What is Ethics?
Ethics also called Moral Philosophy is usually regarded as the discipline dealing with what is good and bad, and the difference between moral duty and obligation. It is the study of righteousness and wrongfulness from the perspective of human actions, to attain wisdom. Ethics is a reflective study of human responsibility from which human’s good or bad conduct can be scrutinized. In other words, it guides behavior, choices and actions, and turns them into a set of standards, based on which a society is built. The moral principles of a social or religious society or of an individual is sometimes allude to by the same word.
What kind of human behavior is evil or good?
What are the qualities of a good person?
How should one make a decision in life?
These are the fundamental questions answered by ethics.
The social and spiritual ways of life have its roots in the moral code and conduct. To live amidst earthly joys and sorrows is the true essence of human life. Righteousness emphasizes on moral virtues and values. People discharge their duties to comply with the moral code of ethics. There are thus two kinds of ethics:
- Individual, and
Individual ethics is indicative of good qualities for individual well-being and happiness. Social ethics represents those values which are necessary for maintaining social order and harmony.
The origin of ethics is in India’s traditional, religious and philosophical thinking. Good moral conduct is essential in every religious tradition for a happy and contented life. No one can attain the supreme goal (salvation) of life without following the path of righteousness.
The Cosmic Order
In India, there is a very ancient history of thinking about ethics. Its central concepts is in Rigveda, one of the oldest sacred books of India as well as of the world. The idea of an “all pervading cosmic order” is in Rigveda which signifies harmony and balance in nature and in the human society. Here, cosmic order is a central force or power that controls all the forces of nature and moral values of human society. Disturbing this harmony and balance leads to disorder and suffering. This power or force keeps everything in balance and maintains the natural flow of the universe. The concept of cosmic order gave rise to the idea of Dharma in Indian tradition. The term Dharma here stands for duty, obligation, and righteousness rather than a mere reference to religion. Everyone should discharge his or her duty according to his social position and station in life. In Buddhism, Pali word Dhamma is used in place of Sanskrit word Dharma. There are sociological texts called Dharmshaastras that describe the guidelines and rules about what is thought as the appropriate behavior for human beings. These texts also discuss about duties and obligations for an individual as well as a member of the society.
Goals and Stages of Human Life
In the Hindu way of life, every person is required to fulfill his or her duty appropriate to his or her caste in all the stages of his life. The Four stages of life and their respective dharma were designed to provide fulfillment to the person of social, moral as well as spiritual aspects leading to harmony and balance in the society. An Ashrama in Hinduism is one of four age-based life stages discussed in Indian texts of the ancient and medieval eras. The Ashrama system a component of the ethical theories in Indian philosophy, where it is combined with four proper goals of human life (Purusartha), for fulfillment, happiness and spiritual liberation. The four stages according to the Hindu way of life are,
- Brahmacharya, Stage of studentship
- Grihastha, Stage of the Householder
- Vanaprastha, Life in the forest
- Sannyasa, Renunciation
This very important concept of the Four ashramas of life is for the fulfillment of human aspirations through the Goals (Purusartha) which are desirable. Puruṣārtha literally means an “object of human pursuit”. These goals are:
- Righteousness, dharma
- Worldly Gain, Artha
- Fulfillment of desire, Kama
- Liberation, moksha
For a human, all four goals of life are important. But in cases of conflict, Dharma is considered more important than Artha or Kama in Hindu philosophy. Moksha is considered the ultimate goal of the human life. From the ethical point of view, righteousness and liberation are the most important since they give right direction and purpose to life. For instance, acquiring wealth is a desirable objective but it can also serve righteousness, that is, welfare of the society.