Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Ethics an introduction

What is ethics?  How is it different from words like culture, values, principles, morals etc.?

Let’s say that you are traveling in a city bus.  All the seats are full after you take the last seat available.  In the next stop, an elderly person boards.  You offer your seat to the person.  Is it because you are ethical? Or is it in your culture? Or is it because of the values you have? Or is it one of the principles that you learnt? Is it moral? Let’s understand the meaning of these terms as applied to the above incident...

‘Giving respect to elders’ is a VALUE.
It is such a value that is the basis for the rule ‘to give seat to the elder’.  The rule is the PRINCIPLE.
If such a principle is learnt by you from ‘your family or community or any larger social group’, then it is in your CULTURE.
Since it is the right thing to do, it is MORAL.
The act of standing up and giving your seat to the elder, is the ETHICAL BEHAVIOR.
Ethics is the moral principle that governs a person’s behavior.  

In the above situation, you can exhibit different types of behavior based on the same ethic / moral principle.  Say, you can request a younger passenger near you to offer his/her seat.  Or asking the elder politely, if he/she would like to take your seat.  There can be many such acceptable or debatable behaviors based on the same ethic.  What makes you chose a particular behavior is another value or set of values.  Let’s say you hold ‘practicing what you preach’ as a VALUE.  Then you will decide to give up your seat rather than asking another person.  The final behavior hence, is driven by one or more moral principles based on one or more values, as the case may be.  

There can be more than one ethical behavior for any given situation.  Choosing one among them by an individual is dependent on the set of ethics he/she has. It is easier to decide in cases where it is clear what is moral and what is immoral, like female feticide, where in it is easy to categorize it as an unethical behavior.   It is tricky when it comes to ‘gray’ areas where in, some of the values clash, resulting in an ethical dilemma.  For example, euthanasia – ‘compassion’ and ‘right to life’ have a clash.  Abortion – who has the right to the life – child or the parent?  In such cases, what you decide is defined by which value you cherish more than the other.  This can be due to the influence of the personal experiences you had in your life.  Hence the ethical decision in these situation may differ from person to person.

Let’s take another example.  Assume that you are a vegetarian by family culture.  You are traveling in a tour group where the rest all, incidentally, are non vegetarians.  In a particular situation, after a tiring day of tour, you end up in a village where there is only one restaurant that can provide you dinner. But they have only non vegetarian food.  You are dead tired and extremely hungry, as are others.  You have an open mind on food habits as you don’t consider non vegetarianism as immoral.  What will constitute an ethical behavior on your part?

In this situation, there are at least two values which are in play.  One is very explicit in the question and the other is not so explicit.  The value which is explicitly mentioned is that you don’t consider non vegetarianism as immoral.  So having non veg food in such a situation can be an ethical behavior for you.  The other not so explicit value is that you are vegetarian by family culture.  It means that you hold value for following family culture and hence you had continued to avoid non vegetarian even if there is no moral dilemma personally.  The value that you hold for following the family culture is not so explicit.   Nevertheless that is the dilemma you need to tackle to decide on the course of action further.  Say, going ahead with non veg food for one day only.  Or remaining hungry even if it is extremely tough on the body.

The decision here may be easy for you to take.  But situations can be much more complex.  Hope the understanding on what is ‘value’, based on which a rule is made called ‘principle’, which you follow when it the right thing to do (‘ethic’), resulting in an particular behavior will help you to come to a decision on what constitutes the ethical behavior for you.

The values held in the constitution like liberty, equality, secularism, socialism, are binding on a civil servant.  These values are not negotiable when you are deciding as a public servant.  Your personal values if in conflict, take a second seat while you take a decision in such situations in your official capacity.