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Is it possible to live an ethical life?


An entry in The Crocodile Prize
PNG Chamber of Mines & Petroleum
Award for Essays & Journalism

Imagine a world in which everybody
Is treated with equal respect;
Whose worth is valued the same,
And whose dreams and pursuits are upheld;
And who can go as far as their dreams can take them.

Is there such a place?
And if the human heart and mind are capable
Of creating such a place,
What is stopping us from going there? - J K Kamasua

Be the change you want to see in the world - Mahatma Ghandi

IS it possible to live an ethical life? What is an ethical life? And why should we strive to lead an ethical life?

Such questions do not seem to be worth asking because the reality in our society is far from what can be termed as the ideal.

So what then is an ethical life? An ethical life to me, is that after satisfying our needs and wants, and while conducting ourselves in society, we need to live by the laws and rules of society; respect the rights of others, give a consideration to the environment, not abusing public office for private gain or bribery; not charging 10% for doing official duties like processing a valid payment and so forth.

Hardly a day goes by in this country without news of corruption – mismanagement, abuse of power and position, and the appointment of relatives and so forth. Stealing, killing, maiming, jealousy, taking care of our own kinds and so forth are some other behaviour which are becoming common.

The seriousness of the situation is open secret. So does that mean, we sleep over it and wish that they will go away by themselves? Or should we simply turn a blind eye, and pursue our own self-interests, because simply it appears that there is nothing we can do about them?

Well-to-do and well educated people have been implicated and alleged to have been involved in official corruption! There have been serious allegations against some in very high offices and senior positions of responsibility, in government agencies and the private sector.

The corruption rating for PNG is among the lowest, which means the worst among countries in the world. There are also hints of injustices, human rights abuses, and miscarriages of justice. It may appear as if it is every man for himself or woman or herself, and that we are following a direction into certain chaos.

Many of the problems related to corruption, nepotism, abuse of power and trust, are a result of a leadership crisis at many levels of our society.  

Is ethics then only for the western-democratic nations? Do we need ethics at all in PNG? If people are naturally anything but selfish, what is the point of emphasising ethics? Is there any hope at all?

I am not saying that we denounce everything we hold onto so that we follow a new religion. What I am suggesting does not require us to be all religious. It is about choosing ultimately how we want to live with each other and the environment around us. It is about making ultimate choices in life.

The greatest philanthropists in the world are some of the world’s richest people. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Mark Zuckerberg and many others have decided while they are still alive to give a substantial amount of their wealth to charity and causes that support the general good of humanity.

They appear to fulfil a basic fundamental requirement of how we should live. More and more wealth is not real wealth until shared or invested in areas where it is making the most difference.

We therefore need to ask two fundamental questions:

Is it possible to live an ethical life?

Why should we aspire to live an ethical life?

These two questions are best answered by first looking at the lives of some people in history.

What convinced giants of history such as William Wilberforce, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Ghandi,  Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela  and others to step out of society, out of the crowd and be different?

They did not need to raise an army, build an empire, or even amass great wealth. They stepped out to stand on something they knew was worth pursuing, that the status quo and the accepted norms and ways of conducting affairs of society then often discriminated, disadvantaged, and marginalised.

Were they only exceptions, and that the natural order now is for people to conform, even if the act of conformity may mean breaking or bending the rules to their own advantage?

Adam Smith’s famous sentence “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher that we expect our dinner but from his regard for his own self-interests” provides a point to illustrate.

Generally Smith’s thesis was that a collection of individuals working for their self-interests would naturally through the “invisible hand“, result in a better society for all.  It provided for the seed of the modern capitalist system we have come to inherit today. However, it must be noted that Smith supported accumulation and self-interests on the basis that it should lead to a better society for all.

So of course the butcher would have to make sure that the meat he is selling to us is of certain quality, and fit for human consumption. Importantly, he would have to make certain he is charging a right price – a price taking into account the item and the labour that went into preparing it. Even for his own gain and self-interest he must be selling the meat at a certain quality and at a price we are able to buy.

It must be remembered also that Smith was first and foremost a moral philosopher, who became keenly interested in the economic affairs of the countries of Europe during his time. Smith however did not defend the goal that accumulation is the way to happiness. It is deceptive that wealth will bring us real happiness. Although Smith admitted that the pursuit of vain desires would not bring us any real satisfaction, it is the pursuit itself that is worth promoting.

