ECONOMICS WITHOUT ETHICS: THE CRISIS OF SPIRITUALITY

PCDForum Column #80 Release Date June 1, 1996

by Bishan Singh

I was struck in a recent international meeting of activist scientists and intellectuals that some of the Westerners present seemed fearful that if they were identified by their colleagues as spiritual persons their opinions would be dismissed as unscientific. Yet in other settings it was evident that some of them are deeply spiritual persons.

Coming from Asia, where spirituality is a way of life, I found this contradiction troubling. After a period of reflection I realized that far more than a personal dilemma was involved. I had witnessed the manifestation of a deeply-rooted social dilemma-the clash between two distinct approaches to the way we organize our resources to meet our needs and develop our civilization. One is the humanistic approach, which is life-centered. The other is the materialistic approach, which is money-centered.

Economics-the way we organize and use our resources-determines the kind of civilization we build. It is the bedrock upon which institutions, knowledge systems, technologies, and livelihood practices unfold. Since resources, particularly natural ones, are both critical in ensuring our livelihoods and are also finite in supply, questions relating to the allocation of these resources are of an inherently ethical nature. In other words, ethics is the soul of economics. An economics without ethics, inevitably becomes an economics of greed and avarice.

Unfortunately, in their effort to "elevate" economics into a science, economists have adopted, like other sciences, a reductionist approach that divorces it from ethics. This ethically deprived economics became the foundation of a materialist civilization of infinite growth fueled by the money culture-the dominant capital-centered approach to development. It makes for an interesting relationship. The more "developed" the economy, by prevailing economistic definitions, the greater the loss of spiritual and ethical consciousness.

Removing ethics from economics also removes social responsibility and critical awareness. We are left only with consumption and materialism. It is like disconnecting the functional relationship of the heart (the subjective) from the head (the objective). It has caused the left brain (objective) to dominate the right brain (subjective).

This turns people into one dimensional beings whose sole purpose is to work to consume in support of the wealth creation process. This is what is happening to all of us. The process of wealth creation needs both fodder and energy to keep the juggernaut in motion. People can be made fodder by addicting them to consumption. Once addicted, they will work to provide the energy for the process.

The only power that can check this process is a heightened spiritual sense of what is right and wrong flowing from the individual's innate feeling of unity with "existence," encompassing humanity, nature, and divinity. All this propels us to act in a humane way with a deep sense of responsibility for our actions and of stewardship toward the needs and rights of others. Spirituality is the enemy of the capital-centered economy. Where materialism has advanced, spirituality has declined. And where spirituality is high the capital-centered economy has had difficulty gaining a foothold.

By working to convert all values into monetary values, economists make money the be-all and end-all of human enterprises and endeavor. Materialism becomes the living culture, money-making the religion, money the god, banks the temples, and economists the oracles.

Any God before this god, any Religion before this religion, any Culture before this culture, and any Spirit before this spirit is the enemy. Spirituality is anathema to materialism. In a perverse inversion of reality, to modern materialists spirituality becomes the evil enemy to be destroyed. Thus framed, the modern economy calls on us to engage ourselves in a negative spiritual practice that deprives our lives of meaning and alienates us from our sense of spiritual connection.

This gives great significance to the efforts of communities all over the world that are struggling to restore ethics to their economic practice, to become critically aware and socially responsible for the ways in which they organize, use, consume, and manage their resources. They are advancing the practice of voluntary simplicity, creating livelihoods for the unemployed, adopting alternative ways of producing and distributing goods and services to reduce resource use, recycling waste into reusable resources, undertaking sustainable agricultural practices, and providing credit for the poor.

The courageous visionaries, social activists, community leaders, and concerned individuals engaged in this historic process are demonstrating the possibility of creating economic cultures in which our economic lives become a part of our ethical and spiritual practice. In our present context, it is a profoundly revolutionary act.


Bishan Singh is a contributing editor of the PCDForum, president of MINSOC, and Senior Advisor for Participation, Information and Training, FARM Programme, FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, Maliwan Mansion, 39 Phra Atit Road, Bangkok 10200, Thailand, Fax (662) 2803240. This column was prepared and distributed by the PCDForum based on his article in the Fall 1995 Balaton Bulletin.

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