Every religion in the world has the word Ethics in its must haves for its followers. Ethics and moral values have been the eternal words which are considered their worth in gold in a person. Nowadays even companies, let alone governments draw up lists on what constitutes ethical and non-ethical behaviour. So is ethics a mere set of rules that I need to follow that has been prescribed for various circumstances?
One thing that needs to be cleared is ethics and law doesn't mean the same, they work in different dimensions altogether. Long back I had attended a presentation in which a speaker had explained the meaning of ethics by giving an example of the irresistible tendency of jumping a traffic light, His contention was that during normal hours every one of us will follow the traffic rules, but what happens at say Midnight shows the extent of ethics one has. I awoke suddenly from my sleepy dreamy state I had snuggled into at once, mainly because for me the traffic lights seize to exist after 11 in the night. And after a long debate with myself I came to the conclusion that, Yes I was indeed breaking a law and was an offender, but was my behaviour unethical? To that the conclusion was no. The traffic lights were created to ensure smooth movement of traffic and the intention being only that, At midnight if the roads are empty and when there is no sign of any vehicle in all the three directions of the road waiting for the Red light to turn to Green seems quite illogical. By following the traffic rules at such times you have blindly bind ed the law with your reasoning of ethics. There is nothing wrong in such a reasoning but there is again always a question of limits here, What if the traffic lights malfunction and unfortunately you are on the red for the whole of the night. You are bound to break the rule after some time, because I don't see even the above mentioned speaker waiting till morning to move ahead.
Now if I start extending this same idea to say corruption, will the water hold. Taking a bribe is banned under law, but a Person may argue that since he is not able to maintain his family even for the bare necessities with his salary or say if the person has a severely ailing dependent whose medical expenses he is not able to meet. Now this person is thrown in between the choice of doing his official duty properly or fulfilling his duty as a Husband or Son. Can we call such a person unethical who takes bribe to get medical treatment to his Wife or Parents which in anyway would have been beyond his means? This question is very difficult to answer. Some may argue here that the person is showing attachment (Moha) towards his family members and so according to karma yoga is following an unethical practice by not doing his duty properly. Even it can be argued that the person should go for the medical treatment as much as his means allow him to. But we know that not everyone here is a Yogi or a Monk, on the flip side there may be severe feelings of guilt of having not done enough towards the loved ones.
Now let us come to the point of giving a bribe, I have known some people who have steadfastly refused to give any kind of bribe. This reminds me of the older Kamal Hassan in the film Indian, He refuses to give a bribe when the doctor demands one to treat his badly burnt daughter and later she dies without any treatment. So did the father come out ethically shining from the incident. I would doubt such a situation happening in real life, because your sense of ethics get overrun by emotions at such situations. Again a case of limits being reached.
Also the idea of what is ethical and what is not keeps varying from person to person and also over time. Many years ago polygamy, taking dowry etc were all considered normal and there was no element of unethicality about it but the passage of time always tweaks the ethical wheel to weed out the unwanted or unwarranted things. Some people may be ahead of their times with their concept of Ethics and these are the people who tweak the ethical wheels of the society. Even these people can only tweak because that is the only way, If you want a drastic change that is never going to happen, It will be like breaking your head against a wall, which was the case in the movie Indian. Trying to correct through the help of fear is never a permanent solution.
So finally how to decide what is ethical or not, for this the only option will be to follow ones conscience. A regret after an action will be an indication of having not met your ethical standards. There is always a limit till which we will stick to our ethics and after this tipping point we break. It is essential that we keep pushing our limits, but it has to be kept in mind that no one can become a saint in one day, you need to work on it.