Obviously he did not factor in environmental pollution, green house gases, the destruction of flora and fauna, and the tampering of means of livelihood that are the results of pursuing self-interests on a grand scale.

Of course in the modern era of the interplay between economics and politics, the rules of engagement and parameters need to be set. In other words, the economic and political behaviour of countries and individuals must be guided by laws, regulations and appropriate policies.

Does accumulating wealth reach a saturation point? When is how much enough, especially if it is acquired through dubious means?

Professor Peter Singer in the preface of his book How Are We to Live asks the following questions: Is there still anything to live for? Is anything worth pursuing apart from money, love, and caring for one’s own family? If so what could it be?

A productive, fulfilling life is not always taking but also giving, and more importantly living an ethical life is not self-sacrifice. Giving does not mean giving money, material things or food. It can however mean giving one’s best in such an environment as a public office. It follows from here that we can choose to give our very best to others and society by living an honest, transparent and more productive life.

Those of us who feel that we are victims of unethical conduct could make a date with destiny. We can ask for a fair chance, and a fair go.  We can try and make a lot of noise. Let it be contagious, and let it spread.  So we can go further and say to those that matter: Keep your positions, your wealth, your interests, your prestige, perks and privileges, but start towing the line and play by the rules. But  would not be necessary

The best way of giving for those in the public service position of influence is to follow the law, and perform one’s job as best as possible. That is all that is required of us, even if we do not all become Christians or follow a certain religion.

If all we want to live for is to take, and accumulate and prosper only today, and only for ourselves, then there is nothing much to look forward to into the future. And that will be tragic as we will be living from day to day. Our lives become ordinary and meaningless. Then what sort of a life would that be?

Take King Solomon in the Bible as a case in point. He had far deeper wisdom than any person living during his time, immense wealth, many wives and concubines, and many other things that many dreamt of having in their lives. He had the world at his feet. Yet in later years he declared that all was vanity. Meaningless!

Living so that we can draw everything to ourselves is hardly living. What do we call this life? And how do we justify that we are part of a community, a church, and importantly a citizen of a country when all we appear to be doing is drawing everything to ourselves? Would that then qualify us as members of a “community”?

Surely there must be some saturation point or threshold.

I am not encouraging a life of charity or hinting that you forego your own interests or desires. That would be counter-productive. I am advocating a life – an ethical life that allows you to live life to the fullest. Such a life is possible and many people are living that life already! Why can’t we in this country aspire to follow such a path? The benefits are sure to be favourable to everyone.

If we have to accumulate, they have to be done through legal and ethical means. Such behaviour and thoughts that the majority is doing so we should jump on the bandwagon is destructive and oppressing at best.

Papua New Guineans are increasingly joining the consumer society. But pursuing our materialistic agendas without a regard for others, the laws that should govern our behaviour, and importantly the results of our actions on our fellow men and women are simply deplorable!

I have a deep conviction that we are inherently and innately good; that we are capable of doing good deeds that others are equally capable of doing.

Vitality and newness is achieved by sharing, and making sure others are included. An ethical life allows you to give your best, to be free of constraints, and truly reap the rewards of life.

In closing, it is important to say that ethics is a vast and difficult subject to be covering in a very short treatment such as this article. By approaching this article, I do not wish to be misunderstood as celebrating defeat, and that there is nothing much to do to salvage the situation in this country.

On the contrary, I believe that there is yet so much potential among people to do good things, and that there are people already living an ethical life. (Although I am also aware that the cardinal sin among many good people is not doing enough good or standing up for what is right on behalf of the silent majority.)

All I am doing is sharing a perspective on life. And my labour in this endeavour would well be rewarded if readers can begin to catch a glimpse of that perspective.

We are faced with options or choices all the time in our lives. There are always choices we have to make. In the event that we are faced with the ultimate choices, such as choices between good and bad, or between right and wrong, what would be our choices? And what would decide these choices? 


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John Kaupa Kamasua

Thank you JP Richard for giving us a perspective here. Surely we can start with small and everyday things and actions before we scale the heights of some of the mammoth tasks that remain before us.

J P Richard

It is possible to live an ethical life! Personally, I think you just have to put a lot of effort and discipline into doing it for it to happen.

I designed a little practical exercise for myself in 2011. I adjusted my way of life and made a resolution to do one ethical action to one person or one living organism on the planet and by the end of the year I could have at least 300 goodies on my end-year review.

