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Ethics—a fading trend

Huzaima Bukhari

“A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world”—Albert Camus

On 2 December 2012, Spanish athlete Iván Fernández Anaya was competing in a cross-country race in Burlada, Navarre, a municipality of Spain. He was running second, some distance behind race leader Abel Mutai—a bronze medalist in the 3,000-meter steeple chase at the London Olympics. As they entered the finishing straight, he saw the sure shot winner, Abel Mutai, pull up about 10 meters before the finish, thinking he had already crossed the line. Fernández Anaya quickly caught up with him, but instead of exploiting Mutai’s mistake to speed past and claim an unlikely victory, he stayed behind using gestures to guide the Kenyan to the line allowing him to cross first.

“I didn’t deserve to win it,” says 24-year-old Fernández Anaya. “I did what I had to do. He was the rightful winner. He created a gap that I couldn’t have closed if he hadn’t made a mistake. As soon as I saw he was stopping, I knew I wasn’t going to pass him.

“But even if they had told me that winning would have earned me a place in the Spanish team for the European championships, I wouldn’t have done it either…. But I also think that I have earned more of a name having done what I did than if I had won. And that is very important, because today, with the way things are in all circles, in soccer, in society, in politics, where it seems anything goes, a gesture of honesty goes down well.”


Was this Spanish athlete talking about ethics, a gradually fading trend for those who live in Pakistan?

During the 1960s decade, the syllabus of primary schools contained a subject known as social studies (or ma’ashrathi uloom in Urdu) which was a combination of history of the region (not just Pakistan), geography and civics. Civics dealt with everyday matters such as traffic rules, giving way to ambulances and fire engines, taking care of other commuters, pedestrians’ duties in walking on the roads keeping homes and surroundings clean, not wasting food and water, being kind to neighbours and not be a nuisance to others, speaking the truth, remaining honest and best of all, fidelity to the country. In a way, these were the ethics that were cultivated in children during their formative years.

Over time, this particular subject was converted into Pakistan studies only for the purpose of memorizing details in order to score high marks in exams. A cursory look at the content for matric classes IX and X and that of Ordinary Levels (O Level) shows history, curtailed to downfall of Moghuls and making of Pakistan. According to the Cambridge University 2018 syllabus, the course introduces learners to the history, culture, geography, environment and development of Pakistan. Students learn about Pakistan’s rich heritage and cultural influences, and about the events which have shaped national identity, from the decline of Mughal power up to 1999. It provides an appreciation of the heritage, the challenges and opportunities facing Pakistan but is completely silent about the great non-Muslim ancestors of the present day Pakistanis.

From the primary level to lower and higher secondary education, students are taught to mug up facts like parrots and in the tests/exams merely reproduce notes handed out by their teachers, to clear a subject they have to compulsorily study. Once they graduate high school, they erase from their minds all the crammed up stuff only to focus their attention on subjects that would prove beneficial for their chosen careers. As far as their human duties are concerned, they remain clueless because whatever is taught in their schools does not cater to this aspect of their lives so once they start jobs or enter trade/professional domain, the element of ethics—unless their family-taught values are different—remain questionable. One glance at the general degradation in all walks of life, be they political, professional, journalistic, academic, domestic etc., is enough to validate this fact.

Missing from our school curriculum is the topic of ethics which is of immense significance. As an independent academic subject, ethics (or moral philosophy) involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior. It has an exceedingly wide scope but for purposes of introducing it, especially at the primary level, it can be toned down to cover topics that may be transformed to create an interesting course for children to study, enjoy and learn values that can have lasting impressions in their lives.

One can argue that in the presence of Islamiyat for Muslims and Scripture or Religious Studies for Christians, why should there be a need for an additional subject. A casual glance into their syllabi shows that Islamiyat covers a basic understanding of the major beliefs of Islam and early history of Islamic community. This gives students a superficial idea of how these beliefs impact on the daily lives and thoughts of Muslims around the world, and of course familiarity with the holy Qur’an and Hadith in Arabic. Scripture focuses on Christian origins, study of the portrayal of the life and teaching of Jesus; it also considers the portrayal of the birth and development of the early church including the study of biblical texts exploring religious, ethical and historical questions.

From a critic’s viewpoint, other than a holistic picture of the religions, there is an absence of universal morality that enables a person to become a good human being (whatever maybe his/her religion) no matter which country or community he/she chooses to live. Besides, religion is prone to create rifts between two individuals but knowledge of ethics does not entail a particular belief and can be imparted to all and sundry simultaneously.

As mentioned earlier, ethical theories have a wide scope that philosophers have divided into three general subject areas: meta-ethics, normative ethics and applied ethics. For the purpose of convenience, the hard core philosophy can be supplanted with normative ethics (further segmented into virtue and duty theories) which involves arriving at moral standards that regulate right and wrong conduct and proper behavior. The Golden Rule is a classic example of a normative principle: We should do to others what we would want others to do to us. Anything that is not to our liking should not be thrusted upon another. Since we do not like to be disturbed by loud music, we should refrain from playing loud music so as not to disturb our neighbours. If we want people to feed us when we are starving, then we should help feed starving people. Using this type of reasoning, one can theoretically determine whether any possible action is right or wrong.

Essentially, this relates to character building, something, we as a nation desperately need. The set of rules which define our lives must be learnt and that too at an early age. Virtue and duty theories are meant to impregnate the mind with those ideas that help to develop positive traits among human beings to an extent that they become their habit to be acted upon spontaneously in a given situation.


The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

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