Are you a good person ?

Ranjan Yumnam *

Here we go again. Are you a good person who lives by moral principles following rules voluntarily for their own sake, your conscience guiding you to acts of altruism and kindness, a day without helping others seeming like a day wasted and heart unfulfilled ? I will not answer this question, but I will point you in all the wayward directions—from God and scientists to philosophers.

For a moment, strip yourself of all the titles, material and emotional baggage, affiliations to gender, race, Nationality, caste, class, creed or religion, imagining yourself as a naked baby gasping for air immediately after passing through the birth canal. The first relevant question to consider is: Are there any absolute moral values that we should stick by at all times : by you and me, for us and them ?

We intuitively believe in such widespread aphorisms like: “Don’t kill; don’t cheat; don’t covet neighbour’s wife; speak the truth, etc.” If this is true, then it is logical to assume there exists a source of these shared beliefs ? Are the ethical values hardwired into our neurology or subconscious since birth, like the built-in BIOS that comes preloaded with every PC’s motherboard? If a rudimentary sense of morality was not ingrained in our physiological or psychological nature, then, did religions or God give us our moral values ? Or are ethics mere social constructs for underlying Hegelian ends ?


Consider the Divine Command Theory of Ethics. The theory decrees that something is good because God says so, and we are bound to obey it. The divine explanation is simple, elegant, and common-sensical—until it is not. In the monotheistic Christian-Judaeo-Islamic religions, the famous Ten Commandments are the bedrock of ethics and are said to have been revealed to Moses by the Almighty, the irony of which is brought to the fore by a morally incorrect story of the revelation of moral commandments to Moses by God, which I am recounting below:

“Moses trudges down from Mt. Sinai, tablets in hand, and announces to the assembled multitudes: I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news. The good news is I got Him down to ten. The bad news is ‘adultery’ is still in.”

Rationalists have constantly challenged the claim that ethics originates from God’s command. That irreverent gadfly of a philosopher, Socrates, asked a poor Euthyphro this mind-bending question: “Are things ethical because the Gods approve of them, or are things approved of by Gods because they’re ethical?” This is a big dilemma, as you will see.

If the Gods approve of things because they are ethical, then they actually are not in charge of what’s ethical, the argument implying that Gods do not have the divine authority or are powerless to determine the moral code, and are thus reduced to being just instrumental conduits, like a barometer for measuring atmospheric pressure or the giant clock at GM Hall to tell us time. Ethics must come from somewhere else, external to God. God must be as clueless as we are when it comes to morality, the sceptics say.

The alternative explanation of the divine command theory is even more absurd and damning for God. If God made the morality laws, we could conclude that He is a whimsical master who acts more like a narcissistic and authoritarian Despot, thinking nothing of the burning of women at the pyre of the dead husbands, the practice of keeping slaves even during Jesus’ times; stoning of adulterous women; fratricide in Mahabharata; racism/casteism, inequality, and discrimination in the present world, etc ? —all mindless blots of mankind that God probably sanctioned or at least condoned.


So, can there be ethics without Gods ? One way to proceed secularly is to link ethics with human nature and establish beyond doubt what it is like to be a raw human being left to herself without any filters. Are we innately evil or virtuous ? If you read history and encounter people like Hitler, then your view of human nature would be pretty grim. Contrast Hitler with Mother Theresa, epitomes of human cruelty and compassion, respectively: two quintessential man and woman of egregiously contradictory human nature, if there is any.

Thinkers are divided on the truth about human nature, some believing that we are as good as a blank slate when we are born—what John Locke called ‘tabula rasa’—upon which our experiences build and develop our moral compass. Holding a benign view, Genevan Jean-Jacques Rousseau imagined that men were ‘noble savages’ who lived together peacefully, showing instinctive compassion to their fellows satisfied in the ‘sleep of reason’, their wants so frugal and found aplenty in nature. Only when the concept of private property and the trappings of civilization took hold was men’s innocence lost at its altar.

English thinker Thomas Hobbes held a contradictory view, a dim one, and contended that men’s ‘state of nature’ compelled them to live in a ceaseless “war of every man against all” in which acting ethically would have put any individual at a disadvantage or mortal risk. In this state of nature, men’s lives were ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,’ morality was useless among human beings, who were beasts at their core.

