What is Right & What is Wrong?

Navigating through life’s moral dilemmas.


Morality is an invention of the weak to neutralize the strength of the strong

– Callicles (in Plato’s Gorgias)

The author does not believe in most moral absolutes. What is right and what is wrong, in most cases, is a very personal choice based on the doer’s personal value system and understanding of the context. One man’s right is often the other man’s wrong. An (imperfect) rule of the thumb maybe ‘if something gives me happiness, and does not directly make anyone else unhappy’, it is generally okay to pursue. The author also does not find anything wrong per se in living a life of pleasure, as long as one does not hurt others, does not lose sight of the larger spirituality and the doer is intellectually strong enough to not suffer guilty pangs later on.

Is lying wrong? Most societies and religions put a premium on ‘being truthful’, so does truth become a moral absolute? Let’s consider the famous Nazi dilemma: we are protecting some Jew friends and Nazi soldiers knock and ask if we have any Jew inside. Do we tell the truth knowing that this truth will cost some people their lives, or do we lie (and ‘fraud’ the legal authorities) because the moral imperative to save lives is higher than speaking truth? Most of us would prefer lying, and I would too. But see, we used our personal judgment, and personal value system to decide what was right, and in doing so, went against the behavior the then society or legal system expected of us. How can lying then ‘always be wrong’?

How did morality develop? Why did some things become ‘right’ and some others – often even very natural urges – become ‘wrong’? Biologists point to the mammalian practice of group living, which made overall survival for the species easier in an otherwise dangerous planet. Over hundreds of years, this living in groups necessitated some social rules that could protect the group against internal conflicts and ensure stability of the population. Morality then became an invention of the group to deter people that would go against the group. “Don’t cheat, steal or lie. Care for children and weak. Practice empathy and reciprocity. Avoid adultery and incest. Greatest good for the greatest numbers.”

What about killing? But we kill by the millions in every war, often in the name of protecting our national or religious honour. And in those times, all those who try to show reason and restraint are often branded traitors: Humanitarians and Pacifists (who believe that all violence is unjustifiable) like Nobel Laureate Bertrand Russel were ridiculed and actually sent to prison in the First World War. Governments continue to kill even today based on what the governments think is right. Iraq invaded Kuwait convinced that Kuwait deserved to be taught a lesson, and US invaded Iraq convinced that Iraq deserved to be taught a lesson. In the process thousands lost their lives. Who then decides which side is right? We often say: when two moral absolutes are in conflict, choose the higher one. But who decides which one is higher? For a jihadi, with his years of conditioning, protecting his religion’s honour is infinitely more important than a few lives. For an atheist like me, religion remains the opium of the masses and organized religion’s influence should be steadily reduced!

What about abortion or euthanasia – are these ‘killings’ justified? Many religious preachers say it is ‘god’s life’ and hence we can’t terminate it. But if God owns life, what about non-vegetarianism? Do animals not have the same rights as man? We invoke the ‘special status’ of humans or ‘survival of the fittest’ to justify slaughtering. But isn’t this another case of giving in to desires and then later rationalizing it? Right and wrong often becomes murky.

Is sex outside the hallowed institution of marriage all right? 50 years ago, people would be killed for it. With the new moral zeitgeist, and urban surveys that suggest 80 percent of girls have lost their virginity before turning 18, we are more accepting of it (still chiding our daughters to refrain from it, but rationalizing if our sons have done it… society’s moral rules are often a license for hypocrisy). I surveyed some of my female students: after spending late hours with your boy friend, your mother confronts you at home. What would you do? Most would lie and say they were with other girls or in a college project. The justification for this ‘little lie’ ranged from ‘it is not harming anyone’, to ‘mothers are from a different mindset and will not understand my feelings’, to ‘it is my life’ to ‘buying peace at home’. I then asked: Is it wrong for a husband to have an extra marital affair and lie about it to his wife? Most of the same respondents immediately said it was ‘obviously wrong’. But why is cheating our mother okay but not our spouse?

