Whatever happened to ethics?

A couple of months ago I was on a panel with doctors, where I was the sole journalist. One of the specialists spoke about why young people wanted to get into medicine. He said that doctors were looking for respect and some money. Ironic that healing didn’t feature. Neither did enjoying the subject.

Now it’s a bit much to expect a regular junk-food eating, Netflix-watching 18-year-old to have a deep awareness about life’s greater journeys, but it’s not too much to expect a parent or teacher to ask their children a few simple questions: What is it that you enjoy doing? What do you like studying? 

Instead, a number of parents will tell their children to opt for this or that subject, not taking into account their children’s interests or aptitude. The advice is often based on the ‘booming’ profession, in terms of what increases social standing (including what takes the parents’ social status up), what pays the best, and as a corollary to these, what gives the best ‘match’ (the most ‘lucrative’ that will also build social capital – again, for the parents too).

There is the false notion that happiness is somehow linked with money and social standing. That worldly success will somehow make up for a person being disinterested in what they do every single day for 40 years or more. That a large house or car will fill the emptiness within.

Ethics died at the door of greed.  


I graduated with a degree in English. The college I went to exposed us to a variety of possible professions that could follow our academic training and exposure: advertising, translation, journalism, and a few more. What I loved about journalism was the chase for a story, the struggle to get the right experts, to gather phone numbers (there were only fat telephone directories and landlines then), to listen to people, and then string together a story.

I went on to enroll in a post grad degree course in journalism. I still loved the sweat (in Madras that was a given) that went into a single story. In time, as I wrestled with the ethics of PR pushes, publicity stunts, slick marketing material, I realized a few things: journalists, or anyone providing a service for that matter, especially doctors, must identify why they do what they do in the long term.

As a young professional, perhaps you do something because you love it or because it gives you a ‘high’. As someone who has stuck with the profession for a while, it’s something else that keeps us going: the receiver. For journalists, it is the reader; for doctors, it is their patient. When we do what is best for our reader/patient we’re living out the true ethics of our professional and personal lives.

Somewhere along the line, even if we enjoy what we do, we make it about ourselves, not the receiver. It’s the reason journalists raise their voices louder than the people they’re supposed to be listening to, and the reason doctors strut about in white coats with dangling stethoscopes, establishing their superiority in a hospital system where ideally teams should take centre stage rather than an individual. It makes the white coat and stethoscope symbols of power and status rather than of healing. It’s also the reason today traditional medicine practitioners want to don these.

Ethics died at the door of self interest and misplaced ambition. 


Let’s not only blame doctors and their parents though, for the state we’re in today. They live in a society that glorifies the norm. And the norm is often linked to the IAS-medicine-engineering-MBA quartet forming the top of the professional caste system. It begins in school, with the choice of subjects, where the sciences are seen as taking in kids who are the ‘best’, followed by commerce, then the arts. Mostly, girls opt for the last, putting them at the bottom of the school social hierarchy, and later, at the bottom of the earning pyramid. Boys who opt for photography or fashion design are considered quaint, maladjusted creatures at best.

Perhaps we believe the brain is the most important organ. It’s the reason we will not question a doctor’s fee at Rs 2,000,  but will bargain with a craftsperson who offers us handmade objects. There is something degrading in using the hands – as if it diminishes us. It’s like sweeping and swabbing or getting ourselves a glass of water. Some ‘lower level’ person must do it, because we’re engaged in important cerebral work.

How did we slide into this situation? Like most things, we’d like to blame past rulers who established systems (like peons in government offices) that degraded the spirit. The truth is that India believes in hierarchies – in a caste system that slips out of one form and takes on another quite seamlessly.

A parent watching a young child build a bridge out of blocks, will joyfully say, ‘Oh he’s going to be an engineer.’ Not a construction worker, who has the bottom-of-the-pile problem of being poor, of a lower caste, speaking a vernacular language, being from a village in India, having poor education, and sometimes, being a woman.

Our ethics then, are based on our beliefs and biases. Mostly though, they’re based on what makes us look shiny from the outside. 

Sunalini Mathew writes on health and currently works in The Hindu, India’s national English newspaper

One response to “Whatever happened to ethics?”

  1. mrigayasinha Avatar

    Very well written and I agree with so many of Sunalini’s points here.Sent via the Samsung Galaxy S8, an AT&T 5G Evolution capable smartphone

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