Morality Defined


Prof. Jayashree Sadri
Senior Visiting Faculty in
Human Resources Management, Organizational Behavior and Business Ethics
Indira School of Management Studies
Tathawade, Pune

Taking the cue from established authorities on ethics such as Sudhanshu Chakraborty, Sorab Sadri and Subhash Sharma who have spoken of values has coming from beliefs,  we could say that while values and beliefs are both thought based concepts, value relates to the conscious self whereas beliefs relate more to the culturally determined sub-conscious self. We also spoken of ethics as springing from values and lead to behaviour so is an activity based concept. The distinction as well as the relation between values and ethics is thus established.

Given the fact that everyone has an "opinion" on ethics and morality and given the fact that most speakers have done little or no research on the subject it is not surprising that there is a fair amount of disagreement about what ethics and morals precisely mean. Are they discrete terms or are they synonymous? Some use the terms to mean the same thing while others link morality with spiritualism and religion while they link ethics to social conduct. We shall clarify our position so that the readers are left in little doubt at least about the position adopted in this argument. Simply put, ethics is a body of principles or standards of human conduct that govern the behaviour of individuals, groups and organizations. It has attracted the attention of scholars down the ages. Let me take a random sample of some of these scholarly positions.

Beginning with Greek thought, we find some discrepancy between what is generally believed and what our studies reveal. Two terms commonly cited when we speak of post-Socratic thought be it that of Plato or Aristotle, are eudaimonia and arête. Commonly these are understood to mean 'happiness' and 'virtue' respectively. While happiness has a subjective connotation as a feeling of contentment or pleasure, the Greeks ascribed to it an understanding of the 'source' of such feelings. Hence they actually gave it an objective connotation. Socrates spoke of virtue as coming from a moral position and Plato accept that position whereas Aristotle ascribes to it an intellect-based understanding. Socrates for instance, argued that the determination of good or bad behaviour depended entirely on the integrity of the rational process. Plato argued that to know what is good was to do what is good, and that doing good was more useful and rational than doing bad. Moreover, those who behaved immorally did so largely out of ignorance. Aristotle posited that ethics was a purely logical outcome of human nature and it was useful because it was logical.

Immanuel Kant in Critique of Practical Reason postulated that a system-wide consistency was a logical requirement of ethics and that ethics begins with the non-universality of principles. Any adopted principle, he stated, was a categorical imperative that must be a desirable and universal law. This moral principle against which we can measure all actions is called the categorical imperative.  To him actions are morally defensible to the extent that they respect the freedom, dignity, and autonomy of people.

Jeremey Bentham gave us the concept of utilitarianism that was taken further by two scholars John Stuart Mill and William Stanley Jevons who, in turn, postulated the dictum of sumum bonum. The concept means the greatest good of the greatest number and whatever action brings this about can be deemed as moral. If this utilitarianism is essentially pleasure centred then it is called hedonistic. If it is used to argue that value can be seen uniformly in terms of pleasure or pain and that the extent of happiness denotes the value of an act then such an approach to morals is called eudaimonistic. If an altruistic view is taken of the greater good then we enter the realms of ideal utilitarianism. Bentham uses utility in a hedonistic sense whereas Mill uses it in the ideal sense claiming that as God is lovable and kind to all. Hence Mill debunks the argument that utilitarianism is un-Godly and relates it to rational choice.

John Rawls in his Theory of Justice, argues that a dynamic interaction between moral commonsense and attempts to critical thinking results in a state of reasoning called reflective equilibrium. This is a mental and emotional standpoint from which all persons are seen to possess a special dignity and worth. That is precisely why we take the position that morality has little or nothing to do with spirituality per se. But it has everything to do with human goodness. If we can only take care of and begin to respect mankind, the Almighty will no doubt take care of Himself. 

Two diverse views emerge from Rawl's work and directly impact business behaviour in respect of competition. First is that unhealthy competition is counter productive while the other says that healthy competition can lead to cooperation and growth.

Vilfredo Pareto took the mathematical-economic position in stating a case for optimality that in a given society stating that if every factor operated at maximum efficiency, nobody could be better off unless someone else was worse off. Pareto efficiency was thus a transitional state where at least one party was better off, most were well off and none were worse off. What else could ethics mean to the homo logicus philosophicus? How a business manager, a medical practitioner, a lawyer or a professor approaches ethics may, in sum be based on which philosophical line of argument he/she ascribes to. And that is something each of us has to find out for himself/herself.

