Günter Grass

There is so much is happening in the world, everyday in our lives that often raise so much concern and questions of right and wrong and yet we don’t seem to go beyond the daily news items. Life has become faster and so too our attention span. Yet, such questions don’t seem to go away. They seem to be coming back and with such frequency.

The immediate provocation for this piece of writing was a series of news items and events, legal and judicial pronouncements that disturb our deeply held beliefs and convictions. First came the German Nobel Prize winner for literature, Günter Grass. He had hidden his past association with Hitler’s army when he was just 17.Now, his autobiography reveals that dark chapter in his life and there is uproar. In a short piece in the Guardian newspaper, John Berger, novelist and critic has defined Grass and has give his own defense. That is alright.

But I noticed that in going through his short piece there are no less than quite a few times, the critic uses such words expressions like: “Without ethics man has no future. Ethic determines choices and suggests difficult priorities. They have nothing to do with judging the actions of others. Such judgments are the prerogatives of (often self-proclaimed) moralists” The denunciation of Grass, says the critic, is “an index of a certain moral climate in Europe”. There are also such words like “justice”, “choice”, “moralist’s point”,” righteous moralists” and so on. I wondered: why so many times we seem to be repeating such words that at one level are all in the domain of great thinkers, philosophers and writers on ethics and morality.

Also, soon after I read another piece, this time, it was about the latest movie by India’s famous actor, Shahrukh Khan’, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, the blockbuster of 2006, the dark drama of adultery and failed marriages! It has become the most successful Indian film this year, industry analysts say. It had grossed Rs.72 crores worldwide in the first week of its release. In the US, it collected 1,047,403 dollars and opened at no. 17 of the US charts. I was totally taken aback. I wondered: So, in the moral climate that prevails in the West, if not exactly in India itself, there is such a rush to see a film that depicts adultery and failed marriages! So, what is ethics and morality in our lives and in our value systems? I didn’t have an immediate answer nor did I intend to bother about such questions. It is not my area of thought that is instantly.

Then came the equally disturbing judgment from India’s highest court. The Supreme Court bench pronounced that elections to the Rajya Sabha can be not on the basis of domicile, as provided for in the original Constitution and also there is no need for secret ballet.

This was a long awaited judgment, considering the latest developments that had all turned the  Rajya Sabha a place for all that we hold wrong with out current politics. There is so much money power and so many undesirable elements that are elected to this august house and till now, every big name had to hide their domicile from public scrutiny so that they can justify for themselves at least their own immoralities, by lying about their residence on the nomination forms! Now, the court judgment is supreme and as such is to accept the judgment as a final pronouncement on our own moral sense? I am sure there would be many to ask such a question. But then I here too have no immediate answer.

Anyway, such series of events, news items and happenings led me to recall the days when I read ethics as a specialist paper for my ‘modern greats’ which included the more dominant philosophy paper as a crucial element. Before I can say on the more remote academic discipline called ethics, I want to point out that the immediate provocation for this writing also came when I just now read through the latest issue of Fortune, the high profile American business magazine for the big corporate houses and readers.

In the issue for August 2006(No.14) there is a 9 page cover story titled,” The Green Machine”, Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retail store with presence in so many countries that has embraced the green theme, environment protection and the CEO. Lee Scott’s claim to turn the MNC into a “greenest”. I thought it was an impressive initiative by the world’s most so big, so powerful company that could force an army of suppliers to “clean up their acts too.” Of course, the story in itself is fascinating and worth a reading. In the course of the write-up, I also came to notice that other equally big American companies are, it seems, into the environment, clean technologies and clean (ethical) practices. These names are: DuPont, GE, Goldman Sachs, Intel, and UPS.

Each one of these companies has their huge roles in. If we can say so, as yet some “unethical” corporate practices and if they all do as they promise to do, the planet surely become a more better place to live. So, after reading the 9-page cover story I was duly impressed. Readers may know that Wal-Mart is already the world’s largest organic milk seller, the largest organic cotton buyer and so on and so forth. It can save the environment in a variety of ways, from saving wasteful energy consumption, to ethical buying practices; in ensuring non-exploitative practices which themselves are unlimited.

Of course, the world’s biggest retailer also has a long list of charges against its unethical practices, from gender discrimination to lower wages, healthcare, insurance cover, saving local, small companies to charities. It has its own woes, from losing customers (a McKinsey & Co study found 8% of its customers stopped patronizing the shop because of its reputation); it had paid millions of dollars to state and federal regulators for violating air and water pollution laws. It has come up with what it calls a “sustainable value networks” as its goal to ensure it moves up in the ethical governance practices.

It just recently opened its latest 5334 shop and all this is a huge task, a huge commitment, in spite of the so many criticisms. It is another story how Wal-Mart couldn’t succeed in 8 out of 13 countries it operates and it had to pull out because of its business model not working there, say in Korea and some other countries.

Here back in India, we see the theme of ethics in corporate business buzz. One who has articulated this buzz, if we can say so, considering how poor a realization is there in the Indian corporate circles to openly adopt such environment and ethical governance practices. For instance, Infosys mentor, Mr.R.Narayanamurthy is highly admired for some of his innovations in corporate governance. Says Mr.Omkar Goswamy who served on Infosys board as an independent director: “If I want to point out what stands out as the important point about Infosys mentor, the word that comes to me is ethics”.

Such expressions on the many corporate issues we hear often. There is also the talk of the corporate social responsibility under which the latest addition is the OBC quota in private employment. Whatever be the stand of the corporate sector (as it is the CII is opposed to OBC quota in private sector and of course they have come out with an alternative voluntary affirmative action).Mr.Narayanamurthy himself is both opposed to OBC quota in Central Government higher education institutions and so too he is not in favor of such a quota in private sector employment policies.

Here, of course we tread on more sensitive path of the dominant elite sections; there is again a second round of agitation in Delhi over the Central Government’s legislation to implement the Veerappa Moily Committee’s report in a phased manner. There is opposition from the OBC politicians, of course the self-proclaimed ones, to implement in a phased manner, also to exclude the creamy layer. The great theory of justice, social justice is invoked to justify the caste quota and also to exclude the creamy layer from the OBC quota statistics, all on the grounds of social justice. So, we come to the question of what constitutes justice in this context and also what distinguished justice from social justice!

Here too I don’t think I am capable of giving an answer. So, the issues of ethics, morality, justice, social justice and corporate ethics as well as individual ethics are all, it seems, an inseparable part of our life. That should give us an idea of the importance of ethics in the human affairs, in the scheme of life itself.

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