to have ‘void’ when they attempt to pray. So they took over the Hindu Gods put them in the Pansalas and started praying. They also don’t hesitate to fall at the feet of the Hamudurwas FOR REASONS BEST KNOWN TO THEM. Hindus, Christians and Muslims don’t fall at the feet of the priests who are supposed to be the go between the God and the People. Can some one explain?

      • 0

        Mr Anaga
        I can. It is your hatred towards Sinhala Buddhists. Ask yourself how you forgot the faults of others.
        Read the article again. Reflect on how money has corrupted the society. Forget Sinhala Buddhists just for one day.


        • 1

          I do not hate any body. It is the Sinhala Buddhist who create hatred on themselves by their illogical actions.

    • 2

      Quick money by evil means bribery, corruption, bond scam, politicians plundering the country/selling the part of the country.
      The religious leaders and all Maha Sanga must guide the country by teaching Lord Buddha’s teachings and they must set an example by following exactly Lord Buddha’s teachings,
      The Buddhist clergy should not enter dirty politics and spoil Lord Buddha’s teachings
      At this rate Sri Lanka will never ever become self-sufficient and always with begging bowls and selling the country

  • 4

    A very good piece!

    You have identified all the ills ………. but how do we solve them? Are there practical solutions …….. in an ever evolving social-evolutionary process?

    Are there prior examples where people collectively found solutions to these ills? Or did they happen not by human-design but by fortunate accidents in the course of social-evolution ……… while passing through various phases?

    “fortunate accidents” ——-> For example the French Revolution ……… which was more of an emotional reaction which would have achieved nothing much but for the emergence of Napoleon (which no one foresaw) …….. who without intending to but in the course of his wars/conquests handed power from the European aristocracy to the middle-class.

  • 1

    Dalai Lama
    10 hrs ·
    I believe that our strong focus on material development and accumulating wealth has led us to neglect our basic human need for kindness and care. Reinstating a commitment to the oneness of humanity and altruism toward our brothers and sisters is fundamental for societies and organizations and their individuals to thrive in the long run. Every one of us has a responsibility to make this happen.

    • 1

      Invite the Dalai Lama to come to Sri Lanka and Teach Us and the Politicians, what the Buddha Really Taught!
      We seem to be following a Mixture of Hinduism and Other Religions!

      • 1

        China has to agree for GoSL to provide a Visa to the Dalai Lama to visit here.
        May not be long for Sri Lankans to seek the approval of the Chinese Govt to leave
        our own shores. If that is happening to the Tibetans for over 50 years why not here soon?


        • 1

          That really is a Worry!
          It would be Preferable for The British to come back, than have China Dictating to us, about what we Can and Cannot do!
          Why did we Celebrate Independence Day on the 4th of February, when we are still Dependent on Chinese Authority!

          • 1


            Could anyone explain the idea (only an idea) of sovereignty.
            I hope our Ranavirus who single handedly reestablished sovereignty (whatever that maybe) over the entire island and the smart patriots would be able to give us complete explanation.

  • 1

    K.Anaga: You need some explanation as indicated in your comment. As I feel and know, all these “GO BETWEEN” such as “Haamuduruwo” and all other “Clergies” of all these “Religions” have very successfully “PREVENTED” the people from BUILDING a “Temple”. “Church”; “Kovil”, “Mosque” WITHIN the physical body of the people, where “GODS” or whom ever they venerate to “TAKE ROOT” and “LIVE” and “GUIDE” their (peoples’) destinies. Until and unless the people get to know this fact, this group of “Slave Masters” (those GO BETWEEN) will not let lose the Bondage on the “Followers”. That is how I see it and know it.

    • 1

      You are right.. Gods are being given concrete accommodation’ out side the physical body’ which they don’t need. Abodes of Gods are being competitively commercialized, architecturally beautified, when people are finding difficult to get a roof over their heads. This is very much rampant in the North/East with contributions from Diaspora.
      Temples, Pansalas and Mosques may be good for a social gathering to exchange pleasantry and views . But we are over doing it appears.
      This why A Tamil poet said thus:
      Kovil Muluthum Kanden-Uyar Kopuram eri chentren- Thevathi thevani engum thedium kandilene. Meaning, I have seen all the temples. I have climbed a great heights (Kopurams) of the temples, I searched for the god all over, but I could not see him..

  • 3

    I think, it is absurd for us to appeal to the politicians to bring in necessary changes to our system of govenence which is more extractive though it appears on the surface very inclusive in political and economic institutions.
    We as citizens should be mindful of the fact that unless and until we make our institutions free of political influence which entails creating powerful bureaucracy within the system so that bureaucrats allegiance only to the state machinery functioning within stiputed rules and regulations regardless of whoever is appointed to run the govt.

    The classic example is how the current president and the former president are trying to dismantel the
    Independent institutions created with the 19th ammendment to the constitution to advance their own political agenda to create their own extractive political and economic institutions, hell bent to make sure these instituions work for them not for the people.

    We citizen should organize ourself to form a mass movement to enlighten and educate our fellow citizens who are largely ignorant on the dangers lurking to unleash its power over us to put us in to missery.

  • 1

    Mr Pethiyagoda

    Welcome to the 21st century. As we become more ‘educated’, we are more materialistic, while it’s a lifestyle for some, it’s survival for the less privilege but the bottom line is always money. At school, children are taught just to pass exams & not in wider context to be good citizens as well, very often the teachers themselves exploiting vulnerable parents desperate to give their children an education which will provide them with a comfortable lifestyle. In employment, it’s all about profit maximisation with a bonus culture & target driven incentives, usually to supplement a low salary, while the fat cats at senior management, whether in a business enterprise or Govt./non Govt. organisation, enjoying generous perks. Then we have the average man on the street & the poor office worker, grateful for any .extra ‘income’ that may come his/her way, just to make life a bit better.

    When times are good, there is disposable income to indulge in this materialistic world but when times are bad, it becomes a dog eat dog world. While everybody has a right to improve on their life style, & in SL, as in most third world countries, unscrupulous politicians have exploited the poverty driven anger & disillusionment of the masses to their gain. Religion has become only symbolic in practice with the actual teachings & values distorted, misinterpreted & even rewritten to suit the current agenda.

    We experience this phenomenon first hand in SL but it’s happening in the rest of the world too. Apart from the third world African & South American states, which are, maybe, in a worst situation with rampant corruption, Trump democratically manipulated the Christian middle America, it happened in Italy with a far right nationalistic coalition govt., perhaps will happen in France & northern Europe as well in the future, as with the Brexit in UK, so I think it’s a sign of our times.

  • 0

    Lasantha, your brother Lacto is my good friend, Give my regards please


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