21 October, 2020

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Government And Ethics

By Carlo Fonseka

Prof. Carlo Fonseka

Lately my friend RMB Senanayake has been severely critical of the present government for what he calls “unethical behaviour.” He judges that the government is “following only the Machiavellian ethics of politics which boil down to no ethics at all” (The Island 5 July). As a member of a party (LSSP) which is a constituent part of the government, I feel impelled to examine the validity of his judgment. I may be asked why? The answer is that RMBS is an honorable man whose opinions I respect. If his charge that the present government conducts itself with “no ethics at all” is true, then as a senior citizen first and a party political animal afterwards, I ought to do what I can to replace it with a better one. It is to help me to think through this grave problem that I go to the trouble of responding to RMBS publicly. The Editor of The Island merits high praise for promoting free and open discussion on such matters. Public discussions like this must be the sort of activity which Amartya Sen, the Indian philosopher and Nobel Laureate in economics, calls “democracy as public reason”. He regards “public reasoning” as an essential ingredient of participatory democracy.

Machiavellian Ethics

The very fact that RMBS has invoked the political ethics of Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) to characterize the nature of the present government implies that there have been other governments in history which governed with “no ethics at all”. Machiavelli based his ethics of politics mainly on his observations of the actual political behavior of successful rulers of his time such as Ceasar Borgia in Roman Catholic Italy. In Machiavelli’s view ensuring the territorial integrity of Italy which was divided into many warring principalities, had to be the prime objective of rulers. It was to achieve this objective that he formulated his ethics of politics. When reading about the context in which his ethics came to be worked out, the thought occurred to me that in their view of the best interests of their states, all successful rulers of states whose territorial integrity was threatened, must have been compelled by circumstances at least occasionally to behave unethically. From this speculation, it was only a small step to the hypothesis that because all rulers aspire to be successful, they will if necessary tend to behave more or less unethically. At this point a sweeping generalization became irresistible: “All rulers tend to be unethical but some tend to be more unethical than others.”(Readers familiar with George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm (1945) will remember his famous aphorism: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”.

Biological Philosophy

Biology being the only subject I have studied in some depth, I tried to figure out in biological terms why rulers of nations if necessary tend to behave unethically, in the best interests of their states. A plausible evolutionary explanation suggested itself. A nation is simply an expanded tribe (or super-tribe) engaged in the struggle for existence in the natural world. The imperative objective of a nation is survival by any means, at all costs. Biologically, first comes survival then comes ethics. (Bertolt Brecht’s memorable line “fodder comes first, then comes morality” comes to mind). In order to buttress this biological explanation with an input from political science, I appealed to the most erudite political scientist I know, Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka through the columns of The Island (12 July). If my appeal caught his eye he ignored it perhaps on the (sensible) ground that the political education of an old medical fogey is not one of his priorities. Fortunately, illuminating insights into the problem came from other authorities.

Friday Forum

Voicing the opinion of the formidable Friday Forum, Sri Lanka’s most distinguished diplomat Jayantha Dhanapala spoke learnedly about the importance of “a balanced and principled foreign policy” for our country. He asserted that in the “globalized multi-polar world we now live in, we have to interact pragmatically with other states”. Pragmatism is popularly understood as the theory of dealing with problems in a practical way without resorting to abstract principles. In my mind, however, pragmatism is associated with the great American medic, psychologist and philosopher William James and his definition of “truth”. In his History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell quotes pragmatist William James as follows: “…an idea is “true” so long as to believe it is profitable to our lives…the true is only the expedient in our thinking…our obligation to seek truth is part of our general obligation to do what pays…”. Russell mercilessly lampoons this definition of truth and ever since then for me pragmatism has been in bad odour. If William James’s definition of pragmatic truth is valid, a pragmatic foreign policy will boil down to doing “what pays”. It can be argued that such a pragmatic foreign policy is precisely what the present government has been carrying out according to its best lights. And no doubt all other governments too, must be pragmatic in their foreign policies. Predictably conflicts of interest are inevitable, producing the international mess the world is in.

