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Beyond Sustainable Economy: Non-possessiveness and Ethical Business

Published: 17.08.2017


Business and Ethics sound like strange bedfellows. It is commonly held view that for a business to succeed ethics should be sidelined and forgotten. The general perception is that the business should adopt any means, be it ethical or not, to flourish. In this era of globalization, which is fast turning the world 'flat' in the words of Thomas Friedman, there seems to be no place for ethics.  This is far from both the truth and the fact. Some studies have already thrown up results contrary to the above paradigm. In this paper, I would like to argue for the need of ethics in business as a road to success. It is our narrow thinking that leads us in the pursuit of material gains over other things. We are blindly running after wealth without stopping at anything. Many of us would have seen the innocuous advertisement of 'Kit Kat Squirrel' wherein one is prodded to take a break from the busy worldly schedule because 'who knows the world might have something very beautiful to show.' Although it is meant to promote a product, it does carry philosophical meaning. The meaning can be realized only by those who take a break from their material chase.

For those who wonder as to the need of bringing ethics and business together, it would be apt to know that in a report of the so called Club of Rome, published as a book in 1972 titled 'The Limits of Growth', the authors examining the consequences of rapidly growing world population and finite resource supplies, conclude based on a technique known as systems dynamics, that the world will run out of the nonrenewable resources by 2100 on which the industrial base depends, provided no major change in the physical, economic or social relationships happen. In 2008 researcher Peter A. Victor wrote, that even though D.H. Meadows et al. probably underestimated price-mechanism's role in adjusting, their critics have overestimated it. He states that Limits to Growth has had a huge impact on how we still think about environmental issues and notes and that the models in the book were meant to be taken as predictions "only in the most limited sense of the word" as they wrote.[3]   

Since the publication of the book there have been numerous publications, some confirming and others denying the limits to growth. A study that is worth mentioning is 'For the Common Good' (1989), in which Daly and Cobb developed an information theory to replace or supplement the incomplete data function of what is known as the Gross National Product. By processing U.S. statistical data on some twelve so-called welfare indicators, they drew the conclusion that for the last twenty years the link between production growth and the creation of welfare has become progressively weaker; prior to that date, production growth had achieved exactly what Adam Smith foresaw in 1752: the addition of value so as to indeed create the "Wealth of Nations." In the 1970s this link began to be lost however, and this process is proceeding at such an accelerating pace that we are now confronted with the curious phenomenon of production growth leading to a decline in welfare; stated differently, the limits to growth have been reached without us even noticing it, because we have been interpreting the figures wrongly.'[4]  The most recent economic crisis did not spare even the mature economies like US, UK, EU, China, Japan and other emerging economies like Russia, India and Brazil have suffered severely emphasizing that a new economy is the need of the hour. It is essential, appropriate and timely to search for an alternative to the present economic system and prevent it from collapse as envisaged in Limits to Growth.

Business and non-possessiveness

The purpose of business is not simply to go on amassing wealth endlessly. Albeit profit making or wealth maximization is a goal of every business it is not the aim in itself. Money is the means to achieve something higher. Business should be driven by the motive of the welfare of the entire nation or at least of the society in which the business operates. However, in spite of varied opinions regarding the profit maximization motive of the organizations, there is a general agreement amongst the thinkers, academics and business managers that the business functions with the sanction of the society and hence they need to keep in mind the interest of at least the society, if not the entire humankind. David Korten emphasizes in Business Ethics, that the concept of focusing on the bottom line and maximizing financial gains to shareholders makes it "all but impossible to manage for social responsibility." Businesses, instead of simply focusing on the bottom line, should equally be conscious of the Triple Bottom Line (TBL) - "people, planet, profit" a phrase coined by John Elkington[5] in his 1998 book Cannibals with Forks: the Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business. The phrase captures the spirit of social, ecological and economic developments. United Nations has in 2007 ratified TBL as the standard for urban and community accounting. In 1987 the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations defined 'sustainable development' as "the development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."


