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Fostering virtue-ethics

Deccan Herald
By Professor  

The current scenario of air pollution culminating in an environmental catastrophe seen across the capital city and state of Delhi, its neighbouring areas and across most urban spaces in India raises some key questions on the government's approach to ensuring citizens' well-being in a sustainable way. The normative conceptualisation of well-being is often valued in terms of seeing it as a process of accumulating essential, material goods (say, a higher income, property, employment opportunity, etc.) that are often quantifiable.

While in the short run the substantive importance of ensuring these primary goods to increase a citizen's capabilities may be pertinent for a government to ensure its welfare objective, in the long run, however, the effort to enhance the citizen's well-being requires policies that adopt a sustainable, eco-sensitive attitude to create an environment in which the citizen can appreciate the value of the essential goods acquired.

As a developing nation India, with one-sixth of the world's people, has an enormous demographic and ecological challenge to ensure the well-being of all its citizens not only in an equitable, feasible way but also in a sustainable way. The identification of good welfare policies by the government (across union, state and local levels) is based on achieving this by explicitly ensuring a strong interconnectedness between social, economic and environmental issues.

Still, how can we understand the concept of sustainability better as part of everyone's well-being? Or, what approach can be taken in designing a policy framework that incorporates some basic principles of sustainability to enhance well-being? It is pertinent to address these questions in India's context while invoking the Aristotelian concept of virtue-ethics, illustrated in his Nicomachean Ethics, in an applied discourse on practising sustainability.

John Ehrenfeld and Andrew Hoffman, in their book Flourishing: A Frank Conversation about Sustainability, argue that the practice of "sustainability takes a movement to re-examine who we are, why we are here, and how we are connected to everything around us...any change that is short of that scale will not solve the problems we face".

Conversely, a state of unsustainability stems from values and beliefs based on a mechanistic, materialistic view of the world that fails to acknowledge that "we are clearly part of an interconnected and interdependent system". Welfare policies designed and implemented by states in a consequentially independent manner, that is, being unsustainable, are likely to cause irreparable harm, imposing a substantial social cost on the well-being of current and future generations.

Sustainability as a process seeks a deeper interconnectedness and inter-relationship between a complex set of economic, social and environmental issues. While many applied experiments to incorporate this process have taken place, one such approach offers a robust alternative mechanism to address environmental issues through the cultivation of virtues relating to the environment.

Ethics and its study remain often concerned with the morality of human conduct and character, and moral theories typically offer us both an account of moral value and so-called normative ethics as methods of determining a moral course of acting and being. Virtue-ethics is one of the three main current approaches to normative ethics, the other two being - deontology (example, from Immanuel Kant's work) that emphasises rules and duties, and consequentialism, that emphasises beneficial outcomes from the consequence or result of a particular action (example, from Bentham's work on utilitarianism).

Virtue ethics, in contrast to these, approaches the morality of human conduct by emphasising the virtues (or good actions) needed for the development of moral character. Virtues, in an Aristotelian perception here, can be seen as multi-component traits of character that helps a person in maximising her/his well-being (or happiness) through actions reflecting an evolved intellect (example, prudence, wisdom) and or moral conduct (example, temperance, courage). In the context of addressing environmental issues, an environmental virtue to cultivate in government-citizen behaviour is the virtue of "harmony with nature". Harmony with nature involves the development of a broad mindset that helps us construe ourselves and the world in which we live in a certain way.

Shunning materialistic desires

Going beyond Aristotle, India, as a conscious space, has a lot to offer in cultivating the harmony with nature through its ancient behavioural practices of sustainability. For example, the yogic principle of aparigraha, which is a virtue of being non-attached to materialistic possessions, keeping only what is necessary at a certain stage of life, allows humans and nature to share a harmonious relationship which goes as far as a reverence for various flora and fauna. This has aided biodiversity conservation efforts in certain parts of the country (especially in rural parts of South and East India) but more needs to be done in cities.

Greendex is an international report on sustainable living. The study, compiled by National Geographic and Globescan, measures the way consumers are responding to environmental concerns. The scores measure housing, transport, food and goods. India, as per this report, occupies a top spot on this index among 18 contenders which also include China and the US. In particular, India received high scores in housing, transportation and food choices.

Nevertheless, with the rapid pace of urbanisation and high level of unplanned migration from rural to urban areas and cities, India's own experience with sustainable living, harmony with nature is witnessing a diminishing trend. The current scale of pollution and breakdown of waste management systems witnessed across cities is a testament to this trend.

Policies nudging towards a virtue-ethics behaviour and the environmental virtue of harmony with nature amongst all citizens warrants the government's immediate attention. Educating to cultivate environmental virtues in the character and conduct of citizen-behaviour and action requires a transformational, persistent long-term effort on the part of the government.

(The writer is Director, Centre for New Economics Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University)