Modern day academic approaches to the study of ethics and morals differ on both sides of the Atlantic and that is primarily because the root word adopted by scholars differs. The root Greek word for ethics is ethos in Europe but ethicos in America the root Latin word for morality is mores in Europe but moralis in America.

Since ethos and mores both signify "from a culture", the Europeans look upon ethics as a branch of moral philosophy and view morality as a variation of the theory of ethics. Hence the distinction between ethics and morals is blurred in Europe. However, ethicos signifies right or correctness in behaviour, whereas moralis signifies goodness and high mindedness. Hence, in America, ethics deals with issues that are right as opposed to those that are wrong. Morality is concerned with what is good as opposed to what is bad. The distinction is thus made clear in the academic context between the concepts of ethics and morals.

A review of literature will show that whereas professionals like doctors, lawyers and media personnel adopt the American variant the management theorists and behavioural scientists remain quite comfortable with the European position. Ethics though variously defined, was seen as being an activity based concept. In contradistinction thereof values are a thought based concept. Ethics, our argument pointed out, was seen as being a branch of philosophy having morality at its core, as its subject as well as its object. It is intrinsically normative in that it poses the question what should we do? And by we the concept alludes to the rational man. The use of should points squarely to its normative nature whereas the use of do indicates the character of the doer. In other words it is only through doing or action that the character of the doer is revealed. Hence ethics deals with the norms of conduct concerning individuals, groups or organizations within a social-cultural environment.

Morals on the other hand presuppose the existence of a social rule, within a given cultural context. Certain types of behaviour are acceptable and some are unacceptable. Morals imply that persons within a social context cannot do just what they please. One person's right to liberty is constrained by the fact that in pursuing his/her right the person should not infringe upon the right of another to pursue the other's liberty.  In a manner of speaking, morals refer to a set of rules of conduct voluntarily accepted by members of a civil society and which cannot be enforced by a specific body nor can they be a designated official enforcement. Enforcement is done through custom and tradition that binds a society together expecting members to conform to certain accepted and known codes of behaviour. In that sense it is social enforcement rather than specific enforcement of a code of behaviour. Enforcement is thus usually done through peer or group pressure on the individual to conform. The individual or the group wishes to remain within the social or cultural milieu and voluntary conforms to the generally accepted code of behaviour.

Moral law is implied by norms of conduct and are not enforceable by a Court of Law. Perhaps the best example of the distinction between moral law and positive law comes from the death sentence meted out to a person found guilty of murder. The death sentence is pronounced not, because the moral law forbids murder. It is pronounced as a defence mechanism of the State that acts as a deterrent so as to protect the well being of its citizens. Given the mutable nature of social reality and changing values, it is quite understandable that morals change along with social values and they cannot be seen as a constant phenomenon over a period of time. How then can I distinguish between morals and ethics? If they are the same thing then why use two words for it?

One thing however is certain. Both ethics and morals are activity based concepts. An extremely useful distinction, drawn by our distinguished senior colleague and a renowned dermatologist, educationist and medical sciences scholar, M A Tutakne, is as follows. Morality refers to the acceptable behaviour of a person vis-à-vis the person's inner self, personal value system, beliefs, conscience or ego state. In short if one can look myself in the eye while having a shave and not bat an eyelid when one is thinking about an activity then the issue is a moral one. Ethics refers to acceptable behaviour of a person vis-à-vis the social environment in which the person operates, lives or works. Hence whereas morals are an internalized activity based experience ethics are an externalized activity based experience.

The professional must be on guard against falling into a trap laid by either subjectivism or relativism.   It is quite erroneous for people to consider that whereas morality is one thing, getting through life is quite another. Such a fallacy is often and unknowingly committed by professionals, students and managers. In the name of being smart or acting in a pragmatic manner, persons often give morals the short shrift. This is not at all acceptable since in the long run only those persons are respected by history who have not cut corners or taken the easy way out, but have stuck to their values.  The ends-means debate raises his head yet again, as the reader will appreciate.

Life indeed would be boring if everyone towed the same line, if there was no disagreement and all you heard was cries of yes sir, yes sir, three bags full sir. Disagreement is healthy and criticism is welcome provided it degenerates into personal mud slinging or counter productive behaviour.  Where does one draw the line?

