Learning the language of ethics

By Dr. Henry Wong Meng Yeong | Thursday, April 11, 2013 at 2:18AM

The fifth cornerstone of integrity is propriety. And so we start by asking: Is one born with the ability to distinguish right from wrong and if not, how can it be developed and can it be lost?

Confucius asserts that it is the nurturing (from young) which determines a person's character and values. Infants are like empty vessels that will only contain values if nurtured, which he states is the responsibility of parents to instill.

Confucian philosophy maintains that morality and propriety are not innate. The native mother tongue of the child, for instance is not inborn. A Chinese infant brought up in an Indian home will not speak his native Chinese tongue but instead will adopt Indian language and customs. Like their first language, infants from the time they are born adopt their morals through parental direction. Similarly, if there is no reinforcement through their formative years, they will lose their ability to communicate in their native language and lack moral compass. It is concerted time spent in constant reinforcement (e.g. it is wrong to cheat, steal) during the formative years of a child’s life which will determine their moral principles which will see them through their adult life.

When asked what it takes for one to have a sense of propriety, Confucius replied: Do not look, listen, say or do anything which is improper.

Since the time Confucius lived some two and half thousand years ago, family life has changed. The greatest impediment to the transmission of values today is the reduced or lack of nurturing time spent with progeny. Reasons for this were discussed earlier. The role of parents in inculcating values has even been relegated to agencies such as schools, churches and even to granny states.

At the level of the organization or country, it is every individual's commitment to doing the right thing which will curb corruption. Confucius asserts that unless one’s values are set right, one is not fit to run a home and thus unfit to govern a country. When asked about the way to govern a country, Confucius replied that to govern is to be upright.

Does reinforcement at the organizational level by way of embedding upright practices in the organizational culture, procedures and processes prevent corruption, fraud and graft? Confucius states emphatically that governing by regulations and penalties are ineffective if the offenders do not possess virtue or have a sense of propriety, as they will not be ashamed of their wrongdoings. Confucius warns that all it takes is a person with courage but without a sense of right and wrong to be insubordinate. He asserts that exercising restraint is entirely up to oneself and not others. Are loopholes merely legal improprieties?

Is our moral compass intrinsic, which acts as our guide to do the right thing even if rules are out of sight? Or have we adopted the basketball approach such that if we flout the rules, we merely pay the penalty by awarding the opponent a free throw and the game goes on?