August 8th, 2019       Civil Services Preparation

In the changes to CSE syllabus announced in 2013, UPSC introduced a new paper – ETHICS. It has been six years since the changes were announced but still this paper continues to be a mystery for the aspirants, teachers, mentors and likewise. This can be attributed to a number of factors namely wide interpretation of the syllabus, abstract nature of the paper, level of subjectivity involved, absence of sources to explain the basics in a manner commensurate to the exam and finally lack of background in ethics, both amongst the aspirants as well as the teachers.

However, scoring well in this paper can give an aspirant a well needed edge of 20-30 marks. This can be gauged from the fact that in CSE 2017 most of the toppers’ scores in Ethics hovered around 90 to 100 marks whereas only a few aspirants scored above 105. One aspirant scored 134….getting the edge of around 30 marks in one single paper!!!

This article aims to guide the aspirants on how to approach the Ethics paper and how to chart their strategy to gain that crucial edge…..

The question arises what is the need of Ethics in civil services exam?

Ethics paper aims not only to test the aspirant’s basic understanding of ethics related issues but also the ability of a future civil servant to analyze the situations, take a diagnostic view on conflicting objectives and demands and provide solutions in a relevant, problem-solving, concise and meaningful manner. It tests the attitude and approach of the aspirant relating to integrity and probity in public life.

Before beginning with the strategy it is important to understand a few DON’TS regarding the Ethics paper:


  • No need to study GS IV for hours and hours like GS I, II, III.
  • Ethics paper does not require more than 2-3 months of dedicated preparation.
  • One should not force morality in his/ her answers. It should be automatically reflected.
  • There is no need to study complex jargons, definitions and heavy philosophical stuff.
  • Writing style should not be a complex philosophical one. It should be logical, rational and in basic language.
  • There is no need to mug up quotes, catchy lines to just impress the evaluator. It is the aspirant’s understanding and point of view that will fetch him the marks.
  • Don’t get fooled that since there are only 14 questions as compared to 20 in rest of GS papers so the ethics paper will be shorter. In fact, the ethics paper is lengthiest of all and completing it in time is a task in itself!!

Strategy For The Preparation

  • STEP 1: getting well acquainted with minute details of the syllabus.
  • STEP 2: going through previous year question papers. Ethics paper consists of 2 sections.
  • STEP 3: picking the right sources for study.
  • STEP 4: understanding the basics.
  • STEP 5: making short notes on each and every topic, definition of each and every keyword of the syllabus, at least two real life examples for every keyword, list of all possible thinkers and their comments/ views/ quotes.
  • STEP 6: practice and answer writing with quality examples and diagrams.
  • STEP 7: revision and re-revision.

The basic foundation work is to understand the components of the syllabus and what it expects from the aspirant. The basic themes are:

UPSC Mains Ethics Theme

Understanding The Syllabus

  • Ethics and Human interface will involve understanding the definition, purpose and evolution of ethics. It includes understanding the various determinants of ethics and its various dimensions. Then one needs to understand the consequences of ethics in human action. Aspirants also need to understand dimensions like public and private life, bio-ethics, environmental ethics etc.
  • Human values will include lessons from lives of people like Buddha, Vivekananda, Gandhi, Mandela and other reformers and administrators. Further, one needs to understand the role of family, school and society in inculcating of values.
  • Attitude theme involves understanding its content, structure and functions and how it influences factors of thought and behavior. One needs to understand the role of social life and persuasion in shaping attitude and also learn about moral and political attitude.
  • Aptitude and foundational values for civil services deals with civil services, the values expected from a civil servant.
  • Emotional Intelligence deals with what it means, its significance, it’s role in administration, business, politics and what are traits of emotionally intelligent people.
  • Moral philosophers/ thinkers: here the aspirants need to focus on Indians like Gandhi, social reformers, Kautilya, Buddha, Mahavira, Ashoka, Vivekanada, eminent personalities of freedom struggle, current eminent personalities etc. World category will include Plato, Aristotle, Weber, Marx, Rawls, Lincoln, Mandela and other eminent personalities etc.
  • Civil services values will include diverse topics like ethics in administration, problems and status, dilemmas, laws, rules, accountability, how to strengthen values in governance, ethics in International relations and Corporate governance.
  • Probity in governance covers issues of corruption, work culture, code of ethics and code of conduct, citizen charter, ICT/ e-governance, RTI, public service etc.
  • Case studies: It is a culmination of all the above mentioned topics.

Decoding The Sources

UPSC Mains Ethics Source

Tackling The Case Studies

  • Aspirant should be clear in his mind that the basic theme of any answer written in case study should reflect the following:

…..aspirant’s basic understanding of ethics related issues, the ability of a future civil servant to analyze the situations, take a diagnostic view on conflicting objectives and demands and provide solutions in a relevant, problem-solving, concise and meaningful manner and his attitude and approach relating to integrity and probity in public life….

  • Approach: (this is also the format for the answer)
  1. Identify the stakeholders
  2. Identify the issues and dilemmas in the case.
  3. Suggest measures to resolve the issues. This should include short term as well as the long term measures with their pro and cons.
  4. Give the best possible solution.
  5. Conclude appropriately.

Tips To Keep In Mind

  • The preparation for ethics paper should be completed before prelims.
  • The syllabus should be learnt by heart. This will hugely help in writing answers.
  • A separate notes copy should be made with definition of each and every keyword of the syllabus written in it. It should also contain at least two real life examples for every keyword.
  • Short notes should be prepared for each and every topic. This will be immensely beneficial for revision as well as to recollect thoughts in exam.
  • Prepare a list of all possible thinkers and their comments/ views/ quotes. Sprinkling of such content in some questions can raise the bar of the answers. However, care should be taken that this is not over done.
  • Always remember uniqueness, innovativeness and one’s own understanding and point of view is highly rewarded in ethics paper.
  • Focus on quality examples and diagrams.
  • Reading ethics without practice and answer writing is a waste.
  • Answers should look like arguments and not piece of abstract writing.

In ethics paper each question should be seen as an opportunity to demonstrate one’s ethical values by displaying the actions one did by quoting personalized examples. Similarly, in case studies aim should be to write novel, unique and innovative solutions but which are realistic, practical and can be implemented in real life. To manage time well, prior strategy should be made. It is last of the GS papers, so the mind and body will be under strain. Hence, it is important to remain mentally strong and have the stamina to complete the paper on time.

Happy Learning!! Best Wishes!!

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