My System of Ethics

Why is it important to analyze the basis of ethical principles?

Simply because, our ethical principles determine how we deal with others, what we conclude, how we judge, what we speak, what we do, and what we become. Each word we speak and act we commit is an exercise in ethics.

There is a lot of worthy debate as to what is the source of ethics? Is it some authority (religious, philosophical, elders of the family and society) or is it the individual? Are the terms of ethics modifiable with time and circumstance? I’ve opined in one of my previous blogs that ethics should not base itself in authority.

One of the strongest (and most worthiest of consideration) objections expressed against this position is the opportunistic use of such ethics, more specifically, not following it or modifying its terms when it comes in way of satisfying one’s self centered desires even by harming others in the process.

I would be stupid if I disregard this contention for I’ve seen such opportunistic application of ethics too many times.

I’ve always possessed a strong sense (as in without too many predicaments) decisiveness in matters of ethical principles. I’ll restrict the scope of this post only to bases of my ethics for I too was curious about them! But to discover them, it did require some mental excavation–it was buried real deep!

A simple example: I’d be ashamed of stealing something even if no one would notice me doing that. The simple reason for this? I dislike anyone who steals something (undeserved, obviously!) from others. So, would I like to hate myself? If I steal, the only obvious consequence is hating myself, provided I keep my honesty and objectivity intact. Same holds true for all other virtues–being truthful, helpful to those deserving, courteous, courageous, etc. Every instance I depart from any of above virtues would leave me with contempt for myself. I could of course, somehow rationalize my act or take solace in the fact that no one noticed it, but what would happen to my peace of mind? If I lie to myself, think of the consequences. I’m lying (I’m a liar); I’m believing that lie in spite of having best knowledge of the truth (I’m stupid!), and the one lying and one believing that blatant lie is the same person–so I’m both a liar and am stupid!

Well unfortunately, I know issue does not resolve there itself! One could very appropriately ask, what would make me detest an act of stealing? The fact that I won’t like being robbed. If I’ve to judge an act with utmost fairness, it’s solely the act that has to be judged irrespective of the ‘commit-er’ and the subject of that act. Meaning, stealing is equally bad even if one stealing is my family member/friend/myself(!), and even when the one robbed off is some else(!), and not necessarily me! It indeed is a very useful maxim that what I’d not like done to me is bad, irrespective of who it is done by and on whom. Of course, this could beget further question (do questions not believe in family planning!)–why do I not like being robbed? Well, I give up! I don’t have all the answers! If I dig deeper in the valleys of my mind, I think I’d find that elusive answer, but this much exercise is enough for one day. Already my mental muscles are feeling sore.

This all seems very straightforward, but an honest introspection would tell how frequently we depart from this maxim. It’s not very rare to find a hurt friend ruing, “He’d always been so nice. I don’t know how he suddenly turned such a rascal!” Do I need to add that that’s just the “subjective” assessment. The objective assessment would be, “All this while, I’d ignored his misdeeds. I’d enjoyed how he used to insult others. And then he hadn’t insulted me ever. I thought I was special, ‘cuz I wanted to think I was special. Today, just suddenly I was no more important to him, and hence the treatment I got.” How often have we been this objective in our analyses of events and people?

I’ve up till now stressed only on acts of omission (how “not to” commit bad acts). I’ve not talked about the acts of commission (committing noble deeds). Just like in the above example of despising one committing a bad act, I’d respect one committing acts that impressed me. I’d like to be associated with those acts. That would be my driving force to emulate them.

Lo and behold! What a cute little baby-question we have! What makes an act noble?

This one is indeed difficult to answer. Any act has certain driving forces and certain deterring forces. What forces does one give into and what deterring forces one overcomes, while deciding to commit and act determine its nobility. If I’m overcoming fear (a weakness), then the act has something admirable. If I’m overcoming my guilt of inflicting pain (without giving anything desired by the subject), in well, inflicting pain, then my act is ignoble. If jealousy is the driving force of my act, it’s inclining towards unethcical. If empathy or compassion drives me to help someone, then my act could be justified. (I know I’m accumulating grand-grand-grand baby questions).

