Amartya Sen in the FT:
High quality global journalism requires investment. Please share this article with others using the link below, do not cut & paste the article. See our Ts&Cs and Copyright Policy for more detail. Email email@example.com to buy additional rights.
Like many board games that were developed in India, of which chess is perhaps the most important and famous, the game of “snakes and ladders” too emerged in this country a long time ago. With its balancing of snakes that pull you down and ladders that take you up, this game has been used again and again as a metaphor for life, telling us about our fortunes and misfortunes, and going further, about the consequences of good deeds and bad actions. Good decisions yield handsome rewards – taking us rapidly up a ladder – and bad moves yield severe penalties – making us suffer a precipitate decline through the mouth of a long snake, all the way down to its distant tail.
Britain too found in this board game from their colony a good way of expressing their traditional ethical tales, illustrating, for example, the simple moralistic world of what was called “Virtue Rewarded and Vice Punished” – a game that became very popular in early 19th century. The English version used the graphic illustrations of the snakes and ladders to depict traditional English moral tales that made this old Indian game popular first in England and then in the British-dominated global world of the nineteenth century. The Indian names – from Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu and other subcontinental languages – for the qualities that respectively yielded rewards and punishment were replaced in the English version into the names of classical English virtues such as penitence, pity, obedience and self-denial yielding ascent up the ladders, while time-honoured vices of depravity, cruelty, dandyness made one slip rapidly down through the body of a snake.
The diagnosis of virtues and vices is, of course, adaptable, and the richness of the analogy of snakes and ladders can be put to use today in discussing modern problems as well – even the contemporary challenges of economic and social policies. We can well ask: what are the nasty snakes we face today in thinking about economic policies in our troubled world, and what helpful ladders we should try to climb up in moving an economy and society forward – in a world full of opportunities as well as serious dangers. The distinctions are quite important for the emerging economies which are trying to decide where to emerge. We do not want to emanate from the bottom end of snakes, and would rather emerge at the top of elevating ladders. How can we do this?