Osho had an interesting take on this whole morality. Every human being has temptations – and the same god who made the earth and us, gave us these temptations. However, society and religion very soon started putting curbs – recall the tongue-in-cheek quote ‘everything nice is illegal, immoral or unhealthy‘! Osho believed this was to make us ‘weak from the inside’. We will anyway have those temptations, but with years of conditioning that these are wrong, a part of us will also start disliking the other part of us. We will start feeling guilty about something which is very natural. And when we feel guilty, we feel weak. We will go to our religious leaders and our temples to seek forgiveness, to offer prayers and alms for salvation! For 200 years, Europeans believed in ‘indulgences’: giving cash to priests so that the sin of the giver can be absolved. And even now the most corrupt politicians and businessmen partake in multiple religious rituals to wash off their sins.

Why can’t we accept ourselves as we are: with our wonderful strengths, and also our very human failings? Surely we should improve – but we decide for ourselves what needs to be improved.

The moral police often label these as mere rationalizations – isn’t our mind adept at coming up with plausible post-facto justifications? I have commonly heard the quip, “Oh, but in the heart-of-their-heart, even they know they are wrong”. But we have to be careful in painting all justifications as shallow. The atheist who does not believe in god or the homosexual who does not find anything wrong in having a partner of the same gender do not know they are wrong. On the contrary, they know that conventional societal rules are wrong and they may just happen to be too avant-garde for popular acceptance. Why can’t they – in their personal lives – follow what they think is right, without harming anyone else?

Krishna was perhaps the only god who showed us that a good life can co-exist with spirituality. This is a very different paradigm from the traditional religious dictums of austerity, suffering or repression of desires. There is no duality – we don’t have to suffer or repress in this world to be happy in the next world. We can be happy here, and happy in the afterworld (if the afterworld exists!). Spinoza explained this beautifully: If ‘living is desiring’, then ceasing to desire is in a way dying. Denying desire would be tantamount to denying our self assertion, our will to be. It is even impossible to want to suppress desiring. It would amount to a contradiction: to desire not to have any desires! Ascetic deprivation kills life and vitality.

So what am I saying? I believe in living on our own terms, doing what makes us happy. In most cases, the context and personal values – and not social and religious rules – would define what’s right for the doer. We need to move from a group morality to individual freedom, and do away with this excessive shackling of the human spirit.

Having said this, just like there is no moral absolute, there should also be no pleasure absolute. In line with the philosophy of this article, I would hesitate to provide ‘rules and principles’ since the final decision maker of right and wrong is the doer. I would still suggest there may be 5 pertinent questions that the doer may ask himself/herself to be doubly sure of the ‘rightness’ of the action:

  • Are we directly harming someone else? Our right to live our way ends the moment we start trampling on others’ right to live their way. Any violence or use of force – at an individual level – is therefore unacceptable.

  • Who is in control – we or our desires? When our desires take control, we become too weak to make a choice. Desires have a tendency to multiply, and very soon become unsatiable, rendering us in a perpetual state of seeking gratification. Desires also have a tendency to cloud our perspective, often tempting us to take risks where the costs may be astronomically high and irrational – public disgrace, divorce, ruined career, lifelong dreams shattered, even jail. The best way is often of balance and moderation, something between desire’s excesses and its repression. We choose our own balance, based on our personal value system.
  • Do we have clarity on what is the larger purpose of life? While there is nothing wrong in enjoying per se, the purpose of life may be larger. After leading a life of pleasure, we will find that there is still a sense of emptiness, that despite all the gratification, something is still missing. It is a human’s inherent need to feel valuable: to make a contribution, to make an impact. Zorba must also discover his inner Buddha! We also need to distinguish between, as John Stuart Mill observed, higher pleasures (pleasures of the intellect, imagination, appreciation of beauty…) and lower pleasures (mere sensation). And often a blind pursuit of pleasure make us neglect our other responsibilities, and that comes back to bite us, making us more unhappy in the long run.
  • Are we truly, deeply convinced we are right? When, deep inside us, we continue to think we are doing something wrong, we suffer a guilty conscious later on. Leading a self-directed life requires courage: it is critical to have a clear conscience despite social pressure. Either smoke or repent – no point in suffering with a guilty conscious after consummating the pleasure. Recall Plato’s rebuke in Republic: “the unjust person’s soul is chaotic and at war with itself, so that even if he were able to satisfy his desires, a lack of inner harmony and unity prevent the attainment of happiness. In this way, being moral is to be ultimately in a person’s own self-interest.” I would just add: a weak person’s soul (if there be a soul!) is chaotic, because he is himself not convinced what he just did was right. This is complicated: Ideally, we should not doubt the morality of our actions just because society or religion say so. But if we are still in doubt, don’t do it. Or else we will suffer like Hamlet did, “Tis better to be that which we destroy, than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy”.