Pragmatism in Practice

In a critique of Jayantha Dhanapala’s piece, K. Godage, perhaps our most experienced career diplomat, says that after the defeat of the LTTE in 2009, the Tamil diaspora succeeded in obtaining the support of the US, Britain and France to continue their pitch for Eelam. He then poses this question which helps to expose the real nature of a “pragmatic” foreign policy: “Would they (Britain and US) have supported the LTTE to destabilize this country had Britain continued to own plantations in this country or would the US have moved against Sri Lanka had Motorola, Harris and three other computer chip manufacturers setup their factories here?” In the considered evidence-based judgment of our most senior and respected diplomat, “those two countries would have stood by this country if they had such interests here”. (Sunday Island 25 August). That’s pragmatism for you, the obligation to do “what pays”! First comes capital, then comes ethics! Thus, my dear RMBS, it is not ethics but the antithesis of it, namely, naked economic self-interest that governs the relations between nations. And it can be cogently argued that in reason times Sri Lanka has been acting pragmatically i.e. doing what pays. By so doing Sri Lanka has succeeded in decisively defeating militarily the LTTE, the most blood-thirsty, murderous terrorist organization in recent world history. Though defeated militarily, the LTTE-inspired Eelam project continues unabated and the threat to the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka remains a real one. On the 24th of July this year I had the occasion to sit next to President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the same (marriage registrar’s) table. I took the opportunity to ask him a straight question: “Sir, why don’t you aspire to be a Dammasoka instead of remaining a Chandasoka? His unblinking instant reply was: “How can I try to do that when the TNA has not budged at all from the LTTE – Eelam project?” My only response was to ask in disbelief whether that is really so. The conversation ended abruptly at that point. The Defense Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who just escaped being blown to smithereens during the internecine conflict, is now in the position best equipped to judge the magnitude of the separatist threat. Understandably, the defense establishment is loath to run any risks and reacts – perhaps over-reacts – to perceived threats with no compunction. Equally understandably, RMBS of austere ethical propriety, finds the political behavior of the government

ethically reprehensible and morally repugnant. He asks whether “a state is free to ignore all moral values in the conduct of its business”. The rulers claim that they are in fact conducting state in accordance with their own moral imperatives, especially the need to counter decisively present and future threats to the territorial integrity of the state. RMBS indicts the government of practising Machiavellian ethics of politics forgetting that Niccolo Machiavelli formulated his ethics of politics, specifically with the aim of preserving the integrity of the Italian state of his time. Thus, there is an irreconcilable difference of opinion between RMBS and the rulers of the state duly elected to govern it. In this situation let me put the crucial question that arises in the starkest possible terms: Why should the government conduct its business in the way RMBS prescribes that it ought to? In other words, what is the authority on which RMBS bases his ethics?

Authority in Ethics

This raises a very fundamental question: What is the basis of authority in ethics? It so happens that “Authority in Ethics” is the title of a chapter in Bertrand Russell’s book called Human Society in Ethics and Politics published in 1952 when he was 80. He identifies four (overlapping) sources of authority in ethics: human authority, divine authority, the authority of truth and the authority of conscience. Given the absolutist tone of RMBS’s ethics, it is likely that his ethics derive from a divine source. A secular humanist has no argument to counter such a stance and the matter must end there. But a humanist could point out that if ethics are based on a human authority, then the only sanction known to ethics in a given society, is the assent of the majority in that society. In order to ascertain the thoughts and feelings of the people on a particular matter in a given society it is necessary to ask them, that is to say, to conduct an opinion poll. Conducting an opinion poll is essentially a political process. Thus, in the end ethics leads to politics. That no doubt is why the great Greek philosopher Aristotle regarded ethics as a branch of politics. In practice what the majority in a given society sanctions will constitute the ethics of the society at that point in time. If RMBS’s thoughts and feelings are not in consonance with those of the majority then his opinion (however ennobling it might be) becomes irrelevant. There is no other way to conduct public affairs in a democratic state. RMBS knows Churchill’s celebrated definition of democracy: “It is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried…” On the same analogy the present government may well be the worst one in living memory except for all the others. If RMBS considers matters dispassionately, the thoroughly amoral and unethical behavior of the US – which he seems to regard as the temple of democracy, the guardian of liberty, the dispenser of global justice, the citadel of free enterprise and the God-fearing secular state – in relation to Iraq, Libiya and Siriya, he must surely become less judgmental about the government in his own country. Let us not forget that this country endured a mortal threat to its existence from the worst expression of terrorism the world has seen in recent times. In this context, I will continue to support this government until my friend RMBS comes up with a specific named alternative to replace it. He must recommend it strongly, rationally and cogently instead of preaching transcendental ethics. I insist that he must name his recommended choice because in political matters nothing is easier to do than to indulge in unrelenting criticism of others and do nothing constructive.