The story of the Ring of Gyges from Greek mythology reinforced this negative character of men. Imagine that you happen to find a magic ring. When you put it on, you become completely invisible, and your actions cannot be detected by others. What would you do ? Think, Ready ! Think, Set ! Think, Go !

Now stop. I caught you red-handed at the bank’s cash vault in one of your imaginary scenarios. The idea is that if we are somehow allowed to act freely, unfettered by the restrictions and rules of society, most of us would become selfish bastards, grabbing whatever we can for power, money and status. In the original story of the ring, Gykes was a loyal shepherd who worked as a messenger of the King of Lydia to report on his flocks.

When Gykes found a ring in an underground tomb during a chance earthquake, he misused the ring, entered the palace surreptiously, seduced the queen with the ring’s power, murdered the king and put himself on the throne. Gykes became a selfish asshole, true to his innate human nature, a cautionary story of morality melting away when presented with a golden opportunity. If you were this Gykes, would you do any better ?


This human selfishness, which sprouts to full bloom under tempting conditions and a lawless environment, needs to be curtailed if there is to be a semblance of a functioning society. The theory that there should be some collective understanding and pre-emptive restrictions on an individual’s freedom is called the ‘social contract theory’ propounded as a necessary safety net for men to live together in a society.

Social Contract Theory gave birth to the influential mainstream political philosophy that has shaped the modern State. Hobbes concluded that human nature, selfishness and self-serving being his default moral state, needs to be restrained if a society is to develop in an atmosphere of cooperation and collaboration.

In his book Leviathan, he wrote that the king or the monarch should assume the role of lawmaker and strictly enforce the laws among the citizens by using coercion through pain inducing punishments. “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure,” wrote Jeremy Bentham, a Utilitarian philosopher. Individuals should surrender their natural urges to the State, empowering the State to decide what is right and what is wrong for the members of the society. The social contract theory also subordinates individual freedoms, placing them at the mercy of the impartial and powerful State.

Like the Divine Command Theory, this has all the tell-tale signs of a Top-Down Morality. In a way, we are back to square one, the notion that the State should decide what is good for us is like another Divine Command Theory in a new boot and suit holding Cheitharol Kumbaba.

The problem of Rousseau’s General Will is that any political system tends to degenerate into Totalitarian State, the elites concentrating powers in their hands and misuse them in the name of State. How does anyone, divine or mortal or institutions, proclaim what is ethical for all of us when all the routes lead to authoritarianism and a system of intolerance, like water flowing downstream from a height ?

Maybe there is no absolute truth about morality. It is all relative, and anything goes. The joke is on again:
Tomba : Chaoba bhai, I am calling from Sekmai, driving my new Audi Car. This is a beauty, man !
Chaoba: Be careful, Tomba. I just heard on the police radio that a drunk person is driving the wrong way on that stretch.
Tomba: Only one drunk driver? Thorabi, there are hundreds of them in my lane.


Since neither God nor the Social Contract Theory gives us a definitive truth about ethics, we are left settling for moral crumbs from personal opinions. It is seductive to ask then : Is morality like saying, “I love pizza” — a subjective matter of taste, a personal predisposition like needing to scratch an itch in our unreachable body parts ? One notable theory in this tradition is the Emotivism Theory propounded by British thinker AJ Ayer.

He speculated that morality is just a psychological reaction couched in ethical-sounding language. All moralistic principles are personal expressions of emotional approval or disgust. Morality is akin to an audience saying ‘boo’ to the clumsy sports team, its striker kicking the ball offside or patrons exclaiming ‘yay’ (cheering) at the sight of a beautiful painting in an art gallery. This boo and cheer—or Thui or Yaiyai in Manipuri—is what is at the essence of morality, says Emotivists with their tongue in the cheek.

This is basically like saying, “Ethics is what I say ethics is.” In the same cynical spirit, Protagoras said, “Man is the measure of all things. Although objective reality exists and an Objective Truth may even exist, these things will be interpreted and understood differently by each person experiencing them”.

