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FAQ 8: Gandhi and Ethics in Business

Q

Gandhi and ethics in business ?

  

A

Where business is concerned, I feel that the starting point is the recognition that whilst Gandhi had genuine saintly qualities, he was also a man of the world, a man who went about with his eyes open and a man who was aware of what was going on, good and bad, around him.
 
Of course also, Gandhi was a "bania" (member of a trading caste). Trading in one form or another did seem to be in his blood.

Not only was Gandhi very aware of the world of business, we know that he depended on certain industrialists to support a number of his ventures and, to some extent, himself personally.

Some elements of what one can say about Gandhi and business ethics would relate equally as well to today as when he lived – for example, that Gandhi seemed to make little distinction between ethics in the different spheres of life. The ethics that applied to an individual also generally applied to businesses of all sizes and to individuals in business. He believed a business could and should be conducted with complete honesty. Indeed, a business that was run honestly would be more successful than one which was not. In business as well as personal life he subscribed to the view : "Honesty is the best policy." A business person had every right to earn a livelihood from their business, although if vast income was earned from the business, the business person should give what he or she did not need to the community. This ideal was contained in his theory of Trusteeship. Fundamentally, Gandhi viewed business as a form of service to the community. This was the spirit in which the business person should approach their labor.

The above aspects of Gandhi’s attitude to business ethics relate to today as much as to during his lifetime. If we are seeking a contemporary context, Gandhi’s thoughts need to undergo interpretation because of the development the business world has undergone in the last 50 years.

Let me give just three examples. Even while Gandhi lived, during the age of empire, business was used by countries (such as Britain) to exploit other countries (such as India), to effectively transfer wealth from one country to another. During the last 50 years the multinational corporation has really come of age. I feel Gandhi would be deeply suspicious of many practices of many MNCs, and of the MNC as an entity itself. He would insist on MNCs applying much the same ethics in their practices as smaller business and individuals. A second aspect is the environment. This issue has come into its own during the last half-century. Gandhi would insist that businesses did not degrade the environment but acted as a true friend of the earth. Business which could not but damage the environment should not be in business. A third subject we could discuss would be advertising and marketing. This has become immeasurably more sophisticated since Gandhi’s time. According to Gandhian ethics businesses should not manipulate and deceive through their advertising and marketing. Unfortunately they do, to a very great degree. Gandhi would deplore this. There are so many aspects of the modern global capitalist economy that run counter to the Gandhian approach, and just as much from the point of view of ethics as any other perspective. (We could also consider the ethics involved in economic "globalization").

Whatever the era, for Gandhi business should exist as part of a community in order to serve that community. Business is a way to foster neighborliness, to bring members of a community together and a means by which people can love and serve one another.

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