Conclusion

A concluding relevant thought may be in order. As member of the LSSP, I stand firmly for the abolition of Sri Lanka’s version of the executive presidency which was criticized to death by Dr. N.M. Perera, the founding leader of the LSSP. I should strongly support every movement to abolish it. Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero whom I greatly respect knows how much I approve of his powerful campaign to abolish the executive presidency. President Mahinda Rajapaksa is the only one who has the power to do it. If he has the courage and wisdom to do it his name will shine in Sri Lanka’s history like a mighty star.

Courtesy The Island

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    Knowing the track-record of the MR family Regime and the back-boneless
    self-centered Senior Ministers under his thumb, NO CHANGE can be forseen
    in the near future.

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    I beg to disagree with this observation – “Thus, my dear RMBS, it is not ethics but the antithesis of it, namely, naked economic self-interest that governs the relations between nations. And it can be cogently argued that in reason times Sri Lanka has been acting pragmatically i.e. doing what pays.”

    If Sri Lanka as a country plans international strategy towards what pays, then it should plan to be more cooperative with those countries that buy our value added products, and those countries against whom Sri Lanka has a positive trade balance, than those who do not buy our value added products in large scale. Support for domestic value addition process is vital to sustain a skilled labor force and to encourage the young ones to obtain a quality education and to stay in the country. However, if the political leadership plan the international strategy towards what pays at a personal level, YES then the country should go towards who pays better at a personal level, without worrying about who buys our value added items. So, what matters is at which level the theory works – at a National level or at a personal level.

    When it comes to ethics, only a true friend will warn another friend about good things like ethics. For instance, James A. Baldwin said “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” At the level of citizenship, only a true patriot will stay critical about his/her country being adored. At the level of personal friendship, a drug dealer won’t advice a drug addict about health. Likewise, at the level of international relations only true international friends will caution us about things like human rights and rule of law, partly out of their own interests to see some stability to help their own investors. Those who come to suck out our juice and spat the crap out of us will only come to us like a sex customer would approach a prostitute. He won’t bother to ask the prostitute if she had a decent meal today.

    Regarding LTTE, I am sure you know that none of those LTTE cadres were born terrorists. Lord Buddha talked about dependent co-arising in Maha Nidhana Sutta and Paticcasamuppada Sutta. For instance, the concept of music and the concept of silence co-arise. Music cannot exist without silence and the notion of silence loses importance without music. Likewise, terrorism is a co-arising phenomena. Any radicalism of the TNA is also a co-arising phenomenon. The job of the wise is to investigate the other factors in this co-arising process. Given my knowledge about president Mahinda Rajapaksa, he is a well seasoned politician, who knows what those other factors are. My issue is that, rather than addressing them, he uses them as reins to manipulate the situation to his political advantage. While doing so, he puts the country at great risk. And, the level of dishonesty can not be hidden forever. People see it. For instance, if you look at the reports of the UN secretary general about the events that ran upto the LLRC report, you can see the kind of double games he played with the local community on one hand and the UN on the other. There is also some wide belief that he co-operated with the LTTE to manipulate the first presidential election (repeat, these are only beliefs based on what Tiran Alas has stated on media).

    So, what we need so badly now is some level of honesty from your Government.

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      Thrishantha has set out in detail where the convoluted observation of Carlo Fonseka misses the target and goes at a tangent.
      His reasoning why a failed state like Pakistan supports SL is illustrated, by giving the example of the concern of a drug dealer to his customer the drug addict’s health.
      Thus the explanation why the radicalism of the TNA is merely a response to the Mahinda Chintana policies is like the ball bouncing back from the wall and hitting under the belt of person throwing is perfectly valid.

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      Thrishantha

      This is what Carlo Fonseka said in his speech at the launch of Edward Gunawardena’s book ‘Memorable Tidbits Including the Jaffna Library Fire’:

      Please read the excerpts:

      LTTE masterminded

      [But] let me come to the burning question in this book. My friend, author Dr Gunadasa Amarasekara really exhausted this subject and I have very little to add in way of providing details about it. Who burnt the Jaffna library? Edward has demonstrated beyond any matter of doubt that it was the LTTE that masterminded this crime against civilization. Why did he do that? Dr Amarasekara explained the doer’s motive but principally I think it was to prove to the world that the Sinhalese Buddhists are [bad] people. And the world believed the LTTE propaganda.

