Ethics and Human Interface:

Lecture 1 : Essence, Determinants and Consequences of Ethics in human actions

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Ethics is the study of what is right and wrong in human behavior

Morality is individual principles concerning what is right and wrong behavior

Moral Values are the worthy principles that one follows to distinguish the right from the wrong. Moral Value refers to the good virtues such as honestyintegrity, truthfulness, helpfulness, love, respectfulness, hard-work, etc.

essence of ethics

Concept of Ethics in the Indian Tradition

  • Throughout Indian society, the word ‘dharma’ is morality and ethics. And so the dharma purpose is to keep together the human community for its stability and growth. Specific conduct is necessary for human society’s survival. In Hinduism, the dharma is detailed of morals.

In General, there are Three Challenging Views to Answer Moral Queries:

  1. Virtue ethics
  2. Deontological ethics
  3. Consequentialism

Virtue ethics refers to the nature of all those who act. Virtue ethics supported by other prominent thinkers including Plato, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. This reflects on a person’s innate character instead of on specific actions.

Virtue ethics underlines the importance of one’s character and the values represented by one’s character in assessing or evaluating ethical conduct.

The cardinal virtues are a set of four virtues derived mainly from the proposal of Plato, consisting of:

  1. Prudence: It is also explained in terms of wisdom, the ability at a given time to judge between actions concerning appropriate actions.

  2. Justice: It’s the most widespread and significant attribute, known as justice, considered as fairness.

  3. Temperance: The exercise of self-control, abstention, and moderation and is also termed restraint.

  4. Courage: known as Fortitude, persistence, courage, endurance, and the ability to face terror, uncertainty, and intimidation. 

Deontological Ethics:

Deontological ethics holds that at least some acts are morally obligatory regardless of their consequences for human welfare. Descriptive of such ethics are such expressions as “Duty for duty’s sake,” “Virtue is its own reward,” and “Let justice be done though the heavens fall.”

Some Deontological Theories Include

I. Approach of Immanuel Kant: Kant’s theory is an example of a deontological moral theory–according to these theories, the rightness or wrongness of actions does not depend on their consequences but on whether they fulfill our duty. Kant believed that there was a supreme principle of morality, and he referred to it as The Categorical Imperative.

II. Moral absolutism: Some deontologists are absolutists in the moral sense. They assumed that certain actions are completely right or wrong, notwithstanding the intentions behind them.

III. Divine command theory: A few deontologists truly think in the ‘divine command theory.’ The divine command theory declared an action to be right if God has affirmed it is right.

3. Consequentialism (Teleology):

Consequentialism is the method of normative ethical theories which imply the consequences of one’s behavior are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness or wrongness of that action. In other words, “the ends justify the means”. 

Some Consequentialism Theories are as Under

I. State consequentialism or Mohist consequentialism: It retains that an action is right if it leads to the welfare of the state through order, material wealth, and growth in population.

II. Ethical altruism: Ethical altruism may be defined as a consequentialist philosophy that prescribes a person taking action that has the best impact on all but not on himself.

III. Utilitarianism: Utilitarianism is a theory of morality, which advocates actions that foster happiness or pleasure and opposes actions that cause unhappiness or harm. When directed toward making social, economic, or political decisions, a utilitarian philosophy would aim for the betterment of society as a whole. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill were two prominent contributors to Classical utilitarianism.

Theorist Bentham, who takes happiness as a measure of use, said that “the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the measure of right and wrong.”

What are values

Values can be defined as qualities that are important to us. Values act as an internal compass which help a person evaluate different choices of conduct and behaviour. Values are developed as a result of substantial time and emotional investment, so by nature they are relatively stable and difficult to change. Some examples are honesty, integrity, empathy, courage etc.

Factors that play a role in inculcation of values

  1. Family: Family inculcates values in children by their upbringing. Ethics are taught to children by observation and also by child rearing practices (CRPs). For instance, experts have urged families to inculcate respect for women among children as a way to reduce gender-based violence.
  2. Education: Schools and higher education shape the behaviour of children and adults. Curriculum, teaching methods, activity-based learning, moral science etc. are used to guide children towards ethical behaviour.
  3. Society: Culture and tradition determine what is considered ethical/unethical behaviour. For example, contemporary Indian society sees dowry as ethical even though it is a patently immoral practice.
  4. God and religion: Religion is the old and ultimate source of values. All religions lay down moral precepts for its followers. Religion has a uniquely strong impact upon people’s beliefs about what is right and wrong.
  5. Conscience: Conscience is the inner voice of people that tells us what is right and wrong. In some cases, a person’s values might not be influenced externally but only by their conscience. For example, social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy were persons whose values were inculcated not by the then social norms but by their inner goodness.
  6. Civil society: Ethics also arise from collective conscience of the public. Every society has certain shared values and opinion. Society mobilizes in the form of social and civic bodies to promote a particular set of goals and values. Such activity also affects ethics of individuals. For example, people from all communities came forward and raised their voice against mob lynching in India due to the culture of tolerance and pluralism.