Carrying this relativist view forward; Multiculturalism Theory also espouses the idea that whatever beliefs or moral codes any society happens to follow are the absolute truth about ethics in that society, a veritable challenge against the Western notions of ethics. The Arab society wants the faces of women to be hidden in burqas, so be it. The Indians want their dips in the Ganga water, so be it.

The Eskimos don’t think twice about killing their female babies, so be it. The rich and powerful Manipuris want multiple wives, each younger than the earlier, so be it. In the writing of the Greek Historian Herodotus, in the 5th Century BC, he recounted a hilarious display of contrasting moral beliefs between the peoples of two societies. When King Darius of Persia suggested to a visiting delegate of Greeks that they should eat their dead fathers, they were appalled.

In the same court, members of another tribe, the Callatians, were also present, and they couldn’t help but express their disgust at the Greek practice of burning their dead forefathers. Hindus burn their bodies, Christians and Muslims bury them, Zoroastrians leave them to decompose to the delight of the scavengers, and some people, like Callatians, eat their dead grandfathers in a feast. Custom is the king. But all of them can’t be right, mate.


Luckily, we can all agree upon one thing about ethical behaviour. For ethics to be made a moral responsibility for an individual, the precondition should be theoretical existence of freedom of choices, options being available, free from fear or coercion. Every ethical canon worth its soul presupposes free will, otherwise we cannot be held responsible for something which we can’t help but do it anyway.

Determinists doubt the possibility of free will and vigorously challenge this notion. They claim that everything in the world is pre-determined or scripted due to nature’s law of cause and effect or God’s will. From the genetic, environmental, historical, fate, psychoanalytic, quantum physics and theological points of view, our destiny is out of our hands, your morning breakfast prefixed. (Ergo, I was bound to write this, and you had to read this so far!)

When asked if he believed in free will, novelist Bashevis Singer replied, “I have no choice.” This is a fatalistic view, of course. If we are robbed of all human agency, then there would be no such thing as ethics or any point in following ethical practices. We hear this line of thought every day or in the popular media, where some people believe in a mystical force cajoling them to tread the paths specially designed for them, timings ofthose events clinically played out to the last nano-second.

“The devil made me do it.” “I was born that way; I can’t help it”. “It was meant to happen.” Tinker a bit further with the ideas of Dawkin’s Selfish Genes, the id, ego and superego from Sigmund Freud, and add some Oedipus Complex, and Penis envy, the whole edifice of ethics will crumble like cards decked precariously by a pretentious Dad to impress his kid.


Here comes the Golden Rule, an unassuming rule, aiming to please all, its mandate nevertheless no less grand. Let’s give it a chance, comrade. The Golden Rule is one moral theory that intuitively resolves all the ethical problems encountered above in this write-up. Every society or religion has a version of its own Golden Rule—“Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” This rule is as elegant, intuitive, and sophisticated as any Apple device. Detractors like Frederick Nietzsche attacked the Golden Rule because, according to him, it destroys one’s authenticity and hampers self-creation, which is the hallmark of Existentialism.

According to Nietzsche, who famously declared that “God is Dead,” life is meaningless, and one must take responsibility for creating meaning in this life by sheer force of will, power, and freedom. The dos and don’ts imposed by the Golden Rule on individuals are a nuisance and they encourage “herd morality” contrary to the existential quest to fulfil the self-created purpose in life.

Therefore, the Golden Rule manifests and reinforces the master-slave mentality, the Rule supressing individual potential and independent thinking. Consider another objection also. Danish pessimist thinker Sřren Kierkegaard also believed that the mentality of ethics was a pain in the ass which prevents one from taking a leap of faith in God, ironically !

The objection to the generic Golden Rule is that even a Nazi can be its ardent follower without any good to show for it. For example, a Nazi may genuinely believe that all Jews must be exterminated; even if he were to be born a Jew, he would agree to be killed by a Nazi. Golden Rule has no answer for this moral dilemma.

Subsequently, Immanuel Kant updated the Golden Rule, his upstart principle being: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Kant believes in human rationality and that, by using reason, one must treat all men as equal moral beings and not as means to an end.