It's been three years since and my life has changed dramatically.

For example, when I approach a door to go in and there's someone coming out, it is more polite to let that person come out first before I go in, I'm just saying that's something I don't see much in PNG.

John Kaupa Kamasua

Thank you Dr Sepoe for adding to the discussions. I value everyone's comments. Very healthy indeed.

Mrs Barbara Short

Well said, Orovu Sepoe - "We need more ethical legislators to make good/ethical laws to guide our behaviour and conduct --- because not all of us will agree on what is ethical and moral- at the personal, community, national and global level."

At the present moment in Australia, the Attorney General, George Brandis, is trying to work out what types of racial comments we can say and what would be considered hate speech.

He is proposing changes to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. The public and the National Parliament will have plenty of time to debate the wording of these changes to the Act.

I think the PNG government needs a well educated Attorney General who is capable of writing good ethical laws that can be put in place to guide all PNG people, but especially those holding public office.

I guess there are already laws in place but from all the various types of bribery and corruption taking place it sounds that they may need revision and more publicity.

These laws need to cover personal, communal, business and national affairs in PNG today. Situations may have changed since the laws were first written. They may need to be updated. It would be good to hear the members of parliament debating them. Do they ever debate anything these days?

Orovu Sepoe

I like the discussion on ethics & thank John for his thought-provoking article.

The debate can go on and on, as it has for centuries with great philosophers/thinkers (mostly Western, because we came under their influence).

Whatever perspective one has reflects who you are and your interests. Ethics, however defined, will always be relative to the era/time period we live in, our experiences and our life choices.

And it makes sense (for me personally) to talk in terms of "more or less" than to claim a perfect ethical condition.

After all - we humans are a mixed lot - good and bad - more or less of one or the other! But in an era of "civilised society" in the new millennium, we just need to obey the rule of law - where ethical standards should be present.

But again, we need more ethical legislators to make good/ethical laws to guide our behaviour and conduct --- because not all of us will agree on what is ethical and moral- at the personal, community, national and global level.

John Kaupa Kamasua

Barbara and Michael - The norms and values of many traditional PNG societies were determined most probably by men, and the women probably lived and conducted themselevs within the bounds provided by those.

Even in traditional times, what worked well in one society may not have worked well for another, given our diversity.

Through this article, I am not suggesting that we throw everything out the window and accept something new.

All I have been trying to do was to make more sense of how relate to each other - through our decisions, actions and thoughts.

Robin Lillicrapp

John, your own experience teaches you that despite the chronic ease by which civil authourity can forsake the ethical path; nonetheless, an individual can rise above that declension to choose the ethical path.

It is reasonable that a man furnished with the understanding arising from instruction / education can make right choices that result in life experience better suited to the stable governance of self, family, community.

Ultimately it must be an individual choice (whether affected by the grace of God or not) for if it is only a manner and custom born of institutional rote, it is usually open to compromise.

The personal conviction concerning ethics is more beneficially demonstrated than catechised.

We have a lot of say but little do in the general community as the vision of an ethical society you seem to have is often submerged beneath waves of corruption and greed.

Raising the subject is a good way of drawing out conversation among community members. When concerns for the issue spread abroad, and leaders arise with a want-to, people will respond affirmatively.

I guess that in these troubled times, hell may "freeze over" before ethics becomes the norm.

However, as Paul said to the Galatians, "Be not weary in well doing,for in due season you shall reap."

John Kaupa Kamasua

Michael - These debates and discussions are good. As you and Barbara have demonstrated, they can take us into many different directions on the topic of ethics.

While there are no agreed universal standards on ethics and values, there have always been in all societies, norms and values that can either bee good or bad or wrong or right.

People have always known something about what is generally wrong and right.

Yes I do generally agree that people are selfish, and it can be the reason for people coming to work, paying taxes, following the laws, conducting themselves...because as we can say it is for their own self-interests, but what about altruistic acts that some people display sometime in societies, even in ours that defy the general notion of selfishness.

Is altruism then in essence acts of self-interests? Are all acts or actions out of the selfish motives or actions?

Selfishness or better still self-interest can be an important factor in a lot of achievements, both for individual and society.

It may be early days yet, but I think we should start somewhere and promote something positive for us and our children and their children.