According to Hinduism, the purpose of life upon earth is to follow one's inner spiritual law (dharma) and to achieve salvation (moksha), i.e. freedom from one's false self (ahaṁkāra or ego) by leading a balanced life in which both material comforts and human passions have their own place and legitimacy. [According to this thought system, there are four 'Puruṣārthas' - objectives of human being. They are - Dharma (righteousness), Ārtha (wealth), Kāma (desire) and Mokṣa (salvation or liberation). The importance of ārtha, wealth, for the overall happiness and wellbeing of a person is acknowledged and it is encouraged to seek it. One is to seek wealth in order to perform his dharma, his duty - to take care of his family. Lord Vishnu himself is depicted to lead a luxurious life with Laxmi the goddess of wealth as his wife. However, Lord Vishnu is very dutiful, helpful and upholds dharma. Hinduism preaches austerity, simplicity and non-attachment. Seeking wealth is not an obstacle to mokṣa, but attachment or possessiveness to it is detrimental and is strongly discouraged. Swami Vivekananda rightly said that religion was not for empty stomachs. When a person is beset with survival problems, he would hardly find any solace in religion. Soothing words would not comfort a hungry soul as much as a morsel of food.

There is nothing wrong in an organization seeking to make profit. However, when it makes substandard products or uses unfair means to gain market share or ignores its responsibility towards environment or goes out to destroy the competitors, it is unethical. As Mahatma Gandhi said, the world has enough for everyone's need but not for anyone's greed. The greed to possess everything or possess something for ever or possess exclusively for oneself is destroying our society and will continue to do it. Non-possessiveness is a degree higher than being ethical. One can be ethical yet be possessive. However, to be non-possessive and yet to be unethical in business is difficult to understand.

Speaking at the International Conference on Economics of Non-violence and The Vision of a Sustainable World, held in New Delhi during December 5-7, 2005 under the auspices of Late Shri Acharya Mahapragya and Allama Maumud Hassan Dev Bandhi, pointed out that "None has the right to possess anything more than he requires and he must be prepared to part with the rest for the sake of others. If a man possesses more than what is necessary for him, it is clear that he has taken goods belonging to others into his custody and is enjoying it unlawfully." Similarly, according to Gandhi's doctrine of trusteeship, each entrepreneur should consider himself to be a trustee of the wealth that he possesses. If every businessman considers himself as the trustee of the wealth he has accumulated we can hope to find lasting peace. Gandhi explained, "Supposing, I have come by a fair amount of wealth either by way of legacy, or by means of trade and industry, I must know that all that wealth does not belong to me; what belongs to me is the right to an honorable livelihood, no better than that enjoyed by millions of others.  The rest of my wealth belongs to the community and must be used for the welfare of the community." Explaining the concept further, he said, 'What they produce in their industries and release to the society should be determined by social necessity with the optimum utilization of the scarce resources of society. What they produce should not be determined by personal whim or personal greed."

India: the land of spiritualism

India is the land of spiritualism. God-like souls such Lord Mahavira, Lord Buddha, Shankaracharya and great people like Mahatma Gandhi, Ramakrishna, Vivekananda and Mahapragya, to name a few, lived and walked on this land. This made Barack Obama the President of US, during his recent visit to India in November 2010, to eulogize our nation. However, the ground realities seem to belie the above picture. The Ethisphere Institute[6] of the US, after research, prepared a list of the world's 100 most ethical companies. Unfortunately, not single company from our nation finds a place in it. Although the list need not be sacrosanct, it gives us reason to ponder over the state of affairs. Are we Indians really sticking to our spiritualistic roots or are we yielding to materialism? Take the case of a deputy manager in a cattle feed plant in Rajasthan from whose house the Anti-Corruption Bureau recently confiscated undeclared money and investment documents worth around 1 million USD. Another case in point is Ramalinga Raju of infamous erstwhile Satyam Computers. There are many such cases of frauds and malpractices where the amounts involved are very large.

