Of Profit & Morality-2

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VENKATESH GOVINDARAJAN

It is, perhaps, immoral to profit from buyers who are not too willing to pay the extra bucks. But, what about those who can? Of course, willingness to pay can be considered as fertile ground for exploitation. However, whether it is moral to avail of this willingness depends entirely on the motive of the profit-making entity.

Albert Einstein, while not wanting to displease autograph-hunters, though highly averse to public glare, put a price on his autograph and photograph and directed the funds [profits, if one may dub them so] collected to charitable causes — a supreme win-win situation. This resulted not from business savvy, or smartness, but from an innate need to serve humankind.

Take this proposal presented by yours truly to the International Committee of the Red Cross [ICRC, Switzerland], as an instance — Water for All & Other Poems, an anthology. The pricing was fixed, so that there would be a 100 per cent margin on the printing costs with the book to be marketed along with the declaration that the proceeds [at least, the poet’s share] be donated to the Water Programmes of the Red Cross in the developing world. Friends, colleagues and acquaintances of this writer [and, through them, their networks of friends, using the snowballing approach] propelled the ICRC logo [and, the purchase of the book] as a ‘tiny’ medium to contribute to the alleviation of human suffering across the globe.

Or, consider this. The affluent in society have money to expend on paintings of popular artists. The need to save for a rainy day to keep the wolf from the door is of no concern in their lives. The works of art they purchase, for that matter, can be considered as assets to invest in, which can be sold off for money, if needed, at a later date. Thus, there is a clear willingness to pay. Often, there are auctions at which the moneyed art collectors [connoisseurs, or otherwise] are keen on outbidding each other. Even otherwise, bargaining on the part of the buyer for a ‘lower price’ is not the norm in the art market. Setting high prices on paintings of well-known painters, in art exhibitions, and basing the event on a platform of charitable giving, whereby the ‘surplus’ can be channelled towards the fulfilment of the ‘bottom-of-Maslow’s-triangle-needs’ of those living in penury, will at once ensure material, psychological and spiritual well-being for the buyers.

The organisers, thus, are an effective conduit for redistributing wealth. The value for the money paid is split up into two components — the material, in the guise of the painting which decks a wall in the home of the buyer, and the spiritual, which arises from the satisfaction for contributing in a small, but significant way to feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and healing the sick, brings.

The response of Milton D’Silva, Mumbai-based editor of Industrial Products Finder is worth noting. “Profit-making is certainly not immoral, if one does not do it merely to accumulate personal wealth without being sensitive to the suffering and poverty around him/her.” This is an allusion to the fact that rights and duties are two sides of the same coin — call it doing business, or simply life. One can claim the right to make profit, if one would promise to [and, live up to it as well], perform one’s duty of channellising that profit towards the welfare of those sections of society deprived of the bare necessities of living. You may call this extraction of resources guided by a transparent stating of the purpose and subsequently ‘walking the talk.’

There may be a limit to what one individual can do vis-à-vis what corporations and governments can. But, little drops of water make an ocean. It takes a single matchstick to start a bonfire. An individual can impart a great degree of morality to profit-making, with much greater transparency and efficiency. S/he can more easily inspire others to toe the line and make a difference. Well, to highlight a point: governments and corporations are often steeped in bureaucracy and red-tapism.

Governments purportedly use the taxation route to ‘profit’ and redistribute the ‘profit,’ but in most parts of the world, tax-payers are almost always sceptical, given the prevalence of corruption in the ranks of government officials. Measures undertaken by the incumbent Indian Government through the so-called austerity drive, whereby members of Parliament were ordered to tone down their lifestyles and abstain from using public money to stay in high-end luxury hotels, travel business class etc., deserves a mention.

Corporate Social Responsibility [CSR] is often accepted, less by choice and more because of compulsion, in order to survive and succeed in the marketplace. Further, even when laws and regulations exist, businessmen and lobbyists discover loopholes and tap the weaknesses of the men/women in power to fatten themselves with ill-gotten money. As Hans-Petter [quoted earlier in the essay] adds, “The systems have got so complicated that there are no straightforward means to ensure that profits are redistributed for holistic growth. One, thus, finds abysmally-poor people even in the richest countries of the world.” There are, however, instances of businesses based entirely on a philanthropic platform. The late JRD Tata used to contribute 81 per cent of the income of the Tata Group to charity.