What makes jealousy and inflicting pain bad? And what makes compassion and overcoming fear admirable?

The answer is I’m unlikely to like dealings with me that are driven by jealousy, and of course I won’t like pain (masochi…you immoral morality-grass hopper; jumping to conclusions?) inflicted upon me. I’d really appreciate when helped in time of need, and the fact that not all can overcome fears of all types at all times, makes it admirable (maybe).

The bottom line is if after this much elaborate (by my standards, of course) exposition of my basis of ethics, if someone is not ready to trust me with my decision-making based on this system of ethics, I really can’t help it. I can’t answer why others don’t follow this system of ethics, seriously. I wish I could, but then the unfortunate fact is I can’t. I do have more answers to more potential questions. They may have some philosophic glitches, too, and some ambiguity about when best to apply a certain ethical principle, but I still find this system of well scrutinized ethics more reassuring than “‘cuz someone said so”.

30 thoughts on “My System of Ethics

  1. Bang! On the nail’s head! Morality has got to do more with an act, than its result, the cause, and not the consequence. Tricky idea this, though. Often an not so appreciable act (attributable to a wide variety of reasons – ignorance, obsession with another idea) may also result in a appreciable result. Then in hindsight, the act may become admirable. (just sharing my personal experiences)

    Bottom Line – What I wouldn’t do to myself, I should not do to others. What I wouldn’t like to experience, I shouldn’t want others to experience (rationally speaking; ‘I don’t want rain,, oh lord, don’t give em, those parched souls, that’ = is plain hypocrisy, of a different kind, and not morality)

  2. So it would seem from all that, that you base “what is good” on what you would or wouldn’t want done to you. I don’t see that as all wrong, because Jesus said we should love others the same as we love ourself. So using ourselves as a measurement is sound to an extent. The thing is that preceding that statement, Jesus said that we are to love God. So the way we are able to love others the way we love ourselves is to have God at the top of the love chain. God is still the ultimate source of good. It is because we are made in His image that we have in ourselves a moral compass.

    We can say the standard is ourselves. To treat others as we want to be treated, the golden rule. But what makes us know in ourselves what is the right and wrong way to be treated? Is it how it makes us feel? Because some actions in the wrong context can still make us feel good in the moment, but leave us bereft in the end.

    Also, why “ought” we to care to do to others as we would like to be treated? What if doing that which we would think is the right way to be treated infringes on our own well being? Why do we have this desire to do what is right for others? Where does that come from?

    Also what of those who have endured abuse who think that that is normal and therefore treat another that way as well. Are they wrong to do so? Or is there something else outside of our own moral compass that gives meaning to what is good? If someone who steals doesn’t have a problem with being stolen from and sees that as the way of life, does that then absolve them from responsibility?

  3. Karla,

    The way I ended the post made it adequately clear that I’ve not considered my moral system to be PERFECT. And I’ve admitted that only because I’ve not analyzed the moral system I follow in much greater details. I might follow what Jesus said but ONLY after I find it right and rational and fitting with my conscience. And likewise, I might reject some of his propositions if I find them not worthy of following. If I tell you that the capital of the US is Washington D.C. and capital of India is London, you don’t have to believe the second statement only because the first one was correct. And more important, there’d be nothing wrong in trying to recall from your memory, or in consulting an encyclopedia or atlas to confirm my statements. In simple words, I don’t have to agree with and BLINDLY follow anything said by any other persons, especially, if I’m possession of same resources as to verify (encyclopedia for general knowledge and my mind for moral issues).

    And moreover, the idea that those things are ‘bad’, which I won’t like done to me–had entered my mind when I was ten–on my own–with some introspection, when I’d not heard of any of Jesus’ ideas. Ancient Greek philosophers had concluded the same thing about what’s wrong long before Christ was born, and had any chance of instilling this concept into minds of those ancient Greek philosophers.


