1. Prologue
  2. 3 Types of Judgments
  3. 3 Areas in Study of Ethics
    1. S1:Meta-Ethics / Critical Ethics
    2. S2: Applied Ethics
    3. S3: Normative vs. Descriptive Ethics
    4. Ethics vs. Morality?
    5. Legality vs. Morality
  4. 3 Preconditions for Ethical Scrutiny
    1. Pc1: Free Will
    2. Pc2: Knowledge
    3. Pc3: Voluntary Action
  5. Case study: Memento
  6. Case Study: Crank


  • This article series based on Ethics Lectures by Mr.Kavan Limbasiya (AIR-198, IRS-IT) at SPIPA, Ahmedabad
  • The Syllabus of UPSC General Studies Paper-4 Ethics is available here click me. Accordingly, we can divide the Ethics topic into 8 parts

GS4 Ethics Syllabus

  • First part would be Ethics and Human interface- further subdivided into three articles
  • E1/P1: Types of Judgments, Pre-requisite for Ethical scrutiny, Meta Ethics, Applied ethics, Normative-Descriptive ethics.
  • E1/P2: Theories of Ethics: virtual ethics, deontological vs. teleological ethics, utilitarianism, hedonism, epicureanism, egoism, conduct ethics etc.
  • E1/P3: Values, Role of family-society-educational institutions in inculcating values, ethics and private and public relationships.

3 Types of Judgments

Ethics: 3 Types of Judgements

1.Factual or
  • Earth rotates around Sun. Whether you test or an alien species tests, the fact will remain the same. There are only two outcomes: True / False
  • They’re not morally right or wrong. They’re morally empty, they’re “amoral”.
  • Concept of beauty, taste, color, sensualities.
  • One person may like red color the other person may like blue color.
  • Our sense of good/bad/right/wrong.
  • IN GS paper 4, we are concerned with this.

Question: Are these three judgments inter-related?

  • Traditional thinkers considered them one and same i.e. what is ‘true’ (factual) is ‘beautiful’ (aesthetic) and therefore it is Good (moral). Something like Satyam-Shivam-Sundaram.
  • They believed, just as facts are not ‘dependent’ on us, the morals are not dependent on us. The morals are created by the God.
  • Now we don’t see things in the same manner. Consider following question: Was Amitabh involved in Bofors case? (Factual judgment)
  • If you’re a bigB fan, you’d say “no he can’t be involved because he is a ‘good’ guy (Moral judgment). And you’d say this without verifying the facts. So, you’ve internal inconsistency- you like this guy, so you can’t believe he can be bad.
  • Similar case about Sanjay Dutt’s involvement in 1992 bomb blasts.

3 Areas in Study of Ethics

The study of Ethics is subdivided into three areas: (1) Meta Ethics (2) Applied (3) Normative Ethics


S1:Meta-Ethics / Critical Ethics

  • If we steal, is it “good” thing? That is an example of ethical question.
  • What is “good”? That is meta-ethical question. In other words, Meta-ethics is one ‘step’ above ethics.
  • If you begin evaluating the ethics itself, then it’s meta-ethics.
  • Nature=> philosophy of nature => physics.
  • Similarly here morality =>ethics => meta-ethics.

S2: Applied Ethics

  • In subsequent lecture, we’ll discuss various theories of ethics. One such theory is Utilitarianism, which says if a decision leads to “maximum happiness for maximum people” then it’s an ethical decision.
  • Now if we apply this utilitarianism theory to a specific field, then it’d become “Applied Ethics” examples,
Bioethics step cell therapy is good or bad?
Environmental ethics cutting trees and displacing the tribal for highway projects is good or bad?

S3: Normative vs. Descriptive Ethics

Descriptive Normative / prescriptive
Einstein’s equation is E=MC2 Should we use that equation or knowledge to build nuclear weapon?
Newton’s third law: action and reaction are opposite. Should we use Newton’s third law to build a rocket or a gun?
It describes “this is what’s happening.” It prescribes “what should be done or what ought to be done.”
  • e.g. in imperialist age, white men enslaved Africans.
  • However, Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery so Mr.ABC historian lauds him an ethical president.
  • However, Lincolns’ motive to abolish slavery was to win the war against confederates, rather than ‘freeing’ black people so Mr. xyz Historian in his xyz book doesn’t concur with the views of Mr.ABC.
  • In the Imperialist age, white men enslaved Africans and sold them to American plantation owners, wherein they’re exploited in the most inhuman manner.
  • It was wrong on part of the White men to exploit other humans for personal gains. No one should enslave another human being.
As you can see, only ‘describing’, rather than prescribing.
  • As you can see- “prescribing” about what should have been done.
  • Examples of Normative theories:
  • Virtue ethics theory, the views of Plato and Aristotle
  • Utilitarianism
  • Nishkam Karmayoga (Gita)

Ethics vs. Morality?

  • Subject matter of Physics = Natural phenomenon. It studies nature and derives formulas.
  • So subject matter “nature”=> its study is called “physics”.
  • Same way subject matter “morality” => its study is called “ethics”.

Legality vs. Morality

Legality Morality
Gay marriage is illegal Perhaps in some ethical school of thought, gay marriage could be considered ethical because everyone has ‘right’ to have a life partner to provide him/her emotional support.
Every illegal thing may not be immoral Every moral things may not be legal. If we make ‘lying’ illegal, then everyone will be jailed.
One and same throughout the region/nation Varies from culture, religion and region.
Murder is illegal Murder is immoral so its in the ‘intersecting’ region of legality and morality.