Consider the house of Mukesh Ambani[7]. The house (called Antilla) is being valued at 80 million USD and will be more than 560 feet tall. Contrast this with the world's second richest man Warren Buffett who still lives in a five-bedroom stucco house in Omaha, which he purchased in 1957 for USD 31,500. The desire to possess everything under the sun, if possible including the sun, seems to be the root cause for all these immoral acts. Man has gained material wealth at the cost of happiness. "We are formed and molded by our thoughts. Those whose minds are shaped by selfless thoughts give joy when they speak or act. Joy follows them like a shadow that never leaves them," said Gautama Buddha. It is not the material possession that gives one the joy of living. It is our thoughts. Simply, if one gives up the desire to possess, he has everything and is contented and happy, otherwise, he lives a miserable life.

Those companies which have a long time perspective build ethics into their businesses. This is clearly demonstrated by the empirical data. The performance of the world's most ethical companies, according to research by the Ethisphere Institute, is better than those listed as S&P500 (Standard & Poor's)[8] over the past five years. This research demonstrates that business and ethics do go together and ethical companies do gain in the long run. In fact, ethics should be at the top of the priorities for a business. After all it is human beings, the owners and entrepreneurs that run any organization and they are role models to their employees. They can determine the ethical standard for their organizations and employees would be bound to follow the standard without much choice. A business with values and ethics will strive to maximize socially beneficial acts than focusing just on profit alone. The ethical standard does not stop with customers but pervades throughout the organization and encompasses the employees and other stakeholders. Growth might be slow and difficult to come by. Yet, as business executive William R. Holland wrote, "It is perfectly possible to make a decent living without compromising the integrity of the company or the individual. Quite apart from the issue of rightness and wrongness, the fact is that ethical behavior in business serves the individual and the enterprise much better in the long run." But a look at the current state of affairs is very depressing and alarming. The greed has eaten into our society and has made it very cynical. In India people sometimes kill their own daughters-in-law for the sake of dowry, so much so that the Supreme Court shaken and anguished by their number remarked that the society has become sick! TV channels broadcast programs with scant respect to the society just to hike Television Rating Points (TRPs) so that they can keep their viewership and earn plenty of money. Take for example the case of 'Rakhi Ka Insaaf' where Rakhi humiliated one of the participants, Laxman Prasad of Jhansi, by calling him impotent in public. He, unable to bear the disgrace, allegedly committed suicide. Is this not mockery of freedom of expression and democracy? There seems to be no semblance of ethics in this business. Another flagrant unethical act has been exposed by the CAG report tabled in Parliament on November 16, 2010 which has indicted Raja on '...how an influential politician's greed can exploit the system, how readily many corporates join in the subversion for windfall gains... As communications and IT minister, Raja ignored suggestions by the Prime Minister and the ministries of Finance and Law...and went ahead to arbitrarily allot a 2G spectrum to select companies, the gag report has said' (Times of India[9], November 17, 2010).


Many customers would like to deal with organizations which are value-led and ethical in their dealings. Some organizations build customer loyalty on their value-based and ethical platform. In any organization the responsibility of establishing ethical standards for the business lies primarily with the top management. The corporate managers and consequently the business level and the operational level managers should design the environment that encourages high ethical standards. Actually, the actions of the top management percolate down the line and set the tone for the entire organization. Michael Hackworth, in his article "Only the Ethical Survive" in the Fall 1999 issue in the magazine Ethics, is of the opinion that the top leadership is ultimately responsible for the culture of their organization, including the ethical culture. Take the case of Infosys. It has built a culture of ethical behavior from the top.  It has a code of ethics in place for its finance professionals. Although it is not a statutory requirement, it also has a whistle blower policy to prevent fraudulent activities in the organization. The Phaneesh Murthy[10] case is an aberration in its history and has only improved the internal processes to prevent such situations in future. One of the reasons for the success of Infosys is adherence to ethical business practices. Another case is that of Tata[11]. They too have built their success without compromising on ethics and values. Although they are the pioneers in the airline industry and wanted to start a domestic airline in collaboration with Singapore Airlines, they could not do so as they did not want to deviate from ethical practices.