There must be some good in people, can we find that and appeal to their "better nature" if there is such a thing to begin to think ethically even if they are pursuing their self-interests.

I still want to tuck away a small ounce of believe in the good of humanity, that despite selfishness and self-interests as strong force for many achievements, there must be some good in some people do some good.

Very healthy discussion.

Michael Dom

Barbara - I think there's a confusion between the 'norms' and customs of society and the moral principals to which a society may aspire. (Or may be it's just me?)

For example, in traditional PNG societies it was the norm for women to remain at home. The same situation existed in many parts of the world. And what would you know, that's almost unchanged today.

Different people have different customs about this fact: for Melanesians the role was recognised - in Western societies, for a very long time, it was belittled, often quite actively. Go figure.

But the ethics of it, the moral principal, is a different think altogether.

Where in ancient times, women were recognised as better able to provide the care and nurture that children and families needed and hence men took care of all the other stuff, fighting and politics etcetera.

The thinking was probably that this is the best way for us to progress: Men may argue politics, accumulate wealth, start fights with other tribes and get killed. But the important breeding unit and its progeny must survive so that the tribe lives on: enter women.

So the moral principal developed that 'a womans place is in the house'. Whatever.

Today women are guaranteed more freedoms.

Alright, that legislation exists on paper, but perhaps not in the pumkin-heads that you had to teach. It was not their 'norm', they had no 'cultural experience' of it and the 'moral principal' did not exist in their thinking - i.e. that women can contribute to society in places other than the boundary of home and family life.

Melanesian men have had to walk over a long trail of ethical changes on a short, very contracted historic strole. It's no wonder we're confused!

And the Melanesian women too, although I believe they are a little bit smarter about todays ethics because it offers them a more favourable situation than before.

What you probably experienced Barbara, was not lack of ethics, but poor ethical thinking. Your students were unequipped to 'think' about the new paradigms that they were faced with in school.

But you soon fixed that, right?

Did you assume that in the traditional society of highlanders it would be unethical for a woman to join the men in discussions?

I don't think that is true. Rather I think that it was the norm and that we had built a culture around it.

Is it wrong or right and does it have moral value to prohibit women from entering mens debates? Probably not.

Since even in traditional societies women would still be able to have their say outside of the 'area where the men spoke'.

And is that immoral or unethical?

We can beat it like a dead horse now, but it did work for a while, give of take a few centuries, about 50,000 years.

Mrs Barbara Short

Michael and John, I remember back to my days at Keravat NHS and the forums when the highland boys got up to criticise the female students. As far as their ethics went, the girls should have not been there. They should have been getting married and be back in the village gardens.

So the traditional attitudes to women in PNG were, from my point of view, unethical. I had a good sermon to give the boys on this topic.

Then there were the times when students had some grievance and turned for their wantoks for support, even though they might have been in the wrong. I think unethical tribal fights did take place at times

Now we have these unethical people stealing from the government and taking bribes and wanting government contracts from their wantoks in power even though they cannot do the job.

Back in the village where everyone knows the rules, the average village person may be ethical most of the time. Meanwhile in the cities, in the formal economy, where people may know the rules, they seem to be often breaking them, especially if they think they can get away with it. I wonder why? Are they unethical?

Michael Dom

'Choices...ultimate choices, and...what determines...,' them.

John, I don't agree that people are innately good. I think we're innately selfish. Which is not exactly 'bad' nor ethically wrong either.

Isn't that why we value selfless sacrifice, because it goes entirely against the grain of our selfish human psyche?

I think ethics is a tool that helps naturally selfish people live together more cooperatively, requiring sacrifice of selfish mentality and relatively more peacefully than would be in a world where people do and take whatever they want.

I also think that the ethical standards we have are just that; standards. We have people or instances of poor ethics or of good ethics.

That's why you suggest that not only educated or intellectual people are ethical, which would be like saying that highly intelligent people are less selfish - non-sense!

My suspicion is that we are confused about the ethical standards acceptable to us today because of the underlying and as yet intangible changes happening in our Melanesian society, our culture and particularly in the leadership of and cohesion in our communities.

Do we reach back to our separate ancestors for wisdom? Do we accept foreign or new fangled ideologies? Or do we look in the now and here, to see what our people need, how we want to live today and where we want to ho tomorrow?

I think we'll find that our idea of ethics and ethical behaviour is in many ways the same as those in the past and those of elsewhere too.

