Decline of Ethics and Moral Values

Corrosion of moral values is a painful reality all around the world. We see dangerously increasing violence, self-centeredness, dishonesty, bullying and rudeness everywhere. Research points out to the sad trend where young people are caring less and less about morals and ethical values. Their entire focus appears to be on themselves with least concern for morality.

Ethics refers to well-founded standards of what is right and what is wrong that determines what people are expected to do. These rules revolve around rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, specific virtues etc. At a fundamental level, ethics should provide the answer to the question ‘What do I do in a particular set of circumstances?’ Thus ethics is an external system of concepts and rules that directs us to make morally right decisions. 

Morality on the other hand is a personal set of beliefs. It is the core of who we are as individuals unlike ethics which deals with the expectations that are defined and enforced on us by the culture and society we live in.

Integrity which is closely associated with morality, is an internal system of principles which guides our behaviour. People of integrity are motivated by a strong inner drive that makes them strive for consistently high standards of behaviour. Such behaviour is displayed even when no one is watching. There is also no expectation for either reward or punishment when behaving on the basis of our inner compass.

We attach lot of importance to morality:

In religious and philosophical traditions, morality enjoys maximum importance. Where moral considerations conflict with other considerations, it is made clear that moral considerations should always be “overriding”.

In cross-cultural research, moral values have been found to reside at the top of “value hierarchies” in all the cultures around the world. Studies repeatedly found that assessments of a person’s moral character played a central and dominant role in forming good or bad impression of the individual. Morality thus plays an important role in a variety of social and personal contexts.

Decline in ethics and morality all around:

Mass shootings, racial hatred including display of white supremacy, social injustice and fraud are just a few of the examples of the moral decay in America. These extremes forms of behaviour are mainly occurring because of a decline in morality and nonadherence to ethical standards.

This sorry state-of-affairs was reflected in the Gallup Survey conducted in the year 2022. The survey found that 50% of Americans rated the overall state of moral values in the U.S. as “poor” and another 37% said it was “only fair”. Just 1% of people surveyed thought that the state of moral values is “excellent” and 12% voted them as “good”. Most disturbingly, the survey highlighted the general feeling that Americans most of the time treated each other shabbily.

Cost of Corruption:

The World Economic Forum estimates that the global cost of corruption is at least $2.6 trillion, or 5 per cent of the global gross domestic product (GDP).  According to the World Bank, meanwhile, businesses and individuals pay more than $1 trillion in bribes every year. ANTÓNIO GUTERRES, Secretary‑General of the United Nations said “Corruption robs schools, hospitals and others of vitally needed funds”. 

When corruption is systemic, the public resources are constantly diverted away from projects, policies and services that serve the public at large. 

Our education system is failing to enhance our ethical values:

As our moral values are significantly shaped in our younger years, we need to question our educational system for its failure in this area. Even though more people are now going through schools and colleges, their education appears to be ineffective in strengthening their social, ethical and spiritual values. Thus, the right type of education will take us out of darkness into light, and out of ignorance into brighter understanding (Tamaso Ma Jyotirgamaya) is completely missing.

Colleges and universities today place great emphasis only on acquiring academic knowledge. But when we examines failures of adults either in job performance or in relationships with friends and colleagues, especially in marriages, we may find that the root cause is lack of ethical reasoning which is different from academic reasoning. 

Teaching ethical reasoning is not about teaching what one should do in particular circumstances, it is about teaching students how to think wisely when looking for solutions involving ethical considerations. Students need to examine the problems from different angles exploring possible solutions and then evaluating the advantages and disadvantages of these solutions. What is important is that the solution will need to pass the ethical objectivity test. 

Moral Foundation theory:

Moral Foundations Theory was created by a group of social and cultural psychologists to understand why morality varies so much across cultures and yet shows so many similarities. With so many unique cultural moralities around the world, some moral rules are bound to conflict with that of others.  However, there are moral rules that are universal and are found in all these cultures. They consist of rules governing ‘caring for others, being fair, displaying loyalty, respecting authority, wanting a certain degree of freedom and liberty’ etc.

Morality As Cooperation(MAC):

Research is converging on the idea that morality is a collection of rules for promoting cooperation. Such rules cover areas like working together, getting along, keeping the peace and promoting the common good. 

The theory of ‘Morality As Cooperation’ argues that morality is best understood as a collection of biological and cultural solutions to the problems of cooperation which one regularly encounters in human social life.

MAC draws on evolutionary game theory to argue that there are bound to be many types of morality simply because there are many types of cooperation. However, anthropologists at the University of Oxford have discovered that in-spite of this variety, there are seven universal moral rules that cut across all cultures. These universal rules consist of helping our family, helping our group, returning favours from others, being brave, paying respect to superiors, dividing resources fairly and finally respecting property rights of others. These common rules were found in all the 60 cultures that were surveyed from around the world.

Some interesting examples, including some from tribal cultures, are given below. 

Among the Amhara of Ethiopia, flouting kinship obligation is regarded as a shameful deviation, indicating an evil character. 

