‘Ethics’ basically means a set of principles of right conduct or a theory or a system of moral values. In this context, ‘moral’ relates to, dealing with, or capable of making the distinction between right or wrong conduct or principles, standards, habits with respect to right or wrong in conduct. ‘Values’ relates to the social principles, goals or standards held or accepted by an individual, a class, a society, etc. ‘Right’ means in accordance with fact, reason, justice, law, and morality; correct in thought and action wherein synonyms for right include correct, honest, ethical, just, true, accurate, precise, suitable, fitting, appropriate, proper. ‘Wrong’ is strictly contrary to what is mentioned above on ‘right’.
The two broad theories of ethics include ‘Deontological Ethics’ and ‘Teleological Ethics’. While the former argues that it isn’t the consequences of actions that make them right or wrong but the motives of the person who carries out the action, the latter stresses that the end results or outcomes of decisions are important. Similarly, there are western Judeo-Christian Ethics, Hindu Ethics and Islamic Ethics. While western Judeo-Christian Ethics is based on the Old Testament and New Testament and influence of the Ten Commandments, Hindu Ethics is derived from Holy Books viz; Upanishads, Bhagwat Gita, Vedas and Puranas with focus on Karma Yoga, Dharma (doing one’s duty), Moksha (spiritual liberation), control of emotions, kindness and hospitality (Athithi devobhava), speaking the truth (Satyameva Jayate) and kindliness and tolerance to all human relations. Similarly, Islamic ethics derives from Holy Books—Quran and Hadith with focus on kindness, humbleness, care for others, keeping one’s promises, honesty and fairness in one’s interactions etc.
Universal or core ethical values
The universal or core ethical values are trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship. ‘Trustworthiness’ incorporates components such as honesty, integrity, reliability and loyalty. Honesty basically means truthfulness; sincerity/non-deception; frankness. The four enemies of integrity are self-interest, self-protection, self-deception and self-righteousness. Reliability focuses on avoiding bad-faith excuses, unwise commitments and unclear commitments. Loyalty stresses on prioritising loyalties, safeguarding confidential information and avoiding conflicting interests. ‘Respect’ basically revolves on civility, courtesy and decency as also tolerance and ‘Responsibility’ means accountability, pursuit of excellence with diligence, perseverance and continuous improvement and self-restraint. While ‘fairness’ focuses on process, impartiality and equity; ‘caring’ focuses on concern for the welfare of others and causes no more harm than is reasonably necessary. ‘Citizenship’ focuses on moulding behaviour as part of a community as also volunteerism.
‘Ethics’ in technological era
The world is witnessing a technological leap which replaces and disrupts existing technology (disrupting technology) with the adoption of high-end application to software, hardware and combined technologies. This technology has the potential to affect development both positively and negatively, with new cutting-edge solutions for achieving prosperity as also poverty reduction. Disruptive technologies are already designing the pattern of how the goods and services are devised, marketed and reach the ultimate consumers, with wide ranging effects on the working and chemistry of the world economy. Their diffusion is indeed unprecedented which has far-reaching implications on business pattern and competitiveness, its ethical aspects as also growth in productivity. Thus, personal ethics and professional ethics are key for global advancement especially in the tech era.
The principles of personal ethics are concern for the well-being of others, respect for the autonomy of others, trustworthiness and honesty, willing compliance with the law (with the exception of civil disobedience), basic justice; being fair and refusing to take unfair advantage, benevolence: doing good and preventing harm. The principles of professional ethics are impartiality; objectivity, openness; full disclosure, confidentiality, due diligence/duty of care, fidelity to professional responsibilities, and avoiding potential or apparent conflict of interest.
On-the-Job ethical conflicts include conflict of interest issues, loyalty versus truth, honesty and integrity and whistle-blowing which may have wide significance in the tech era. The conflict of interest basically questions whether a leader achieves personal gain from a decision he/she makes. The loyalty versus truth conflict focuses on whether leaders must decide between loyalty to the company and truthfulness in business relationships.
As far as honesty and integrity is concerned, the question is whether a leader must decide if he/she will be honest or lie; if he/she will take responsibility for decisions and actions or blame someone else. The whistle-blowing focuses on whether the leader tells others (media or government authorities) about the unethical behaviour of the company or institution?
Globally, as far as organisations are concerned, they are very self-protective—the number-one rule is, “Don’t embarrass the organisation”. They tend to cover up or start a misinformation campaign and whistleblowers are often treated very badly and vindictively. Whistleblower protection is limited or non-existent in many countries. In this context, courage and moral conviction is needed to be a whistle-blower and fault colleagues and friends. Famous whistle-blowers include—Daniel Ellsberg (Pentagon Papers), Mark Felt (Deep Throat), Sherron Watkins (Enron), and Satyendra Dubey (NHAI).
There are also higher ethical principles. India stands outstanding in this context on the right to human dignity and justice. Abolition of Sati, widow re-marriage, abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, campaign against child labour, eradication of the caste system, environment protection and Rule of law (torture, illegal custody, fair trial) are few examples implemented in India in this regard.
Thus, the ethical practice in everyday life to be essentially adopted in the technological era may include understanding ethical and moral principles, recognizing the ethical context and alternatives to the situation, applying normative principles in decision making process consistently in all situations- public, private and personal; evaluating decisions after they have been made. Review if the decision could have been better, practice till ethical decision making gets internalised. Ethical principles will appear intuitive.
The author serves as Civil Servant at Indian Ministry of Finance. Views are personal.
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