To Rob or Not to Rob?

TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 27 Jan 2020

Naresh Jotwani – TRANSCEND Media Service

Consider this simple “parlour game”.

Pass a blank slip of paper to every person present in a group. Request each person to answer the following question anonymously on the slip provided.

An old, richly bejewelled lady is passing along a dimly-lit and lonely lane at night. A lone robber robbing all her jewellery would certainly not be recognized or caught. Out of a hundred adult citizens of the city, how many do you think will rob the old lady?

Clearly, the answer must be a number between 0 and 100. From the two or three groups in India to whom the question was posed, the typical answer received was around 70 or 80, while a few wrote 100; nobody wrote 0 (zero). The distribution of answers received conveys something about the perceived social norms.

The basic question posed by the game is the following:

If a person knows for certain that he or she can rob someone with total impunity, does any other factor weigh in against the undoubtedly juicy fruit of robbery?

We now change the setting slightly. The original question was posed to residents of a medium-sized city, diverse in terms of its various social groups. We now imagine the social milieu of a village, with a high degree of uniformity of simple lifestyle and values.

The answers returned by village folk would certainly be lower. Some may even scoff at the strange question posed. Indeed, it needs no proof that a person’s sense of identity – and consequent identification with a larger social group – is a crucial determinant of his or her behaviour.

***

In that situation, would you rob the old lady? – “the devil” asks me with a sneer.

Most definitely not, Sir! How dare you even ask?

And why not? Pray tell.

Because I have my conscience … er … wisdom … er … good sense … er … something …

Although I fumble with my second answer, it is clear to me that the conscience … er … wisdom … er … good sense … er … something … was ingrained in me since childhood by family, school, neighbourhood … or something.

We posit that a “truly religious” person would not rob the lonely old lady, while a “truly materialistic” person would definitely rob her. Then it follows immediately that a “materialistic religion” would be a very strange amalgam, being in fact a contradiction of terms.

***

Now we imagine a social milieu in which understanding of morality and ethics is not too well articulated. Note that we assume nothing about whether the setting is materially primitive or advanced; the old lady may be in a forest or in the midst of tall buildings.

It is fair to expect that, in such an ethically challenged setting, the potential robber will first check whether the lady belongs to “his own tribe”; indeed, for that very purpose, some parts of accoutrement are usually selected as “tribal signage”. A “very smart” robber may even endear himself to the lady to verify her tribe – and promptly mug her if her answer is “wrong”.

Even when conscious understanding of morality and ethics is absent, instinctive “tribal bonds” are present. Presumably, the “tribal bonds” lie deeper in the human psyche – although that does not imply that an individual cannot rise above the limits of tribal behaviour.

We should expect that, for any system of morality and ethics to be worth its name, it should be universal in scope. If it is wrong to rob another human being, then the wrong does not become right if the target human being happens to bear a different tribal identity.

Of course there are invariably disputes among people over property, contracts, money or something else; such disputes are common in any society.  But any rational system of dispute resolution should not be biased by the tribal, religious or other affiliations of the disputants. Such affiliations should play no role in the secular technical details of the dispute.

***

A religion bestows a vision of humanity which transcends narrow tribal affiliations. Every world religion has been founded in a true spirit of universality. Unfortunately, with the passage of time, politically interpreted and manipulated identities cause divisions among people, which then lead to sectarian thinking, sectarian politics, sectarian conflict … et cetera.

A remote tribe in central India identifies itself using the native word pronounced as kokuru. The meaning of this word in the tribal language is, quite simply, “human”. This remarkable fact can be interpreted in one of two ways:

  1. Thousands of years ago, all the humans living in that part of the subcontinent shared this label kokuru; and thus the word had universal applicability at the time.
  2. Thousands of years ago, other tribes also inhabited the area, and the kokuru used this word to set themselves apart from others; so the word did not have universal applicability.

