Is conscience a more reliable guide when compared to laws, rules and regulations in the context of ethical decision-making? Discuss.


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The question “ Is conscience a more reliable guide when compared to laws, rules and regulations in the context of ethical decision-making? Discuss." was asked in the Mains 2023 GS Paper 4. Let us look at the model answer to this question.

Answer: Ethical decision-making involves evaluating right versus wrong based on principles of justice, rights, fairness etc. conscience Bothas an inner moral sense and external regulations like laws aim to guide such choices. However, the reliability of each approach has its own limitations.

The Law is the Public Conscience- Thomas Hobbes

Conscience as an Ethical Guide:

  • Promotes moral autonomy:
    • Conscience signifies exercising free will in moral judgments based on inherent goodness rather than external authority. As Mahatma Gandhi said, "The only tyrant I accept in this world is the still small voice within me."
    • Laws are open to the bias of lawmakers whereas conscience relies on universal ethics. But conscience itself can be shaped by social conditioning.
  • Contextual ethical analysis:
    • Conscience allows for contextual ethical analysis and justifications for actions that may seemingly violate laws but achieve a greater good per situation.
    • As Martin Luther King Jr. said, "One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws." But situational ethics can also rationalise unethical acts.
  • Self-Accountability:
    • Conscience creates self-accountability to inner moral standards. As Franklin said, "The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."
    • But conscience can be overcome by greed, fear etc. reminding us that external checks are also needed.
  • Limitations of conscience:
    • Conscience can be subverted by social conditioning and norms. E.g. The Sati system was justified on grounds of conscience earlier.
    • Subjectivity in conscience allows self-serving interpretations to rationalise unethical acts.
    • Many times, the implementation of ethical decision-making using conscience becomes constrained by laws and rules.

Laws as Ethical Guides:

  • Codified ethics:
    • Laws represent the codified ethics of society. They signal collective moral standards, rights and duties.
    • But laws also evolve with time. Slavery and apartheid were once legal and Section 377 was illegal, highlighting that law is not absolute morality.
  • Consistency and fairness:
    • Laws and regulations ensure standardised ethical conduct, not contingent on personal inclinations.
    • But laws can be discriminatory. E.g.Fundamental Rights provides positive discrimination.
  • Accountability structures:
    • Laws enable oversight structures like courts, and police to enforce ethics. This prevents antisocial behaviours.
    • However, accountability itself depends on proper implementation. The powerful may circumvent laws.

Both conscience and law have strengths and limitations as ethical guides. Reliance on either in isolation can enable injustice. The ideal approach is a balance between the two - exercising conscience within the spirit of just laws, and evolving regulations to align with principles of fairness and equality.