3 Preconditions for Ethical Scrutiny

For case studies- Before we can decide where an action is worth ethical debate or not, you should first ‘test’ whether given case passes 3-preconditions or not?

ethical scrutiny

Pc1: Free Will

  • In Delhi zoo, a mentally instable person falls in Tiger enclosure. The white tiger kills him, while the crowd is busy capturing the MMS video of the event.
  • If a person has multiple choices, and freedom to pick one within those choices, only then we can debate it on ethical ground.
  • When that white tiger killed the mentally instable man, Tiger didn’t have ‘free will’ or ‘knowledge’. Nature has designed tiger to act that way.  Hence tiger’s action can’t be judged as ethical or immoral. He can’t /shouldn’t be punished for that.
  • While crowd’s action can be termed as unethical- because they had ‘free will’: Option A- help the person or option B- record MMS on mobile. They chose option A, hence unethical.

Pc2: Knowledge

  • A Child takes “iphone 6s plus” from table and dips it in a fishbowl. Phone is permanently damaged. Was Child’s action unethical?
  • Well, Child had ‘free will’- (A) Take selfi and upload on facebook (B) dip it in a fishbowl
  • She chose optionB. But she didn’t have the ‘knowledge’ that iPhone are not waterproof.
  • We cannot exercise ‘free will’ in an ethical/unethical manner, unless and until we have ‘knowledge’ of its consequence. Hence baby’s action can’t be termed as ethical or unethical.

Pc3: Voluntary Action

  • If someone puts a gun on your head or straps a bomb on your waist and then orders you to commit a crime, then ‘it’s an involuntary action’ by you, hence we can’t judge it on ethical grounds.
  • Apart from above three, following conditions also make it difficult to evaluate an action on ethical grounds:
Fear / violence
  • If someone tries to kill/loot you and you kill/injure him in self-defense, you’re acting under fear for your life. So, it’s subject to legal scrutiny but not ethical scrutiny. Because it was ‘either you or him’.
  • Foreigner comes to Gujarat and drinks in a desi-liquor den. This is illegal but not ‘unethical’ IF the foreigner was unaware of the prohibition law in Gujarat.
  • A husband finds his wife in a compromising position with another man, he gets enraged and murders both of them. Illegal but difficult to scrutinize on ‘ethical’ grounds, since his passion was not aroused by himself.
  • A man takes narcotic drugs and under its influence he rapes/murders/maims someone, it is both illegal and unethical because he himself aroused his ‘passion’.
  • Hence, In murder cases, court looks at aggravating and mitigating factors.
Pathological status
  • Husband suffering from schizophrenia mistreats his wife/children.
  • This is not subject to ethical scrutiny because he’s suffering from a mental disorder so he lacks the “knowledge” and “free will”.
  • Same way the ‘mistake’ of mentally instable person falling in tiger enclosure in Delhi is, is beyond ethical scrutiny.
Habit, temperament
  • Since childhood, Japanese are trained to apologize profusely even for slightest mistake or discomfort caused to another human.
  • If an American executive working in Japan, doesn’t behave in similar fashion, it can’t be termed as ‘unethical’. Because its not in American habits.
Value system
  • A fallen Samurai would prefer to commit ‘ritual suicide’ (seppuku) rather than suffering torture/humiliation by his enemies. Because it is part of his Bushido honor code.
  • If a fallen American soldier doesn’t commit suicide, it can’t be evaluated on ethical grounds.

Now you can see the broad picture- consider following Case: Mr.X murders Mr.Y to acquire his property.

Action Component
Mr.X Moral Agent
He killed Mr.Y Human Action. (Recall 3 types of assumptions: if he had done with out free will, knowledge  and voluntary action, we’d have called it “non-human” action and topic would end here.
Mr.X’s action is morally wrong. Moral Judgment. (Recall 3-types of Judgments-factual, aesthetic and moral)
It is wrong to murder another human Moral Standard=> Ethics => Meta-Ethics.
No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law. Article 21, Constitution of India
Whoever commits murder shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine. Section 302, Indian Penal Code (IPC)

Case study: Memento

In the movie “Memento”, the protagonist- Mr. Leonard Shelby suffers from short-term memory loss. Following people take advantage of his mental conditions:

  • A waitress: by making the protagonistkill her abusive boyfriend after court and police fails to give her protection or justice.
  • A Cop: by making the protagonist kill various criminals for cleansing the society as well as looting the money from dead corpses. He uses this money to tip-off informants and fight against crime.
  • A motel-receptionist: by charging the protagonist multiple rooms not used by him, because receptionist’s boss had ordered him to increase revenue by doing so, else threatened to fire him from job. This receptionist has a daughter for marriage and a son in expensive coaching at Delhi/Kota so he can’t afford to lose job.

In above case, whose action(s) is/are subject to ethical scrutiny? If yes, then are they ethical or unethical?

  1. Leonard Shelby
  2. Waitress
  3. Cop
  4. Motel receptionist

Case Study: Crank

In the movie “Crank”, Chinese Mobsters inject our protagonist Jason Statham with a synthetic drug which inhibits the flow of adrenaline, slowing the heart and eventually killing the victim. Jason enters a hospital trying to explain his condition to staff but nurses refuse to believe him and doctor says he’d need to run 24 hours medical tests before giving him any drug, despite repeated requests by Jason that he requires immediate shot of Adrenaline. Impatient Jason breaks into the storeroom and tries to steal vials containing synthetic adrenaline, so he can inject them to survive. But the staff and policemen try to apprehend him. Jason fights back, injures a few of them before escaping the hospital. In above case, whose action(s) is/are subject to ethical scrutiny? If yes, then are they ethical or unethical?

  1. Jason Statham
  2. Nurses
  3. Doctor
  4. Policemen

In the next part (E1/P2) we’ll look at various theories of Ethics. Visit Mrunal.org/Ethics for more study material on Ethics.