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Career volume-33

Civil Services (MAINS) Exam -2016
Ethics and Essay Papers Hold the Clue

S. B. Singh

The IAS main examination is less than a month away and its preparations are passing through its conclusive stage at this juncture. With a huge General Studies (GS) syllabus coupled with a lengthy optional paper, the mains preparations are truly demanding and test a candidate’s patience and perseverance. No matter how much work one has put in the last few months, one gets jittery about the mains exam, thanks to the vast canvas of the syllabus and the unpredictability of the questions. This is the right moment to develop right perspectives about the mains preparations for an outstanding performance.  Since the syllabus is vast, it is unrealistic as well as undesirable to go for a complete preparation. What is needed instead is a substantial preparation covering those areas of the syllabus from where bulk of questions comes. 

In this article, an attempt is made to provide insights into the crucial Ethics and Essay papers. There can be many strategies to score high marks in the main exam. At this stage of the mains exam, it would be advisable to consolidate the optional paper preparation and refine the skills for the Ethics and Essay papers. Of the four GS papers, Ethics  paper can get very high scores if one is able to hone the right skills. The same is true of the Essay paper. In fact, both these papers have a close interface and many of the topics are common between them. Looking at them separately   would be a mistake and   assimilating and integrating these two would produce wonderful results. For example, topics like sports, corruption, environment, technology and its effects on mankind are common topics for both the ethics as well as essay papers.  What needs to be realized, therefore, is that one should conceptualize such common topics and go for an integrated preparation of both these papers. The advantage of these two papers is that, unlike the other GS Papers, these can fetch very high scores. Take the issue of sports.  There is every reason and a sound justification for UPSC to set some questions on sports for this year’s mains exam as sports has been in the news continuously. India’s poor performance in Rio Olympics, Lodha Committee report, Russian doping issues and a number of ethical issues relating to sports are bound to reflect in questions for the mains-2016  exam. There can be an essay on India’s sport culture, or a question on sport ethics, or a case study on use of drugs in sports.  Similarly, on technology, there can be an essay on Technology and its overpowering presence in human life or, Unethical use of technology, or, the bright and dark sides of artificial intelligence. This way, one can discover so many common topics and go for a combined preparation. This will not only make your preparation robust, but also save your time.


As far as the ethics paper is concerned, it should be kept in mind that Teaching/ learning ethics is teaching/ learning about life itself. The UPSC ethics syllabus does not follow   a structured pattern like that of History, Geography, etc. Rather, it is an aggregation of some relevant issues taken from day to day issues in our moral, ethical life. For example, the issue of human values and role of family in inculcating these values, corruption, work culture, etc. are issues that we closely experience in our daily lives. Thus, the ethics syllabus is only indicative in nature and no textual, literal meaning should be attached to it. Therefore, what one needs to do is to develop a broad, horizontal meaning of the ethics topics rather than a vertical (specific) knowledge. A highly unfortunate aspect of ethics paper is unavailability of books and course material which suits the needs of the syllabus and lack of expertise in teaching ethics.  Given this limitation, one should inculcate the habit of lateral readings on ethics. If you read writings of Pope, Dalai Lama and other ethical, moral and religious preachers, you will get a real insight into ethics because they are its real practitioners and what they say on various topics like, compassion, empathy, abortion, education, euthanasia, environment etc., has a  profound meaning and relevance for this paper. Apart from this, you need to look up Administrative Reforms Commission or ARC-II Report, i. e. its Fourth Report on Ethics in Governance. Every organization such as UN, IMF, World Bank, has its ethics office and they have codified ethical rules for the conduct of their functioning. Observing their ethical concerns will open up your mental horizons on issues relating to ethical conduct.

I must emphasize here the role of terms and terminologies related to ethics. You must know exact definitions of the following terms and apply these terms through examples. Important terms in Ethics:   Accountability,  Autonomy, Altruism, Benevolence, Beneficence, Compas-sion,  Consequentialism,  Content-ment, Courage,  Deontology, Determinism, Dilemma, Duty, Emotion and emotional intelligence, Empathy, Epicureanism, Eudaimonism, Fair-mindedness and fairness  ,  Forgiveness,  Generosity, Golden mean, Happiness, Hedonism, Honesty, Integrity, Justice, Kindness, Modesty, Nobility, Norm, Patience, Perseverance,  Pity, Piety, Pleasure, Prudence, Reck-less-ness, Responsibility, Right, Righ-teousness, Rights based ethics, Self –mastery,  Sympathy, Teleological principles, Temperance, Tolerance, Trust  and Trustworthiness, Truthfulness, Utilitarian principle, Vice, Virtue, Voluntary action, Wisdom.

 Case studies in Ethics Paper

 Lots of myths abound in preparation of case studies. These myths distort the basic facts about case studies. All kinds of imagined, childish, frivolous case studies are in circulation. Never practice those ones. Instead, go for real time case studies. There is enough reporting in various newspapers about social, political, economic, and administrative issues from which real case studies can be made. Develop the habit of understanding these issues from the perspective of case studies. Often, the solution is also contained in the newspaper reporting. For example, suppose   you have read a newspaper report on misutilization of public funds, which is a topic in ethics paper, then the report might also have offered solutions for better utilization of public funds. This way, you can learn the solution also   from the same report.

