Previous Years’ Trend Analysis of Ethics (GS4) Paper in IAS Mains

Hello everyone,

As I have always maintained, ethics is all about choice. To make choice one need not to have any specialized training or degree. All the time we all, irrespective of our educational background, make choices. But yes, if we practice ethical reasoning or read some theories, definitely we will be in a better position to make sensible choices.

As far as exam is concerned some conclusions drawn on the basis of previous years’ questions are –

#1. Ever since this paper has been introduced it has been proved to be a crucial factor in the success. On an average candidates are getting 90-100 marks. However, many candidates have even crossed 130. It is the only paper where aspirants are getting such marks.

#2. Another aspect of reality is that majority of candidates are in the bracket of 90-100. Or repeatedly get more or less same marks. Main reason behind this is mechanical preparation i.e

inter linkages between topic; correlating with contemporary issues ; examples; an ecosystem of philosophy,psychology, public administration, etc are missing.

For example: There was a question – “The current society is plagued with widespread trust-deficit. What are the consequences”

Now to handle this type of question one must know what is public trust, it’s importance , why it is declining, is it global phenomena, etc. But in syllabus nowhere is mentioned Public Trust. Neither any book has mentioned. To catch such topics one need to go to peripheral areas.

#3. On analysis of syllabus it is found that direct questions from syllabus are very few. Rather, they are more from peripheral areas. Hence, it is utmost necessary to minutely analyse the syllabus, understand themes, read in between lines, background of topics mentioned, and knowing exactly the purpose of introducing this paper. On doing this things becomes very easy.

#4. It is also required to reorder syllabus because if you prepare topics in sequential fashion as mentioned in syllabus, right from top to bottom, then definitely you will be very far away from the actual demand of this paper. Answers will not be organic, rather they will be too mechanical. Most of the candidates do this, hence they are not able to go beyond 100 marks.

#5. It is because of this no text book helps. Though there is now number of books in the market but it is doubtful if there is any which fulfills the purpose. It is highly advisable to understand things in holistic perspective.

#6. As far as case studies are concerned there are again many myths and people simply run after case studies, ignoring theory. But, think rationally. Case studies just can’t be different from theories. You can’t prepare cases in isolation. They are in fact organically linked. More strong you become in theory part, better your answer will be in case studies.

#7. Though there is no standard format for solving cases but generally one should follow certain guidelines, such as,

– Analyse case very carefully
– Catch issues involved irrespective of questions asked
– Stakeholders
– Effectively and organically use of terminologies

Analysis/Trend of questions

* Different types of questions
* All questions demand holistic/organic answers
* Examples are the heart & soul of this paper. Examples could as varied as – contemporary, historical, mythological, religious, personal experience based.

Each of the following questions is worth 10 marks and 150 words.

I. Personal Experience or Opinion Based

* No specialized reading is required
* Based on your logical thinking
* Basically meant to check your ethical sensitivity, moral compass, mental calibre & constructive thinking and ability to correlate things .
* Thoughtful reading of newspaper will be sufficient

Q. Some people feel that values keep changing with time and situation, while others strongly believe that there are certain universal and eternal human values. Give your perception in this regard with due justification.(2013)

* Values are those which have worth
* Hierarchy of values is more important than talking Absolute or relative values
* Values changes with time. Precisely it means depending on situation we need to make hierarchy of values according to their priority. In some situation truth is the most important while in some human life becomes most precious.

Q.What do you understand by the term ‘voice of conscience’? How do you prepare yourself to heed to the voice of conscience? (2013)

Q. What is meant by ‘crisis of conscience’? Narrate one incident in your life when you were faced with such a crisis and how you resolved the same.(2013)

* Peripheral area

Q.All human beings aspire for happiness. Do you agree? What does happiness mean to you? Explain with examples. (2014)

* Not directly from syllabus, mainly from peripheral areas
* ethics deals with summum bonum of human life i.e supreme aim of life , for example, Indian philosophy aims at Moksh. For that science of morality comes into the picture.
* For some happiness is that summum bonum
*Aristotle equates with Eudemonia i.e happiness, flourishing human life, self contentment, doing things with perseverance
* Your personal understanding about happiness ; it could be anything
* Supporting with examples

