Ethics, Morals and Values

According to Charles Colson, “Morality describes what is, whereas Ethics describes what ought to be”. Fundamentally, morals refer to a set of rules defining what is considered to be right or wrong and accepted without questions. These rules are typically defined by society. If someone breaks such a rule then he is typically considered to have been “bad” or “immoral.”

Values, on the other hand, provide direction in the determination of right versus wrong or good versus bad. Values are what an individual believes to have worth and importance or to be valuable. As such, morals are values defining right from wrong or good from bad.

Ethics refers to the “moral character of an individual”. The Greeks believed that it includes an emphasis on an individual’s character as well as national character of a citizen as a component of a greater community.

Derived from Latin word moralis, meaning “traditional customs”Derived from the Greek word, ethos, meaning moral character
Typically associated with personal behaviourTypically refers to professional practices and behaviour
Customs or manners practiced in any given community or cultureConveys sense of stability/permanence
May be different from culture to cultureAn absolute standard of behaviour
May change as acceptable social behaviour in the culture changesStandard is universal and immutable (not subject to change)

A lawyer may find murder immoral, according to his personal moral code. However, ethics require that lawyer must defend their accused client to the best of their ability, even knowing their client is most likely guilty and that his acquittal could potentially result in additional crime. If lawyer begins to question his ability to adhere to these ethical principles then he must remove themselves from the practice, else he is damaging the ethics of this profession. This is a fundamental concept within our public service system that ethics must trump personal morals for the greater good of maintaining the integrity of a system.


  • Argument from Enlightened Self-Interest – It is generally better to be good rather than bad and to create a world and society that is good rather than a bad one. As a matter of fact, self-interest is the sole basis of ethical egoism. It doesn’t mean that one ought to pursue one’s own self-interest, rather, if everyone tried to do and be good and tried to avoid and prevent bad, it would be in everyone’s self-interest. For example, if within a group of people no one killed, stole, lied or cheated then each member of the group would benefit.
  • Argument from Tradition and Law – Since traditions and laws have governed the behaviour of human beings over the years and urge human beings to be moral rather than immoral. There are good reasons for being so. Self-interest is one reason, but another is respect for the human thought and effort that has gone into establishing such laws and traditions and transferring them across generations over the years.

Common Human Needs – Examination of human nature reveals that all human beings have many needs, desires, goals and objectives in common. For example, people generally seem to need friendship, love, happiness, freedom in their lives, not only for themselves but for others too. Thus, in order to satisfy these needs, people must establish and follow moral principles that encourage them to cooperate with one another.

Ethics and Values: Western Debates (We will discuss this aspect in detail in the section of Western Moral thinkers)

Ethics deals with questions concerning the nature of value in matters of human conduct. There have been several philosophical perspectives on ethics and values which explain the nature of such judgments, provide criteria for determining what is ethically right or wrong and analyse the grounds or reasons for holding them to be correct. Some of them are as follows;

  • Socrates – He asserted that people will naturally do what is good provided they know what is right and that bad actions are purely the result of ignorance. “There is only one good – knowledge and one evil – ignorance”. He equated knowledge and wisdom with self-awareness, virtue and happiness. He considered self-knowledge and self-awareness to be the essential good because the truly wise person will know what is right, do what is good and therefore be happy. He thought that virtue is something that can be known and that the virtuous person (one who knows what virtue is) will necessarily act virtuously.
  • Plato – He maintained that true knowledge consists not in knowing particular things but in knowing something general that is common to all the particular casese. one does not know what goodness is unless one can give such a general account. But what is it that one knows when one knows this general idea of goodness? Plato’s answer is that one knows the Form of the Good, a perfect, eternal, and changeless entity existing outside space and time, in which particular good things share or participate, insofar as they are good.

According to Plato, justice exists in the individual when the three elements of the soulintellect, emotion and desireact in harmony with each other. The unjust person lives in an unsatisfactory state of internal discord, trying always to overcome the discomfort of unsatisfied desire but never achieving anything better than the mere absence of want. The soul of the just person, on the other hand, is harmoniously ordered under the governance of reason and the just person derives truly satisfying enjoyment from the pursuit of knowledge.

  • Aristotle – He holds that the life of virtue is rewarding for the virtuous as well as beneficial for the community. For him, the highest and most satisfying form of human existence involves the exercise of one’s rational faculties to the fullest extent. The concept of ethics and ethical behaviour is very much influenced by Aristotle´s distinction between virtues and vices. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle defined a virtue as a balance point between a deficiency and an excess of a trait.

According to Aristotle, “Nature does nothing in vain”. It is only when a person acts in accordance with his nature then only he realizes his full potential. He held that self-realization, the awareness of one’s nature and the development of one’s talents, is the surest path to happiness, which is the ultimate goal, all other things (such as civic life or wealth) being merely means to an end.

He encouraged moderation in all things, the extremes being degraded and immoral, (e.g. courage is the moderate virtue between the extremes of cowardice and recklessness), and held that Man should not simply live, but live well with conduct governed by moderate virtue. Virtue, according to him, denotes doing the right thing to the right person at the right time to the proper extent in the correct fashion and for the right reason.

