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Have we lost our way?

Professor Rajeev Bhargava, CSDS and Institute for Social Justice

This article war originally published by The Hindu

Losing the very distinction between external and internal goods does irreparable damage to everyone

It is becoming hazardous to read Indian newspapers these days. Cancer patients being told by a Health Minister that their suffering is divine justice for past sins; the chilling demand by an elected member of a legislative assembly to behead an actor; Muslim clerics beaten mercilessly for no reason. And to top it all, the soul-destroying incident of a four-year-old — yes, a toddler — sexually assaulting his class mate. Have we lost our way as a country, a society, a civilisation?

And please don’t think that I am about to pounce on the party currently in power, although politics undeniably has some role to play in this. I worry about the profound social and cultural malaise that afflicts all of us and the damage such incidents inflict on our collective psyche.

Internal and external goods

To give a comprehensive picture of all the causes for this cultural and moral mess is beyond my capacity. I mention just two that come immediately to mind, in the hope that this opens a space for further discussion. Both depend on a distinction made by the Scottish philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, between external and internal goods of practice. First, an overwhelming focus on external goods takes attention away from the internal goods of social practices. Second, unpleasant human attributes that accompany the relentless pursuit of external goods severely diminish those ethical and moral qualities without which human life is quite poor, nasty and brutish, even if not exactly short or entirely solitary. I take each in turn.

Every practice is driven by an internal good. Take fiction-writing. One of its many internal goods is to imaginatively give us a vivid sense of the dilemmas and moral complexity of human life, to tighten our grasp over the human predicament; the internal good of legal practice is to deliver justice; of medical practice, to cure, heal, help people live a healthy life; of democratic politics, to enhance the collective good, benefit every single citizen. And, of ordinary morality, to never harm, if not always do good to others. Internal goods are intrinsic to the practice, give it its point and partly define what it is. These internal goods cannot be realised if standards of excellence, appropriate to each practice, are not followed. Plenty of hard work goes into perfecting them. Furthermore, when achieved, internal goods extend the powers of the entire community, indeed enrich everyone.

Take an example from cricket: when Ranjitsinhji invented the leg glance, when Tendulkar perfected the upper cut, or Pakistani bowlers developed the reverse swing, they not only enhanced the quality of their own game but benefitted the entire cricketing community. Here, healthy competition over excellence enhances everyone’s game. The more innovations there are in cricket, the more these shared goods are collectively enjoyed. I believe this is virtually true of all excellence-driven human practices — farming, cooking, shoe-making, carpentry, writing, dancing, playing football, architecture, law, democratic politics and so on. Whatever they generate can be possessed or enjoyed by everyone. One can either excel at them or not, there is always room for improvement, and they can never be practised enough. Indeed, if you don’t put these skills to use, pick up bad habits on the way, go astray, you will lose them altogether. And their loss is collective too.

This precisely is where external goods come into the picture. All these practices can also bring with them goods that are external to these practices — money, fame, power. They are external because they can be achieved even outside each practice. Diseases can rarely be cured outside medical practice, but to earn money, one need not be a medical doctor. Nor are specific standards of excellence necessary for securing them. Indeed, they are frequently achieved only by neglecting them. Not all famous or rich lawyers or doctors are good at what they do. Of course, if these external goods are achieved as a byproduct of the pursuit of excellence, one need not shun them. The point is that if one follows a career in cricket, law or politics with the primary aim of making money, exercising power or gaining fame, then the internal goods of these practices will never be achieved. And when that happens, the entire humanity loses. To single-mindedly pursue external goods at the expense of internal goods is bad enough but to lose the very distinction between the two does irreparable damage to everyone. It is this trend in our society of fudging this crucial distinction that is deeply troublesome.

Negative emotions

The pure pursuit of external goods has another terrible consequence. An obsession with them undermines our capacity for self-reflection and cultivation, strangles our imagination and induces thoughtlessness, narrow-mindedness and prejudice. Moreover, these goods are individual possessions and because one has them at the expense of others, they promote self-seeking. The more power, money or fame one has, the less these are possessed by others. This promotes negative emotions such as jealousy, envy and malice and considerably diminishes our capacity for empathy, care and compassion. They corrode the moral and ethical fabric of a society and in the end, brutalise us and our children.

I see inscribed in these incidents a chilling brutalisation, and in the naked pursuit of power, money and two minutes of fame, the triumph of external over internal goods — an inexorable march towards a fall from the deepest values of humanity.

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