It is quite acceptable to pursue pluralism within a civil society and even informed intolerance is an acceptable premise provided there is responsible moral assessment alongside thereof. But when a moral issue is at stake and there are serious dissenting opinions then the most recommended thing to do is to seek an equilibrium saddle point or a position of minimal conflict. This is done by emphasising the moral ground shared by all parties concerned and consciously working towards extending the moral boundaries with common consent. Clarity of thought along with transparency of action plays a key role in building an environment of trust, as any HR specialist will know.

How does one resolve a moral impasse when the contending views are strong? Here, the well known 5 D Methodology of OD intervention comes in handy. The first step for the dissenting parties is to clearly define their positions and understand those held by the others. The second step involves diagnosis i.e. making a SWOT analysis of the alternatives available from an ends-means viewpoint. This will also involve looking closely at effect of a particular position taken on the larger civil society or on the liberty of another individual. The third step is to design the strategy which will increase the common moral ground and reduce the area of moral disagreement. Here a specific moral principle is often evoked to support the planned strategy. The fourth step is to develop the strategy with the support of moral principles i.e. justify it and make it more acceptable. At this point a little amount of public relations or brand building activity is inevitable. At this point the strongest possible assault or objection on the position taken must be ascertained and countered with the strongest possible moral defence of one's position. The fifth step is to deliver the strategy or to actualize what has been agreed upon such that the region of discord is minimized. Since the groundwork has already been laid, the contending parties are better positioned to arrive at the equilibrium saddle point or at least approximate the region of feasible solution.

We all know that at any given point of time all the facts will never be fully known and there is bound to be an element of uncertainty under which decisions have to be taken. If we were to wait for all facts to be known we shall walk into the trap of analysis paralysis. This element of uncertainty can be reduced considerably by using a scientific method, when the positions are clarified and the decisions are transparent. Documentation or the sixth D holds the key to this clarity. The point to be noted is that it is not enough to be moral or act morally but also be seen to have acted so.

There are four levels at which we can approach ethics. The first is Business Ethics which is a macro concept relating to how the hospital behaves on ethical issues. Within this are subsumed Organizational Ethics and Professional Ethics. Organizational Ethics relates to how the organization approaches the questions of ethics and governance. Corporate/Organizational Culture and an accepted code of conduct become germane to it understanding. Professional Ethics is concerned with how an individual specialist behaves on ethical issues in his professional capacity and here we come across professional codes of conduct like those relating to a specialist profession such as a doctor, a lawyer or a teacher. Managerial Ethics is a micro concept that is subsumed under Personal Ethics and Work Related Ethics. The former is an individual concept relating to how the manager behaves on ethical issues in his personal capacity whereas the latter relates to how the manager behaves with his peers and colleagues within a work environment. As was mentioned earlier reality cannot be seen in clear black and white terms since there is a vast grey area with varying shades in between. There are bound to be overlaps and the line dividing organizational ethics and professional ethics on the one hand and between personal ethics and work related ethics on the other can indeed be very thin.

But what do ethics imply? As Vidya Yeravdekar, a well known medico-legal specialist so proficiently and prolifically argues: it brings about equilibrium between the spirit, the mind and the body so that the totality of the human self approaches perfection. Indeed it makes the world go round! The unicentric capitalist world economy is there to stay. Free market capitalism ahs unleashed the demons of competition which far from creating a sane society have tempted persons to cut corners and intelligence has been used to justify the oft morally unjustifiable. How is the mind-body-spirit equilibrium under such conditions to be brought about? To answer this one must delve deep into the mind-body dualism and relate business ethics to good governance practices.

Thus the question of moral as opposed to immoral behaviour is brought out. Whereas morality deals with what is good or bad, ethics deals with what is right or wrong. To the discerning reader, the Beliefs-Values-Morals-Ethics chain can be logically comprehended.

Going through the literature on morals the student will quite likely come across three terms that need to be cited and clearly defined here and now so that confusion is minimized.

(i) Moral Absolutism: These are eternal moral values and principles which attempt to adopt principles to govern society and help people to live together in harmony. There are four known variations of this view viz. (a) While morality is absolute at the top its applications at lower levels may vary. (b)  Morality is absolute and constant under all conditions. (c) In suitable cases exceptions are permitted in the interest of a greater good. (d) Morality is not eternal and changes as society does.

