Ethics, Goodness and Greed

I know what is right, but I have no inclination for it. I also know what is not right, but I can’t resist it.

– Duryodhana in Mahabharatha

One thing is the Good and quite another is the Pleasant, and both seize upon a man with different meanings. Of those who chose the Good, it is well for them; he falls from the aim of life who chooses the Pleasant.

– Katha Upanishad

Its human nature, unless somebody can find a way to change human nature, we will have more crisis and none of them will look like this because no two crisis have anything in common except human nature.

– Alan Greenspan,

Former Chairman of the Federal Reserve of US.

After the financial meltdown, so much has been said and written about the evils of greed and the need of ethics. How to make ethics and goodness prevail over greed and selfishness in human nature?

The ethical sensitivity is not the prerogative of a saint. There is a saint in everyone of us. Even those who suffer from a congenital wickedness have a spark of goodness in a little corner of their being. There are deeper and higher layers in our mind and heart which respond spontaneously to truth, beauty and goodness. The main problem of ethics is that most of us are not able to live and act from this deeper and higher part of our being. We live mostly in the lower part of our self where the main actuating force is not truth, beauty and goodness but greed, pleasure and personal satisfaction. Even when our lower self awakens to this higher values, it is not able to live these ideals, because in this part of our nature, motives like greed for power and wealth, pleasure-seeking and self-interest are much more powerful forces than the aspiration for truth, beauty or goodness; truth or goodness is a weak, desirable, more or less abstract ideals but greed or the urge for pleasure is a powerful, compelling force.

This is the reason why an intellectual and emotional awakening of the surface nature to ethical values, though helpful as a beginning, is not enough for a deep and lasting moral change. Rational analysis, case studies and stories are helpful in creating a preliminary ethical awakening in our surface nature and in our thinking mind. But this awakening does not have sufficient force to overcome a strong and compelling temptation or the gust of nature, which raises from the need for power, wealth, enjoyment or for safeguarding or expansion of our self-interest. The lure and temptation is all the more difficult to resist when it is sugar-coated with pleasure and immediate gratification.

This is the central knot of the immemorial ethical problem. The long-term solution lies in an inner discipline or education which brings a greater light, strength, energy and discrimination to our mind and heart and our higher aspirations and ultimately transforms our consciousness and life. There are many such disciplines in the spiritual traditions of the world, especially in the Eastern and Indian Yoga.

However, we must note here that the aim of these disciplines is spiritual and not moral. The moral development or perfection is only a means or preparatory stage for the spiritual freedom or perfection which is the aim. However the mental, moral and psychological discipline described in these Indian spiritual traditions provides a practical system of “value education” which can lead to a deeper and more lasting moral transformation than the mostly intellectual and superficial approach to ethics taught in modern academic and management education.

The other important lesson which the modern ethical paradigms have to learn from the ancient spiritual teaching is the limitation of ethics and morality in changing human nature. According to eastern spiritual traditions, ethics and morality can only achieve a limited, preparatory change which is uncertain because it has to be sustained by constant vigilance, effort and control of a higher mental or moral will over our lower nature. The permanent and radical transformation of nature can be achieved only in the spiritual consciousness of our highest and innermost self beyond our mental and moral being. This is because, the higher values like truth, beauty and goodness become entirely concrete, intrinsic, spontaneous and self-existent only in the consciousness of the spirit. This may be a far-off ideal for most of us. But we cannot expect any lasting and radical change in human life without a corresponding change in human nature. As Sri Aurobindo points out:

“At first sight this insistence on a radical change of nature might seem to put off all the hope of humanity to a distant evolutionary future; for the transcendence of our normal human nature… has the appearance of an endeavour too high and difficult, and at present, for man as he is, impossible. Even if it were so, it would still remain the sole possibility for the transmutation of life. For to hope for a change of human life without a change of human nature is an irrational and unspiritual proposition.”

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