Practical Ethics

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Practical Ethics
H.Narayanan, EE Department IIT Bombay, Mumbai (Text of a lecture delivered on 16th Oct 2012) A dilemma faced by young people, usually at the stage when they leave home for the first time, is that rules that they have lived by thus far seem questionable. On the one hand the impulses that tempt and torment them seem natural while on the other, breaking rules that the parents have taught them in their childhood seems very wrong. Further, those who break their shackles are in danger of going completely overboard with nothing sacred anymore. This could lead to deep unhappiness later. This article is about an approach to handling the problem of formulating a very personal but practical ethical code. The actual, detailed, solution to the problem is personal and not addressed here but the factors which need to be kept in mind are. Also some simple `dos and donts' are described. Ethical code: need and strategy First, should one have an ethical code at all? Why not play life by the ear? A personal ethical code is a strategy for choice of action in situations encountered commonly by an individual. It limits the choice and thereby reduces the stresses involved in constantly optimizing according to objectives which might vary with time and circumstance. If the choice is made according to a code, it is usually thought of as a duty carried out and therefore leads to lesser feelings of guilt, dissatisfaction with outcomes, fear of punishment etc. There is often a sense of satisfaction of having performed one's duty when one has acted in consonance with the code. What strategy should one use to design an ethical framework that is suitable for oneself while conforming broadly to universally accepted norms? First study the condition of the individual by him/herself and in relation to others. Then look for generally agreed `universal principles'- as few of them as possible. Finally match the two and work out details. The individual and his/her relationship with others The individual at a particular point of time may be regarded as having started with a certain nature, including potentialities such as breeding capability, which has been modified by `education'. This latter could be regarded as a general term for upbringing, conditioning through the environment, schooling etc. Feelings such as greed, envy, guilt, anger, anxiety, fear, cruelty, which could be thought of as control mechanisms, had good `survival value' (i.e., increased the chances of breeding) in a certain environment which would have existed for tens of thousands of years. They are not against survival even now and are therefore natural to us. On the other hand we have been taught that we should think before we act, that negative feelings which can lead to our harming others are wrong... Persons who have been brought up in traditional households would have been taught the use of prayer, gratitude to a supreme being etc. While the influence of nurture on the present state of the individual may not be as strong as his/her nature it is still strong enough that one has to take it into account while formulating one's ethical code. Next, in studying the nature-nurture characteristics of the individual in relationship with others, it is clear that these depend strongly on the nearness of the others to the individual. The way one behaves with one's siblings (initial competition followed by the formation of a strong bond) one's mates (possessiveness, jealousy, protectiveness), one's progeny (possessiveness, protectiveness) has probably come about largely through evolution. With friends and

acquaintances, the way we behave has more to do with culture and education. With more distant others it is entirely culture and the current society norms which are significant. Fuzzy ethical rules 1. Individual should aim at long term personal `happiness'. 2. Individual should not `hurt' others (i.e., make them unhappy), should preferably be invariably kind. It is possible to argue...
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