So, like everything in life, it is about balance. And the right way to find this balance, this sense of right and wrong, is through personal experimentation and reflection. A socio-religious dictum (“do this because it is right, and do not question ‘the way’”) is too simplistic and pedantic, and I suspect will anyway not be followed by smart people. As Nobel Laureate Herman Hesse beautifully illustrated: Siddhartha, as a prince, enjoyed a life of luxury but still felt an emptiness and suffering. He analyzed, reflected, meditated, finally found The Truth and became the Buddha. He also then suggested The Noble Eightfold Path. However, not one of his followers, who tried to follow this noble path, actually became a Buddha!

“See, we need to find our own enlightenment… Experimenting, Observing, Reflecting and then forming our own ethical code.”

– Nishant Saxena

Case-let – The difficult question of adultery/cheating…

We may now be ready to consider that great taboo: Adultery, the waterloo of many a Clintons and Tiger Woods. Right and wrong becomes even hazier because of the obvious surge of temptations involved. All of us like to add to our happiness, even if it is a moment of pleasure. If what is right and what is in our interest coincide, there is no problem. But when what is societal right and what gives us pleasure are 180 degrees apart, there is a real problem.

In this case, the one big thing that is difficult to justify: when someone commits adultery, he (and it is usually a he!) is knowingly doing something that will cause a hurt to his loved one. How can this behavior (of hurting others) be justified?

The Harvard biologist Marc Hauser did an interesting ‘trolley experiment’. A trolley is coming down a track, and it’s going to run over and kill 5 people if it continues. You are standing next to the track and can flip a switch and turn the trolley onto a side track where 1 person is walking. So if you flip the switch, you will kill one but save the five. Most people said they would flip the switch, because it is morally permissible to harm one person when five are saved.

Now, the situation was changed slightly. There was no switch and no second track and you were watching the same trolley from above a bridge, and you could see that, unless stopped, the trolley would soon run over and kill the five people walking on the track. Near you, a fat man is also sitting on the bridge. The only option you have to save the five is to push the fat man in front of the trolley, thereby stopping it and saving the five people. However, the fat man dies in the process. What would you do?

Most people would not push the fat man and let the five people die, even though logically both scenarios present the same moral dilemma – killing one to save five. Why does this happen? Somewhere the direct action of killing someone is not acceptable morally, even though an indirect harm to the same person is acceptable. We can justify flipping the switch, since our direct intent was to save the five, and we did not directly want to kill the other man, he just happened to get killed in the process.

Directly causing harm is unacceptable, indirectly is often morally okay! This is often the ‘justification’ we have heard from cheating husbands – their direct intention was not to hurt the sentiments of the loved one, their direct intention was to enjoy life a little more in an otherwise stressful world.

Can the context of the married life (frequent fights with the partner, very little romance left, dull and drab middle ages with tired and spent faces) justify the action? What if the doer’s highest value – in true Zorba style – is: ‘living this one life to the fullest’, ‘drinking life to the lees’ – and so everything else is subordinate to it? Or as skeptics say – “Doing it is all right, everyone does it. Getting caught is what makes it wrong!”

I would again hesitate to pass any moral judgment or take a ‘holier-than-thou’ stand, but counsel the doer to carefully think through some pertinent questions:

  • What about the guilty conscious deep inside our heart: can one really justify this cheating to oneself and carry a clean conscience? Or else the little pleasure now gives us more pain later. The weight of this guilt would also make us less fun to hang around with.
  • Who is in control – is the cheating a rational well thought of choice, or our desires have made us too weak to exercise objective judgment. Have we really considered the very high long term risks – public disgrace, divorce etc – we are taking for a moment of pleasure? Remember also that temptations cloud our perspective, and often when we think we are taking a rational decision, we are not thinking straight and actually fooling even our own selves. Such ‘moments of truth’ – and our response to them – often define our outcome in life. Socrates would chide that a man of pleasure does not think straight because he cannot think straight.
  • Can we continue to deliver on our more important priorities and responsibilities despite this distraction? The affair will become a bigger and bigger distraction, we will have less time for family and work and therefore important relationships and results will probably suffer. Have we truly accounted for this?

So, it needs to be a rational choice between the fleeting moment of pleasure and the long term consequences above.