What are ethics

Ethics are standards of human conduct that society adopts for itself. Ethics are a set of dos and don’ts that govern human conduct in a social setting. For instance, women are expected to behave differently in different societies. Not wearing a veil is not considered unethical in metro cities but it is considered unethical in some villages.

  1. End-in-itself: Being ethical is not a means to something but is itself a source of happiness and satisfaction in life. For example, donating blood, charity etc. gives a good feeling to people.
  2. Consequences: Adherence to ethics has positive consequences for an individual, society and the world at large. For example, when a person is ethical, he/she receives praise and recognition from society. When countries are cooperative towards each other, peace and progress follow.
  3. Determinants: There are various factors that combine to determine ethical standards in a society. Individual conscience, family, education, politics, economy, performance pressure etc. all have a bearing on the ethical standards of people, on whether people behave ethically or not.
  4. Not morals or religion: Ethics is different from morals as it is contextual whereas morals are an individual principle. For example, in a society it might not be ethical to be homosexual but an individual might find it morally right to be homosexual.
  5. Absolutism and relativism: Ethics are standards of human conduct and there are two schools of thought on how these standards develop. Absolutists claim that ethical standards are largely universal and the same rules should apply to everyone everywhere. For example, violence or lying is unethical everywhere. Relativists claim that ethics are largely relative and only basic standards are universal. For instance, different countries offer different amount of freedom to their people. Restricting free speech is seen as unethical in USA whereas it is readily accepted in China in larger national interest.

What are morals  

Morals are principles of right and wrong held by an individual. Unlike ethics, morals are standards of behaviour pertaining to an individual and not social conduct. Morals arise from personal experience, character, conscience and so on. For example, homosexuality might be unethical in a society but it might be seen as moral by an individual.

Concepts related to morals

  1. Individualistic: As mentioned above, morals are an individual concept and are products of each individual’s conscience, upbringing, psyche etc.
  2. Moral attitudes: An individual’s morals lead to formation of moral attitudes. These are attitudes towards moral issues. People develop a tendency to see an issue favourably or unfavourably in moral terms. For instance, a person who has right-wing morality tends to see all right-wing policies in positive terms.
  3. Diversity: Morality shows high variation from person to person and society to society (collective morality). For example, views on capital punishment vary hugely from abolition to phased abolition to rarest-of-rare doctrine to active retention.
  4. Dynamism: Although stable, moral standards can change as people are exposed to new information, lifestyles, cultures etc. For example, drug abuse used to be seen as a crime but after certain awareness and insight, people have begun to see it as a sickness that needs help and cure.

Essence of Ethics

Good life: It has been said that a good life is a life of virtues. Bhagavad Gita says that the purpose of human life is to do fulfil its duty and adhere to virtues. In modern times, people are not ultimately satisfied with wealth, pleasures, fame etc. Ethical behaviour is said to provide ultimate satisfaction.

Beneficial: Ethical behaviour leads to various benefits for an individual as well as the society at large. Ethics leads to peace, harmony, respect, justice etc.

Ultimate good: Ethical and virtuous behaviour is seen by some philosophers as the highest good which is a good in itself. It need not lead to other benefits. Cicero calls such good ‘summum bonum’ i.e. highest good.

Contextual: Ethics are determined in a social setting. A society’s history, culture, values etc. determine ethical standards which may vary from society to society. For instance, issues like abortion, homosexuality are judged differently in different countries.

Innate goodness: Ethics are shaped by society but they are also partly driven by the innate goodness within each human being. For instance, irrespective of surroundings, all persons naturally tend to speak the truth, seek peace and so on.

Philosophers like Socrates have founded the fundamental premise that human beings are basically good but are often unable to do the right thing because of lack of right guidance. The study of ethics aims to tell people what is the right thing to do through different ethical philosophies.