But what kind of ethics do we unwittingly proclaim?

We have moved mountains and dug deep into this earth to find gold
To exchange for paper notes, while burying our brothers in filth;
We call development, the trenches dug between us for wealth.

John Kaupa Kamasua

Hi Michael

Thanks for your comments.

I guese, if we look closely ethical issues and considerations confront us all the time: whether it to do with our relationships with each other, the environment or decisions regarding the power and responsibilities we have - whether through public office or in the communities.

What I am concerned about is the choices we make, especially the ultimeate choices we make, and what determine these chocies.

Thanks for that contribution.

Michael Dom

Do we need ethics? Do we need to live ethical lives?

Perhaps a better question is, do we need ethical people; people who aspire to do what is good, just and right for themselves and for other people in their community; people who do their best to obey the laws of the land, those that bind us and provide the borders against wrong, unjust and lawless behaviour?

Then the answer is simple: yes we do.

Does it then follow that we have Obama's 'Yes we can'?

John Kaupa Kamasua

Keith - Good point there!

Even appearing to be behaving ethically in some cases may be deceptive, if the motives and intentions are not clearly stated or known...or even ulterior motives are behind some of the actions.

So ethics is not only about the actions but motives too in many cases.

Reasonable people should aspire to treat others as they would like others to treat them. I think the good book supports that (Matthew 7:12). That would be a very good start to teaching poeple ethics!

What about the ultimate choices people have to make, and what would influence these choices...whether these choices are to do with relating to one another or the environment?

John Kaupa Kamasua

Thank you Phil and Barbara.

Firstly I agree that it is easy to say what is ethical than to live it out.

What is considered ethical can even be 'contested'

I am not so sure whether one needs to be educated and civilised to observe ethical principles, because in this country many unethical and corrupt practices are being nurtured and promoted among some of the educated elites - white collar and blue collar crime for instance.

I decided to write this article because I have observed that the dominant thinking in this country is that you must bend and break rules, manipulate the system once you are in to appear successful.

I also point out in the article that many people are living ethical lives already.

Ethics should be more than right and wrong. It should be a way of life...but I am still struggling to grapple with the thoughts whether we should follow an evolutionary path.

I also ask the question: Do we need ethics in PNG? and whether there is hope at all of getting more people to live ethical lives.

I wish that many Papua New Guineans give their feedback on this topic.

Phil Fitzpatrick

Being ethical is a bit like being civilised, you have to work at it. I can't recall who pointed this out but suppressing natural urges is a big part of it.

Men seem to have more trouble with the latter than women because of their natural aggression borne of having to fight to spread their genes. Although I've met some pretty savage women too.

In our modern society one of the most difficult things to suppress is greed and avarice. To be ethical one has to work hard against this natural urge.

Ironically, the realisation that material possessions and wealth are ultimately worth zilch only comes to the elderly when they begin to review their lives. And nobody listens to elders these days.

Although behaving ethically can be deceptively easy: as easy as saying that, as a reasonable person, I will treat them as I would like to be treated myself - KJ

Mrs Barbara Short

Thank you, John. I would like to be a pupil in your classes. I think I would stay behind afterwards and have lots of great discussions with you!

I had a great lecturer in Economics at Sydney University, Dr H.D. Black. (Hermann David) Teaching, he believed, was intended less to instil knowledge than to develop the intellect.

The lecturer, he observed, `displays the processes of his own reasoning’. What was taught was `not conclusion, but how to reason’. I hope I did likewise during my teaching career.

His first-year introductory course to Economics was widely acclaimed and he was admired for infusing human values and colour into the `dismal science’. I loved his stories about the times he had met famous economists of the past.

Although he produced numerous papers and addresses, he was interested less in research and publication than in applying economic theory to practical issues. Even as a young child in primary school I had loved to listen to his ABC program "The World We live In".

I'm glad to see you are keen on Adam Smith. I often used his stories in my lessons including the one on how to make a pin more efficiently with division of labour!

This topic of ethics gets a lot of mention on PNG Attitude. I'm sure that the PNGian does know right from wrong but it is the cultural mores, that lead him down the unethical wrong path, that have to be got rid of- rausim olgeta dispela samting no gut!

Equal rights for women! Love thy neighbour, even the man in the next tribe. Do not steal money that is meant for the common good. etc etc etc

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