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?