Subjective: Ethics is not an objective universal concept. Its understanding varies from time to time, person to person, society to society. For instance, some people emphasize upon following the right means whereas others emphasize upon pursuing the right ends. However, this variation may lead to disagreements and conflicts on what is the right thing to do. For instance, cases of cow vigilantism, honour killings take place because of conflicts regarding ethical behaviour.

Voluntary action: Ethics only deals with voluntary human action. It only deals with actions when the person acts with free will without any coercion. For instance, if a person is made to do something unethical at gunpoint, he/she cannot be called ethical/unethical as he/she did not act on his own.

Prescriptive: Ethics preach a certain kind of behaviour to us. It tells us how should people behave.
However, ethics are often prescribed without any reason or explanation. This undermines people’s respect and value for ethical behaviour. For instance, traditional values like family values are declining among the youth because their significance and rationale are not explained to them.

Determinants of ethics

Determinants of ethics are factors that shape the ethical standards and behaviour of people.  These determinants are the basis on which people decide what is right and wrong.

Just like other values, ethical values are also determined by the factors like family, education, media, conscience and so on. Apart from these, there are other social factors that shape the ethical standards of a society, as follows.

  1. Time: Ethics keep changing with time and hence, time also determines ethical standards. Sati, purdah, untouchability etc. were considered ethical in 18th century India but not anymore.
  2. Experience: Life experiences shape our attitude towards ethics and morality. After some experiences, we might adhere to ethical standards strongly. For example, Ashoka’s experience in Kalinga war changed his ethical standards of kingship. After witnessing road accidents, we tend to drive more carefully and adhere to traffic rules.
  3. Cost-benefit analysis: Comparison of positive and negative consequences of actions is often used to judge their ethicality. Philosophy of utilitarianism calls for ‘greatest good of the greatest number’. For example, construction of big dams causes displacement of many people but government justifies it based on the greater number of people benefitted by drinking water, irrigation, electricity etc.
  4. Inspiration: Examples of personalities or events often shape ethical standards of people as they impact mind and emotions. For example, student leaders in India often justify their cause and protests by giving example of Bhagat Singh who was also a radical socialist.
  5. Power: Political, economic or social power often lays down ethical norms for a society. Governments create public policies and laws which themselves declare what people should and should not do. Wealthy individuals like celebrities and social leaders like Sadh guru influence people and affect ethical standards.
  6. Education: Education policy affects what people know and what people think. Norms that are praised by the education system become values for the people. For instance, dictators like Hitler designed the educational curriculum in such a way so as to shape the people’s ethical standards in favor of authoritarianism and nationalism.
  7. Governance: The government frames certain laws and policies through which it incentivizes a particular behaviour and disincentives another type of behavior. Such incentive structure shapes ethical standards of people as well as its adherence. William Gladstone said, “It is the duty of government to make it difficult for people to do wrong, easy to do right.” For example, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has affected ethical standards of people in favour of cleanliness and sanitation.
  8. Tradition and culture: Prevailing practices in a society are accepted as the norm by people and shape the ethical standards. This happens due to the mechanism of social influence and as everyone wishes to be accepted by society. For example, gender inequality is considered ethical in Saudi Arabia due to its peculiar culture and tradition.

Determinants of ethicality

We have studied factors that determine ethical standards. It is also important to understand the factors that determine whether an action is ethical or not i.e. an action’s ethicality. Experts have identified following factors.

  1. Nature of the action: Ethicality depends upon the fundamental nature of action itself. For instance, murder is an unethical act in itself and it cannot be justified by any intention or under any circumstances. On the other hand, acts like polluting the environment are unethical but it can be justified if its within ecological limits and used for good purpose like rural electrification.
  2. Intention: Intention behind an action must be ethical and only then, the action can be possible ethical. If intention is wrong, no action can be ethical even if the action is good in itself. For instance, charity done for vested interests by unscrupulous NGOs is unethical even if its charity. On the other hand, breaking a traffic rule can be ethical if a policeman does it to catch a criminal.
  3. Circumstances: Ethics is dynamic and hence, sometimes circumstances decide whether an action is ethical or not. For instance, democracy and citizen-centric governance is ethical governance but during times of war, martial law can be ethically justified and hence, provided under the Indian Constitution. We consider breaking of traffic rules as highly unethical but if we are getting late for some place, we let ourselves break the rules.