  4. Saimukundan,

    Thanks for responding. I agree with everything you say, and even I’ve had similar experiences. Only an unrelated issue–the word ‘appreciate’ can mean ‘to notice and acknowledge something, especially a fact or a situation’. And likewise, ‘appreciable’ can mean something that can be noticed. I prefer using ‘praiseworthy’ instead.


  5. Ketan, I don’t expect anyone to believe anything blindly. I have this thing about not wanting people to accept a conclusion in a way that is not logical to arrive at it. For instance I wouldn’t want someone to say that Washington DC is the capital of the United States because they like it, or feel it should be, or because their parents told them it was. I want them to know that it is indeed the capital. Agreeing on the conclusion doesn’t necessarily lead one to truth if they got there in a faulty manner.

    Also a moral compass/ conscious would be evident in all people if God put it there, and not just in those who learned what is right from Jesus. It would be in who we are and would be self-evident. Actually agreeing that we can know right from wrong universally does correspond logically with the Christian worldview.

  6. I do not find it untenable that morality got naturally selected by the concept of survival of the fittest species. A tribe, the members of which would be immoral (fight, maim each other and rather spend their time on destructive purposes) would have died out without producing adequate babies. The realization of immorality (stupidity of their acts) would dawn on them with simple logic that it’s better to cooperate than compete.

    You didn’t answer my doubt as to what was the source of morality in Greek philosophers born BEFORE Christ?


  7. Ketan, have you read the God Delusion by Richard Dawkins? There Dawkins tries to answer this question from a genetic and evolution point of view. he also tries to answer the question – if there is no God why should we be good? It’s a good place to start/

    But I commend you on your sincerity and introspection – on your search for answers to these questions. I think individual morality does come from one’s conscience (as you have pointed out) but what is the basis of that conscience. Why do we feel bad if we lie or steal? What governs that self-image we have? I believe that some of it has its roots in our genetic makeup – viz. compassion for others- may have its roots there but there is also the effect of society and our need to co-exist.

    While there is no such thing as universal or absolute morality and everyone fashions his/her moral code (irrespective of what religion teaches and what theists claim). I think morality for the most part has it’s foundations in a co-operative society. It has it’s roots in the agreed upon rules by people living in a society and is something which needs to be followed by people living in that society.

    If tomorrow a person comes and steals something from me or kills someone, it doesn’t mean he/she is immoral in an absolute sense. He/she is immoral in a relativistic sense. He/she is immoral and guilty from the perspective of the agreed upon rules of society.
    In fact, that also means that if majority of people decide to create a law based on the moral beliefs of the majority which may be against our own moral beliefs. That’s too bad. According to those rules we are immoral and there’s nothing much we can do other than create awareness (gay marriage is a good example ) about it and form a critical mass to win over the majority. However, as long as the majority feels otherwise, that act will continue to be considered immoral irrespective of what we think about it. (e.g many people in the US do not consider consuming or farming marijuana immoral – which if you look scientifically isn’t because it’s just another natural plant – but as long as the majority doesn’t think likewise it will continue to considered immoral/illegal )

    Anyway there’s much that can be said about morality so I will just leave it here.

  8. Hi!

    Thanks Nitwit for taking your time, and commenting in most insightful fashion.

    I’ve read a lot about The God Delusion and The Selfish Gene, but never read them. Didn’t get time 🙂

    I’d discussed in this post only from an intensely personal perspective (say, the psychological basis), so I didn’t include an evolutionary basis.

    For instance, I wouldn’t hurl a stone at some pup or kitten, not because I’d think of all the evolutionary explanations for it, but I just wouldn’t feel right. I was trying to introspect the basis for the instinct of ‘not feeling right’. Here, the neurological reason is release of a hormone called oxytocin on seeing a face with big, round eyes, and a peculiar eat distribution (oxytocin is responsible for nurturing behavior in both males and females of many animals, and increases particularly after child birth).

    We’ve to follow too many rules set by a majority or some other kind of authority, but I wouldn’t feel the same breaking some of them (say maintaining silence in a library), as the guilt I’d feel after saying something hurtful to my friend.