  • Jeremy Bentham – He held that nature has placed human beings under two masters – pleasure and pain. Anything that seems good must be either directly pleasurable or thought to be a means to pleasure or to the avoidance of pain. Conversely, anything that seems bad must be either directly painful or thought to be a means to pain or to the deprivation of pleasure. From this Bentham argued that the words right and wrong can be meaningful only if they are used in accordance with the utilitarian principlee. whatever increases the net surplus of pleasure over pain is right and whatever decreases it is wrong.
  • John Stuart Mill – In his essay “Utilitarianism”, he introduced several modifications to Bentham views on pleasure and pain. Although his position was based on the maximization of happiness but he distinguished between pleasures that are higher and those that are lower in quality. Mill sought to show that utilitarianism is compatible with moral rules and principles relating to justice, honesty, and truthfulness.
  • Rousseau – He was the proponent of rule by the “general will.” For Rousseau, the general will is not the sum of all the individual wills in the community but the true common will of all the citizens. Even if a person dislikes and opposes decision carried by the majority that decision represents the general will or the common will.
  • Immanuel Kant – He doubted whether simple distinctions between good virtues and bad vices make sense. For him, most virtues and vices are highly ambivalent and should always be judged in a specific context and whether (or not) they would serve a moral principle. Kant insisted that actions resulting from desires cannot be free which is found only in rational action. Rational action cannot be based on an individual’s personal desires but must be in accordance with a universal law. Kant’s most distinctive contribution to ethics was his insistence that one’s actions possess moral worth only when one does his duty for its own sake.

Ethics and Values: Indian Context (We will discuss this aspect in detail in the section of Indian Moral thinkers)

In the Indian context, there is a rich heritage of religious influences on ethics and moral values. The ancient texts have emphasized the importance of ethics and moral values in governance. In ancient India there are two broad sources of ethical exhortations in the Indian tradition – Veda texts and the epic texts (Ramayana and the Mahabharata). Both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata contain explicit instances elaborating on right conduct for civil servants.


Chiefly ministers ought to be honest, faithful, intelligent and well versed in secular and sacred law, willing to offer advice, bold, free of jealousies towards each other and allied to their political masters (i.e. King). Maharishi Valmiki has underscored a very basic principle of governance in simple words – Yatha Raja Tatha Praja (As the ruler does, so do the citizens of his country). The general erosion in values, ethics, morality or integrity that is seen in a society only mirrors the character of those who run the affairs of that society.

Bhagwad Gita

Summary of the ethics of action in the Bhagwad Gita is as follows :

    • Performance of all actions requires right intention, without prejudice to the good consequences (fame, wealth) that come from those actions.
    • Actions in short are the product of work motivated by duty.
    • The preference for actions independent of desires for “worldly” benefits has important implications for the concepts of efficiency and effectiveness.

Kautilya’s’ Arthashastra

Evidence of the modern administrative character of the Arthashastra comes most through Kautilyas’ expressions of efficiency, described in a unique imagery of corrupt officials improperly eating the wealth of the state.

    • Kautilyas’ concept of efficiency – It depends on an extensive elaboration of efficiency-guaranteeing techniques. Kautilya makes quite clear the link between civil service malfeasance and the reduction in wealth. Contravening the standards of efficiency was among the highest ills that a civil servant could commit in Kautilyas’ state.
    • Kautilya believed that “men are naturally fickle minded” and are comparable to “horses at work who exhibit constant change in their temper”. This means that honesty is not a virtue that would remain consistent life long and the temptation to make easy gains through corrupt means can override the trait of honesty any time. Similarly, he compared the process of generation and collection of revenue by officials with honey or poison on the tip of the tongue, which becomes impossible, not to taste.
    • Vigilance and Transparency – He prescribed a strict vigil even over the superintendents of government departments in relation to the modus operandi of work. Kautilya reflected serious concerns about opacity in the operations of the world of the corrupt. Illegal transactions were so shrouded in mist that he compared embezzlers to fish moving under water and the virtual impossibility of detecting when exactly the fish is drinking water. He also noted that while it is possible to ascertain the movements of bird flying in the sky, it is difficult to gauge the corrupt activities of government officials.
    • 40 kinds of embezzlement – In all these cases, the concerned functionaries such as the treasurer, the receiver, the payer, the person who caused the payment and the ministerial servants were to be separately interrogated. In case any of these officials were to lie, their punishment was to be enhanced to the level meted out to the chief officer mainly responsible for the crime. After the enquiry, a public proclamation was to be made asking the common people to claim compensation in case they were aggrieved and suffered from the embezzlement.
    • Corruption in the judicial administration – He prescribed the imposition of varying degrees of fines on judges – trying to proceed with a trial without evidence, unjustly maintaining silence, threatening, defaming and abusing the complainants, arbitrarily dismissing responses provided to questions raised by the judge himself, unnecessarily delaying the trial and giving unjust punishments.
    • Whistleblowing – Any informant who provided details about financial wrong-doing was entitled to an award of one-sixth of the amount in question. If the informant happened to be a government servant, he was to be given only one twelfth of the total amount as it was considered to be the duty of the government servant to strive towards corruption free society.

We have learnt the relationship of ethics with other domains such as, Law, Religion and Value system in detail. These concepts are very important from exam point of view. Readers are requested to understand the concept clearly with repeated reading. Now we will figure who subject matter of ethics changes with its interaction with Human Interface;