Teaching Ethics in a Changing India

There are many things in life I feel blessed about and one such thing is the opportunity to teach young students. What is even more exciting for me is the subject I teach -- Business Ethics!

I come from a traditional household and am equipped with Gandhian schooling -- which makes me a very idealistic person having a firm belief in a certain value system. My worldview to a great extent still is very positive -- where it is completely possible to trust people on their face-value!

For my part as an ethics teacher -- I decided to take an objective approach at discussing ethical dilemmas without any hint at preaching my own value systems. Imbibing the lessons on teaching and learning from some of the best institutions in the world, I began the fascinating journey of being an ethics teacher in a changing India! Little did I know that what lay ahead was an immensely introspective exercise.

After every class, I saw myself sitting in my office in silence for several minutes. My mind would compulsively go back to each argument raised in the class. The students -- not much younger than me -- seemed to have a very different notion of life and the world. Their notions about how the practices of the world and personal values interplayed fascinated me, at times frustrated me and almost always threw me into deep questions about how our society was shaping up. I wondered if my idea of India was too naïve and too hopelessly positive!

There were times, and such times came often, where these students repeated the arguments of the old cynics, which I would otherwise take with a pinch of salt. There were times when students argued vehemently about impossibility of establishing ethical way of life in India. There were times where case studies of businessmen who have earned their wealth through unethical practices were cited as heroic tales. These were the times when something in me was profoundly shaken.

Examples on how public morality in India can develop into something positive usually met cynicism. Somehow most classes around the discussion on public morality steered towards the question of whether one person or one entity can be effective in changing the current scheme of things in the country. What were the trade-offs in living an ethical life full of constant struggle?

What fascinated me most was how the level of corruption in the public agencies affected their idea of standards of ethics required even within and between the private entities. The examples from their own lives and their dilemmas and compulsions left me with more questions. Through their examples, I sensed that they would go to any lengths to help a friend in need or stand by an ailing family member but when it came to getting their work done especially from a public agency, a different standard of morality would come to operate.

I wondered if I was fundamentally wrong in my approach of not revealing the clear 'right' and 'wrong' in every case that I discussed. I wanted students to develop their own thinking, their own idea of ethics and raise questions in each approach. Should I start preaching to them, take a clear stand in class, I wondered.

My world view was deeply questioned. If the ethics of public enterprise played such a decisive role on the functioning of private organizations, I realized that I had to show them the positive examples of public morality as well. I looked around desperately to provide the class with case studies to instill them with hope in the way our public systems functioned. My examples were limited and I struggled for presenting cases other than scattered efforts existing in smaller pockets or tales of campaigns by civil society members and media trials.

Last few months have changed something drastically. As interestingly as I continue to find the correlation between governance practices and the ethical practices of the private entities*, I have found a rising change in the class debates. The new wave for wiping of corruption in the country through the rise of the common-man has created a hope. And along with hope, it has brought back the perception around honesty and integrity back on the table. It has changed the usual notion around what is possible with the efforts of a handful of people in a country as large as India.

Of course there are still many doubts and arguments and counter-arguments around the highly evolving fabric of Indian democracy, nonetheless, a new debate has started taking place in the classrooms. A new churning around standing up for the right has positively infected many young minds in my classes. One never knows where this might lead -- but it is highly important for the Indian society to nurture this momentum and let it mold into a voice of integrity and honesty. For if this momentum fails now, I don't know what it will take for India and Indians to come out of a deeper skepticism around the very idea of integrity and the value of an ethical way of life.

*I look forward to working on a separate academic piece on this correlation.