Ethical considerations shape human behavior and the purpose of ethics is to guide human conduct. Ethics and values are imbibed and shaped by tradition, culture, religion and family besides many other things. Ethics, as has been broadly accepted, is what we as human beings ought to do and not to do in terms of one's rights, obligations, duties, fair and just. Ethically speaking, one has to refrain from cheating, fraud, murder, physical assault, lying etc., and requires one to be truthful, honest, faithful etc. However, the problem with ethics is that people do not formally study or get trained in it the way one studies or receives training in mathematics or psychology, etc.. A child picks up the language, so can one be trained into ritual understanding and derived moral behavior by one's own family or society. In our land a few hundred years ago, only this philosophy was taught at school. The great philosopher and teacher, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan[12], in 1942, delivering Kamala Lectureship (instituted by late Kamala's father, Sir Ashutosh Mookerjee in 1924), quoted Auranzeb's[13] letter to his tutor wherein he asked his master as to what use are the great philosophical lessons when none of them taught him to besiege a town or to set an army. Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, who later went on to become the second President of India, bemoaned that the world was (and even now it is) in a perilous condition, because it knows all about "besieging a town" or "setting an army" and little about the central questions of the values of life, of philosophy and religion. In earlier days, only life's philosophy, values and purpose of life was taught and today, everything except these pivotal truths are taught in our schools.

Empirical findings in the US have shown that business school students have attitudes different from those of other students. They show more free-ride attitude (Marwell and Ames, 1981), unfair attitudes (McCabe and Trevino, 1995; Frank and Schulze, 2000) and more selfish behavior in ultimatum games (Carter and Irons, 1991). In a large empirical research project McCabe and Trevino (1995) found that business school students put the least importance on the significance of developing a meaningful philosophy of life. R. Warren and G. Tweedale (2002) blamed the business schools for their negligence in historical and ethical dimensions as corporate ethics, the social responsibility of companies, disclosure, the environment, the actions of multinational companies overseas, the dilemmas of whistle-blowing, the impact of lobby groups and health and safety issues. We can, to a great extent, achieve the goal of inculcating ethical behavior, by imbibing in our children's inchoate wills the philosophy of non-violence (ahiṁsā) and non-possessiveness (aparigraha).  Speaking of aparigraha, Swami Vivekananda observed, "Renounce the lower so that you may get the higher. Renounce all temptation to take your neighbor's property, to put hands upon your neighbor, all the pleasure of tyrannizing over the weak, all the pleasure of cheating others by telling lies. Is not morality the foundation of society? What is marriage but the renunciation of unchastity? The savage does not marry. Man marries because he renounces... Renounce! Sacrifice! Give up! Not for zero... But to get the higher". Religion teaches spiritualism which is not limited to metaphysics as many understand; rather it includes material, economic and commercial activities.

As mentioned earlier, an organization seeking to make profit is not unethical (adharmic) by itself. However, when it makes substandard products or uses unfair means to gain market share or ignores its responsibility towards environment and society, it is unethical. Means should also justify the end. As globalization is taking its root, workplace integrity is going to be accorded greater importance than has been the case so far. Kenneth Blanchard and Norman Vincent Peale speak in their book, The Power of Ethical Management about the concept of ethics in the business context. The authors have articulated what has been called the three way ethical check. The three questions suggested by them are:

- Is my action legal?
- Is it fair and balanced or only in my best interest?
- How will this decision make me feel about myself?

These check questions although provide a good reference point to decide on ethical issues which arise in management, are not sufficient to be ethical in  the true sense.

What is legal needs not be ethical. Take the case of slavery in US or racism in South Africa. Both of them were legal and yet we know they are unethical. Similarly, take the case of one's feeling of right and wrong. This is definitely unacceptable because one's feelings can quite often be accommodative.

The desire to possess has not only taken the business organization in its fold but also the nations. Take the case of China. Its deliberate manipulation continues to keep its currency Yuan artificially devalued. This has given China an unfair advantage, making its exports cheap. No wonder then many governments are demanding to let Yuan appreciate as per the market demand. However, as the fear of exports becoming costlier and losing out to other countries grip the Chinese authorities, it has stubbornly stuck to its strategy of keeping the Yuan under tight control.  China's appetite for export doesn't seem to be satiated. Recently, American cyber warfare expert Jeffrey Carr[14], who specializes in investigations of cyber attacks against the American government, told The Times of India that China has targeted India with the 'deadly' Stuxnet internet worm. Attributing the partial failure of the Insat 4B satellite of ISRO[15] - the reason for which is not yet known - to Stuxnet, Carr said it was China which gained from the satellite failure. 

