Ethics, profit and desire

In taking any decision or action, three elements that confront the mind are: the ethical, profit, and desire. When a person pays up the bill after consuming a meal in a restaurant, the behaviour is governed by the ethical. When engaged in work, the motive is usually profit or prosperity. When an object appeals so much that it is bought, the act is driven by desire. 

Yudhisthira once asked his councillors to rate ethics, profit and desire in order of importance. The wise Vidhura said that being ethical or obeying the law was the most important, followed by profit, and then desire. Learning, giving, truth, compassion, and forbearance – both law and profit were rooted in these things. Well-being came from placing them above desire. For a person of restraint, ethics and law were the main values.

Arjuna, the man of action, said that profit, or prosperity, was the most important. He said that the world was in the realm of deeds and economic activity its backbone. There was no work which did not aim at profit. It was only when there was enough wealth that one could honour merit, the basis of all ethics and law. Desire could not be fulfilled without wealth. Nakula and Sahadeva voted for positive action which would result in the creation of wealth, thereby helping one obtain what one desired. Desire, they held, was the fruit of prosperity that had been realised. 

The gutsy Bhima was more existential in his view. A person without desire, he maintained, wanted neither merit nor wealth. If righteous people agreed that desire was important there would be greater kindness everywhere. Law, profit and desire were equally important. The person who pursued one of them alone would be incomplete.

The wise king heard them out and concluded that the right action did not result from desire alone or from having access to wealth either. The motive for action was sometimes ethical, sometimes prosperity, and sometimes desire. However, the most important thing was the freedom to act. When this freedom was compromised action itself could not be justified.  

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