Q.In the context of defence services, ‘patriotism’ demands readiness to even lay down one’s life in protecting the nation. According to you, what does patriotism imply in everyday civil life? Explain with illustrations and justify your answer. (2014)

*Newspaper will suffice
* Constructive contribution to the nation building
*Playing one’s part/role in the society
* Absence of free rider problem
*Trustee but not owners of resources
* Different examples

Q.Which eminent personality has inspired you the most in the context of ethical conduct in life? Give the gist of his/her teachings giving specific examples, describe how you have been able to apply these teachings for your own ethical development. (2014)

Q. The current society is plagued with widespread trust-deficit. What are the consequences of this situation for personal well-being and for societal well-being? What can you do at the personal level to make yourself trustworthy? (2014)

* Again not directly mentioned in the syllabus
* But if one had analysed syllabus properly then one can easily catch that without understanding importance of public trust and it’s decline in present times you can cannot appreciate this paper

II. Terminology based

* Such questions can be prepared over period of time by making list of terminologies
* Along with definition these terms should be seen holistically and more in terms of their applied part
* Your answer will be hollow if it is not supported by appropriate examples

Q.What do you understand by ‘values’ and ‘ethics’? In what way is it important to be ethical along with being professionally competent? (2013)

* First part of the question can be best captured by statement of Duryodhan to Krishna in Mahabharat —
“I know dharma but it fails to inspire me, I know adharam also but I fail to withdraw from it.”
* That is, it not merely enough to know what is right & what is wrong

Q.What do you understand by the following terms in the context of public service? (2013)
Spirit of service
Courage of conviction


Q.What is ’emotional intelligence’ and how can it be developed in people? How does it help an individual in taking ethical decisions? (2013)
* Direct from syllabus


Q.What does ethics seek to promote in human life? Why is it all the more important in public administration? (2014)
* Summum bonum
* For some it is happiness, while some says pleasure, some says it is “greatest good of greatest number”
*In public administration it seeks ethical governance. It is not merely good governance.


Q. What in meant by ‘environmental ethics? Why is it important to study? Discuss any one environmental issue from the viewpoint of environmental ethics. 

* Based on basic understanding of ethics
* Rest can be dealt with current environmental issues and sustainable development

Q.Differentiate between the following (2015)
Law and Ethics
Ethical management and Management of ethics
Discrimination and Preferential treatment
Personal ethics and Professional ethics


Q.Two different kinds of attitudes exhibited by public servants towards their work have been identified as bureaucratic attitude and the democratic attitude. (2015)
Distinguish between these two terms and write their merits and demerits.
Is it possible to balance the two too create a better administration for the faster development of our country?


Q. “A mere compliance with law is not enough, the public servant also have to have a well developed sensibility to ethical issues for effective discharge of duties” Do you agree? Explain with the help of two examples where (i) an act is ethically right, but not legally and (ii) an act is legally right, but not ethically. (2015)

* This question is based on ” ethical illiteracy ”

Q.How do the virtues of trustworthiness and fortitude get manifested in public service? Explain with examples. (2015)

III. Proverbs or Quotes

* Though they are thinker based but one should not just confine to thinker only
* One should be able understand the real significance, reading in between lines
* No need to prepare separately, answer lies in the quote only
* Must be substantiated with examples

Given below are three quotations of great moral thinkers/philosophers. For each of these quotations, bring out what it means to you in the present context: (2013)

1.“There is enough on this earth for every one’s need but for no one’s greed.” Mahatma Gandhi.