There are many more issues such as one country dumping its product in another country, mass production of arms and supplying it to other countries and anti-government groups, US discouraging outsourcing its businesses to India and other countries, etc.,  that need to be considered. It may not be possible to cover all such issues in one paper. As an academic paper, the researcher expresses his own arguments and views in general. 

After the Second World War, the Allies tried the German and Japanese Prisoners Of War and leaders for war crimes. Many of those under trial took cover under the plea that they merely followed the orders of their superiors. Before dwelling further on this aspect let us consider the following.  In Hinduism, ethics is referred to as dharma. Tulsidas[16] has defined the root of dharma as compassion. This very principle was expressed by Lord Buddha in the 'Dhammapada'.  In the Atharva Veda, symbolically it is said: Pāthivim dharmana ḍhṛtam, that is, "this world is upheld by dharma." Manu, the ancient sage, in his book Manusmṛiti prescribes 10 essential rules for the observance of dharma: Patience (dhriti), forgiveness (kṣama), piety or self control (dama), honesty (asteya), sanctity (śauca), control of senses (indraiya-nigraḥ), reason (dhī), knowledge or learning (vidyā), truthfulness (satya) and absence of anger (krodha). He adds, "Non-violence, truth, non-coveting, purity of body and mind, control of senses are the essence of dharma." Performing one's duty alone does not give the holistic meaning of the word 'dharma'. This is because dharma exists on several levels, such as individual, family, society and nation. The correct interpretation of duty and the right thing to do in a situation would be governed by the rule that the precedence of one's duty follows the order of nation, society, family and oneself.  In the light of the above, one might be tempted to argue that those under trials were ethical because they performed their duties after all! But this is a skewed view of the above infallible principle. Very rightly the argument is comprehensively extirpated by the Nuremberg principle: "The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him."


The empirical studies have shown that, after all, ethical companies do perform better than other companies in the long run. The ethical companies, albeit, take longer to grow, but surely do they grow. The objective of any economy and business is to usher in peace and happiness to mankind.  Surely, only those companies that work ethically and driven by non-possessiveness can go on to provide lasting peace and happiness to humankind. This is possible only and only if people are trained in ethics and are taught moral values while being young. This underscores the importance of teaching values, morals and ethics to one and all.

The US boosts itself of the best Business Schools. Unfortunately, it were the Harvard Business School and Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management's graduates who were enmeshed in the Enron scandal and other corporate scandals. This prompted the then President George W. Bush, a Harvard MBA himself, to counsel the schools to become "principled teachers of right and wrong." The Business Schools did not only neglect lessons on ethics, but are also believed to have encouraged the prospective managers to go for profits at all costs. In a public opinion survey of how companies can repair their tainted reputations, there was clearly an MBA backlash: "Fire all of the MBAs under 35," one respondent said.[17]  It is worth noting here that in the Harvard Business School (HBS) 2003-2004 brochure, the words honor, wisdom, courage, honesty, virtue, integrity, duty, morals, decency, persistence, truth or truthfulness, trustworthiness, sincerity, or fairness did not appear even once. Hence "To change the human course, we must change the stories that frame our shared understanding of the nature and means of attaining prosperity, security, and meaning..." (David Korten[18] 2010)

From the deepest desire often comes the deadliest hate.

- Socrates.

And from the desire to possess springs forth violence. Hence, the greater the tendency for non-possession, the greater would be the chances of peace and happiness.


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Carter, John R. and Irons, Michael D.: "Are Economists Different, and If So, Why?" The Journal of Economic Perspectives Vol. 5, No. 2 (Spring, 1991), pp. 171-177

Club of Rome, published as a book in 1972 titled 'The Limits of Growth' See: Meadows et al.