In Korea, there exists an egalitarian community ethic which consist of mutual assistance and cooperation among neighbours and also strong solidarity within the group.

Reciprocity is observed in every stage of  life of Tibetan-Burmese ethnic group Garo and has a very high place in the Garo social structure of values. 

Among the largest indigenous tribe of North America which is Tarahumara, respect for the property of others is the keystone of all interpersonal relations.

The Bemba of Zambia exhibit a deep sense of respect for authority of elders.

Morality in Sports:

One reason for compromised moral values in the sports arena is the professionalization and commercialization of sports which puts too much emphasis on the need for wins rather than the need for active participation. The moral dilemma then, is the desire and need to win which is pitted against the importance of sincere participation, faithfully following all the rules of the game. 

In a research study on ‘Morality and values in sports among young athletes’, it was found, that young athletes who were raised by parents who communicated high morals and values as part of the socialization of their children, exhibited ethical traits in all their sport activities.

The curse of  moral mandates:

Rigid moral codes are not necessarily good all the time. Uncompromising and absolute moral convictions can cause serious negative interpersonal consequences. This is due to the tendency by moral extremists to vilify and dehumanize those that disagree with their moral beliefs. Researchers describe beliefs based on moral convictions as “moral mandates”. They are defined as mandated rules regarding the rightness and wrongness of specific behaviours. Thus ‘abortion is morally wrong’ or ‘natural environments must be protected at any cost’ or ‘ use of marijuana has to be prohibited even if it has medicinal value’ are all examples of such entrenched moral values. Unfortunately, when our moral values force us to challenge scientific facts and well-founded innovations, we are in a way impeding the advancement of science.

Ethics and business:

Businesses create a lot of value both to stakeholders and to society at large. They provide goods and services, wages to workers and income to investors. They pay taxes that are deployed for infrastructure development for the community. Taxes also act as the financial resource for a wide variety of governmental programs and services. Many firms also give generously to charities and provide ‘employees time’ to engage in community programs. This is a short but incomplete list of sources of value provided by businesses. However, in spite of the value they provide, many people have a negative view of businesses and their leaders, believing that they are inherently corrupt and destructive. This perspective is fuelled by widely disseminated information about corporate misdeeds associated with pollution, greed, discrimination, exploitation of workers, bribery, and so forth. Businesses are being scrutinized more than ever thanks to high-speed internet, abundance of news sources and social media,

Research conducted by ‘Ethics and Compliance Initiative’ showed that 49% of U.S. employees reported observing unethical behaviour in their organizations. The most frequently observed unethical behaviours involved favouritism toward certain employees (35%), management lying to employees (25%), conflicts of interest (23%), improper hiring practices (22%), abusive behaviour (22%) and health violations (22%).

Regulators in several countries have been focusing on auditor independence, which is a major investor safeguard. This has resulted in barring of audit firms from performing certain outside work for their audit clients and also limiting the revenue that the firm’s consulting practice can earn. 

It should therefore come as no surprise when the huge global firm Ernst & Young announced plans to separate into two companies, one that does mainly auditing work and the other consulting and advisory work.  Most analysts cited it as an effort to help avoid conflicts of interest between the two businesses. The Bloomberg headline read EY Consulting Split Aims to Free Firm from Ethics Crackdown”. 

Moral dilemmas for businesses with branches outside their country:

Companies face several moral dilemmas when they set up shop outside their country.

Should a company invest in a foreign country where civil and political rights are frequently violated? Should a company go along with the discriminatory employment practices of the host country?  What standards should prevail when companies in developed countries shift facilities to developing nations which lack strict environmental and health regulations? Also in such situations should the companies fill management and other top-level positions sourcing from the host country or home country? 

Even the best-informed, best-intentioned senior executives must rethink their assumptions about business practice in foreign settings. What works in a company’s home country may not work at all in a country with different standards of ethical conduct. Such difficulties are unavoidable for business people who live and work abroad, as they have to struggle against cultural relativism.

According to cultural relativism, ethics of no particular culture is better than that of any other. Thus, the theory holds that there are no international rights and wrongs. If the people of Indonesia tolerate bribery of their public officials, so what? Their attitude is no better or worse than that of people in Denmark or Singapore who refuse to offer or accept bribes. Likewise, if Belgians fail to find insider trading morally repugnant, do we care? Not enforcing insider-trading laws is no more or no less ethical than enforcing such laws. However, the inadequacy of cultural relativism becomes apparent when the practices in question are lot more damaging than the examples of petty bribery or insider trading. 

At the other end of the spectrum from cultural relativism is ethical imperialism, which directs that people should do everywhere exactly what they do at home. This theory calls for exactly the same behaviour around the world.  It, unfortunately, believes that there is a single list of universal truths which can be expressed only with one set of concepts. This goes against the well-established doctrine on the need to respect differences in various cultural traditions and practices. For instance, in some cultures, loyalty to a community weather it is family, organization, or society, is the foundation of all ethical behaviour. The Japanese, for example, define business ethics in terms of loyalty to their companies, their business networks, and their nation. On the other hand, Americans place a higher value on individual liberty than on loyalty. U.S. tradition of rights emphasizes equality, fairness and individual freedom. It is hard to conclude that truth lies on one side or the other, but an absolutist would force us to select just one.

