Satish B. SettyArchiveAbout

My views on economy, society and politics

My views on society and economy are shaped by the dichotomy between:

While traditionally the West, at least since the 17th century age of enlightenment, has emphasized the former item, we in the East have emphasized the latter. Liberalism has its roots in individualism. Capitalism shuns community-based socialism. The United Nations, founded by the Western powers after World War II, formulated the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”, but even after 80 years now, has forgotten about a “Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities” (an abandoned draft). During the Cold War days, USA and USSR were exemplars of capitalism and communism; yet even today, there is no torch-bearer country for a middle-ground.

I have seen enough “ism”s and “ology”s that I think they’re all flawed. Ideology is bad. Because they’re one-sided. List out your beliefs, not a fancy-named “ism”.

The leftism-rightism political spectrum is inadequate. Because, given two things (left and right, say binary 0 and 1), they can be arranged in four different ways. But we’ve only three permutations: leftism (10), rightism (01) and centrism (00). Centrists lean neither to the right, nor the left. However, there is no “ism” which is both leftism and rightism (11). You may think it’s impossible, but it’s not so. My views on nuclear power (right-leaning) live harmoniously with freedom of speech (left-leaning).

Rights vs Duties

The concept of rights has its origins in Enlightenment, in turn derived from Catholic law, via the Stoics, ultimately via Bible (Romans 2:14–15). Such theories claim that man is born with certain ‘natural’, ‘self-evident’, inalienable, universal rights which can be ascribed to him just because he is a human being. It may be ‘self-evident’ to them, but not the rest of us. The US Declaration of Independence claims that such rights are “endowed by the Creator” (i.e. Christian God). This logic falls apart, when you question about “animal rights” or “plant rights” – after all they’re also created by the “Creator” and they have life/consciousness.

The Indian concept of Ṛṇa (ऋण, debt, obligation) reasons differently.

  1. You owe your life (i.e. being born) to your parents. Thus, you are already born with a debt to your parents – that debt is the life that they gave you.
  2. With the very first breath you took after exiting your mother’s womb, you owe an obligation to the air (i.e. vāyu or prāṇa) you breathed. Without air, you wouldn’t be alive. By similar reasoning, you owe a debt to earth (gravity), water (milk), fire (warmth) and sky (space to live) – all from the instant of your birth.
  3. You owe a debt to your teachers, innumerable wise men and the books that gave you education and knowledge.

Note that these debts cannot be paid-off by money because they are uncountable (immeasurable). So, instead, you’re obliged to the debtors the entirety of your life. These debts are respectively called pitṛ ṛṇa (debt to ancestors), deva ṛṇa (debt to deities governing Nature, body, etc) and ṛṣi ṛṇa (debt to knowledgeable persons). The Śatapatha brāhmaṇa (1.7.2.1–6) adds a fourth debt – manuṣya ṛṇa – debt to humanity, for they give you hospitality and shelter. You have an obligation you serve your debtors, that’s how you pay back. This responsibility is called dharma (duty, prescribed conduct).

The concept of human obligations also serves to balance the notions of freedom and responsibility: while rights relate more to freedom, obligations are associated with responsibility. Despite this distinction, freedom and responsibility are interdependent. Responsibility, as a moral quality, serves as a natural, voluntary check for freedom. In any society, freedom can never be exercised without limits. Thus, the more freedom we enjoy, the greater the responsibility we bear, toward others as well as ourselves. The more talents we possess, the bigger the responsibility we have to develop them to their fullest capacity.

Some references: one, two, three, four and five.

From Rights to Duties

Much of the ethics of responsibilities can be distilled into the so-called Golden Rule, quoting from Taittiriya Upanishad:

yāny-asmākaṃ sucaritāni tāni tvayōpasyāni. Nō itarāṇi.

Those acts that you consider good when done to you, do those to others. Nothing else.

I consider this to be the Fundamental Duty of Humankind. I consider this to be more important than Liberty, Freedom, Human Rights, etc. which can all be derived from this fundamental principle, but not the other way around. However, this duty is insufficient when applied to non-humans: “Treat mountains in the same way they treat you” doesn’t make much sense. Therefore, I consider these three additionally as complementary responsibilities:

  1. Nonviolence and equalism of all life. Including towards flora and fauna.
  2. Truthfulness, kāyā, vācā, manasā, i.e. honesty and integrity in actions, speech and mind.
  3. Mutual respect leading to understanding and tolerance.

This list may seem arbitrary, but it’s not. Virtues like compassion, sympathy and empathy are covered under the Golden Rule. Virtues like non-anger and non-hatred are a subset of Nonviolence. “Don’t cheat your customers” is covered under Truthfulness.

Consider some implications.

Contrasting with “human rights”:

I’m especially happy that the Indian Constitution lists “Fundamental Duties”, which sets it apart from US and European constitutions, which only care about “Fundamental Rights”. My picks from that list:

  1. Develop scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.
  2. Protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers, wildlife and to have compassion for living creatures.
  3. Promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood amongst all the people.
  4. Safeguard public property and to abjure violence.

Overall Perspective

My manifesto for a peaceful and prosperous living:

Duties over rights.
Responsibilities over freedom.
Common good over personal gain.
Fairness over equality.
Localization over centralization.

That is, while I value the items on the right, I value more those on the left.

That leads to some guiding principles:

Much of these objectives can be achived by moving towards a social economy (not to be confused with “social market economy” or socialism) and solidarity economy. Such an economy is driven by co-operatives, trusteeship, credit unions, mutual benefit societies and the like. Service to members or the community is valued rather than only generating profits and seeking financial returns (EU). This may sound like socialism but it’s not. I don’t support “basic income” schemes, please do some work to earn your bread. I don’t think government should pay allowance for the unemployed (able-bodied). The industries in a social economy are owned by private citizens, not the government. It is a kind of social capitalism – a utilitarian form of capitalism with a social purpose. It is a kind of integral humanism which tries to find a middleground between capitalist individualism and Marxist socialism. No, I don’t mean social democracy or democractic socialism or Rhine capitalism, etc.

Random jots

If I have only one expectation from politicians, it is this:

Do your job well. Really. That’s all I ask. Punctually. And without corrpution.

Like Lord Krishna says, “svadharmē nidhanaṃ śrēyaḥ”, doing your prescribed duty, even unsuccessfully, is better than death.