Political principles and business ethics


In this third of three articles based on Mahatma Gandhi’s seven social sins we will look at the last two namely politics without principle and business without ethics.

What are Gandhi’s fears and what do we learn?

To make a beginning let me reiterate what I have said many times, that most of the critical narrative and ‘bad blood’ between leaders and citizens comes from citizen’s deep mistrust of and disenchantment with politicians and political leaders.


The truth is most of the criticism is created by leaders deliberately in full knowledge of what is right as well as inadvertently, sometimes due to uncritical uptake of advice. But it is morally imperative for politicians to be ‘disciples of principles’ that illuminate the path to the right attitudes, actions and decisions.

What are principles, you may ask? To Gandhi these are an ‘expression of perfection’. They are ‘statements of truth’ which must prevent compromising the perfection demanded of political and business leaders.

You see, politicians must respect the law and work within what the law provides for. This is non-negotiable. It is by the law of the Land that they swear and so any departure, diversion or compromise is unacceptable travesty of justice.


But what do we see in practice?

Many leaders do not just want to be repeat candidates for their parties, they want to remain in power ‘at all costs’ which often times includes needless chaos, deaths and destruction. It’s happening right now in Burundi. To activists such as Mahatma Gandhi ‘this is unethical’ and I dare add criminal.

Many a leader have sought to or actually changed laws to suit their style of leadership or to make gains. But we have become wiser now to know that ‘an unjust law is itself a


recipe for violence and that arrest for its breach is more so’, in the words of Gandhi.

Mahatma Gandhi was a unique soul who stood for truth, honesty, discipline, peace and non-violence, principles which tragically lack in many leaders today. And yet for leaders to be trusted and followed committedly, they must pursue truth and should with honesty strive to do things within the law.

It is also critical to peace and stability for leaders to exercise non-partisan leadership; to manage fairly the affairs of state and development for all people and parties. Many countries have been des troyed by partisan leadership which effectively feeds corruption, promotes bribery and encourages morally suspect lobbying.

In large part due to negative practices, politics has unwittingly been defined as a ‘dirty game’ when its function is intended to make people better through a fair process of resource development, allocation and management.

As commentators say, politics is dirty not of itself but ‘because people are dirty’. A lack of principles in how politicians ‘play the game’ accounts for much conflict, mistrust, abuse of powers and marginalization of fellow leaders, particularly the opposition. It masks or removes truths from politics and ultimately ushers in disorder.

Cutthroat competition among politicians drives many a moral people to turn to immoral ways in order to win and sustain support, and such attitudes could lead to dire actions such as killing, stealing and dealing.

Rather than create order, politics is made to create disorder, sometimes deliberately for leaders to take advantage and plunder public resources. For leaders to be able to address such real possibilities it requires party and personal principles; a clear ethical compass which pre-defines parameters for political conduct in all conceivable situations.

Politicians must exercise civility, self-respect, act respectfully and they will almost certainly obtain the most vital attitude from citizens – trust. Shifty leaders without a moral code simply antagonise the people. Parties without ideology, discipline and authority to discipline its own members generate profound doubt and scatter support. Yet these are matters of simple principle!

Now let’s turn briefly to business and ethics.

Altruistically economic and political systems are most akin; both must be based on strong moral foundations. Politics and business are by people for people’s good and both have a hideous propensity for becoming exploitative, therefore the need for ethics.

You can think of business as an individual with character and behaviour, and like behaviour it needs regulation in order to achieve fairness and protect people. Enterprise, while set up for profit, has to safeguard workers and satisfy expectations of both workers and customers As Adam Smith says fairness and benevolence in business are the essence of free enterprise.

Business has to ensure ethical profit margins, costs and quality whether it is service or products. As a country we must examine the issues of cost and quality in special ways. We must take an objective look at why things always cost more in Malawi compared to countries around and why there is so much dishonesty in business.

Particularly frustrating are the huge profits that banks make and the morality of inconceivably high interest that borrowers have to pay. This is our problem number one, hankering after high gains, low capacity to invest because of the cost of borrowing and senselessly high taxes demanded of inadequately compensated people.

These are ethical matters with serious development implications.

As we close, let us admit that politics without principle are dangerous as much as business without ethics is criminal. Politics and bad business are cause for dis-empowering anxiety and inequities in society and they influence significantly levels of poverty. Without principles and ethics the same politics and enterprise which should facilitate development can be most toxic.

To me leadership as well as business must be founded upon technical competence as much as on upright character and unquestioned moral authority. This is the bottom line! Society experiences equal steady development, peace and harmony when guided by both moral and technical principles of governance.

My last word comes from the Buddha who says, ‘no one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path’ of change and development.

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