      Not only the world, I too was one who believed that Mr Gamini Dissanayake was the villain. And during the 1994 presidential election campaign I crucified Mr Gamini Dissanayake for this crime which I believed he committed. After reading Edward’s account I now realize that I committed that [villainy] because I believed in the absurdity that it was Gamini Dissanayake who burnt the Jaffna Library or masterminded it. Let me spell out the way in which I came to excoriate Mr. Gamini Dissanayake on the election platform. In 1993, I read a poem on the burning of the Jaffna Library titled ‘Murder’. It was published in the Ceylon Medical Journal as a filler. I gathered that it was the English translation of a poem written by M.A . Nuhuman, who was a senior lecturer in Tamil in the University of Peradeniya. I was greatly moved and touched by the poem. Let me read it out to you.

      The Nation
      Sunday, 27 January 2013

      Man gone ga ga.

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        He can wake up with different dreams about burning Jaffna library, or change his mind after every speech of hearsay about it. As an intellectual, and as a party to the coalition, why can’t he insist on a thorough independent investigation to find out the real culprits, if he is so interested in this dark experience?
        This is why I want this senior intellectual to be a bit more honest with his politics.

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      Thrisantha, Well said. The best from you in a while. Carlo Fonseka has no credibility now. He is a well meaning but a weak-kneed senior citizen whose reputation precedes his true intellect. Sadly his remarks are still considered with respect!

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    Political realist says that man by nature bad and wicked, the most evil thing in the world is man’s instinctive lust for power. So according to the realism executive presidency will not be abolished.

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    Pro. Carlo Fonseka: You say “Biology being the only subject I have studied in some depth” and continue to say “Biologically, first survival then comes ethics”.

    Agreed. We have survived and regained our freedom to live without being threatened by that brutal “terrorism of LTTE” and its allied forces. So now comes the “ETHICS” in your own assertion.

    My question to you, Sir is: Do you find any type of that “ETHICS” from both the Governing and Opposition Politicians?

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    /*. “How can I try to do that when the TNA has not budged at all from the LTTE – Eelam project?” My only response was to ask in disbelief whether that is really so. */
    Well you should have asked, is that why he uses ex-LTTE terrorist leaders to lead the North & Eastern provinces while TNA fields a former judges ?

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    My dear respected “Italian Portuguese” Carlo Fonseka,

    Thank you for this write up.

    However, for dictators who want to promote self-interest, at the expense of democracy and accountability, these are not issues.

    1. “Machiavellian ethics of politics “

    2. ” If his charge that the present government conducts itself with “no ethics at all” is true, then as a senior citizen first and a party political animal afterwards, I ought to do what I can to replace it with a better one”

    3. ” Public discussions like this must be the sort of activity which Amartya Sen, the Indian philosopher and Nobel Laureate in economics, calls “democracy as public reason”. He regards “public reasoning” as an essential ingredient of participatory democracy.”

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    Why doesn’t this “rationalist” just go hide in a corner and save us the agony of seeing his ugly mug accompanied by his stupid sycophantic (or is it “Psycho-fanatic”) blatherings.
    This b…r and his other “Dead-Left” friends probably explain why the Latin word for “left” is “Sinistra.”

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    “President Mahinda Rajapaksa is the only one who has the power to do it. If he has the courage and wisdom to do it his name will shine in Sri Lanka’s history like a mighty star.”

    You mean all the citizens of Sri Lanka are irrational?

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      ”After each election, there were missed opportunities for initiatives that could have addressed many concerns of Tamil community members, while simultaneously respecting the concerns of all but the most radical Sinhalese nationalists. In each instance, however, Sri Lanka’s political leaders chose not to expend their political capital in this way but instead, to accede to demands of the radicals. … it will be useful to seek lessons from periods when Sri Lankan political leaders, like President Mahinda Rajapaksa, had such overwhelming political support that they were in a position, if they chose, to expend political capital by taking concrete steps toward communal reconciliation. …” – Prospects For Post Conflict Reconciliation And Development In Sri Lanka: Can Singapore Be Used As A Model? Prof John Richardson, http://groundviews.org/2010/11/05/prospects-for-post-conflict-reconciliation-and-development-in-sri-lanka-can-singapore-be-used-as-a-model/

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    Prof Carlo Fonseka
    Please go down A9 past Omanthai checkpoint and try to get into a side road and reach any village.
    Your ethics will be enriched a lot.