    I’d concluded one thing about society and quote it here verbatim: ‘Majority’s are the amplified views of select influential manipulative few’, so that’s one of the drawbacks of deciding anything by majority. But I don’t seem to have any way to counter it except to make people introspect and think and not be awed by charisma of any influential element in the society, so as to allow hijacking of their moral compass.

    Thanks again, and take care.

  9. Ketan asked “You didn’t answer my doubt as to what was the source of morality in Greek philosophers born BEFORE Christ?”

    The same source, God. I am not arguing one must believe in God to have moral understanding, but that our moral understanding is inherent in our being and thus we universally have a “moral ought” whether or not we agree on those particulars of what “ought” to be or not. We still all operate in a moral construct.

  10. @ketan

    I agree with you. The way our moral values are decided by the majority may not be perfect but that is how it happens. And I would still consider it better than being told by a priest or king what moral standards to follow .

    Btw ketan, I have often observed that people using IE find it difficult to comment when using this type of comment text box in blogspot (There are quite a few blogs where people complained having the same problem although I don’t know why). I have to use firefox to comment so if others are also having problems commenting you may want to look into it or use some other type of commenting text box.


    So you do agree that there was this concept of morality before Jesus Christ and people do not need Christianity to be moral.

    Thanks for the honesty !!

  11. @ Nitwit,

    I’ll look into the comments-interface. I just thought this might be more convenient for others to comment. As I told Karla, I usually don’t have any problems abiding most of the rules/conventions/etiquette of the society. I was just trying to point out the nature of process through which the views of majority are formed. Is it any suprise then that majority’s views are a composite of some priest or politician or the other? I’d be most satisfied when my and society’s moral principles are overlapping, but where they differ, I’ll try to make out if my actions are actually hurting/harming anyone else. If they’re not affecting others, or less than they’re affecting me, I’d take a decision I’m inclined to take.

    @ Karla,

    If the same God has instilled morality in every person, why there’s so much variation in everyone’s ‘moral ought’?

    I want to ask you one more question: what does any religious scripture say EXACTLY about using injection for vaccinating infants? Please try to be precise while answering this particular question, as in should we use a needled syringe to administer vaccines–yes or no, and why “yes” or “no”?


  12. Ketan, I am only familiar with the Bible, but I have never read any prohibition of vaccinations or injections of medicine in a child or an adult.

    And as for why their is variation is because we aren’t perfect and we mix what we want to be right with what is right and there are a lot of variables. But we all have a moral “ought” paradigm–except maybe someone who has a serious mental problem and is completely divorced from reality.

  13. Karla, assuming that most of the kids experience while injecting them with vaccines, and they also cry during the process confirming our assumption, what do you think Jesus and/or scriptures would have said about the morality of vaccinating thus?

  14. I don’t think pain is an indicator of immorality, maybe of the fall and the corrupted nature, but not of a particular act being wrong. It is painful to give birth to a child, but it certainly isn’t immoral to do so.

  15. The reason I asked you about that question on vaccinating was because I wanted to demonstrate to you that no scriptures say anything about injections (which cause some degree of pain), but whatever be your take on the act, it would be your own discretion/judgement. Likewise, for most issues in life, we eventualy use our judgement only, just that some feel inclined to also have it endorsed by some exalted authority, too. Likewise, no scripture says that it’s good to use contraception for birth control for simple reason that there were no ways to achieve contraception when they were being written, but still no one considers it immoral in greatly religious country like India to use contraceptive pills. Isn’t this personal discretion. In fact, the way India’s infrastructure stands it’s indeed sinful to produce too many babies. Using one’s judgement in matters of morality is never going to be redundant, but trying to pin our morality to some immutable source most certainly is, and even, potentially detrimental.


  16. Indeed. I never claimed that the Bible gives us an exhaustive code of morality and ethics. It does not.

    Morality isn’t cut and dry in our ability to do what is right. There is a lot of subjectivity.

