2023 GS4 Answer

Q. Is conscience a more reliable guide when compared to laws, rules and regulations in the context of ethical decision making ? Discuss.

Question from UPSC Mains 2023 GS4 Paper

Model Answer: 

Conscience and Decision Making

Conscience is the inner sense of what is right or wrong in one’s conduct or motives, impelling one toward the right action. Laws, rules, and regulations, on the other hand, are established standards of society that dictate what is acceptable and what is not. Comparing the two as guides for ethical decision making is a complex task, as both have their strengths and limitations.

Role of Conscience in Ethical Decision Making

Conscience is a powerful guide in ethical decision making as it is deeply personal and subjective. It is influenced by personal values, beliefs, and experiences. In the Indian context, where moral values are deeply ingrained from childhood, conscience plays a significant role. It often guides individuals to make decisions that are not just legally right but also morally and ethically sound.

For instance, a businessman in India may choose not to engage in corrupt practices, not because it is against the law, but because his conscience doesn’t allow him. Similarly, many Indians choose to help the less fortunate or engage in acts of kindness, driven by their conscience rather than any law or rule.

Limitations of Conscience

However, conscience is not always a reliable guide. It is subjective and can be influenced by personal biases, prejudices, and cultural conditioning. For instance, in certain parts of India, practices like child marriage and caste-based discrimination are considered acceptable by some individuals. Their conscience may not find anything wrong with these practices due to cultural conditioning, even though they are ethically and legally wrong.

Role of Laws, Rules, and Regulations

Laws, rules, and regulations serve as an objective guide for ethical decision making. They provide a clear framework of do’s and don’ts, leaving no room for personal interpretation or bias. For example, the Indian Penal Code and the Constitution of India lay down clear rules against practices like dowry, child labor, and discrimination, guiding individuals towards ethical behavior.

Moreover, laws and rules evolve with changing societal norms and values, reflecting the collective conscience of the society. For instance, the recent laws on triple talaq and transgender rights in India reflect the evolving societal understanding of gender equality and justice.

Limitations of Laws, Rules, and Regulations

However, laws and rules are not always a perfect guide. They may not cover all possible scenarios, leaving gaps in guidance. For instance, the law may not clearly define the ethical course of action in complex issues like euthanasia or genetic engineering.

Moreover, laws and rules can sometimes be influenced by political and societal biases, leading to unjust practices. For instance, the colonial-era Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalized homosexuality, was a law but was not ethically right. It was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court of India in 2018, recognizing the rights of the LGBTQ+ community.


In conclusion, both conscience and laws, rules, and regulations have their roles to play in ethical decision making. While conscience provides a personal moral compass, laws and rules provide an objective framework. The key is to strike a balance between the two, using personal conscience to guide decisions within the framework of laws and rules. This ensures decisions that are not just legally right but also ethically sound.

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