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Ethics, unethics and pseudoethics

A commemoration talk for Prof S R Kottegoda- November 2014

(At SLAAS – Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science)

Coining a word is entirely in order at an event honouring Professor S R Kottegoda – who was nothing short of brilliant with words. So let us venture to name ‘unethics’ the code that governs the conduct of the patently nasty. Ethics, in contrast, refers to the standards that the enlightened and saintly live up to. The rest of us, the 99%, get by under cover of pseudo-ethics. In this society, the tobacco merchant, the corrupt and lying MP, the paid purveyor of social strife, the decent enough priest and the reasonably honest judge are considered no different to each other. No one qualifies to throw the first stone.


What point in struggling to improve research ethics in such a milieu? Can we, as a group of recognized pseudo-ethical individuals constituting an ethics committee, arrive at decisions of even slightly better quality than the farcical judgments of the US Supreme Court? I believe we can – and indeed of vastly, not just slightly, better quality. But whether the exercise is worthwhile, should the global society in which we operate be hostile to the values we want to uphold, is another matter.


Retreat into moral paralysis is inviting, for those of us who see the universal culture as seriously in need of correction yet impossible to influence. We may then opt simply to enjoy our comfortable lives and ignore the injustices of the world around us. But this amounts to settling for the life of a highly domesticated dog in a luxurious household. There are of course alternatives, if we are imaginative enough. Many feasible options are available, to advance our personal ethics as well as those of the groups to which we belong. And societal ethics are not completely out of our reach either.


Science cannot tell us what is ethical and what is not. This though is no reason for taking it out altogether of the struggle to improve personal or social ethics. Science can and should be used to guide and assess our interventions to improve standards. The easiest area in which to do the study is in personal ethics. We can gain much by testing strategies to make our own lives more ethical: to move from pseudo-ethics to ethics. And we do not have the problem of waiting for funds to start the trial. Selecting a personal weakness we could strive to correct can however present difficulties, for nearly all of us see ourselves as faultless. Trying to accept that we may only be pseudo-faultless can help get us on track.


Larger gains can be made by changing society. Implementing the virtual experiment may suffice to prod us out of inertia. But such a trial too must be systematic and scientific enough. We’d do well to start considering right now what social transformation we’d like to set in motion. We can then work out a good enough methodology, including the means to assess results validly, and put our intervention to the test. And in this case, unlike with personal improvement, we should have no shortage of things to address.


It may be more instructive to do a trial run first, avoiding our pet preoccupations. How about making men in this country at least half as ethical (or cheerful) as the women, for instance? Or, rescuing our social gatherings from the imperious individuals who powerfully lay down what should be considered right or wrong (and do not allow a contrary opinion to surface)? Maybe even liberating young children from murderously boring classrooms? The list is endless.


Engaging actively in raising our personal standards, and those of the world that we inhabit, should make us more capable of improving ethical standards in research.


Comments and suggestions:

Libya – November 2014

A story on BBC drew attention to the status today of Libya,

after the overthrow of Gaddafi.



Libyans who lost huge wealth

were mostly of its richest set

(for they had the most to lose)

they were too who did the most

to throw Gaddafi out

The script of fostering anarchy

to see what spoils may come,

is one that is quite popular

among the world’s true rulers –

who are not really governments

of those wealthy nations

but agencies that behind the scenes

choose rulers for those countries –

the uber-rich who manipulate

mere millionaires all over

to blindly set the scene

so uber-chaps can pick their pockets


Victims later see the light

but always too late



Our vision is blurred by urge for more

and more strongly so, the wealthier we grow –

whether we love our rulers earnestly

or hate them vehemently



That report on Libya:


BBC: 25 November 2014:   Libya air strike hits Tripoli’s last functioning airport