Expected areas of questions for Ethics in Mains-2016 Exam. 

1. Essence and consequences of ethics in life.

2.Sport ethics, business ethics, media ethics, bio ethics/medical ethics, corporate governance/ethics, animal ethics . 

3. Role of family or society or educational institutions in inculcating human values. 

4.Changing moral values in consumerist era, factors determining Indian political attitudes. 

5. Emotional intelligence and its application in administration 

6 . How to make administration more tolerant and compassionate towards weaker sections 7.Foundational values in civil services and Nolan Committee Report. 

8. Accountability and ethical governance in India .

9. Ethical issues in international funding, especially, terrorism funding. 

10. Indian work culture: its defining features and how to improve it.

11. Sevottam model and service delivery.

12. Causes and consequences of corruption, India’s legal and institutional framework to fight corruption.

13. Philosophical basis of governance in India.

14. Meaning and practice of humanism and humanity.


Essay is the twin brother of ethics in the IAS mains exam in two respects. One, like ethics, you need a horizontal preparation for essay. Two, many topics are common between ethics and essay. A  candidate can score very high marks in essay paper, say, 130-150 marks if he has the capacity to guess the areas of probable essay topics and he knows its structure. One should try hard to find out 10-15 topics which are likely topics for this year’s exam. If essays come on these topics, you have the advantage of early practice on the same essays you are going to write in the exam. If you know the structure and architecture of an essay, it will help you to write well on any given topic provided you have covered more essay  areas and you know their content.

Important tips for Essay preparation

Never try to go for a technical approach in essay writing. If you are looking  for a perfect way of writing an essay, there exists none. The best approach is a generalist approach in the essay paper.  Each candidate will write the same essay differently and it is quite acceptable. What matters is how you have developed the essay topic in a multi dimensional manner. A lot of creative thinking is required on the topic rather than a lot of information. Secondly, since essay is all about a forceful presentation of your ideas and arguments, you have to use metaphors, similes, rhetoric in your presentation. Also, relevant quotations should be fitted in at the right places in the essay. In particular, care should be taken on the following aspects of essay writing.

1.Follow a linear narrative style: Linear narratives follow a straight line — starting at the beginning, moving to the middle and proceeding to the end of the topic. In other words, this style of writing is called the introduction, middle part and the conclusion.

2.Creative thinking: Usually, candidates think of the topic in a straightforward manner. To cite an  example, say, an essay has been asked on the role of nuclear weapons in preventing a third world war and contributing to world peace, the straightforward approach will be to justify the topic and conclude that nuclear weapons have indeed prevented a new world war. But an essay is not supposed to be approached so simplistically. Your thoughts must move like a spiral. In this context, you must examine whether a third world war is really prevented or is already going on albeit in another form viz; Syria, Iraq, ISIS etc. Similarly, you should probe in your essay as to whether only the presence of nuclear weapons has prevented a new war or there are other factors also. Finally, you must counter the essay topic by examining as to whether there is peace in the present world due to nuclear weapons or more turmoil.

3. Introduction: Introduction is the most important part of your essay. It should be written in 140-170 words. Your main thesis and central argument must be mentioned clearly in the introduction so that the examiner knows what you are going to write in subsequent paragraphs.

4.Middle Body:  The middle body should consist of 5-6 paragraphs,   each paragraph consisting of 120-150 words. In the middle body, pick the sub- themes of your essay and arrange them systematically in 5 -6 paragraphs. Each paragraph should carry an independent sub-theme, not a cluttered or mixed idea. In other words, each paragraph should focus on a specific point you are raising in the essay.

5.Conclusion:  Conclusion should be written in 120-150 words. Conclusion is about summing up the issues and also showing the way forward. Your conclusion must be consistent with your main argument developed in the main body. Depending on the nature of the topic, a conclusion can be close- ended or open ended. Decide beforehand as to whether your conclusion is going be close- ended or open- ended.

6. Ideal size of the essay: A typical essay should be written in 1000-1200 words. Less than 1000 words are not desirable. However, even if you write it in 1300- 1400 words, it is still okay.

Some Likely Essay Topics for Mains-2016

1.        Technology related essays: a. How Technology is eroding human autonomy and inducing isolation, b.How technology is affecting health and mental growth of children

2. Virtual reality and augmented reality

3.Artificial intelligence: Best or worst for mankind



6. Water wars

7. Sports related essays: a. Ethics in sports.  b. Does India lack a Sport Culture?

8. Yoga as our soft power, or, Yoga is India’s largest export.

9.Nationalism vs. patriotism, or, Economic nationalism and Cultural nationalism


(S.B. Singh is a noted academician. He can be reached on his email: Views expressed are personal)