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      Davidson Panabokke:
      In all fairness to this government of “commission kaakkas,” it must be said that this practice is not confined to the Tamil areas.
      If you ever want to see this practice in all its glory come visit the Kandyan heartland with which you must be familiar given your last name. Virtually EVERY road off a main highway in the Tumpane Pradeshiya’s jurisdiction, is subjected to the same treatment: for as far as you can see from the trunk road, the side-road is concreted or paved in some other way. Thereafter, the drain or paddy field that constitutes the “thoroughfare” continues. If the minor road connects two main highways, it is the two terminii that are paved ONLY AS FAR AS IS VISIBLE FROM THE TRUNK ROAD!
      There is a degree of sophistication in this fraud, one must admit!

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    Aren’t you ashamed of each speck of what this govt has been doing in the last seven years and what the previous governments have been doing not only in the North but also in the South?

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    ”worst expression of terrorism”:

    For men on the street visible(blood) violence and audible(gun, etc) violence is terrorism.
    For learned men structural violence that generates visible and audible violence is terrorism:

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/104705097/Conscientious-Sinhalese-Tell-LLRC

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    hik..hik..hik..poor Dr Carlo Fonseka…” .then as a senior citizen first and a party political animal afterwards…” ETHICS …he has expressed in the way he perceives and ONLY what his mind wish to state..this is the Animalistic Politics that he practices now…his statement confirms it. This highly complexed character ” the Senior Citizen..” is certainly not of sound mind …to understand the ETHICAL BEHAVIOUR of the STATE one should have read the comments made on a Sinhala WEB on the Death of Human Right Activist Sunila Abeysekera…what was reflected in those comments speaks well about the status of the minds of the Sinhala Nation..that truly reflects the minds & hearts of those who RULE THE COUNTRY TODAY….Ethics begins in the mind of a human being..it cannot be observed from outside…that is why Lord Jesus said that one to claim that he is clean ..first he should clean inside of the body..it is not the food that goes into the stomach through the mouth that is unclean but what comes out that stinks…

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    Dear Carlo

    As a member of a party (LSSP) which is a constituent part of the government you are determined to defend their type of ethics instead of ours ( Surely you recall Trotsky’s famous booklet on this subject)

    Can you just explain to me under which set of ethics your government has obstructed the direct online access to the Colombo Telegraph. At least could you ask your Chandasoka president to clarify it when you meet him at the next immediate wedding.

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    Bugger Machiavelli! This government follows the Savundranayagam School of we’ll ‘do whatever it takes’ and ‘do whatever we can getaway with it’ and to hell with the toothless proles.

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    People like proff Carlo.F and Dr Dayan.J should be more appropriately referred to as rationalisers as they are not being a rationalist as such they truly “think as they live” to please their masters for their life style, benefits and perks they must maintain and enjoy quite similar to the VP’s cohorts as they cannot afford due to their genetics’ and mematics that restrains and inhibits them from having or aspiring to having a higher ethical or moral level or fibre to “live and write as they think” but mostly to rationalise and justify.

    Does this not remind one of an approximate saying of “What or how does it profit a man or woman to gain the whole world through their learning, erudition and wealth and lose his or her own (figurative) soul”? It will not matter to most of us and much less to them and the secular new wave of atheist in the USA who would enjoy those who oppose them to be bombed into the Stone Age and oblivion.

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    Worth reading, Concerning Mixed Principalities
    Three Years On After The War: Our King And Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ by Uvindu Kurukulasuriya –
    Did you know that President Mahinda Rajapaksa read the Sinhala translation of “The Prince” which was serialised in the Sunday Lankadeepa, ‘Raja Veediya’ supplement?

    https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/three-years-on-after-the-war-our-king-and-machiavellis-the-prince/

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    Tamil Poet Bharathiyar so graphically described all dictatorships – “Pae arasu seithaal pinam thinnum saaththirangal”. Literally translated, “in a land ruled by the devils (or ghosts) all (books of) knowledge will (advocate to) eat corpses” Now we have our respected Dr Carlo ‘eating the corpses’ as that is the order of the day… (sigh)

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