Logic of normative ethics: Immorality

Why does one bring up the issue of one’s grandmother’s judgment about a clerk taking bribes as a counter-example? First, what do I say? That he calls it as corruption has to do with western normative ethics. Does it follow from this that the action of the municipal clerk is ethically good? It does not, unless one assumes either (a) I am presenting an alternate moral principle, which will make the action of the clerk morally good; or that (b) the only morality that will make the action of the clerk ethically bad is the one that construes it as corruption. I am not presenting an alternate moral rule that justifies the action of the clerk. But I want to know why the so-called corruption comes about and whether it is that. My attempt at doing this is assumed to make the action of the clerk or the building contractor morally good. Why this assumption? I suggest that it comes about because of the assumption (b).

Secondly, consider the underlying rhetorical force of the counter-example: “even we Indians call it ethically bad”. But whoever said that the action of the clerk or the building contractor is ethically good? Did I say that we do not have notions of adharma or paapa? I did not; so why does he assume that my reconstruction to explain corruption of the clerk is an exoneration of the clerk’s action?

So, it appears that there are but two options open to me: either I condemn it as corruption or I am doomed to defend the action as morally good. This is how the issues get set up in the normative ethics. The possibility that one can criticize the clerk or the contractor without making it into corruption and yet call it unethical is not even entertained. When vaguely entertained, it becomes a matter of labels as one puts it. The problem, though, is that this label makes all the difference about how we tackle it: whether as a social phenomenon or as something else. That is to say, it is not a label which is at stake but one of re-conceptualizing ethics. Is there the problem of corruption in India that makes about 20% of the adult Indian population into immoral people, or is something else going on? Surely, there is something wrong with a theory that makes us massively immoral but leaves the western culture intact. This is the issue I wanted to focus on. But such is the logic of the western normative ethics that there is little possibility of discussing it without being forced either into a defense of immorality or into the assumption that normative condemnation is the only way of conducting an ethical discussion.

True, I have not offered an alternate theory either of ethics or of corruption. The first will very soon (I hope) come out as a book, and research is needed on the second. I claim that we need to do research on this phenomenon, but others know what the phenomenon is without doing any such research. Where do they get this certainty from? From two things, I would like to suggest. One from the conviction that the clerk and the contractor are being unethical (but this is not being discussed); second from the belief that the moral talk that has made this into corruption is also the only talk that will make it unethical. To challenge that it is corruption is to doubt its immorality. In other words, the only way of indulging in moral talk is to talk the way the western ethics does.

The above are one’s cognitive assumptions, probably not those one is aware of making.