by Dr Desmond Kharmawphlang
The underlying fundamental challenge facing every society is to create political, economic and social situations and systems that promote peace, human welfare and the sustainability of environment upon which life depends. To even begin to understand and meet this challenge is to acknowledge that achieving the above is a task beset with problems and the only realistic way to engage with them is to work on issues and in spaces where these problems are located. It has been the human experience that the preeminent approach to social problems is to help build common understanding, enable people to improve their lives and reinforce their commitment to society, enhance excellence, and to assure committed participation by men and women from diverse communities and at all levels of society.Culture should be appreciated and used as a very important means of finding promising approaches to modern problems and to usher in new intellectual agendas. As individuals who rejoice in the benign influences of culture, we need to define and employ public values related to fairness and tolerance, respect for knowledge and pluralism, upholding and protecting rights including language rights, freedom of expression and sexual preference. Culture is about participatory decision making, and broad access to asset creation and dependable livelihoods.
Education, the arts, religion, culture and more recently, media play vital roles in the life and vitality of communities and nations. All of these domains help us understand who we are, what we know, what we can imagine and how we function as diverse groups and as individuals trying to make sense of our place in a rapidly changing world. They help us express what it means to be human, and they provide commentary and a critique on human events. They also illuminate differences and similarities, and can serve as forces for positive social change by promoting democratic values, human achievement, pluralism and respect for diversity.
Concerns about poverty and equity are also growing in the environmental field. Many groups have recognized that the protection of natural resources must take into account economic activity — hence the over-used phrase ‘sustainable development’. Environmentally sensitive economic development often ignores the concerns of poor communities. In response, some of the most innovative thinkers about these problems have begun to place concerns about poverty at the center of environmental strategies.
The antiquity and all-pervasive nature of the market-driven economy in human history can perhaps best be demonstrated by the fact that the Inca Empire, in pre-Columbian America, may be the only advanced civilization in history to have no class of traders, and no commerce of any kind within its boundaries. Rich in foodstuff, textiles, gold, and cocoa, the Incas were masters of city building but nevertheless had no money and thus they remained until the decline of this great empire was brought about at the hands of the Spanish conquistadors in the sixteenth century.1
Therefore, the change in the nature of the world’s economies has been at the heart of many of the ebb and flow of civilizations. Subsequently, the idea that the market economy may have a detrimental effect on moral values has long been debated in the social sciences, ethics, and philosophy, although there has not always been a consensus as to the exact scale of this effect. This can be seen in sharp relief when we look back on how a fundamental disagreement on some aspect of the market economy has resulted in some of the most significant historical upheavals within modern societies. For example, the abolishment of trading human beings was a major issue in the American Civil War. Martin Luther’s critique of the trade of indulgences, in which buyers and sellers exchanged money for the freedom from God’s punishment for sin, was a key element of the Protestant Reformation. Karl Marx’s idea that capital stock should not be tradable, that it must belong to the workers themselves, is a cornerstone of communist ideology.2
Culture and Sustainability
In September 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted 17 goals as part of its “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”. UNESCO affirmed that one of these core goals was to “ensure that the role of culture is recognized through a majority of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including those focusing on quality education, sustainable cities, the environment, economic growth, sustainable consumption and production patterns, peaceful and inclusive societies, gender equality and food security.”3
In light of this statement, we shall briefly delve into the role of culture, as both an enabler, and a driver of the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. It is a pervasive feature of market interaction to impose costs on uninvolved third parties. Producing and trading goods often creates negative externalities, such as detrimental working conditions for workers, possibly associated with reduced life expectancy, child labor, suffering of animals, or environmental damage. People who participate in markets by buying such goods often seem to act against their own moral standards. The risk of moral decay through market interaction has been discussed in politics, ethics, and in the social sciences.
Many people express objections against child labor, other forms of exploitation of the workforce, detrimental conditions for animals in meat production, or environmental damage. At the same time, they seem to ignore their moral standards when acting as market participants, searching and buying the cheapest electronics, fashion, or food, and thereby consciously or subconsciously creating the undesired negative consequences to which they generally object.
Until recently, economists have been reluctant to rely on culture as a possible determinant of economic phenomena. Much of this reluctance stems from the very notion of culture: it is so broad and the channels through which it can enter the economic discourse so ubiquitous (and vague) that it is difficult to design testable (i.e., refutable) hypotheses. Without testable hypotheses, however, there is no role for culture in economics except perhaps as a selection mechanism among multiple equilibria. In recent years, however, better techniques and more data have made it possible to identify systematic differences in people’s preferences and beliefs and to relate them to various measures of cultural legacy. These developments suggest an approach to introduce cultural-based explanations that can be tested and are able to substantially enrich our understanding of economic phenomena.
Through the socialization process, by which it is maintained and transmitted, culture affects individual’s values. We distinguish between values that influence economic preferences (such as fertility or labor participation preferences) – which can be thought of as parameters of a person’s utility function – and political preferences (such as preferences for ﬁscal redistribution). Culture, thus, can affect economic outcomes through both these channels.4
Folklore in the Formation of Khasi Ethics
Ethics plays an important role in the life and history of every people. It shapes their minds and hearts and ensures the continuity of a civilization. Man is a moral being and therefore he is governed by moral laws in his personal and social life. Because he is also a relational being, he is also guided in his relationship with others by these rules of ethics. Ethics makes social life possible and gives integrity to a person in his or her personal life.
Barnes Mawrie, in his book Introduction to Khasi Ethics makes the case for the Khasis as being a group of people in possession of a very sound system of ethics. According to him, they are governed by a great sense of justice and righteousness. The Khasis believe that it was in the Second Divine Assembly Durbar-Blei Baar) that God assigned to them the moral code of conduct. Khasi Ethics has been preserved through oral tradition in the form of narratives which have passed on from one generation to the next. Therefore, we can see the tremendous power and relevance, and the subsequent influence of Narrative in Khasi Ethics.5
Other authors including Hamlet Bareh6 and Soumen Sen have also argued for the central role that folklore plays in shaping the ethics — and by extension — the culture of the Khasi-Jaintia people and how the same continues to serve as a commentary on the configuration and direction of the changes in their society, even in modern times, despite the influx of an ever-increasing array of other cultural forces.
Values — judgments about what is right and important in life — help steer our lives and institutions. Without explicit attention to values, we may run the risk of relying on notions and systems that have become fossilized and consequently fail to appeal and motivate people. Values serve as anchors in a rapidly changing world and that mobilize people around such problems as poverty, injustice, lack of education, intolerance and all kinds of authoritarianism including curtailment of freedom. No single set of values from the past is likely to serve us well in all circumstances but, at the same time, we should not assume that tradition has little to contribute to the solving of today’s problems. We must find fresh combinations of old and new. And we should recognize the challenge the all-too-common notion that modernization necessarily brings secularization.