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Volume-24, 14-20 September 2019

 Civil services (Mains)- 2019: Insights on Ethics and Essay Papers


S.B. Singh

For an exam with such a vast, unfathomable GS syllabus, the mains   preparation must  be built on a sound strategy. Equal command over all the papers i.e. the optional paper and all   the four GS papers is extremely difficult. Therefore, it is prudent to be selective in choosing the papers where one can secure  some lead in scoring marks. This is to say that, one must excel in some of the papers while managing at least average performance in other papers.  This is   a well acknowledged, time tested strategy which has been attested to even  by the IAS toppers,   One has to focus on those papers where there is a bigger comparative advantage vis-a vis other competitors. In GS paper I , II and III, the difference of marks among the aspirants who are in race, is not very wide. Given the  well known nature of the syllabus set out in these papers,  its not so difficult to prepare on the areas that comprise these papers. In other words,  in GS I, II and III, the syllabus is well known to all in its static as well as dynamic aspects, making the task relatively easier. But this is not so in case of the Ethics and Essay papers. These two papers don't have a definite syllabus. While essay has no syllabus at all, the ethics syllabus, at best is indicative and illustrative and not substantial. This poses problems of a structured, well defined preparation of these two papers. But at the same time, this difficulty offers a big  opportunity also. If everybody is struggling to manage essay and ethics due to its fluid nature, you can gain advantages in scoring   higher marks  in these papers if you have chosen the right path to prepare these two subjects. The variation of marks in these two subjects is more than other GS subjects. A  sound preparation of the essay paper, for example can fetch 150-160 marks, which is not possible in other GS papers. The same can be said about the ethics paper also. Therefore,  a wise choice is to focus on these two papers while ensuring  good preparations in other papers as well.


The ethics paper, introduced just a few years ago in the mains exam is intended to test the moral, rational dimensions of  your knowledge which  remain untested in other GS papers which are information based.  The entire paper, however, doesn't consist of ethical issues only,  there are governance issues as well.  As already  stated, the ethics  syllabus is just indicative. One has to create  a  syllabus and  boundary for this paper by reflecting on the kind of questions that are being asked. Ethics

requires  reflection on affairs which we witness on day to day basis. Observing those affairs with an ethical perspective can provide vital inputs to the syllabus. To cite an example, if we observe why many   laws have lower compliance rate in India, we must dwell on the issue of compliance beyond the provisions of the law. It is the internalisation of the value behind the law that brings greater compliance, not the law itself. Since we have not internalised the values behind, say, dowry law, it is not complied with by society. Similarly, one has to find a nexus between policy and attitude.  Govt   policies on   prohibition can   not  be successful unless,  there is an attitudinal change in society  on this social and health issue.  Another example is corruption in  India. Despite having  a slew of laws, corruption remains embedded in our  country because of a tolerant social attitude towards it. Therefore,   there is a need to transform peoples'  attitude on corruption   beginning early in life, through education and socialisation process, to beat down corruption.  Laws alone   can not root out corruption. If this format is followed ,  it gets easier to attempt questions on  ethics  in the expected manner.

Explaining Ethics Syllabus: In all, there are  seven chapters in this paper. It is extremely important to make sense of the syllabus in terms of its scope, coverage and question patterns. The first chapter is the core of this paper which requires basic knowledge of the fundamentals of ethics. A general back ground of ethics in its historical perspective,  its interface with human lives, i.e. how it has a close relationship with our conduct and behaviour based on certain standard norms, should be the starting point in this chapter. Then, the essence of ethics, its various dimensions, and its determinants are to be covered in such a way that one acquires  the true significance of ethics, as also , its social, professional, personal, economic, environmental dimensions.  Determinants of ethics like religion, customs, law, social  values, which  are responsible for making ethics what it is, must be studied briefly. Next,   a lot of stress should be given on applied ethics which is also known as practical ethics. The following aspects of applied ethics deserve careful preparation.

  1. Environmental ethics
  2. Bioethics- abortion, surrogacy, euthanasia, reproductive technology, human cloning, cryonics
  3. Medical ethics
  4. Media ethics
  5. Business ethics
  6. Corporate ethics
  7. Animal ethics
  8. Sports ethics
  9. Ethics of artificial intelligence
  10. Law and ethics

Every year, questions are being asked on one or more  of these applied aspects. While preparing on these applied aspects, one must acquire a working definition of the terms , and quote current examples in the answer. To cite an example,   in business ethics, one must cite  Gandhi's  views and then give examples like the Nirav Modi, Vijay Mallya, Satyam computer episodes, which are all ethical failures in business models. Similarly, in medical ethics, one must quote the unethical practices like unrequired investigations, diagnosis, treatment etc. Also, examples like the Johnson & Johnson Hip transplant   controversy must be given.  This makes your answer look close to reality. In corporate ethics, CSR, TBL (triple bottom line) concepts must be emphasized and they must be linked with Gandhi's concept of  trusteeship. Like this, in every applied aspect, one should co-relate issues   as given in these examples.

