Ethical dilemma in India’s public policy

Post-Independence, India could not build on its strong ethical foundations. We established dozens of institutions of excellence but not a single institution of ethical teaching. Ethics could never become a dedicated subject of studies in our schools or colleges, barring a few references through childhood moral stories.

The public servants, as mentioned by the Prime Minister, are ‘sevaks’ of the people at large. They serve, through policymaking and its implementation, which have a potential to impact peoples’ lives and influence their well-being. These public servants make decisions on a daily basis during their career. They are influenced by various human values which often are complementary and at times competitive. Any issue of public life, therefore, put diverging solutions before public servants. They are expected to select the best solution among a variety of good solutions, putting themselves in the world of ethical dilemma.

What is an ethical dilemma?

The study of human actions, differentiating between good and bad and understanding its consequences, lead to the study of ethics. A public servant’s actions and consequences thereupon, deliver good and sometimes not so good results. If a good result, it doesn’t mean ethical and if no good result, it doesn’t mean unethical. The ‘means’ and ‘end’ of any decision making and its impact, are equally important for it to label as ‘ethical’ or ‘unethical’.

Ethical dilemma, on the other hand, is a state of confusion where an individual faces multiple ethical options in a given situation. Selecting the most ethical option, then is a difficult proposition. It is the situation of hard choices, where one choice is neither fully good and nor fully bad. It is not the selection of good from bad but often a selection of good from a ‘lesser’ or ‘equal’ good. Further, an ethical dilemma is wider and more demanding than a problem, however difficult or complex, the later may be. Dilemmas, unlike problems, cannot be solved in binary terms in which they are often presented to decision-makers.

Every individual faces an ethical dilemma at multiple stages of life, depending on the situation they are presented with. May it be the profession of doctors, lawyers, journalists or business enterprises, ethical dilemmas for them props up when their professional roles contradict with their individual roles. General public and some professionals are often presented with ethical dilemmas, in binary terms. The resolution of it becomes a little easier. The public servants, on the other hand, face ethical dilemmas which are more complex in nature, often due to multiplicity of roles and responsibilities and wider implications of decision making. The resolution of ethical dilemmas therefore is a complex process for them.

Unlike professionals and the general public, the public servants play multiple roles in their personal, professional, work jurisdiction and social spheres. The prioritisation of roles, for them vary due to the very nature of work and its impact on the governed. The multiplicity of roles, varied duties and impacts of decision making, present complex ethical dilemmas to them. Public managers, therefore, need a wide range of attributes, attitudes and skills to survive and to come over these dilemmas. Their skill, competence and commitment are tested daily as they try to respond to their constituencies, fulfil their responsibilities, and meet the challenges they face. Significantly, all these players act simultaneously, with few clear lines of authority, constantly changing public mandates, and frequent turnover of people. They therefore need to act vigilantly, resolve conflicts, set aside pressure and march forward with their public agendas.

 Ethical dilemma in public policy

Covid-19 has presented a myriad of ethical dilemmas for almost everyone — professionals like doctors, public servants, political leaders and the people at large. Due to an unprecedented influx of patients in ICUs, the medical community and the administration has to confront raising ethical concerns not only surrounding triage and withdrawal of life support decisions, expanding ICU care into non-ICU spaces, utilising non-critical care trained staff to participate in delivering critical care and innovative approaches to obtain, conserve and increase the efficiency of physical equipment, including personal protective equipment and mechanical ventilators. Practitioners encountered the difficult decisions of whom to test, whom to treat and where to focus attention and resources. At some places, doctors were forced to make decisions about whom to ventilate and whom to not. The agony of these decisions prompted several physicians to seek ethical counsel.

On the other side, we have been hearing stories about family members or relatives deserting the sick people at a time when they needed care, and even funerals of victims have been violently disrupted, raising unprecedented ethical questions. Consider the ethics of the most visible response to the pandemic — the lockdown. Different countries adopted different strategies. Countries like South Korea didn’t impose a lockdown but concentrated on other ways of containing the pandemic. Whereas in the US, some states adopted lockdown approaches and some didn’t. In India, the government adopted a lockdown strategy for containing the pandemic.

Ultimately, the “ends” of any of these above approaches is the wellbeing of the citizens. But the following “means” are different for different entities. Several ethical issues emerge from these decisions:

• One such issue is paternalism. Countries across the world, considered their decision of lockdown, to be in the best interests of the people, but have they deprived their citizens of informed consent? They may have been correct in their assumptions that their decision is correct rather than giving citizens a choice. But the ethical question still remains whether it is ethically correct to take the decision out of the citizens’ hands.

• Have the policymakers done the right thing by announcing lockdown abruptly without giving much time to the vulnerable groups to prepare for the lockdown? Has it created an empathy gap between those who made policy and those who suffered? Or should the lockdown be announced with prior notice and time frame of 8-10 days for people to move out to their locations? This might have spread the pandemic to the remotest parts of the country, causing larger damage to rural areas. This also could have led to the possibility of hoarding essential items leading to artificial scarcity of goods. Which decision would have been more appropriate, considering the larger benefit of the society or hardships of few?

The values of life versus livelihood versus fundamental freedom of individuals presented ethical dilemmas before the policymakers. Any option had its collateral effects on the country, at large.

Further as the lockdown continued it presented different ethical dilemmas due to unexpected outcomes, which needed urgent attention from the policymakers. The lockdown phase gave sufficient time to the policymakers to understand the strain of the virus. As the health recovery rate was improving, the policymakers were presented with multiple ethical dilemmas viz continue lockdown till the development of vaccine, at the cost of economic slowdown, affecting the livelihood of people; partial opening of economic activities, which may slowdown the spread but slowly help in rolling the economic wheel and put lesser burden on government exchequer; open up the complete economy, as people are fully aware of the Covid-19 precautions, which might lead to abrupt rise of virus spread, leading to abrupt losses of lives. There were other options too leading to ethical dilemmas for the policy makers.