The other problem of insisting on a single global standard of ethical behaviour is that the context often must shape ethical practice. Very low wages, for example, may be considered unethical in rich, advanced countries, but developing nations may be acting ethically accepting lower wages since it encourages more investments into the region thus improving living standards of locals. 

Various cultures also have different ways of handling unethical behaviour. When a manager at a large U.S. specialty-products company in China caught an employee stealing, she followed the company’s practice and turned the employee over to the provincial authorities, who promptly executed him. Managers, thus, cannot operate in another culture without being aware of that specific culture’s attitudes toward ethics.

Ethical organization culture is more critical than statement of code of conduct:

There is overwhelming evidence that simply defining code of ethics in an organization is  totally inadequate for fostering ethical values unless an ‘ethical organization culture’ is actively promoted in the organization. Social proof, also called the informational social influence argues that people tend to copy the actions and behaviour of others, especially that of more influential people, in any organization. This results in people in the organization taking cues about behavioural decisions from the organization culture rather than looking at the stated core values. There is growing research support for the phenomena of culture as the primary driver of employee behaviour. 

For example Enron’s Code of Ethics, with its Vision and Values platform encompassing its RICE (Respect, Integrity, Communication, and Excellence) values statement, was often cited as a model corporate code of ethics. But Enron, one of the largest energy companies in the world, collapsed in fraud, scandal and bankruptcy in late 2001. The company’s claim of 1000% return to investors was little more than an accounting fraud. The Justice Department filed hundreds of charges against Enron executives for fraud and conspiracy.

It is safe to say that unethical cultures will, over a period of time, result in unethical and even illegal activities.

In 2014, General Motors admitted that since 2001 it had hidden a potentially fatal design defect. GM engineers, investigators, and lawyers knew, but the company decided that recalling cars would cost too much. Instead, they kept the flaw secret for more than a decade. They kept selling risky cars while the deaths and injuries piled up.

Society needs to promote good ethical practices and discourage deviations:

All of us, as members of society, learn morality from the observed behaviour of other members rather than from an approved rule book. The incentive to act morally is influenced by our expectation that other members will also exhibit the same moral behaviour. The moral standards of a society thus are built on the outcomes of such expectations over time. Our own moral standards can quickly deteriorate when we witness insufficient moral sanctions for wrongful actions by others. We may start believing that the society’s moral standards are lower than what we had expected. Such a belief among the members will encourage more wrongful actions with the feeling that there is no incentive to act morally. As the moral standards start declining, the stated moral rules lose the power to regulate unapproved behaviour. 

We need to appreciate that unlike written laws, moral rules are intrinsically implicit and subjective because each person’s moral values, which constitute society’s rules, are individual and private information. 

Trust Deficit all across sectors:

There has been much discussion worldwide in recent years about what is referred to as the growing crisis of trust, particularly in the core institutions of government, business and the media. The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, observed in September 2019 that “our world is suffering from a bad case of ‘Trust Deficit Disorder’ … people are losing faith in political establishments, polarization is on the rise and populism is on the march” 

This plummeting public trust sweeping the globe is infecting relationships among people, between people and their governments and between people and a range of societal institutions. This erosion of trust is clearly visible in all the media, especially in social media. The danger of this moral erosion is that citizens lacking trust are less likely to comply with laws and regulations, are unlikely to contribute to economic vitality and will have less resistance to the influence of extremist elements etc.


Bioethics is commonly understood to refer to the ethical implications in all aspects of the health-related life sciences. These implications can run the entire length of the life sciences value chain. Dilemmas can arise for the basic scientist who wants to develop synthetic embryos to better study embryonic development, but will be afraid of running into moral and ethical issues later on, like how much should the scientist worry about their potential uses.

Once treatments or drugs reach the clinical trials stage involving human subjects, a new set of challenges arise, from ensuring informed consent to protecting the vulnerable research participants.  Eventually, when the drugs are released for public use, then the patients and their families struggle to fully understand and analyse the risks and benefits of treatment in line with the patient’s best interest and goals. There is also the problem of high costs of new therapies which are a great strain on patients or health care providers.

One major ethical dilemma revolves around allocation of scarce and potentially life-saving equipment like ventilators.

The decision maker is asked a direct question “Who shall live when not everyone can live? Unfortunately this decision cannot be emotion-driven or arbitrary. It cannot be based on a person’s wealth or social standing. Priorities need to be established ethically and must be applied consistently in the same institution and ideally throughout the state and the country. The general social norm to treat all equally or to treat based on a first come, first saved basis may not be the appropriate choice here. There is a consensus among clinical ethics scholars, that in this situation, maximizing benefits is the dominant factor in making a decision. Maximizing benefits can be viewed in two different ways. We could look at lives saved or look at life-years saved. In any case these decisions are emotionally very stressful.