Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Am i Ethical? - Part 1

Well for all those who know me would say.."of course not". Some would add things like "You and ehtics are 2 sides of the coin. You shall never face each other". And what does part 1 mean here? Jokes apart, i was faced with this question sometime back. It all started off like this:

I and my classmate were discussing about pre marital sex. He was saying, it was not ethical and i was saying "ethics is a matter of personal choice". So, he asked me "How do you say that?. Can i be ethical to myself and non ethical to others? What about the values my parents have imparted to me. We cannot afford to do such things in our culture, can we?"

This made me think...and i realized i had a lot to write. Hence i am spliting the discussion into multiple posts. This post is just a start.

Let me first understand What is ethics?

These are some of the answers i got[from friends, folks, surfing on the internet]:

  1. A set of principles of right conduct.
  2. A theory or a system of moral values: “An ethic of service is at war with a craving for gain” (Gregg Easterbrook).

  3. The study of the general nature of morals and of the specific moral choices to be made by a person; moral philosophy.

  4. The rules or standards governing the conduct of a person or the members of a profession: e.g. Medical Ethics

What the above means is that "Ethics" refers to principles that define behavior as right/good/proper. Such principles need not always dictate a single "moral" course of action, but provide a means of evaluating and deciding among competing options. The above basically means there is nothing universal about this. I shall discuss about the universal nature of ethics later. But the question now is, are ethics and values one and the same? Well, not really.

The terms "ethics" and "values" are not the same. Ethics is concerned with how a person who has belief in some morals "should behave", whereas values are the inner judgments that determine how a person "actually behaves". Values concern ethics when they pertain to beliefs about what is right and wrong. In general, values have nothing to do with ethics.

The next issue is in understaning, how universal are my ethics and values. Most people have convictions about what is right and wrong based on religious beliefs, cultural roots, family background, personal experiences, laws, organizational values, professional norms and political habits. For instance, my friend is convicted that pre marital sex is wrong.But unfortunately, these are not the best values to make ethical decisions by — not because they are unimportant, but because they are not universal. Well then, what exactly are universal ethics? Can ethics actually be universal? It seems like there are somethings which can be considered universal.

In contrast to above items which are based on consensus, concepts like trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship can be considered universal. But there is a catch. Personal and professional beliefs on the these vary over time, among cultures and among members of the same society but the basic concept remains the same. It then leads to say that all of the universal ideas on ethics like the ones above are meant for interpretation of the individual and has nothing implicit in it which makes it universal. For instance, lets take responsibility. There is nothing implicit in responsibility that makes it universal.For instance, there is always a continuous disagreement with some of the above concepts and its universality. No, i am not saying people should not have their opinion. NEVER. There is nothing wrong with having strong personal and professional moral convictions about right and wrong, but unfortunately, some people are "moral imperialists" who seek to impose their personal moral judgments on others.And the others are either forced to accept it or choose to accept it by obligation. This by itself is a contradiction to the above principles. For instance, i may argue the following: The universal ethical value of respect for others dictates honoring the dignity and autonomy of each person and cautions against self-righteousness in areas of legitimate controversy. This basically means i do respect ethics and its universality but then including notions of "respect" but then i do not respect your opinion of not accepting my convictions and believing them. This basically leads to collision..collision of ethics and values. How to handle this?...Well i am not answering that here coz thats a seperate topic in itself. I think its better i reserve it for later.

1 comment:

Krishi said...

Interesting that I run into this article now. :-)

The more I try to understand so called morals, the simpler the conclusion is turning out. I think it's a basic survival thing - when humans realized that they need to live in social groups to survive, it became clear co-operation would be required. Co-operation means a set of rules, for example, you don't steal food hunted by another man. As humans evolved, the rules became complex, resulting in religion, morals etc. But today, these very same rules are leading to the destruction of the individual. For example, lack of assertiveness to maintain peace results in destroying one's own survivability.

Sometimes I wonder whether we should first go the very basic instincts, and then think about higher values.