Ethics, Ivory Tower & Hypocrisy

[When I first wrote this post, it was late in the night and my thoughts were floating like snakes in Kekule's mind. Now that I am awake, I hope to edit it in a way that it makes more sense to those who read - just like Kekule came up with the Benzene structure after the snakes aligned :)]

In the past few days, I have discussed with friends and colleagues on ethics and ethical dilemmas. In almost each of these conversations, people have questioned my stand with a plain statement (which masks a rhetorical question) - "You are in a position where you can practice your ethics but not everyone has that comfort" or "You are saying this now sitting in an AC room but you may act differently when facing real life".

While not going into the exact point that was being discussed in each of these conversations, the point made by such people is definitely worth pondering. How valid (read honest) are one's ethics if they have not been created keeping in mind the entire gamut of possible life situations they MAY have to go through?

While it may sound obvious, my ethics have been built from my own experiences and they have definitely changed over a period of time. I have not really given a thought to their validity in all cases irrespective of the probability of their occurrence e.g. stealing is bad we say but will we not steal to feed our families in times of crises? Such questions which try to filter everyone's ethics through a "trial by fire", more often than not, just serve as an excuse for not adopting a different (I did not use the word better) set of ethics.

There are a few facets of this discussion that can help us gain some clarity on this subject and help remove the clutter that is our own creation. First, when I practice a certain set of ethics or hold a certain "ethical" viewpoint on a subject, I do not (at least try my best not to) judge a person not holding the same viewpoint e.g. even if I am vegan, I do not judge a person who consumes meat as someone barbaric. I do want to try and understand his/her viewpoint on what they think about killing animals for food, but again, not judging them.

Second point, does someone's ethics HAVE to confirm to all possible situations that one may face in life. How does one even arrive at an exhaustive list of such situations? And do we account for the probability of occurrence of a particular situation? Can we not take a cue from Pareto's analogy and create our ethics for 80% of the situations that we face in life and not for the 20%. Is it even right to say that unless my set of ethics confirms to all possible situations, I am not even going to start practicing what I know for sure is the right thing to do - just because a particular tenet may fail me at a later point of time.

Also, is it right to call a change in my ethics when faced with an unaccounted or previously un-encountered situation an act of hypocrisy? I do not think so.

I feel a lot of problems arise when people start preaching what they practice e.g. I can be vegan but I do not necessarily have to force others to be one. Also, when we start judging people who do go by the same set of ethics that we follow.

While my search on the internet did give me a lot of matter on the subject of ethics, including ethical dilemmas, I could not find anything worthwhile on the topic of "validity of ethics in extreme situations". If you know of someone who has written about it, please do let me know through the comments section.

A few resources on the internet can get you started on the topic of Ethics - BBC has a micro-site with chapter like layout (though I cannot vouch for the depth in which they deal with each topic), there is http://www.friesian.com and of course there is Calvin and Hobbes who have made a point very close to what I made - my ethics are for me and not universal.

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