Today, 65.8 per cent, or so, of Tata Sons’ shares, is reportedly held by charitable trusts. The Tatas have become world-players over the years. While philanthropy may certainly have played a role in the growth of the conglomerate and the enhancement of its reputation in the eyes of consumers, it can be stated with a great degree of certainty that this was surely not conceived in the first place as a business strategy. Permit me to quote another gentleman from the media at this juncture — Bob Gill, Chief Editor at Reed Business Information in Singapore. He believes that as long as the players stay within the law and adopt normal business ethics, profiting is surely moral. In this case, what JRD did, and what the Tata Group continues to do would fall under the category of supererogation.

Also, abstaining from seeking super-normal profits, and setting the margin at exactly what is needed to be paid to the bank as interest on the loans taken [a mere passing-on of the burden to the consumer], is sufficient to be ethical in business. But, this abstention will not facilitate true growth and development. If profit has to be a ‘moving force’ in society,” as Sevcik [quoted earlier as well] would like it to be, it had better be super-normal, followed by supererogatory behaviour. This would mean setting the profit margins higher than normal and turning over a portion of the surplus to charity — a la the Tata Group — while retaining the remainder to expand business operations [Greenfield and Brownfield projects], invest in meaningful research and development, and enable employment generation. What a welfare state model — like the one adopted by Scandinavian governments — does by generating substantial taxation-derived income [from working adults] and utilising them to providing free education and healthcare to children, and caring for pensioners  a corporate firm could also do for rural development around the world.

WHEREFROM AND WHAT-FOR OF PROFITS

Profits, according to Nina Sandberg of Norway, when the margins are not obscenely huge, are acceptable. Interestingly, she avers the morality, or otherwise, of profits on their origin, rather than on the motive of the profiting entity. As Youn Yeo-Chang, a professor of forestry and environment from the University of Seoul [South Korea], told this writer that profits are what you make of them. They could be instruments of moral acts or abominable blotches on one’s character. Quite like darkness and light, these exist side-by-side in today’s world, making the morality, or otherwise, of profit-making a highly subjective issue. As long as there are selfish profiteers, there will also be actors who would offset the immorality of profit-making by their supererogatory acts of charity. One hopes that the latter grow exponentially in the years to come, making supererogation a norm rather than exception.

Success in and the worthiness of one’s life are measured in terms of the number of positive and uplifting influences one has on other lives. Profits, like knowledge, could be used as tools to advance towards notoriety as easily as they could be committed to leave behind an indelible imprint as a great human being, and ‘footsteps in sand’ to inspire several do-gooders to follow. An excerpt from this writer’s free verse follows, as an appeal to corporate entities, entrepreneurs and businessmen, and all individuals in general, the world over.

Sink your shafts and get out the gold,
To feed and clothe millions.
Languishing in gut-wrenching misery,
Else worthless are your bullions.
The How of muscle, the porqué of the brain;
Not to be one-up on the less-endowed. 
‘Tis rather an unspoken divine command
Do His bidding — silently, untold.

To sum up. Profits are good, and not moral, or immoral, by themselves. One should feel free to profit in the right way — by availing of the willingness to pay and not by exploiting the willingness to accept low wages — while dutifully performing one’s extended responsibilities to holistic human development and progress.

Acknowledgments and thanks: Milton D’Silva [Mumbai, India], Peter Sevcik [Bratislava, Slovakia], Byman Hamududu [Zambia], Hans-Petter Fledstad [Trondheim, Norway], Youn Yeo-Chang [Seoul, South Korea], Bob Gill [Singapore], Varshita Venkatesh [India/Norway], Nina Holck Sandberg [Norway], Havard Bergsdal [Norway], Ayon Tarafdar [Kolkata, India], and Stefan Pauliuk [Germany].

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