(ii) Moral Relativism: There can be no such thing as objective morality and everything is subjective. In some way we could argue that it is derived from the notion of cultural relativism. In this argument we have adopted such a position in respect of ethics when we spoke of it being context specific, culture specific and person specific.

(iii) Moral Pluralism: There are four known kinds of conditions under which this can exist in a civil society. (a) When radical views are mutually irreconcilable. This is the basis of social conflict and not suitable to modern multi-culture environments. (b) When principles may vary but the practices are generally agreed upon. (c) When principles are agreed upon but the practices may vary.  (d) The concept of morality is not eternal  and changes as society develops and attitudes as well as values change.

In contradistinction to the above, the Marxists are generally quite categorical in their position irrespective the perspective from which they have commented (see Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci and Michels). Just as law is seen as codified class relationships, so too, morality is viewed essentially from a class-ideological perspective. Engels spoke of morality in terms of bourgeois prejudices behind which lurk bourgeois interests in the Condition of the Working Class in England. Marx postulated his theory of false consciousness in Grundrisse and used it to attack specific moral positions rather than morality per se. Lenin in Materialism and Empiro Criticism saw morality as being depicted as the viewpoint of impartial and detached well wishers. This concept of impartial benevolence was later taken up by Lukas in History and Class Consciousness when he said that as long as class conflict emanating out of class oppression exists this condition could not be attained.

Before we conclude this brief discussion defining morality, two observations need to be made especially because they go a long way towards improving upon the empirical position taken by us in Theory and Practice of Managerial Ethics (1999). In that work we had pointed out that it had been perceived by respondents that:

(a) As managers grow older the propensity to act immorally increases.

(b) Women managers are by and large more moral than men managers.

We had ascribed the two tendencies to spring from an added financial burden that men have to bear as they grow older. But M A Tutakne, disagrees with our view and argues that the basic moral upbringing at home has a lot to do with work place behaviour. Whatever values that are learnt on the lap of a parent or in a school are seldom forgotten and even in later life are retained in the subconscious mind. In the beginning this influence is strong but with the passage of time and experience this influence looses its influence on individual behaviour. This is why the youth has always been altruistic and idealistic compared to the older generation. Hence he argues:

(a) Managers begin their career idealistically and work according to book but as they mature they learn to "manage" the environment, become more "worldly wise", give up their idealism and consequently take a less moral position than they would have taken in their youth. The idealism of the youth springs from the fact that morality in the domestic scene is more pronounced that in a market driven environment and the youth still imbibes the values taught at home. 

(b) Women are a lot more domestically centred than men. Not all the peers are working and many are housewives. This peer pressure is so strong that they relate more closely to domestic values and women managers are consequently more moral than their male counterparts.

The reader is free to come to his/her conclusion but we tend to place considerable weight on the general Madhav Tutakne's prognosis, if only because Indian society is still quite family oriented, the joint family system may be down but is far from out, and his argument carries the full weight of sociological-anthropological logic.

A discussion on morals invariably leads us to the treatment of corruption, its antithesis. The views expressed here have emerged out a discussion with Brig. N B Grant, in Pune on 28.5.2003 and due acknowledgement is hereby accorded. The dictionary meaning of the term "corruption" is policies and practices that are a deviation from the norm. As has been argued by us elsewhere (1999) the development of Indian society (polity, economy and academia) can be clearly visualized with ease but they appear in parts to have been marginalized by the rise of mediocrity. Logically then we could argue that, in parts, norms have levelled off at low ebb. Could we then pass off corruption as accepted practice as the praxis paradigm would suggest? This is what seemed to have happened to parts of both the Indian business and Indian bureaucracy with the rise of mediocrity. We can then confidently say that the praxis paradigm comes closest to representing objective social reality.

Prof. Jayashree Sadri
Senior Visiting Faculty in
Human Resources Management, Organizational Behavior and Business Ethics
Indira School of Management Studies
Tathawade, Pune

Source: E-mail March 13, 2006


Back to Articles 1-99 / Back to Articles 100-199 / 200 onwards / Faculty Column Main Page


Important Note :
Site Best Viewed in Internet
Explorer in 1024x768 pixels
Browser text size: Medium