Book Review
The role of morality in economics

Buddhadasa Hewavitharana
Emeritus Professor of Economics
Published by Department of Pali and Buddhist Studies,
University of Peradeniya, 2006

Reviewed by
David Kalupahana
Emeritus Professor of Philosophy
University of Hawaii, Honolulu.

This is a short but excellent essay by Professor Hewavitharana, who spent most of his life teaching and researching in the area of economics. The economics he taught and researched was primarily the science developed for centuries in the Western world. It is only a person with such training that can take an inside critical look at the subject. Very often people from non-Western traditions, who would undertake a study of a subject that is primarily the product of the Western system of thinking, tend to accept blindly most of the ideas propounded in that tradition. They are even prone to consider those ideas as being sacred, since they are supposed to reflect the so-called scientific approach. One good example I can quote in this connection is one of my own teachers, the late Professor K.N.Jayatilleke.

After receiving a first-class degree in Indo-Aryan from the University of Ceylon, which included the study of Sinhala, Pali and Sanskrit, Prof. Jayatilleke joined the Cambridge University to follow a course in philosophy leading to another first degree called Tripos in Moral Science. This was the time when he was admitted to the classes conducted by the famous Ludwig Wittgenstein. Jayatilleke was so impressed by the ideas expressed by Wittgenstein that he concluded his own treatise on Buddhism, the Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, with a quotation, which was also the conclusion of Wittgenstein’s own work, A Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Jayatilleke’s indebtedness to Western philosophy was so great that he insisted on the need to specialize in Western philosophy and logic in order to understand the doctrines of the Buddha.

As someone who disagreed with the ideas expressed by Jayatilleke, I am happy to be in the company of Professor Hewavitharana, my former colleague and friend, who has divested himself completely from every idea expressed by the Western economists and who has emphasized the significance of the Buddha’s moral philosophy as a better foundation for economic reflections. It is commendable that he has been provided with an opportunity to do precisely this by the recently formed Peradeniya University-based Society for the Integration of Science and Human Values (SISHVa) whose objective is to investigate into ways and means of bridging the undesirable gulf between the sciences and human values. In this context the present volume which attempts to investigate the conditioning of economic activities according to Buddhist moral teachings rightfully deserves the place it has earned as the very first publication of this Society as SISHVa Publications No. I.

Professor Hewavitharana hits the nail right on its head when he observes that the Buddhist ethical principle is "do good to oneself without harming others and do good to others as well" (p.7). Even though the Buddha is well-known for his vehement denial of a metaphysical self (atma) in a human person, which was looked upon as being permanent and eternal, he never denied the psychophysical personality (namarupa) that constituted an empirical self (atta), which is both impermanent and dependently arisen. Thus he was able to lay out the foundation of his philosophy that combined morals and economics with the statement:

"One should not neglect one’s own welfare through excessive altruism. Having understood one’s own welfare, one ought to pursue the genuine welfare."

(Atta-d-attham paratthena bahuna pi na hapaye atta-d-attham abhinnaya sadatthapasuto siya). (Dhammapada 166).

The term attha, which I have translated as ‘welfare,’ can also be found used in the specific sense of "economic welfare," especially when coupled with the term dhamma, implying "morality." Thus we have the conception of a universal monarch (cakka-vatti), proposed by the Buddha, who admonishes his subjects regarding economic and moral welfare (attha-dhamma-sahitam pure giram erayam bahujanam nidamsayi) (Digha-nikaya, PTS ed. 3. 155). No one can deny that this was the tank and dagaba culture, enthusiastically followed by the ancient kings of Sri Lanka, which made this one of the most prosperous countries in the ancient world, and which has been ridiculed by some of our modern-day sociologists and anthropologists, is based entirely on the Buddha’s message regarding economics and morals.

Furthermore, when the Buddha stated that one should not neglect one’s own welfare for the sake of excessive altruism, he was not recommending that one should be selfish. On the contrary, one needs to pursue the genuine welfare (sadattha), which includes one’s own welfare and the welfare of others. At the same time, unlike the Western economists who either emphasized the welfare of the majority to the neglect of the minority, as in democracy and its progeny, capitalism, or to the welfare of the society to the neglect of the individual, as in communism, the Buddha was a pragmatist, not planning to save the entire humankind. His words to the first sixty disciples, after they attained enlightenment and freedom, echo this pragmatism as well as his compassion for all human beings.

"Monks, go on tours for the sake of the welfare of the majority (bahujanahitaya), for the sake of the happiness of the majority (bahujanasukhaya), through compassion for the world (lokanukampaya), for the good, the welfare, and happiness of gods and humans (atthaya hitaya sukhaya devamanussanam)" (Vinaya Pitaka, PTS ed. 1. 21).

Professor Hewavitharana makes an excellent effort to cull out the basic teachings of the Buddha as they are relevant, especially to his ideas about economics. (As I understand, on pages 11-14, the editors have unwittingly mixed up the summarized ‘left side’ and ‘right side’ coloumn-wise depiction of a balanced development intended by the author, resulting in some confusion in the presentation). Professor Hewavitharana first outlines the basic features of what he calls the moral and spiritual processes. Then aligns them with the economic processes. After that he focuses on the cultivation of the four positive virtues of friendliness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity, the four ways of the higher life (brahmavihara) recommended by the Buddha. The outlines of these processes and principles are then followed by the detailed analyses that bring out the genuine character of the Buddha’s moral teachings and their relevance to organizing one’s own personal life and social behavior for the betterment of oneself and the society.

The pragmatic approach of Buddhist ethics in conducting the day-to-day economic life has been explained by Professor Hewavitharana as no one has done ever before. Even simple issues like the harmful effects of tobacco, issues that have come to the forefront during the last few decades in the Western world, attract the attention of the author. We are indebted to him for the large number of issues that he examines in a short essay like the present one. It has the potential of being the basis of a full-fledged treatise on Buddhist economics, and the reviewer wishes that Professor Hewavitharana, who has a thorough understanding of modern economics and is a genuine servant of the Enlightened One (buddhadasa), will undertake such a task for the benefit of everyone interested in a tradition that is unsurpassed (anuttara) in the world.

One way of improving this well thought out essay is by emphasizing the central conception in Buddhism, namely, "dependent arising" (paticcasamuppada). Indeed, Professor Hewavitharana’s arguments will be strengthened if he were to utilize this doctrine to indicate the mutual dependence of the individual and society well as the natural phenomena that the individual and society utilize in making life more comfortable and successful. One technical problem that can be overcome in a future publication is the elimination of the absolutely unnecessary bold prints combined with the underscoring of section headings. These could be replaced by simple italics.

Finally the references to the Pali texts, whether they are to those of the editions of the Pali Text Society of London, or to any other edition easily available to the Sinhala reader, should be very specific. Without the page numbers, the reader is left in the lurch when the references are to, for example, D I, D II, or D III.


Powered By -

Produced by Upali Group of Companies