Safeguarding lives of citizens, protecting liberty and individual freedom, adhering to constitutional principles, wellbeing of all versus hardships of few, support to the poor and free ration versus burden on the exchequer and economic prudence, empathic versus rational decision-making, etc, were conflicting human values, policymakers and implementers had to face, during Covid-19. But such instances are not limited to pandemic situations and are routine phenomena occurring during the process of policymaking. The opinions and decisions differ, as the impact. They often therefore lead to primetime discussions and debate, across news channels. May it be a decision of road widening displacing certain number of people, industrialisation by encroaching forest land, extension of populist measures during economic crisis times, preferring development over environment or change of status quo for certain states through border reorganisation or by abolition of certain act. The decisions impact certain lives, benefitting a certain number of people.

Resolving ethical dilemma

Mahatma Gandhi said, “Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man you have seen, and ask yourself if this step you contemplate is going to be any use to him.” Resolving an ethical dilemma is often a zero sum game, whereby the choice of one value alternative is necessarily followed by the negation of the other. The resolution of ethical dilemmas is based on the principles of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, leadership, rationality, impartiality, non-partisanship etc. These principles were first laid out by the Nolan committee, the committee on standards of public life during 1994-95, as essential principles for ethical standards in public life. In order to resolve ethical dilemmas, it is essential for an individual to understand the nuances of conflicting ethical claims, in a given scenario. Understanding them correctly with their likely impacts on different stakeholders is the key to resolve ethical dilemmas. There are various ethical tests prescribed to resolve ethical dilemmas. These tests being smell test, utility test, rights test, everybody test, choices test, justice test, common good test and virtue/ mirror test etc. The results of one or multiple tests decide the probable solution for the dilemma.

Evolving ethical mechanism for govt

The government controls the governed through laws of the land and judicial mechanism. However, to control itself the government needs to devise the check and balance mechanism. These mechanisms help ensure government machinery functions with the laid-out principles and vision of the system. These mechanisms can curb the illegal and unwanted acts by individuals but not the unethical acts. To devise the system based on ethical principles, the government has to build the ethics infrastructure.

Ethics infrastructure supports and encourages ethical behaviour and establishment of ethics-based decision making processes, enabling individuals to resolve ethical dilemmas in the correct perspective. It also ensures the highest standards of ethical behaviour in the society, by any individual, in public and private life. The elements/building blocks of infrastructure are complementary, mutually reinforcing and achieve necessary synergy to become a coherent and integrated one. The ‘guidance’, ‘management’ and ‘control’ are three main building blocks of ethics infrastructure.

The guidance is achieved from leadership, training and ethical codes. The management ensures laid out policies for the resolution of ethical dilemmas whereas control is generally from outside such as anticorruption agencies. The guidance and management ensure compliance of ethics from within, whereas control ensures compliance of ethics from outside means. The developed countries have well-established ethics infrastructure, whereas developing countries including India, have an ethics infrastructure, in an evolving phase. Lack of concrete ethics infrastructure is one of the important reasons for the prevalence of corruption and malpractices in public life, in India.

Ethics infrastructure

 ‘Doing good is hard; even beginning to do good is hard.’ Inscribed in the Emperor Asoka’s fifth ‘major rock edict’ from circa 257 BCE. India has very first instances of ethical teachings, through Asoka’s ethical project, as inscribed on rock edicts. The message from this project was universal and not restricted to any particular language, religion, place or state. It’s the sanctity and sacredness of those ethical teachings that the Constituent Assembly adopted on 22 July 1947, 24-spoke Asoka Chakra on the Indian National flag, symbolising the wheel of ethics and wheel of time. Each spoke on the Chakra depicted the principles and values of ethical living such as love, courage, self-sacrifice, righteousness, faith, truthfulness and others. Along with it, the rich cultural heritage, ancient philosophical moorings, preaching and practices of Mahatma Gandhi and other social reformers, religious texts and Constitution of India, laid the very foundation for ethics infrastructure in India.

 Post-Independence however, India could not build much on these strong foundations. We could establish dozens of institutions of excellence but not a single institution of ethical teaching. Ethics could never become a dedicated subject of studies in our schools or colleges, barring a few references through childhood moral stories. The first ever formal attempt has been carried out by Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), bringing the subject on ethics in 2013, for the Civil Services Exam. For other government services, there is no formal training in ethics, as such.

The focus of the government since the beginning was on compliance approach to ethics with control ensured from outside agencies like anti-corruption and others, against the menace of illegal activities but not against unethical practices. Some institutions and professional bodies could pen down the code of conduct but could not develop a code of ethics till recent period. Few could develop on self-regulatory mechanisms but without any outside body ensuring its compliance in case of any violation. It is only the Upper House of Parliament, which could establish an ethics committee as an institution to check on unethical activities and areas of conflict of interests for the Members of Parliament. The very recognition of ethical concepts of conflict of interests in the corporate sector and bodies like BCCI has been a recent phenomenon of the 21st century. The overall ethical compliance from within has seen a slow progress, so far. The beginning for the ethical life was made by the Constituent Assembly then. It is high time that we should walk the ethical path, it proposed.

Santosh Ajmera and Nanda Kishore Reddy are Indian Information Service officers of 2008 batch and have co-authored the book ‘Ethics, Integrity and Aptitude’ published by McGraw Hill publications.