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Di Norcia, (May 1, 2000).Vincent, and Joyce Tigner. "Mixed Motives and Ethical Decisions in Business." Journal of Business Ethics.

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Fandray, Dayton. (December 2000). "The Ethical Company." Workforce.

Frank, Björn & Schulze, Günther G. 2000: "Does economics make citizens corrupt?" Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization Volume 43, Issue 1, September 2000, Pages 101-113

Hackworth, Michael: "Only the Ethical Survive", Ethics, Fall 1999.

Holland, William R. (March 18, 1996)."Ethics in a Plain Manilla Envelope: Simple Guidelines for Doing Business Honestly." Industry Week.

Kaler, John. (September 2000). "Reasons To Be Ethical: Self-Interest and Ethical Business." Journal of Business Ethics.

Klein S. (2000) "Drucker as Business Moralist", Journal of Business Ethics, Volume 28, Number 2, November, 121-128(8).

Klempner, Geoffrey (2006) "On being a Business Philosopher", Philosophies for Business. E-journal. Issue 26, 5 February.

Korten, David: Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth - A Declaration of Independence from Wall Street, Berrett-Koehler Publishers 2010 (Second Edition), 2009 (First Edition), and Globalizing Civil Society. ReadHowYouWant, 2010.

Lynn, Jacqueline. (August 1995). "A Matter of Principle." Entrepreneur.

Marwell, Gerald & Ames, Ruth E.: "Economists free ride, does anyone else?: Experiments on the provision of public goods, IV" Journal of Public Economics 15: 295-310.

McCabe, D. L., & Trevino, L. K. (1996). What we know about cheating in college: Longitudinal trends and recent developments. Change, 28(1), 28-33. (EJ 520 088)

McCabe, D. L., & Trevino, L. K. (1997). Individual and contextual influences on academic dishonesty: A multi-campus investigation. Research in Higher Education, 38(3), 379-396. (EJ 547 655)

Meadows, Donella; Meadows, Dennis; Randers, Jørgen; William W. Behrens III: Report to the Club of Rome: The Limits to Growth. Universe Books, 1972.

Murthy, K.V.B. and R. Jha (2000) "Sustainability - Property Rights, Behaviour and Economic Growth", Papers and Proceedings, World Congress on Managing and Measuring Sustainability, Ontario.

Murthy, K.V.B. and R. Jha (2003) "An Inverse Global Environmental Kuznets curve "Journal of Comparative Economics, V. 31, pp. 352- 368.

Murthy, K.V.B. and R. Jha (2003) a. "A Critique of the Environmental Sustainability Index", Papers and Proceedings, European Ecological Economics Conference, Tenerife & Working Paper, Australian National University.

Murthy, K.V.B. and R. Jha (2003) b. "The non-Global nature of WEO", in Hans Singer, et al (Ed.) Trade and Environment: Recent Controversies, Vedam Books, New Delhi.

Murthy, K.V.B. and R. Jha (2004) "A Consumption Based Approach to Human Development and Global Environmental Degradation", Papers and Proceedings , GTAP Conference, World Bank, Washington, June & Working Paper, Australian National University.

Murthy, K.V.B. and R. Jha (2006) Environmental Sustainability - A Consumption Approach, Routledge, London and New York.

Murthy, K.V.B. and R. Jha (2006) a "Environmental Degradation Index", A Survey of

Composite Indices Measuring Country Performance: 2006 Update, A UNDP/ODS Working Paper, By Office of Development Studies, United Nations Development Program, New York, PP 35-36.

Scott, Mary.(January-February 1997.). "Bottom-Line Blues: Is Ethical Business Only a Dream?" Utne Reader.

Sims, Ronald R (2003): Ethics and corporate social responsibility: Why giants fall, Pragear, West port, CT.

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Warren, R. & Tweedale, G:  "Business Ethics and Business History: Neglected Dimensions in Management Education", British Journal of Management, Volume 13, Issue 3, pages 209-219, December 2002.


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Title: Beyond Sustainable Economy
Author: Dr. Rudi Jansma, Dr. Sushma Singhvi
Publisher: Prakrit Bharati Academy

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