The Importance of Ethics in Everyday Life
A few weeks ago, a college in Mumbai had conducted a two day workshop for its students on Ethics at the Workplace. And many interesting questions were asked by the students. One question that a student raised received a very loud and enthusiastic applause from all other fellow-students and teachers assembled at the workshop. The student said, “I value honesty and friendship. So during the exams when my close friend asks me for an answer, which of these two values should I choose? Is it unethical to help a friend who is in need of your help?” Interesting situation, isn’t it? What would your answer to this question be? Please be sure of your answer before reading the rest of this article!
This article looks at what the word ‘ethics’ means and how certain values are imbibed almost automatically and without effort by people sharing a certain community space – either geography or religion. Certain key values are taught to us in schools – don’t tell lies, for instance. So we grow up having learnt the lesson that it is wrong to lie – yet we continue to lie. Why? And if it is okay to tell some kinds of lies, why are we taught to be honest? Can anyone be truly, completely and always honest? Is honesty a relative value – meaning, what appears dishonest to me may be fair and honest to another person?
The list of questions can be unending. However, there are a few questions that must be asked so that we think about this issue called morality or ethical behaviour more seriously. Is it okay to copy in an exam? Is it okay to offer bribe money? Is it okay to carry on driving when the signal is red? If your answer to these questions is, “Well, it depends…” then we are talking of part-time ethics.
We are saying, it is okay to cheat at some times, not right at other times and not right for all people at all times. It’s not too wrong to break a signal or two occasionally – you are perhaps rushing to the airport or to the hospital and there are no vehicles around. It is okay to copy in an exam because you have studied everything except that one answer. If your admission to a college is at stake, it is okay to offer bribe money because everybody does that!
Many of us do not wish to be bothered by these difficult questions. Many of us also think that ‘these days’ it does not pay to be honest. But as young people entering into an adult world of seeking jobs and taking on multiple responsibilities, we must confront these questions head-on. Every organization looks for honest people. Every organization triumphs because of its integrity status. But from where and how do we acquire these attributes of honesty and integrity? Are these qualities something tangible that one can carry to the work place and leave behind the minute one enters home? Can a person go to a place of worship and offer money to the gods saying this is clean money – this is not part of my black money?
Psychologists say children cannot be taught values; they merely pick them up. You hear your parents speaking on the phone telling the listener at the other end that they are busy today. And then you see your parents relaxing at home watching a cricket match. You have learnt your lesson – it is okay to tell lies sometimes. For all that we may have been taught at school and at home, this is the lesson that remains with us. You go to a temple and see a long queue of devotees waiting for hours and you also see another short queue that moves faster. You learn that if you have the money, you can move ahead too. This is how we pick our values – from what we see around us and not from what we are taught.
And so, here’s the message. Increasingly, we will only see the unethical around us. Recently, in Bihar, parents stormed into a school that did not let its children copy in an exam. If many students resort to copying in an exam, soon copying will become the norm and no one will be able to see any wrong in it at all.
If we are to understand the significance of these words – ‘ethical behavior’ – we must know for sure that ethical values are permanent and absolute. Telling lies is wrong. Cheating is wrong. No two ways about this. No matter what the provocation or the justification or the intention behind the act. As we start thinking of ways in which we can contribute to our society, we must first learn to erase this concept of part-time ethics. Brutal honesty or nothing at all – that is what ethical values mean. Terms like personal ethics, private ethics, public morality, corporate ethics, journalistic ethics, and medical ethics may mislead people into believing that there are different kinds of ethical positions available. Whether medical or legal or corporate or whatever – what we need to know is that the fundamentals are the same – brutal honesty.
To answer the student who raised that question about helping a friend during the exams – one of the panelists said – if your friendship breaks because you did not help the person cheat, then that friendship is not worth it. Now that’s the right answer. Based on your answer, you can mark your score on a scale of one to five where one is wrong and five is right and all other scores in between are useless. So, what was your answer? Is this easier said than done – sticking to a value so strongly? No, start the process today. No matter where we are in life, no matter how negligible our achievements, we would have created an ‘ethical’ society. If you think copying in an exam is fun and not to be taken too seriously, can we trust our doctors who may not know the right answers? For every ethical question there is only one answer.
Another student at the workshop said that she entered the platform in Mumbai to board a local train and remembered that her pass had lapsed and that she had to buy a ticket. So she left the platform and walked towards the ticket counter. On her way she was stopped by the TC who wanted to see her ticket since she had come from the platform. She tried explaining to him that she was on her way to buy the ticket. The TC kept telling her that she had trespassed. She ultimately had to pay a fine. The student said that she wished she had not been honest. It was because she was honest that she had to pay the fine – had she boarded the train without a ticket, she might have not been caught at all! What’s your response to this situation? One or five?
- Dr. Meenakshi Shivram