* Can be correlated with Plato’s theory of justice & appetite problem
* Can also be related with “Golden Mean” of Aristotle

2. “Nearly all men can withstand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”—Abraham Lincoln

3.“I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who overcomes his enemies.”—Aristotle

4.“The good of an individual is contained in the good of all.” What do you understand by this statement? How can this principle be implemented in public life? (2013)


Q. It is often said that ‘politics’ and ‘ethics’ do not go together. What is your opinion in this regard? Justify your answer with illustrations. (2013)

Q.“Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, but knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful.” What do you understand by this statement? Explain your stand with illustrations from the modern context. (2014)

* Can be illustrated with the help of 4 themes —
1. High values & low skills
2. High values & high skills
3. Low values & low skills
4. Low skills & low values

Q.“Human beings should always be treated as ‘ends’ in themselves and never as merely `means’.” Explain the meaning and significance of this statement, giving its implications in the modern techno-economic society. (2014)

* It is based on Humanism philosophy
* In fact humanism is the core of this paper. Many questions including case studies can be well attempted if you have proper understanding of humanism

Q.Given are two quotations of moral thinkers/philosophers. For each of these, bring out what it means to you in the present context (2015)

1.“The weak can never forgive; forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.’

2.‘We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.’

IV. Economy and Environment Related

Q.Social values are more important than economic values. Discuss the above statement with examples in the context of inclusive growth of a nation. (2015, can be fit into Social Issues as well)

V. Corruption Related

Q.It is often said that poverty leads to corruption. However, there is no dearth of instances where affluent and powerful people indulge in corruption in a big way. What are the basic causes of corruption among people? Support your answer with examples. (2014)

* Need based & Greed based
* Appetite / grabbing mentality

Q.Today we find that in-spite of various measures of prescribing codes of conduct, setting up vigilance cells/commissions, RTI, active media and strengthening of legal mechanism, corrupt practices are not coming under control.

Evaluate the effectiveness of these measures with justifications.
Suggest more effective strategies to tackle this menace.

Q. What do you understand by ‘probity’ in public life? What are the difficulties in practicing it in the present times? How can these difficulties be overcome? (2014)

* Direct from syllabus
* Can be prepared in advance
*Should be supported by current examples

Q.Public servants are likely to confront with the issues of “Conflict of Interest”. What do you understand by the term “Conflict of Interest” and how does it manifest in the decision making by public servants? If faced with the conflict of interest situation how would you resolve it? Explain with the help of examples.(2015)

VI. Social Issues

Q.What factors affect the formation of a person’s attitude towards social problems? In our society, contrasting attitudes are prevalent about many social problems. What contrasting attitudes do you notice about the caste system in our society? How do you explain the existence of these contrasting attitudes? (2014)

Q.We are witnessing increasing instances of sexual violence against women in the country. Despite existing legal provisions against it, the number of such incidences is on the rise. Suggest some innovative measures to tackle this menace. (2014)

VII. Current Governance Pattern/International ethics

Q.Some recent developments such as introduction of RTI Act, media and judicial activism, etc. are proving helpful in bringing about greater transparency and accountability in the functioning of the government. However, it is also being observed that at times the mechanisms are misused. Another negative effect is that the officers are now afraid to take prompt decisions. Analyse the situation in detail and suggest how the dichotomy can be resolved. Suggest how these negative impacts can be minimised. (2015)

Q. At the international level, bilateral relations between most nations are governed on the policy of promoting one’s own national interest without any regard for the interest of other nations. This lead to conflicts and tension between the nations. How can ethical consideration help resolve such tensions? Discuss with specific examples.(2015)

*Broadly three moral traditions prevail in international ethics —
1. Realism
– based on power; solely concerned with one’s own interest e.g US interference in Grenede
2. Idealism
– based on values e.g Human Rights, US help to former USSR during famine
3. Principled Realism
– combination of both power politics & values e.g post 9/11 : war on terror

Q.There is a heavy ethical responsibility on the public servants because they occupy positions of power, handle huge amounts of public funds, and their decisions have wide-ranging impact on society and environment. What steps have you taken to improve your ethical competence to handle such responsibility? (2014)

* Need to develop holistic competence

Q.What does ‘accountability’ mean in the context of public service? What measures can be adopted to ensure individual and collective accountability of public servants? (2014)

By Mitra Sir

Director @Mitra's IAS | Philosophy (Optional) & Ethics (GS IV)

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