Moral duties, which he called Categorical Imperatives, trump all other worldly and convenient considerations. Good intentions not clouded by consideration of uncertain consequences are the drivers of Ethics, which emphasizes discipline to perform duty in all circumstances without any exception. Golden Rule activists such as Kant have come to be known as duties-oriented Deontologists.


Jeremy Bentham who founded utilitarianism pooh-poohs Immanuel Kant who placed duties above the positive experience of cheerful consequences. Much earlier to Bentham, Machiavelli had said that only consequences should matter when mulling over how to act in a given situation. Moral scruples of the means must never become a constraint to achieve a worthy end. Bentham claimed the “greatest happiness of the greatest number” should be the decisive moral objective implying thatby this yardstick, all our modern politicians will happily take an oath by Utilitarianism at the drop of a ballot.

However, a grey area remains: who decides what kind of happiness to seek for whom and what will happen to the interests of the minorities under the tyranny of majoritarian utilitarianism? It’s not a pleasurable question for anyone to ask!

Meanwhile, feminists in high heels criticise all mainstream ideologies and take autopsies of them through the perspective of male-female power dynamics. Feminism posits the idea that all the social, political, and economic structures of society through the aeons of time are a grand proxy for keeping women subjugated by men through a system of manufactured yes-means-yes customs and institutions.

These societal forces against women are so entrenched that women themselves partake in the perpetuation of patriarchy, assuming it to be natural. Marx argued that ‘false consciousness’ made this default inclination to the status quo possible. One of my favourite feminist quotes is by Simone de Beauvoir, who wrote in the book The Second Sex that “a woman is not born but becomes a woman.”

Even within the study of ethics, the field of care ethics is reserved for women. The service industry, hospitality, nursing, and air-hostess jobs depend on the “emotional labour” of women alienated from their authentic feelings. This is no laughing matter.

“On an international flight, a plane passes through violent turbulence. The air hostess is so sure of a deadly explosion mid-air that she screams: “Well, I’m too young to die; I want my last minutes on earth to be memorable! No one has ever made me really feel like a woman! Heck! Can anyone on this plane make me feel like a woman and fulfil my final wish?”

After this woman’s desperate announcement, the aircraft becomes silent momentarily. Then, a handsome hunk rippling with muscles approaches the woman while slowly unbuttoning his shirt. He removes his clothes, and as his hands reach her and hold his shirt towards the trembling woman, he says, “Iron this.”


The last item in our ethics menu is not an ethical rule or principle. It’s called living by virtues. It has a long lineage in the Western and Eastern traditions. It’s more concerned with living a good life rather than following a certain moral code. The classic virtues propounded by the Western sages are courage, justice, temperance and practical wisdom. In other words, one should develop a good character and behave accordingly, rejecting vices of fleeting nature and using the gift of reasoning endowed to us that is not available to other animals.

Character is a matter of habits appropriate for all situations anchored by practical wisdom. Aristotle advocated the “principle of mean”, which is the ‘mean’ between two vices, one of excess and one of deficiency. For instance, the ‘mean’ between Cowardice and Foolhardiness is Courage. The purpose of a virtuous life is called ‘eudaimonia’, happiness or flourishing in the modern lingo, the central idea being living a life to fulfil a purpose larger than oneself.

Confucious exhorted living by rituals for social harmony, Buddhists by giving up cravings, Christians by faith, Hindus by action detached from outcomes and Taoists by wu-wei, effortless harmony with nature, Meiteis by Chaakcha Haijanaba for solidarity, etc.


This brings us to how we can develop character in our lives. Here’s a test of character:
The Viral Test: How would I feel if my contemplated actions were to become viral in Facebook and WhatsApp, published in the paper or broadcast on TV?
The Mentor Test: How would I feel if my actions were seen by my most revered mentor (Prime Minister/Boss/Parents) ?
The Role Model Test : What would my greatest role model do here ? (Eg: “What would Gandhi or John Wick do?)
The Selfie Test: If I do this, can I look at myself in the mirror and feel a sense of pride and dignity?
The Romantic Test: Would he/she approve of this?
The Infinity Test: Would I do this over and over again if given enough chances?
Need I say more?

* Ranjan Yumnam wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on April 13 2024.

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