Tuesday, February 17, 2004

On Ethics

Some interesting thoughts...

Ethics has become a subject of great discussion of late. However, no one has any clear idea on what is ethics and what are its limits. Definitions such as they constitute the fundamentals of morals or law are clearly grandstands. Ethics has close connections with culture. Hence, what might be ethical for you might not be ethical for me and vice-versa. For example, one might feel that downloading music of the net is all cool, but another might consider it unethical. The reason I took the example of the Internet is to illustrate how much ethics is dependent on cultures. The interesting thing about the internet is its vast spread. And the speed of its spread was so fast that it was the first enabling technology of its scale that allowed people from totally different continents and cultures to interact at so intimate a basis. The ethical dilemma that we face in the process of downloading music or movies of the net has origins in this cultural interaction.

Of course, there were other factors like people coming into access with the technology for the first time and hence not realizing that it was unethical to pirate stuff. But, the continued increase in music downloads illegally and of the usage of cracks and pirated movies, despite people becoming increasing aware of its unethical nature points to the fact that it is inter-cultural interaction and the consequent fluid definition of ethics that is responsible for such dilemmas.

Another issue is what makes people raise the issue of unethical behavior in the first place. I believe that the origins of such protest lie in the Equity Theory. When people see others take advantage of systems or their loop-holes while they cannot, either due to lack of awareness or due to inability, they feel an inequity. It is this inequity that results in ethical 'grandstands'. A good example is the issue of music downloads. When music companies realized that users all over the world were listening to songs, their inherent feeling of inequity kicked in. Similarly is the issue of scams. When people realized that someone else was making money, whether it was at their expense OR NOT, people raised a hue and cry on unethical behavior. Coming back to the example of music downloads, why is it that ordinary people do not complain about such illegal downloads and only music companies raise a hue and cry. Now, one must remember that these 'ordinary' people constitute very well read individuals (the common perception of a nerdy school dropout downloading pirated music is but a myth) - sometimes with even Phds and MBAs !. Why do they not consider such piracy as unethical behavior while making all kinds of noise about the need for ethics in business and everyday life. It is because the issue is one of perspective. What is unethical for some is ethical for others.

Ethics is about a perspective of what is right and what is wrong. And who are we to decide what is what :D
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