Jayaprakash Narayan (1902-79) was a freedom fighter, social reformer and political leader. The following post titled Is there any incentive to be good? appeared in a 1952 issue of Freedom First and was published again in November 1979.


In days gone by men tried to be good, impelled by some higher moral force in which they believed; and goodness means such things as truthfulness, honesty, kindness, chastity, unselfishness. Men felt that it was the highest moral duty to try to be good. Whether they succeeded in their trial, or whether they tried at all, was a different matter. The important point is that society provided every individual with the motive to be good; it was the command of religion, of God; it was necessary for one’s highest growth, for self-realization; it brought peace and supreme happiness; it brought salvation and freedom from births and deaths.

In present society, with the hold of religion gone, faith in God shaken, moral values discarded as deadweights of the dark ages of history; in short with materialism enthroned in men’s hearts, are there any incentives to goodness left? Indeed, has the question any relevance at all to present facts, problems and ideals of human society?

I hold emphatically that no other question is more relevant to us today.

In spite of what may be broadly described as the materialist climate of present society, men everywhere are engaged, in their different ways, in creating a heaven upon earth—in remaking, refining, perfecting human society. These efforts, even the most idealistic and ambitious, such as communism of its original conception, seem, however, to be shipwrecking on one obdurate rock—human baseness. It is clearer today than ever that social reconstruction is impossible without human reconstruction. Society cannot be good unless individual men are good and particularly those men who form the elite of society.

Here then is the crux of the modern problem. Men wish to create, if not an ideal, at least a good society.

Modern science and technology make that task far easier than ever before. But men lack the tools with which to make themselves. And the ideas are forgotten, and they begin to fight for power, position, spoils, bringing down the whole edifice of the new society.

Therefore, the problem of human goodness is of supreme moment today. The individual asks today why should he be good. There is no God, no soul, no morality, no life hereafter, no cycle of birth and death. He is merely an organization of matter, fortuitously brought into being, and destined soon to dissolve into the infinite ocean of matter. He sees all around him evil succeed—corruption, profiteering, lying, deception, cruelty, power politics, violence. He asks naturally why he should be virtuous. Our social norms of today and the materialist philosophy which rules the affairs of men answer back: he need not. The cleverer he is, the more gifted, the more courageously he practices the new amorality; and in the toils of this amorality the dreams and aspirations of humankind become warped and twisted.

For many years I have worshipped at the shrine of the goddess—dialectical materialism—which seemed to me intellectually more satisfying than any other philosophy. But while the main quest of philosophy remains unsatisfied, it has become patent to me that materialism of any sort robs man of the means to become truly human. In a material civilization man has no rational incentive to be good. It may be that in the kingdom of dialectical materialism, fear makes men conform, and the Party takes the place of God. But when that God himself turns vicious, to be vicious becomes a universal code.

I feel convinced, therefore, that man must go beyond the material to find the incentives to goodness. As a corollary, I feel further that the task of social reconstruction cannot succeed under the inspiration of a materialist philosophy.

It may be asked if any social conditioning is at all necessary for men to acquire goodness. Is not man essentially good? Are not most men in every society decent?

Yes and no.

Man is a socio-organic being: he is partly the product of “nature" and partly that of society. What man is by nature cannot be said with certainty. Indeed, the very concepts of good or bad are supernatural or super-organic. There is nothing good or bad in nature. Human nature, apart from the instincts of self and race preservation, is most likely of a neutral character which acquires moral tones in accordance to social conditioning.

It is true that in every society most men are decent and good. These men go through life without being called upon to make any vital moral judgements. Their routine of life runs within narrow circles and custom and tradition answer for them the questions concerning right and wrong.

But, firstly, these harmless decent men are apt under social stimuli to turn suddenly wild and vicious. Decent Hindus and Muslims, living peaceably together, didn’t hesitate, as we know to our cost, to fly at each others’ throats when the social passions were aroused.

Secondly, what is vital for the character of society, and for the direction of its growth, is not so much the character of the inert mass as that of the elite. It is the philosophy and action of this group of the select that determine the destinies of men. To the extent the elite become godless or amoral, to that extent evil overtakes the human race.

Let me hasten to remove a possible misunderstanding. I do not mean to suggest that all those who profess a philosophy of materialism are vicious nor that all non-materialists are good. But what I do assert is that there is no logic in materialism for the individual to endeavour deliberately to acquire and practice goodness. On the other hand, those who go beyond matter will find it difficult to justify non-good.

Non-materialism—I am using this negative phrase because I have no particular school in mind—by rejecting matter as the ultimate reality, immediately elevates the individual to a normal plane, and urges him, without reference to any objective outside of himself, to endeavour to realize his own true nature end fulfil the purpose of his being. This endeavour becomes the powerful motive force that drives him in its natural course to the good and the true. It will be seen as an important corollary of this that only when materialism is transcended does individual man come into his own and become an end in himself.

This piece has been selected for publication by IndianLiberals.in, an initiative of the Centre for Civil Society. It is an online library of all Indian liberal writings, lectures and other materials in English and Indian regional languages, with an aim to preserve an often unknown but very rich Indian liberal tradition.

From the Annals features republications of out-of-print Indian writing and journalism.

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