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Opinion: Civils and the art of thinking

The UPSC does not expect scholarly knowledge and understanding of ‘thinking tools’ to solve a case study but conceptual clarity from candidates

Published Date – 12:45 AM, Fri – 26 May 23

Opinion: Civils and the art of thinking

By GHP Raju

Topics such as Morality, Ethics and Integrity fall within the general scope of Philosophy as is commonly known. Philosophy as a subject is the least preferred by any student during their college days and a few aspiring candidates choose it as an Optional Subject for the UPSC. The curriculum in our education system neither introduces Ethics, Integrity or Aptitude as a common subject nor encourages faculty members of colleges or schools to introduce these topics for debate, discussion and thinking.

Despite being fully aware of the dismal scenario about the subjects Morality, Ethics, Integrity, Aptitude, etc in the current education system, the UPSC has introduced Ethics, Integrity and Aptitude as a compulsory subject for 250 marks in the Civil Services Mains examination. What could be the rationale behind this decision?

The Rationale

The rationale, perhaps, as per my understanding, is that these subjects compel candidates to learn the art of thinking through abstract subjects with no ‘right or wrong’ answers for the topics covered in the examination. For example, in the Mains exam 2022, the question:

“Wisdom lies in knowing what to reckon with and what to overlook. An officer engrossed with the periphery ignoring the core issues before him, is no rarity in the bureaucracy. Do you agree that such preoccupation of an administrator leads to a travesty of justice to the cause of effective service delivery and good governance?” Critically evaluate.

This question carried ten marks and was to be written in 150 words in about five minutes. In the absence of a right or wrong answer, the candidate is expected to marshal his or her thoughts on this question quickly and come up with a precise answer with convincing logic using basic ethical thinking tools. Each candidate comes up with their interpretation. This is where the UPSC compels the candidates to learn the ‘art of thinking through’ any topic. Our education system seldom encourages students to learn the art of thinking through a given topic based on empirical evidence, variables, explanation of these variables, etc.

Science subjects such as Maths, Physics and Chemistry have straight answers as right or wrong, true or false to the questions as these deal with objective universal variables, carry the same meanings and value and produce identical conclusions under the given context. That is why they are called rational subjects as they are based on logic and reason.


Ethics, Integrity and Aptitude are irrational subjects as the basis for their inferences and conclusions are subjective variables emanating from own experiences, belief systems, etc. As these deal with subjective variables, the inference drawn or conclusions arrived at are individualistic and cannot be universally valid.

That is why no two answers for the question will be identical. Only the UPSC model answer for the question, if any, given to the examiner will decide the marks secured by each candidate for their answer. This will surely compel the serious Civil Services aspirants to learn the “art of thinking through” various topics mentioned in the syllabus for the Ethics, Integrity and Aptitude paper.

In this paper, the UPSC has adopted a twin-pronged strategy to test both the theoretical aspects and application capabilities of a candidate under a time-stress environment. The theoretical aspects are like ‘thinking tools’ and their understanding is tested in Section-A of the paper. Fifty-three per cent of marks are allocated to this Section. Section-B deals with hypothetical situations given as case studies to test the application of the ‘thinking tools’ learned from Section-A. Forty-seven per cent of marks are allocated to this Section.

The Ethics paper demands and forces the aspirant to start ‘thinking through’ the tools such as integrity, public duty, honesty, empathy, attitude, optimism, values, morality, rationalism, emotional intelligence, ethical dilemma, discretion, honesty, impartiality, prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice, fairness, conflict of interest, social justice, constitutional morality and aptitude.

Most of us may know the common sense meaning of this terminology, which I prefer to call “thinking tools” for the Civil Services examination. Common sense meaning of these ‘ethical thinking tools’ will not be of much help in either understanding the true meaning of each tool or in applying them to case studies in the examination.

No wonder, very few selected candidates scored more than 130 marks out of 250 marks in this paper. A majority of candidates ended up scoring between 80 and 100 marks due to a lack of proper understanding about each ‘thinking tool’ and how to use them in explaining the case studies. The Ethics paper truly brings out the innate ‘thinking abilities’ of an aspirant. The UPSC has succeeded in this aspect of this prestigious examination.

The Ethics paper, in addition to an Essay paper which also carries 250 marks, is a great leveller in the Civil Services examination. The great lever neutralises an undue advantage to Engineering graduates who appear for this exam and have an advantage over students with Humanities backgrounds from rural areas. With Ethics and Essay papers, the UPSC has succeeded in creating a level-playing field for candidates with technical and/or Humanities backgrounds.

Conceptual clarity

Preparing for the Ethics, Integrity and Aptitude paper involves knowing the ‘exact meaning’ of each thinking tool and solving as many case studies as possible using these ‘thinking tools’. The UPSC does not expect scholarly knowledge and understanding of these ‘thinking tools’ to solve a case study. Conceptual clarity of all the thinking tools is expected from the candidates. As there is no standard right or wrong, true or false answers to the case studies, candidates must get mentored by experts with proven conceptual clarity on case studies, discuss various other ways to analyse them and re-visit the case studies with improved conceptual clarity.

Preparing for the Ethics paper is a continuous process. Every news item, case attended to by the Supreme Court which is in the news, and every major policy decision of the government will be viewed as case studies to identify the conflicting views (ethical dilemmas), and collect as many facts as possible about the news item and interpret the situation by applying the above mentioned ‘ethical thinking tools’.

For example, ethical dilemmas in same-sex marriage (LGBTQIA: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual people), black money and controlling money power in elections by the RBI, IAS & IPS officers bending backwards to please political masters to get the so-called plum postings, Privacy Vs Security due to CCTV systems in public places, Freedom of Expression Vs Hate Speech, Environmental Protection Vs Economic Development, Secularism Vs Religious Freedom, Judicial Activism Vs Judicial Restraint, etc. A civil services aspirant is expected to examine all these news items and treat them as case studies applying the theoretical ‘ethical thinking tools’ and write answers from different perspectives.

By introducing the Ethics, Integrity and Aptitude paper, the UPSC is helping civil services aspirants cultivate the habit of ‘thinking through’ various ethical dilemma situations using ‘ethical tools’ to begin with, and extend the same thinking skills to other subjects in the syllabus. In this examination, ‘thinking’ is required to become a civil servant, as they are ‘problem solvers’ in governance.


(Views are personal.

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