    What I am saying is that all people have what Francis Schaefer calls “moral motions” what I call “the moral ought” we all have this understanding that there is a good a right that we ought to follow. We don’t succeed at perfectly following our own ideas of what that means for our lives nor the ideas of our society nor the revealed moral precepts of Scripture. But we all know regardless of particulars that there is a good and a right and yet we feel a struggle to attain it even in our own estimations of what it is. Moreover we struggle even to know what that good and right is.

    Do you agree with this?

  17. Yes Karla,

    Indeed, we struggle to know what’s moral, and more so, strive to execute what we consider moral. And hence morality is a dynamic faculty. It rests with the individual to whom the struggle and the searching for the balance belong. And even after that struggle, your and my judgements might turn out to be different. We might be uncomfortable or dissatisfied while taking some moral decisions, but then can we suspend the process of decision-making? If I’d be provided with an absolute code of ethics, there’d be no struggle or predicaments, but neither would that be my morality. And more important there’d be no way to determine if that system of principles would be the best for me and/or me, unless and until I apply I apply my own mind to it. Additionally, I’d have to struggle to determine who should prescribe the moral principles I ought to follow. Where does then an external agency figure in determining what’s moral or immoral? More so, an agency of a kind that won’t tell me the basis for what’s adjudged as moral, and what as otherwise?

    Just as an aside, you might find my two recent blogs–‘A Moral Brainteaser’ and ‘Futuristic!’ interesting.


  18. I wrote something up regarding this subject that will post to my blog on Thursday. I’ll check out your other posts.

    However, I do not think that the good is rooted in our own selves but in an external source.

  19. sorry had to speed read..

    first of all, i think its funny when we have to give reasons or even think of reasons for doing the “right” thing..
    where have we come ..when we have to justify, trying to follow the “rules”

    i am an oldie, i feel in the last decade things have really changed..
    now parents dont think its wrong if the child cheats in an exam and oh i could just go on..
    look at the ads, how many teach the kids to lie steal abuse and disrespect authorities for wasnt like that earlier..i think:)

    now its ok to watch a pirated cd or xerox without bothering about copyright..its ok to watch porn, even if its just an extension of prostitution or if its without the consent of the participants..a new mms scandal? and there are parents who are impressed with their children’s hacking abilities..

    technology makes it easier, but i think in general we have changed the terms of morality to “its ok if i feel good about it” from i feel good so i am being moral..

    ps : will catch up on the post again and read it in detail..
    now i have to catch my son

  20. Hello, WDM!

    I’m not sure, if you came back to read this post!

    The point of this post was to not justify doing right things, but to make out the reasons behind our thinking/assuming them to be right in the first place.

    In my opinion, an act is never right or wrong in absolute terms. It is the intentions and context that determine their moral value.

    If in a communal riot, a mob comes asks you about the location of someone of the ‘other’ religion with the intent of killing him, there’d be nothing wrong, in my opinion, in your ‘lying’–“I don’t know. I’ve not seen anyone of that religion hiding anywhere nearby.”

    There’s something you have pointed, and in response to that, I want to ask you a few questions.

    Copying in the exams is wrong.

    I agree with you, but want to show you another aspect of the situation.

    What made you conclude copying in exams is wrong?

    I’ll try to point out the set of assumptions that go behind establishing such moral criteria.

    1. Classroom education and school books make students better human beings and professionals. In my experience, this assumption is far from reality, maybe, except in few cases….

  21. 2. Exams test a student’s standing with regard to their accomplishments in their chosen field of study. This enables prospective employers to understand the worth of the candidate. So, if a student performs well in exams, he/she will be a more efficient and productive employee than the one scoring less. Do I need to even try to contradict this assumption? Why does a student gifted in mathematics have to prove his proficiency in Hindi?

    Forget that, if I’ve heard it correctly Einstein was flunked in mathematics! Thomas Alva Edison was termed useless by his teachers.

    Robert Millikan, had studied Greek classics. But only out of his interest and prodding by his Greek professor, he had learned physics, and by a series of ingenious experiments, determined the electric charge of electron. He’d won a Nobel Prize in physics!

    In light of these facts, is a child who does badly in our current exam system a ‘failure’?

