Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

Opinion | A social explanation of our twisted moral compass

Do you know anyone named Vibhishana today? Finding people named after Ravana is easier

The Indian community in other countries is admired for its success. Our civilizational achievements underscore our capabilities. Yet, India lags far behind the developed world on various parameters of success. Our conduct in private and public spaces leaves much to be desired. Why do we have so many corrupt politicians and intelligent people defending them? Why do our business organizations commonly follow immoral practices? I believe an explanation lies in our way of thinking, moulded by our experience as a society.

Based on ancient texts that form part of the basis of Indian civilization, moral clarity ought to be our strength. Who hasn’t heard of the Gita? The discourse between Arjuna and Krishna emphasizes doing one’s duty—dharma—even if it means going to war against one’s family. Similarly, Ram in the Ramayana has many dharmas—that of a king, husband and son—with a clear hierarchy among them. The dharma of a king takes priority for a king over his dharma as a husband and father. The emphasis on dharma aims to encourage principle-centric behaviour.

In my classes, I discuss a case where a company launches a new product that is immensely successful in terms of revenues. However, the nature of its sales promotion leads to potentially harmful misuse by unsuspecting consumers. At the end, I ask my students if this was an example of good marketing or bad marketing. Interestingly, most US students say the marketing was questionable. In contrast, most Indian students say the marketing was outstanding. On such matters, there is clearly something different about the way Indian and US students think.

In 2011, I moved from the US to India and attended a session on marketing by a large fast moving consumer goods company in the country. The presenter narrated a success story in which his company targeted aspirational and economically weaker consumers by using a smaller package of a product. However, the company changed the content of the smaller package while customers remained unaware. This misleading practice was ignored, and the financial success was applauded by the audience.

I was amazed that the presenter was also unaware of the ethical issues involved. We have heard similar stories from the financial sector where bad products are sold to gullible customers using the justification of fine print, which they are supposed to read.

Let us look at an explanation for these observations. Do you know anyone named Vibhishana today? Finding people named after Ravana is easier (Lankesh). Vibhishana followed dharma and chose the side of good over evil. Why do we then shun him? The answer would inevitably be because Vibhishana betrayed his brother. This argument essentially means that in the hierarchy of moral values, we consider loyalty towards family, friends and society as the most important—something not entirely consistent with the teachings in our ancient texts.

Clearly, something happened to Indians between ancient times and now that has reshuffled that hierarchy of values. Ills in our society, including those in business and politics, can be traced partly to this confused hierarchy of values.

For any society, survival is paramount. For survival, loyalty towards the community becomes critical. Therefore, over time, because of numerous invasions, loyalty must have been recognized and rewarded, which must have resulted in the consolidation of loyalty as the highest value, over all others. Only after loyalty is accounted for would other values kick in. The caste system could be one example.

Though we don’t live under an existential threat any longer, our culture seems to have internalized our misplaced priorities. Look at the consequences.

We see intelligent people defending the indefensible simply because the culprit happens to be their leader or from their community. For them, the good of the country comes after loyalty obligations are satisfied. Ideally, we should first root for the country and then support appropriate individuals. In the business world, we should analyse a company’s strategy with ethical conduct as a consideration. Loyalty to the firm should come later.

In marketing, one way to find the right path is to ask whether consumers understand the value being created by the offering and whether they are willing and able to make an informed choice. If the company has made an effort in good faith to allow consumers to make informed decisions, and is not knowingly directly or indirectly misleading them, then it is likely to be ethical. Else, there could be problems. As business organizations are part of society, ethical conduct ultimately leads to sustainable advantages for a company.

One might consider our current hierarchy of values, in comparison with what is prevalent in the West, as an example of moral relativism. The argument that moral values vary with context has its merits. My focus here, however, is on changes in the hierarchy of generally accepted moral values within our society, possibly because of externally induced factors. Clearly, moral issues are often complex and our standards change over geography and time. However, if we question our motivations and actions, a start would have been made towards higher moral standards.

These are the author’s personal views

Siddharth Shekhar Singh is an associate professor of marketing at Indian School of Business, Hyderabad and Mohali.

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