In a word full of contexts, being ethical and honest is always going to be worth it
EACH one of us faces a moral or an ethical dilemma or dilemmas at any given point in time. This is perhaps because we are human, defined as we are by foibles, weaknesses, temptations and so on. There is also a structural factor that overlays our human (ness); context and a given situation can present us with challenges that have a moral or an ethical flavour or ingress. For example, conditions of extreme poverty, say, an exigent need to feed one’s hungry children, can make a perfectly ethical and moral person commit theft or even worse. In this circumstance, the element of moral choice is overridden; it actually does not exist. (You either feed your children or they die of hunger). But these are extreme circumstances (with the caveat that for many deprived and underprivileged of the world, these are unfortunately the normal).
However, generally, and usually we all have a choice, if our mental faculties and the ability to reason are intact. Here the dilemma is that of the prevalent mores in society. Say, if corruption is widespread and acceptable in it, what does the ethical or the moral person do? Be part of the game, so to speak and move on or be an outlier seen as an oddball by the rest? Or, say , if there are moral and ethical issues in society that are brushed under the carpet(as in hushed up), does one stand up to and expose these or close one’s eyes as well or even , at another extreme, to employ the jargon of economists, earn rents off these?
Practically, there’s no easy answers or solutions to these dilemmas. But if one is ethical and moral, one may become a cynic if by omission or commission unethical behaviour is prevalent in society. What then can a person do to remain wedded to a moral compass against the backdrop of unethical situations that present themselves?
For me, the answer is pretty simple and straightforward. As a Muslim, I am a believer. The corollary here is that an ethical path is laid out for me by my religion. This does not then present nuanced moral and ethical ambiguity for me. (I say this in a very non -judgmental manner. I do not judge others for their ethical laxity, perceived or real). Each situation is unique, there is context, there are permutations and combinations, and each one of us is answerable for his or her own acts of omission and commission. Who am I to judge?
But, as a society, whatever and wherever one’s given society might be, there are and must be ethical standards, that are usually universal, that must not be breached. For instance, a crime like murder is bad. There is universal consensus on this. Exploiting someone or abusing a person’s vulnerability is immoral and unethical. The list goes on. How can these crimes and unethical behaviours be checked?
One answer is by the instrument of law and the state. While law and the state argument and recourse is a sound one but, in the final analysis, a good and ethical society is one where both there is minimal intervention by either. The well springs or ethics and morality must emerge from people. I am not aiming or alluding here to a moral utopia but merely suggesting that a ‘good’ society is one that is populated by good people, that is, moral and ethical people. This level and nature of morality and ethics can perhaps be arrived at by multi- pronged efforts: one, economic conditions and conditions that give short shrift to crime (this will not prevent crimes of a psycho-pathological behaviour). Two, persons in a given society must be morally and ethically aware and be constantly reviewing and sharpening their moral and ethical compass. Third, morality and ethics can be made chic.
But this leaves the question of ‘returns from either moral and ethical behaviour or returns from unethical and immoral behaviour unaddressed. With respect to the latter, sometimes, it may seem that unethical behaviour yields returns such as economic and financial payoffs, and other forms of glitter. Is then, given the finiteness of life, unethical behaviour worth it?
No. Not at all.
For one, for all the glitter and wealth effects of unethical behaviour, there are invariably opportunity costs- compromises have been made, prices(at times even in terms of life) are paid , or , in other words, a lot is mortgaged in return for unethical behaviour. There are then clear tangible benefits to be had from an ethical and moral orientation. But the most effective, important and long lasting benefit to be had from either is intangible: peace of mind, contentment and even happiness. Let us then strive to strengthen our moral and ethical compasses and live honest, happy and contented lives.
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