Defining Ethics in a Changing Society[dagger]

Article excerpt

Ladies and Gentlemen,

This is a moment of great personal emotion as well as honor and pride for me. The moment is emotional because Yasaswy was among my closest friends for the last three decades. Together we had spent many a holiday and enjoyed many a dinner. In the last few years, there was hardly a fortnight when we did not meet over a quiet evening. My wife and I always looked forward to spending time with Yasaswy and his family. An evening with Yasaswy was like reading a good book or two. With his quick silver mind, Yasaswy, a great scholar and a great conversationalist, could keep us spellbound for hours. His many achievements in themselves are impressive, not the least of which is the ICFAI legacy. But even more impressive was his deep and rare scholarship and his insights into life's larger questions.

And that's the reason why I consider it an honor to have been chosen to deliver the first memorial lecture in his remembrance. Thank you IBS for this honor.

I have chosen to speak about ethics in a changing society, because though as adults, most of us are aware that certain core values of ethics are probably time- independent and in that sense more or less absolute, at a time when the morals and value-systems are changing in society, youth in the country is bound to wonder whether the principles we use to evaluate people's behavior as right or wrong, or what we call as ethics, really remain unchanged in a changing society. Or do they change as a society undergoes changes? Do ethical values differ for different societies at a given point in time? Is morality the same as ethics? Who decides what ethical conduct is for me? Can a society become more or less ethical over a period of time?

However, I have no intention of making this an academic discourse. I merely intend to share my own musings on these questions in the hope that the subject will generate some interest among the youth, especially at a time when corruption stands at the center stage of the country.

When we speak of ethics, we speak of our innate ability to distinguish the right behavior from the wrong. Even without learning a formal definition of ethics, we learn very early in life that:

To speak the truth is good, and to lie is bad

To save a life is good, and to kill is bad

Honesty is good, and dishonesty is bad

Integrity is good, and cheating or bribing is bad

To help is good, and to harm is bad

To stand up for ethical behavior is right, and not standing up is bad.

Clearly, ethical norms are so obvious that we are often tempted to think of them as basic commonsense.

Very early in life we learn to think of these values as ethical values. Come to think of it, these are the very same values that we, our parents and their parents were told in school to uphold; and these are also the values our kids and their kids in school will be told to uphold.

If so, prima facie it does appear that certain core values of ethics are fairly absolute and hardly likely to change over time, though of course, there may be some aspects of ethics that could vary in a small degree, especially over long periods of time. Similarly, this core also seems to apply to most societies at any point of time, though there may be some small variations on certain select aspects of ethics across societies.

In other words, it would appear that for a large part, ethics is both temporally as well as spatially unchanging; or if it changes at all, the change must be rather slow. But largely speaking, we can't think of any civilized society where values like truth, integrity, honesty, etc. are not considered the right ethical values to embrace.

And yet, even as children, we quickly realize that notwithstanding what we are taught at home and school, adults do not always behave in accordance with these rules. They do not always tell the truth. They often kill. Newspapers, for instance, are full of killings. They are frequently dishonest. …