Shabad’s had a normal day at office and university. Our everyday social milieu is rife with concern for the impoverishment of our ethical lives. Simultaneously we fret and thrash about with the moral catharsis that has a stranglehold on Indian public life. Occasionally, we do recognise the continuity between the latter public structural debates and our quotidian lived experiences. But our inability to galvanise our collective angst into a new secular intercultural ethical framework that establishes our baseline expectations of each other has prompted a serial bloodletting with no respite.
Shabad’s interlocutors help him traverse the social realms of the workplace, the university and our public institutions with keen insight. These vignettes illustrate and highlight the social complexity in which we are called to make ethical judgements. The intractable nature of the conversations in this case study suggests that our existing ethical frameworks are inadequate and invite us to transcend the limitations of our existing ethical imagination.
JK finds himself dragged from the bank to the liquidator and then through the courts for 13 years. The bank officers glibly forge his signature on a loan document. JK does not deny that the document should have been signed by him in the ordinary course — he only laments the failure of the bank to observe protocols of due diligence. The liquidator is reluctant to initiate the liquidation process and would rather have this done by a collusive third party. JK has no doubt that the company should be liquidated, but is surprised by the convoluted process by which this is done.
He concludes that both instances teach us that despite an adequate law and elaborate institutional practices to implement the law, the ‘people’ who man the decks are irretrievably compromised, and pervert the functioning of the system. The dichotomy between systems and people is often put forth as the root cause of corruption. This dichotomy admits varied combinations: perfect systems, corrupt people; corrupt systems, corrupt people; corrupt systems, perfect people. JK proposes the first combination as the best explanation for the behaviour of the bank and the liquidator. Readers may not be convinced of this diagnosis and may prefer other combinations. In any event, JK is despondent that endemic corruption in the private and public sector condemns us to a land of no hope.
The argument from culture that JK rehearses in this case tries to explain too much. We understand that the sub-cultures of our sub-continent have an elaborate vocabulary for liaison services: gift, baksheesh, mamool, hafta and so on. Our vernacular tongues give accounts of practices without the moral odium that may be attached to bribes and corruption. While there is no doubt that we need to draft culturally sensitive laws, it would be a mistake to assume that all local cultural practices are priori legitimate and hence should be sustained by laws. This confusion about the relationship between our laws and customs has hobbled our ability to envision a way out of our present corruption imbroglios.
Shabad went to his college only to lose himself in the corridor conversations on the ‘supply-chain management’ set up by Manas Modi, the head of the computer lab. Modi is right to insist that he operates on a micro-scale when one compares this with the goings on in Bellary in Karnataka. However, he concludes that ethical judgements are dependent on the scale of operations. His account illustrates why economic imperatives cannot substitute moral ones. If we are to sacrifice all our ethical values at the altar of economic efficiency or wealth maximisation, we loose our ability to build a civil society.
Professor Sarkar oddly characterises this as an instance of prioritisation of individual needs over societal norms. It seems from Modi’s explanation that his supply-chain management is essential to meet the multifarious needs of his family. By placing his family as the relevant unit in his moral calculus, the needs of the university or even society at large are rendered irrelevant in our everyday decisions. This privileging of family or the caste, kin and religious group as the relevant node at which we make ethical judgements is a significant aspect of how we reason ethically. But our social norms are not shared by the society at large — in other words, what is good for my family is good for me!
It is the absence of an inter-cultural secular normativity that prevents us from agreeing upon shared ethical obligations. Unless we are able to make this connection between ethical transgressions and the absence of a secular inter-cultural ethical framework in our wider structural social inheritance, we are unable to correctly diagnose and understand our present condition. If we continue to explain away corruption — both petty and grand — as inextricably tied to our inefficient laws or our resistant cultural mores, we must brace for many decades of quiet desperation.
This article was originally published in Business World on November 8th, 2014.