Nietzsche, the famous critic of the hypocrisy within religion, in his brilliant book Genealogy of Morals, talks of the psychological origin of conscience: everyone has a will-to-power, a primal desire to inflict pain on others, which expresses a basic predatory human instinct. When this natural urge is suppressed by societal rules (that, in turn, are needed to make group living possible), we try to inflict pain on ourselves instead, through a guilty conscience. Religion often celebrates this suffering (e.g. Christ’s crucifixion or the chastity observed by priests).



What is Love?

Most of us, in the June of our lives, have experienced the blissful feeling of ‘falling in love’. The stress of everyday living suddenly vanishes, time seems to stop and the only thing that matters is closeness to the beloved. However, is that really love?


Nostalgic about Allahabad
(Published in: HT Allahabad)



The New Ganga Bridge. Wow! It’s been 16 years since I left Allahabad

Click here to view Coverage

 My current work draws heavily from my experiences in Allahabad. Every day I saw thousands of graduates from Allahabad University and its affiliate colleges roaming around because they had no work: degree but not a job. On the other hand, at senior levels within corporate world, most of my colleagues complained they desperately needed people but couldn’t find the right talent. It was a classic case of ‘water, water everywhere… but not a drop to drink.’ The basic issue was that the graduates produced by our universities were not really Employable. The industry wanted Corporate Exposure, Grooming and Personality, Spoken English, Thinking-on-the-Feet ability… and that’s where students from smaller cities lagged behind. This prompted 17 of us from various IIMs to start India’s first chain of finishing schools. Today we have achieved our grand ‘Vision 10×10: Making 10,000 Indians Employable by 2010’, but the seed was first sown in Allahabad.

The other distinct memory is of my alma mater, St. Joseph’s College. Teachers like Mr. Rafeal and Mrs. Gandhi embodied what a good teacher should be: immense knowledge with immense concern for the student. My first brush with leadership was also as college captain at SJC – I realized how much soft skills and personality are important and the practical limitations of bookish knowledge.

Allahabad also has Prof. JS Mathur, the noted Gandhian. I wrote my first paper under his guidance, and it was nominated for presentation in Germany. I have been to 35 countries since, but the fear and excitement of this first foreign trip as a student remains unmatched.

Allahabad gave me my first (and only!) girl-friend. We were neighbours and she was a Muslim. But all family and friends in Allahabad fully supported us on this very sensitive issue – we have now been married for 10 years J.

Interestingly even now many strangers – who have only heard me speak – guess that I am from Lucknow or Allahabad. They say the tehzeeb and refineness in the language of this place is unique.

So yes, proud to be an Allahabadi!


Nishant Saxena is the CEO of National award winning, Elements Akademia. He was profiled by Outlook as one of ’50 Social Entrepreneurs… Making India Better’. He teaches Finance & Strategy at IIM Lucknow and was formerly the Deputy CFO of P&G India.

5 Golden Rules to ensure Real business impact from Corporate Training
(Published in: The Financial Express)

Organizations – both big and small – spend billions of dollars on Training. Yet, CEOs and HR Heads keep complaining that the effect of training rarely lasts. After the initial high, most employees tend to go back to their old ways, and so over a 3-6 month period, there is hardly any visible difference.

Most trainings have two primary reasons – either people are not performing as effectively as they could; or because people need to learn new skills in anticipation of future responsibilities. In both cases, training is a just a tool for the larger expectation that people will do their jobs better. Hence the central validation question is: Did the training make a measurable difference?

Here are 5 tips to ensure this measurable difference, a real long-term impact –


1. A Good Training is taken up as a Consulting Assignment, starting with a rigorous Needs  Analysis.  First identify  the  business  problem.  What is  the  real  issue?  Get complete clarity and cross-functional alignment on this issue. Training, per se, has no value in itself… its value is derived from the business problem it solves. Hence, even before starting, ask: Are the right issues being addressed by this training?

For instance, so many clients ask us for a Leadership workshop. But our first question is – what specific trait are you not seeing in your managers? Are they not seeing the big picture well? Are  they   not  collaborating  enough?  Are  they  not  inspiring  their  teams?  Are  they  not  taking accountability of results? Each of these is a very specific and unique leadership challenge, and needs to be dealt differently. Another example: A Big 4 client asked us to deliver communication workshops, but also warned us that the previous trainers were not effective. When we sat with prospective trainees and their managers, we realized that the trainees needed to be first coached in Structured Thinking, and only then in How to Express Powerfully. If we had just gone ahead with a traditional communication training (grammar, presentation skills, report writing etc.), we would have fallen flat. Now the client is rolling out this adapted training (Thinking Right… and then Expressing Right) across the country.