    Have you watched ‘Taare zameen par’? You know, though it is a fictitious movie, I have literally lived that movie. My class teacher in class fourth had suspected me to be mentally retarded! Why? ‘cuz I wouldn’t do my class work, wouldn’t do my homework, wouldn’t talk to other students much, wouldn’t answer in the class, and do badly in the exams. I don’t want to sound sensational, but you know truly, I feel, I’ve never really been a child. I used to be under that much stress out of fear of my parents….

  22. …And, back then, to keep it simple I was not mentally retarded.

    I might blog about it someday.

    But what’s the value of such education and exam system?

    3. When a student does not copy in the exam, he/she ‘knows’ what they’re writing.

    This is the crappiest of assumptions.

    What’s so great about a student memorizing essays from guide books on topics like ‘My best friend’, ‘what would I do on becoming the PM of country’, and even ‘honesty is the best policy’?!! Can you imagine! And then, these students ‘top’ the exams!

    My parents used to ask me to solve previous years’ question papers as questions would get repeated from them, and I never used to do that, and they always used to think it to be my laziness. But you know, why I never really did that? ‘cuz I considered it tantamount to leaking a paper! What’s the difference? When one leaks the paper, one knows absolutely for sure that those questions would come in the exam. When one sees old paper, one is pretty sure, some of it will come. Is then being able to answer a question in exam only because you’d know it beforehand amount to ‘knowledge’?

    I’ve been foolish all my life to be thinking on all these terms. But you know nobody considers me more moral than those toppers who’d topped without ‘copying’ or ‘leaking’ papers.

    How is reproducing a memorized answer without understanding it any different from reproducing an answer by copying it without understanding it?…

  23. …Have you noticed some of the students do not concentrate on studies, not because they are unintelligent or they cannot become good employees/human beings, but simply because this kind of education doesn’t stimulate/challenge them enough!

    I’m not at all advocating copying and leaking of papers, but simply trying to point out that the very bases on which not doing them in the current education/exam-system are faulty! These standards allow for a different kind of immorality to exist, and still pass of as academic brilliance! Is that fair? Is that ‘moral’?

    I only want to try to point out that on deeper analysis, we might realize that established standards of morality might go against logic and even conscience.

    For instance, please do go through and respond with your ideas on the following post. You would also find the various arguments interesting! And what you’d find even more interesting is that by poll result, people were significantly divided over what constituted moral in the given scenario!

    A moral brainteaser (click)

    And I do agree with most of the rest that you’d to say in the post. 🙂

    But where I might disagree for instance, would be in buying a pirated copy of a book written largely as an outcome of plagiarism! 😉

    And I’m sure, your son is going to make you an even more expert multi-tasker! 🙂

    TC, and thanks for responding!

  24. For most people; morality is a relative subject isn’t it? Let me take a strong example. Adultery. I have read so many reports on papers where the participating people claim “It is OK to be in a relationship outside marriage unless its not known to the spouse”

    Have such people re-written what morality is? Yes!!! Its opportunistic; selfishness

    Anything is OK as long as I feel good!!

  25. Oops. that statement was not to hint me – “Anything is OK as long as I feel good!!”

    I was talking about people’s attitude; me included sometimes as well 😛

  26. Insignia,


    One of the purposes of this post was to try to pick out a rational basis for my wanting to be moral.

    Adultery is a complex subject!

    Yes, I would consider it wrong to indulge in adultery even if my spouse wouldn’t know. But a more pertinent question I’d be forced to ask myself is, why would I feel inclined to have an affair outside the marriage? I would try to make out if my marriage would’ve outlived its utility to be seeking relationship elsewhere!

    But it’s really interesting to see what the Indian Penal Code has to say about adultery!

    Section 497 (click)


  27. @bharkhadatta mentioned about this blog on twitter just now. Just browsed through this page. Seems appealing and your thinking seems going parallel to my beliefs. Simply bookmarking it in the hope to read it when I can concentrate on reading.



  28. Pingback: My first tag! « Neglected Serendipity

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