On human values and the role of family, society and educational institutions in imparting these values, one must take into account the views of Dalai Lama, Pope Francis,  Vivekananda,  Abdul Kalam etc.

There is also  a topic on moral thinkers from India and abroad. I would suggest to  cover the following  thinkers.

Indian thinkers: Buddha, Mahavira, Kabir, Guru Nanak, Kautilya, Gandhi, Ambedkar,  Vivekananda, Tagore, Sri Aurobindo. In addition, one must also know about the makers of modern India like, Patel, Nehru, Sreedharan,  Verghese Kurien.

Foreign thinkers: Aristotle, Plato, Mill, Bentham, Rawls, Kant, Confucious.

There are two chapters relating to social psychology viz; Emotional intelligence and attitudes, social influence and persuasion. Their definitional parts can be covered through a close reading of the NCERT psychology books of 11th, 12th standard. But one has to further build upon these topics by relating them to their role in administration.  One should probe their role in administration i.e. how attitudes, emotional intelligence can determine responsiveness in administration. There are two separate chapters in the ethics syllabus which broadly deal with ethical issues in public services. While one requires acquaintance with terms like, probity, integrity, accountability etc. in governance, the other takes up real issues like RTI, corruption, utilisation of public funds, citizens' charter, delivery of services etc. For these,   reference must be made to ARC II Report no. 4 on "Ethics in  Governance".

 The most troubling part of the ethics syllabus,  is the case study section. In all, six case studies are given in section B of the ethics question paper.  The purpose of case study  is to test problem solving ability of a candidate in a rational manner and based on certain moral, ethical principles. A case study must be written keeping the following elements in mind.

  1. The issues that need to be resolved in the given case study
  2. Whether the issue has only a legal angle, or it has moral, ethical dimensions also
  3. Whether consultation with other colleagues, seniors, agencies are required to solve the issue
  4. The solution provided should be practical, workable and not theoretical and complex
  5. One should only solve the given case and not offer comments on future solutions and policies unless  they are specifically asked in the case study
  6. The solution must be in larger public interest

The use of charts, diagrams should be, as far as possible, avoided. Though the word limit for each case study is 250 words, It would be better to confine it to 200 words. Or else, it  will be difficult to complete the entire paper in just three hours. No penalty shall accrue due to writing them in under 200 words because the word limit is only indicative, not mandatory.

Needless to say, ethics is a subject loaded with  specific terms. One must use these terms extensively in the answer. Terms like accountability, responsibility, public trust, transparency, probity , integrity etc. must be used in the answers  appropriately.


The essay paper , unlike the GS papers, seeks to assess the  flow of ideas on a given topic in an unrestricted manner. In other words, the entire thought process, inner feelings, intuitions, must be reflected  in the essay writing. It should not be just loaded with information on the topic, but also with views and counterviews. The language, expressions used in the essay answer must be forceful, dramatic, in order to make a strong presentation of ones' viewpoint. In an essay, all dimensions must be laid bare. For example, if one is writing an essay on  women empowerment, its social, economic, political dimensions must be treated substantially.

 An essay has three parts, viz;  introduction, main body, and conclusion. The introduction is the most important part of an essay because it gives a clue to what you are going to say in the next paragraphs and what stand you have taken on the topic.

An ideal essay should consist of 1000-1200  words. The introductory paragraph should consist of 175-200 words. The main body should comprise   5-6 paragraphs, each of 150- 160 words. The conclusion should be slightly shorter than the introduction, say, 150 words. In the main body, each paragraph should be arranged in such a manner that the theme of your topic goes forward in a systematic manner. It should not be randomly arranged.  Besides, each paragraph should deal with just one part of the theme. It should focus on one aspect of the topic instead of too many. Quotations, anecdotes should be written if the context justifies them.  An essay is a continuous flow of ones' thought process. Therefore, no sub headings should be given. Just change of paragraphs will do. Secondly, use of charts, diagrams should be avoided as it does not fit in well with the scheme of essay writing. Thirdly, underlining of sentences, words should also be minimised, or still better, avoided, because this may distract the examiner and possibly, irritate him too.  Finally, there is no necessity to defend the stand taken in the essay topic; one can take an opposite view also, provided one can defend ones' arguments coherently. Alternatively, one can also take the middle path, taking both view points on a given topic.

Suggested readings on Ethics

  1. Websites: BBC Ethics, Markula centre for applied ethics, internet encyclopedia of philosophy, Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy.
  2. Books:
  3. Nadkarni: Ethics for our Times: A Gandhian perspective
  4. Peter Singer: Ethics
  5. Peter Singer: Ethics in a real world
  6. Routledge companion of ethics
  7. ARC II: Ethics in Governance: 4th Report

(The list is indicative only)

(S.B. Singh is an academician, IAS mentor and trainer. He can be reached on his email: sb_singh2003@ yahoo.com)

Views expressed are personal.

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