Consequences of ethics

Consequences for individual

  1. Happiness: Rather than a life of wealth, pleasure, fame etc., an ethical life is said to be the source of ultimate happiness. Such happiness leads to ultimate satisfaction and contentment where an individual does not need any more or less. Aristotle says that practising the ‘Golden Mean’ (middle path, moderation etc.) leads to happiness which he calls ‘Eudaimonia’. For example, donating blood makes us feel good within.
  2. Positive outlook toward society– A person who acts ethically has a positive outlook toward society. This positivity helps in building trust and social capital.
  3. Elevated sense of being: Ethical and virtuous behaviour makes a person feel like a higher order being who is beyond lower order needs. Such behaviour leads to a higher sense of fulfilment. Lord Rama did not care for lower order needs like kingship, power, wealth etc. and rather focused on virtues of courage, responsibility etc.
  4. Acceptability and likeability: When a person shows ethical behaviour, such person gets accepted into a society and is also appreciated for his/her actions. For instance, children who respect their elders are appreciated by their family and relatives.
  5. Credibility: Ethical and virtuous persons are trusted upon by other people and their words and actions carry greater weight than that of ordinary persons. For instance, leaders with integrity and honesty have greater influence upon public than leaders with questionable records. Political parties urge respected public figures to endorse them.
  6. Accomplishment: Ethical behaviour is not only morally prescribed but also practically beneficial. People with ethics and values are likely to achieve greater success in long term. For instance, honest individuals like Kiran Bedi, TSR Subramaniam have held high positions in government. Professional ethics is a big factor in the career advancement of lawyers, doctors etc.
  7. Interpersonal relations: Ethical behaviour leads to mutual kindness, politeness etc. and hence leads to good relations with people. For instance, greeting people with a smile or showing courtesies leads to reciprocation and hence, good relations.
  8. Decision making: In modern complex lives, ethics tell us what is the right thing to do in times of ethical dilemmas where we are confused between two equally good/bad alternatives. Ethics also provide decision makers the basis to justify their course of action. For example, civil servants have Code of Ethics to guide their decision making.

Consequences for society

  1. Peace and harmony: Ethical behaviour leads to reciprocation and therefore, leads to a peaceful and stable society. Neighbours have good relations if they mutually respect the norms of noise pollution, sanitation etc. Similarly, there is peace in the world if countries adhere to international law.
  2. Good governance: Ethics in administration (transparency, accountability, rule of law) ensures greater effectiveness and efficiency in administration and leads to greater public satisfaction. For instance, Kiran Bedi turned around the state of Tihar jail with her values of integrity, compassion, dedication etc. which became a success story of good governance.
  3. Justice and inclusion: Ethics in social behaviour results in equality of status and opportunity, fair treatment for all people, especially the weak and vulnerable. Absence of ethics leads to injustices like untouchability, gender discrimination etc.
  4. Equitable and inclusive development: In the sphere of economy, ethics is essential. Ethics ensures fair opportunity, fair distribution of resources, social mobility and so on. Unethical behaviour leads to scams, meltdowns, labour exploitation etc.
  5. Future generations: Ethics in society sets an example for children and youth. They observe, learn and develop values which ensures ethical behaviour on their part. This leads to a sustainable social order. For example, when young boys see women being respected within the household, they respect women in their social life as well.
  6. Environment: In present times, environment and climate are crucial concerns. Environmental ethics can ensure a clean, green and sustainable human civilization which is crucial for survival and development. For instance, basic behaviour such as not wasting water, electricity, fuel can go a long way in saving the environment.
  7. Change: Ethics of care, justice reason motivate societies to reform and bring change. This way ethics leads to a healthier society. For instance, liberal humanistic ethics in 19th century India reformed the society and curbed social ills like sati, restrictions on widow remarriage, polygamy etc.
  8. Faith: Religion and tradition are given high regard across the world. Ethical behaviour is prescribed by all religions and hence, considered important by people. It also maintains faith of people in a supreme authority (like God) and hence, sustains the social order.
  9. Healthy society: Ethical behaviour leads to right kind of behaviour by individuals which is reciprocated by others and hence it leads to a well-functioning society, as nobody is hurt by anyone. For instance, obedience to traffic rules by all individuals will lead to safe and efficient transportation and hence, benefit the society at large.

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Practice questions:

  1. What do you understand by ethics and what are its determinants? How is ethics different from values?
  2. Explain the determinants and consequences of ethics in human action with suitable examples

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