Sri Sathya Sai Principles on: Business and Ethics – By Ruchir Desai

Ruchir Desai with Sri Sathya Sai at Kodaikanal - May 2003
Volumes have been written on the need and importance of ethics in business in the last few decades. The wide profusion of literature on a subject, which needs to be practiced, more than discussed, is perhaps indicative of how difficult it is to practice it and more so to make others practice it.

The arguments espousing the cause of ethics in business have ranged from the morally upright stance, to the discharge of social responsibility, to enlightened self interest. While it would be futile to add to the vast body of well-thought out and documented literature on the subject, it would be in the fitness of things to examine how implementation can become more widespread.

We live in an age where society seems to be concerned more with ends rather than means. Sportsmen have to be monitored for using unfair means such as performance enhancing drugs; politicians use any means to come to power and retain power; people in positions of power or authority use their perch to enrich themselves; and temples of learning and temples of healing have become citadels of business. The icons of any age characterise the social mindset of that age and the icons of today are the rich and the powerful. It is but natural that in such circumstances, large sections of the populace fall prey to the same thinking.

Wealth and the perquisites attendant to wealth have been natural attractions for the human mind since ages. It is neither surprising nor wrong for businessmen to join in the pursuit of wealth. The businessman has traditionally been at the hub of society’s wealth and has been an important contributor to the process of wealth creation. Gandhiji’s concept of trusteeship was based on this philosophy.
Pursuit of wealth, per se, is not sinful. What makes the activity undesirable is the use of questionable means for the attainment of wealth and the thoughtless ways in which the wealth is used. Ethical behaviour is the first casualty when business seeks to amass wealth for the sake of amassing wealth, and without consideration of the means used. Any amount of logical argument, appeals to the conscience, or moral suasion, are of no use. Legal compulsions are even less effective, for ethical behaviour cannot be enforced.

It is here that some of the teachings of Bhagavan Baba become very pertinent. I would like to draw attention to what Swami says about discipline. True discipline cannot be enforced. What is enforced will have effect only when the person who has to enforce it is supervising the activity, and all aspects of human activity can never be supervised or regulated. True discipline springs from within. The best discipline, Swami says, is self-discipline. It is a natural and spontaneous response in any situation. It is born out of and sustained by the conviction that what one is doing is right and it is natural to pursue the right path, irrespective of the consequences. Such thinking is difficult to sustain for when the going gets tough, it is easy to succumb and move on to the primrose path. Yet, if one is convinced of one’s true dharma, it is possible to carry on the right path unwaveringly. The late Sri Nani Palkhivala very beautifully defined dharma, while delivering his convocation address to the students of our Institute in 1982, as “obedience to the unenforceable.” The only solution to the problem of ethics is self-discipline, which springs from a tough moral fibre and a superior value system.

Ethical behaviour and profits are not necessarily opposites. However, ethical behaviour would definitely limit the profits that a business can garner and would certainly not allow a person to earn an unlimited amount of wealth. While it may yield adequate profits in the long run, it would also entail loss of profit or even an outright loss in the short run. Does society today have the patience and foresight to accept this, especially when short-cuts are available at the cost of some intangible called “ethics.” Moreover, even when profits are being earned, the question of what is reasonable and what is not; what is enough and what is not, remains. Further, it is widely believed that the summum bonum of the existence of business is the shareholder. 

While it is true that maximisation of shareholder wealth ought to be the objective of all business decision making, that alone cannot be the sole guiding light, as the interests of all other stakeholders have to be considered. Among the other stakeholders societal interests often suffer, as there is no one to represent it or speak out to protect its interests. Employees, creditors, suppliers, customers and other interest groups may, if active, protect their interest. The casualty is the overall social well-being and the general interests of society, be they oriented towards social welfare, environment, social equity or the payment of adequate “rent” by business for the benefits that it derives from society. This is also partly due to the apathy of people in public life and the indifference of the average citizen to anything which does not directly and immediately concern him. 

This is where Bhagavan Baba’s teaching of “Ceiling on desires” comes in. The mind can never be completely satisfied. The world has enough to satisfy everyone’s needs but definitely not enough to satisfy even one man’s greed. The route to happiness is not in acquiring all that one can set his sights on but in putting a ceiling on one’s desires. Ceiling on desires is not negative in that it does not negate either the pursuit of material objects or the enjoyment of the joys of life. It only seeks to awaken man to question his needs and make him discriminate. It helps one to achieve satisfaction and stop the endless pursuit of material objects.

The acceptance of ethics as the basis of behaviour, not merely for business, but in any walk of life, can become totally successful not by prescribing codes of conduct or enacting legislation alone. These are perhaps necessary for the very small section of society which refuses to enlighten itself and needs to be forced to evolve. However, for most others, self-discipline and ceiling on desires would be the basis for a successful and wholehearted adoption of ethics. 

- Ruchir Desai
Student (1982-87), Department of Commerce
Currently, Faculty, Department of Commerce
Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning
Brindavan Campus

Source: Vidyagiri: Divine Vision

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