19 May, 2022


Materiality & Moral Responsibility; The Dilemma Of Our Times

By Lasantha Pethiyagoda

Prof. Lasantha Pethiyagoda

Sri Lanka was recently down-graded as a high-risk debtor. The Colombo stock market had two records also recently. One for the highest turnover and one for perhaps the lowest. The majority community has been put on a pedestal by the state, while the minorities stand demoted. Society has been turned on its head by a strange and addictive phenomenon. What might be this unwelcome development that is making this a topsy-turvy environment? The problem is the over emphasis on economic success for the promoters of the new world order, manifest in poor Sri Lanka as in parts of the developed world. Our land, hollowly boasting religious grandeur and history of civilization has instituted a de-emphasis on profoundly important things such as our relationships with other human beings as well as with our natural environment, giving way to corporate greed and opportunism instead.

This malady of vast 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 for others. This can be observed on public roads, offices and retail centres. Such irresponsible attitudes and consequent behaviour is applauded and admired in the prevalent political thinking which values enterprise over welfare.

This new hierarchy of values which reverse the traditional order, has infiltrated our fundamental institutional structures (secondary education, the professions and labour, national politics, urban and rural 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, affiliation to seats of power and proceeding blindly in the vain search for an elusive happiness.

One must 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 other words, 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.

The traditionally virtuous concept that money is a resource that should be used in the service of our 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.

This inexorable move towards market-dominated paradigms that aims at transforming 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. Academic discourse is profoundly absent when it is most needed, perhaps hijacked by a crony coterie of opportunists.

Our society seems pre-occupied with money when its currency deteriorates like dew in daylight. We seem encouraged by parents, peers and societal norms to embrace wealth accumulation as our prime objective as the purchasing power of the rupee plummets. One dares not revolt against such paradigms created by the market culture although social costs are ongoing and most palpable to all.

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

In the corporate business world, 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 with contempt for whom they depend on for their lucre. Their blind and narrow purpose is to exploit venture opportunities most profitable, regardless of ethical considerations or their reputation for corporate social behaviour.

This degenerative 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.

Much of our population is of the “consumer class” with half of them residing in the struggling class. A lifestyle and culture that became common in Europe, North America and Japan in the twentieth century is going viral in the twenty-first in poor Sri Lanka.

Ironically though, individuals can live long and happy lives without using more than their “fair share” of common resources. Data shows that many residents of poor countries achieve levels of life satisfaction just as high as their wealthier counterparts with a lower material component in the former, implying that above a minimum level, there is no apparent correlation between per capita income and perception of life satisfaction.

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.

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 teledrama smoke and mirrors and empty bana programs.

There is no inherent reason why living true to our noble and altruistic ideals or doing what is best for society, the entire community, or our neighbourhood 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, corruption-rife and unrealistically materialistic society is a battle of severe adversity. Writing these thoughts and reading them might be a start.

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Latest comments

  • 2

    Sri Lankans certainly are addicted to gambling. This can be seen in the vast range of lottery tickets. Still, this could be excused as a source of govt revenue.
    But the stock market has turned into a huge gambling den. Twitter and FB threads by the big sharks encourage small investors to put their money into stocks which are being actively pumped by the sharks. Recently, even shares of empty hotels and bankrupt diamond companies trebled in value. When the sharks decide to dump, the little guys lose their shirts, and the sharks net tax-free billions. One of them has the nerve to post pics of his wine collections on Twitter. Most of these sharks are Pohottuwa sidekicks.
    Meanwhile, the losers are reduced to speculating about the next “upturn”, ever ready to lose their shirts again!

  • 3

    Overall an appreciable piece by Prof. LP.

    • 0

      “…pressure on educational institutions to refocus their priorities in favour of the pragmatic goal of profiting by preparing young people for the workforce in areas such as medicine, as if technical knowledge and skills are more important than history, identity, meaning, purpose, values, creativity, and vision.”
      Technical knowledge and skills focused (i.e., more practical) education is not mutually exclusive of creativity, vision, and innovation; has just as much scope as academia and research focused programs. But both need to be fostered.
      Educational institutions to provide mass education in spiritual (i.e. not same as religious) and humanitarian concepts is not pragmatic; such studies are far more dependent on each student’s maturity/need/affinity to receive such an education.
      – – >
      Political history as a subject is tricky. There’s a great need to teach history accurately without the influence of political agendas. Some say there’s no future in history! Other fields of history like arts, not so tricky.
      Ultimately, we have to evolve into a society that fosters individuality, and not tribalism. Society as a whole must understand that individual rights and freedoms are key to fostering healthy vision, creativity, and innovation.

  • 0

    The book: The Ethics of Money Production by Jorg Guido Hulsmann provides all the answers to the author’s questions and more.

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