“What is right and what is wrong?” – This is a question that has always had only one real answer – “There is no right or wrong answer.” Obviously because it can only be answered from a subjective standpoint, based on one’s own personal beliefs and overall definition of morality. Of course, there are things which are wrong from a legal point of view; but even there, loopholes and exceptions exist, as does one’s feeling of “It was done for the right reason”, which again comes out of a personal belief system.

I’ve seen Corporate Ethics Committees trying to help employees decide whether something they want to do is right or wrong by giving a general guideline sort of thing that they can rely on. A proper code of conduct may be helpful. But sometimes some of their creative ideas are so subjective, vague and border-stereotypical that I wonder how they are supposed to help people. One of those is a company-given penholder I happened to see with 4 questions given under the heading “When in an ethical dilemma, pause and reflect”.

1) Is it right?

I scratched my head reading this because err.. isn’t that what I need help with if I am conflicted? How does asking me the same question help??

2) Is it legal and ethical?

Legal – I understand. Ethical? Yet again, the heading itself says I’m in an ethical dilemma and that’s why I’m “reflecting”. How does asking me this help??

3) What will others think?

In my opinion, there are so many “wrongs” that people end up doing, when they feel and many a time know it is wrong, only because they want to please or be accepted by others. Sometimes it is saying a harmless lie. Sometimes it is more than that. Sometimes it is done to “look cool” in front of others and be a part of a clique. Sometimes it is done out of fear – “What if they don’t like me?” or “What will happen to me if I don’t do this?” In fact, sometimes even when there is no ethical dilemma, even when you know for sure that you are not doing the right thing, you still end up going against your conscience only because you “pause and reflect – what will others think?” While whoever wrote this was probably trying to help, this really came out as nothing but a verbatim translation of the root of most desi problems – “Log kya kahenge?” Trust me, that is not your solution to an ethical dilemma. It is actually the cause of an ethical dilemma.

4) What will mom think?

This last question was hands down the winner in a list of useless questions to “reflect on”. It had me laughing out loud at the overall Bollywood-y feeling it gave with its “Mere paas maa hai” vibes. In fact, when I read it out to Hari, his first response too was “Seems that whoever wrote this has watched a lot of movies”. Our society in general has this ‘glorification of mother’s love’ syndrome. I am a mother and I find it nauseating sometimes, the way we talk as if mothers are infallible, out of the world, Goddess like beings. And for that reason, this is the point I will ramble on about in the next couple of paragraphs.

Quite often, this act of putting moms on a high pedestal is nothing but a subtle way of taking them for granted and almost saying “You break your back for us, you sacrifice all your joys for us, it is all okay because you know… you are mom! We will lay back and praise you every now and then so that you can continue with your unconditional love-induced shit”. Here, it is even more laughter-worthy because it is a way of saying that no mom would ever teach anything wrong to her kid. As if that is what happens in the real world! Half the crimes against women might not happen if mothers (parents in general actually) taught their sons to respect women. But let’s not go to major crimes to refute this point. I can give simple examples from around me that tell you why “What will mom think?” is not always a foolproof ethics pointer.

My parents have a rather spacious courtyard and at the far end of it there is a huge Malabar tamarind (kudampuli) tree. The area around the tree is mostly covered in its fruits, quite a lot of which fall outside our compound wall and is taken by passers-by. My parents take what they need and give the rest to neighbours and relatives. They never go after the fruits that fall out of the compound. But there have been many who have tried to jump over the wall like thieves into our compound to take the fruits. Among these has been a young boy of 15 or 16. My mom caught him jumping in one day and told him that it is absolutely wrong to trespass into someone’s property and take things from there, and that if he wanted the tamarind, he was free to come in through the main gate and simply ask her. The boy’s mother who was standing on the other side of the wall, and who lived in a reasonably well-off-looking house down the lane, chose to look away as if she couldn’t hear anything. After that first time this boy did the same thing so many times until they moved from that locality. And every single time, my mom could hear that it was his mother who encouraged him to jump in and take as many fruits as possible and jump back before someone caught him. My concern every time my mom told me about this was simple – today he jumps in and steals fruits, tomorrow what else might he steal, how might he react if he is caught in the act by someone?

Although not as grave as encouraging theft, while sitting in Vedu’s online class, I have seen mothers who encourage their 4-year-old kids to cheat and lie only so that the teacher wouldn’t think they don’t know something. Sometimes I wonder why they take LKG so seriously that they have to make their kids ‘win’ by hook or crook instead of letting them make mistakes and learn from that with the teacher’s help. At times, after repeated requests to the parents to let the kids answer questions or do simple drawing or writing activities by themselves so that they learn, I see the teacher getting fed up of some of the parents who keep doing exactly the opposite, in rather petty ways – whispering to their kid from the side, turning off or turning away the camera to fool the teacher when they do the activity for the kid and making the kid lie about doing it himself and so on. Vedu once asked me, “Why does that boy and his parents keep cheating Amme? Aren’t parents supposed to teach him not to lie?” As opposed to what the “preachy penholder” tries to tell us, such mothers will not feel bad if their kids do something unethical as long as they are benefitting from it. On the contrary, they could be the ones who push them to make such choices.

If you were reading this thinking I would end with an answer to our original question – “What is right and what is wrong?”, sorry to disappoint you. I’ll leave you with the belief that the real answer to this lies somewhere within all of us and when the time comes, you will know for yourself whether you are right or wrong. So please, don’t go by what your “preachy penholder” tells you. 🙂

Also published on Medium.