Laws, Rules, Regulations and Conscience as sources of ethical guidance for resolving ethical dilemmas

There are two fundamental problems in resolving ethical dilemmas –

  1. What are the basic sources of standards for ethical decision-making?
  2. How these standards do get applied to the specific situation we face?

Things should not be taken as sole sources of standards for ethical decision making

  1. Religion: Buddha vs Taliban
  2. Law: Section 377 was a law for more than 200 years.
  3. Social norms: Dowry, Jallikattu, child marriage etc.
  4. Science: No issue with abortion technically.
  5. Feelings: Many times we feel good even after doing wrong.

Law as a Source of ethical guidance

Types of laws as per Thomas Aquinas

Eternal law: they are not made but exist eternally, simply we can think of eternal law as comprising all those scientific (physical, chemical, biological) ‘laws’ by which the universe is ordered (law determining planetary motions, the flow of energy, conservation of mass /energy)

Devine law: laws that are revealed to humans through sacred texts like Bible, Quran, and Gita.

Natural law: Eternal law that can be perceived by reason need for food for a living, dignity for all etc.

Human law: NRC, CAA, FARM laws etc.

Three essential features of Human Law

  • It is a codification of expected conduct
  • It is enacted formally by the governing authority
  • Deviation from the provision of the law shall attract penal action.

As the degree of democracy in governance increases, law marches toward ethics.

On the other hand, there may be a case where the law is being made for the selfish gain of a particular community. For example, laws made by Hitler, British laws in India’s doctrine of laps, subsidiary alliance etc.

Why law is a yardstick to decide the ethicality of an action

The law can be a valid yardstick to decide the ethicality of an action because-

Rule as a source of ethical guidance

Difference between law and rules

Made byConstitutionally recognised body legislaturesAny private or public body i.e., executive
provideBroad frameworkConcrete directive within the purview of law
punishmentHarsh on violation of law like dismissalMild punishment for violation of rules like suspension

Rules are made for the smooth functioning of large administration hence following the rules can be termed ethical if

  • Rules are reflecting the public good at large
  • They are not aimed at harming the interests of others
  • They are not aimed at the selfish gains of a particular group
  • They are based on collective opinion

Why laws and rules act as a source of ethical guidance

  • Laws are based on social norms
  • Fear of punishment
  • Objectivity
  • Enacted by representatives
  • Law is thoroughly deliberated by learned men
  • It is vetted by public representatives in most cases.
  • In most cases, they have been scrutinised by the judiciary.

Limitations of law and rules& regulations as a source of ethical guidance

  • Mostly it is coercive: income tax law
  • It is a tool of powerful: lifelong presidency by Xi-Jinping with the help of law, and apartheid.
  • The law can be Collusive: Electoral bond
  • It can be punitive instead of reformative: current surrogacy law
  • It may be unjust: Manusmiriti in ancient India
  • It may neglect the individual over the community: the new abortion law of many states USA denies abortion rights.
  • There may be ambiguity and inconsistency in law: what is corruption is not defined in the anti-corruption law.
  • Some laws may be prejudiced and biased: CAA
  • There may be loopholes in the law: anti-corruption law
  • It may conflict with individual/social morality: surrogacy law

Conscience as a Source of ethical guidance

Conscience is known as the inner voice of a person. A person’s intentions, decisions, actions and conduct are many times influenced by instincts, temptations, emotional bonds, desires etc. but conscience is always over and above all these factors. Now it is a personal choice to listen to the conscience or not but listening to the conscience, in general, is considered ethical.

Conscience acts as a source of ethical guidance in the following way

  1. It is the most immediate source of information that helps in evaluating the different options and guiding human action.
  2. It allows reason and transcends his animal instincts.
  3. It is not a feeling of emotion but a rather rational decision, taking place at the level of subconsciousness after millions of calculations, combinations and permutations.
  4. Violation of the voice of conscience causes inner dissonance, which provides a drive for a person to avoid unethical action.
  5. The voice of conscience is immutable and accompanies a person throughout his life.
  6. Through conscience, a person evaluates his moral philosophy, character, and motivation for action.
  7. Conscience helps in interpreting ambiguous laws in a best possible manner
  8. Conscience helps in integrating prescribed norms with moral consideration.

The ways to ensure listening of conscience

  • Don’t decide in haste
  • Decide and review
  • Write down the decision
  • Have a reliable conversation partner

 Why a civil servant can’t rely solely on the conscience?

  • Conscience is subjective
  • The following conscience doesn’t have legal protection
  • It may not be fully developed in all
  • set by-laws, rules and regulations. Decisions should be based on rationality and logic rather than personal beliefs. Examples. Making toilets but not providing a water supply is irrational.
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