Regardless of which of these interpretations is historically true about the kokuru, the word “human” today describes all of the roughly 7.6 billion members of the species known as Homo Sapiens. In spite of incredible diversity, there are no fundamental differences among human beings. Any vision of human life which misses this point is not a world religion.

***

Over the centuries, huge strides have been made in the variety of ways by which simple people can be cheated. We shall not use the word “rob” here, because sophisticated cheaters avoid direct physical actions in the process. Such refined tactics are called “clever business” or “white collar crime” – depending on whether or not they escape public scrutiny.

Regardless of the sophisticated techniques employed, the moral and ethical issues in “white collar crime” are identical to those raised by the story of the old lady. Much business verbiage employed today – “free market”, “banking and finance”, “fiduciary responsibility”, “monetary theory” … et cetera … is largely window-dressing for “white collar crime”.

Of course big-time “white collar criminals” need assistance from muscle-men. Nobody has expressed this connection more clearly and honestly than Major General Smedley Butler did in the US about a hundred years ago:

“I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.”

As with all criminals, even among “white collar criminals” the pushes and pulls of identity are incessantly at work within the profession. Cronyism and nepotism amongst “white collar criminals” is not one whit different from that amongst a gang of robbers. Tribal behaviour is encouraged by cheerleading, rituals, honours, marriage alliances … and so on.

***

A human being needs a stable identity to partake in family and community life, which is essential also to provide a secure environment for bringing up children. Today there must be hundreds of thousands of different group identities around the world, each trying in its own unique way to cope with the many difficult challenges of life.

An average individual’s life is intertwined with family and community; the world over, children are brought up in the social milieu thus created. Each distinct social milieu carries an identity tag – like the kokuru – which is needed for practical purposes. An individual’s need for a stable social milieu is not a matter of debate, fashion or pseudo-academic babble.

Indeed, an average individual’s psychological balance is inseparable from his or her inclusion within an identity group. Pseudo-intellectual tinkering with an individual’s self-perceived identity is dangerous business. Such nonsense leads to severe social stresses and fractures, as attested amply around the world today.

A natural question arises here: Do even a very few people choose to attempt to rise beyond their inherited group or tribal identity? That is, to aspire to the universal?

It seems most natural for an intelligent and healthy youngster to wonder about his or her inherited or group identity. A rare such curious youngster would surely wonder,

“In what way is that other youngster different from me? Don’t we two have a lot in common?”

So-called “community leaders” then have a problem on their hands. They fret:

“If everybody started asking such questions, what would happen to our common identity?”       

Inevitably, however, in any healthy community, a few rare youngsters succeed in breaking free from their inherited or group identities. Their journey is hard, and many give up, but a few do succeed. For our sake, they should! The Indian word sant refers to such rare souls, while the worn-out stereotype is that of a youngster who leaves home in search of truth. Such individuals do the incredibly valuable work of removing mistrust among different communities.

Fortunately, over millennia, several genuinely universal visions of human life have arisen and spread around the world. The great men who made this possible are our true leaders. Since these visions are genuinely universal, no difficulty should arise from their multiplicity.

Unlike land or property, the space of universal understanding is open, unbounded and fully sharable. One person “seeing the truth” does not preclude another from seeing it, even if they speak slightly different languages. The vast open expanse of universal understanding is rather sparsely occupied at present. Trespassers and wanderers should receive a warm welcome.

Sadly, it appears that bloody conflicts over land, gold, oil and minerals will continue. Even if a cataclysm seems imminent today, one hopes that rational life will be possible thereafter.

_________________________________________________

Dr. Naresh Jotwani is a semi-retired academic living in India and a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. Apart from part-time engagements in engineering education and consulting, he engages in an in-depth, personal exploration of how Gautam Buddha’s profound discoveries and teachings can be applied to the acute problems of modern life.

 

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 27 Jan 2020.

Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: To Rob or Not to Rob?, is included. Thank you.

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