This Needs Analysis must be transparent and involve top management. Often senior managers complain all problems are with junior managers and ask us to train them. But a closer inspection generally shows critical gaps in the seniors too. Another large MNC asked us to make their middle management ‘problem solvers’, who could  solve their own issues, instead of escalating all issues to their managers. However, when we dig deeper, we realized that, in the past, solutions by middle level generally met with lukewarm support, and when things went wrong, they were severely reprimanded. No training can help here, unless the seniors first improve their delegation, empowerment and coaching skills. The # 1 reason we have seen for ‘non-stickability’ of training is that ‘the managers do not role-model what was taught in the workshop’. We need to identify the real problem, across levels and not just the symptoms.2

2. The Content must be fully customized for the unique needs of the client. Since we are solving a live business problem, the examples and frameworks we use must be  relevant for the participants. For example, I have seen so many Finance For Non  Finance or Business Acumen workshops, delivered reasonably well by very knowledgeable trainers. But the non-finance trainees – from Sales, Operations and HR – keep  wondering afterwards how they will apply this generic knowledge of cash flows, balance sheet, ratios etc in their own roles.

A large telco approached us to sensitise its Circle Business Heads on the need for Financial Prudence. Profitability was poor partially because of tough competition and partially because  Business Heads (generally with a Sales background) were still focussing on volumes and customer base, but not on the cost of acquiring  and  retaining a customer. We did a thorough research on the sector, interviewed multiple players, used analyst and share price reports to make a powerful case on why cash was to be saved to save the company. We used company specific templates, terms and real scenarios (example: investing in a new tower) to show RoI of investments and arrive at thumb rules (e.g. a new tower makes sense only if subscriber base is more than 1000).  The training got 9.7/10 feedback and is now being reapplied across all the Circle Leadership Teams.

33. The Trainer needs to have practical experience of that particular sector and problem. We need a consultant, with deep contextual familiarity. If we have to train the  Sales  force of an education company, we need a trainer who has experience doing business development in the education sector. For only he can understand the nuances – in this particular case, the unprofessionalism of various college promoters, the cheque bouncings, the apathy of most teachers and faculty, the attitude issues in the students, the cyclicity of admissions seasons etc. Effective Selling Skills in education will require accounting for these nuances. A pure Sales Trainer – who just focuses on 7Ps and Empathic Listening and Consultative Selling – will only be 60% effective, unable to contextualize his teaching to the unique problems faced by his trainees.

When we were asked by a Food major to improve the Business Partnering of its Finance team, we gave multiple  FMCG examples of how finance teams have helped the business make the right strategic choices – in distribution, plants, sales promotions, pricing etc. – areas very relevant to the audience. We got former FMCG CFOs to share their experiences and offer practical tips. The training was so successful it was rolled out across the globe.

4. Use the principles of Androgogy (Adult Learning) to ensure retention and internalization of learning. The challenge for any programme is to ensure long term retention and real life application. We need to understand the science of learning: ADDIE and other models in Instructional Design, Edgar Dale’s Cone of  Experience,  Bloom’s  Taxonomy,  5  Principles  of  Androgogy,  Kolb’s  Learning  cycle  etc.  Real-life examples,  lectures,  videos,  interactive  activities,  quizzes  and  games  need  to  be  used  to  help  in internalization (“show, tell, make them do, make them teach”). For example, while illustrating Johari window (“understanding of self”), we  can use a small movie clip from the iconic movie Ek Ruka Hua Faisla. Or while teaching financial analysis, participants can be asked to make the financials of a new product launch (ideally using data of that particular  client). Or while teaching Empathic Listening, we may ask the trainees to now train their spouses/friends over phone and get a feedback over sms. We also need to give a lot of respect to the experiences the participants bring, and keep showing them how this knowledge will help them achieve their own goals.


5. Post-training  follow-ups and  other  interventions. Class-room  training  is  just a sensitizing tool. To ensure real impact, we need a structured intervention, with a lot of  follow-ups  and  other  enablers.  We  must  rigorously  follow  all  the  4  levels  of Kirkpatrick model or equivalent:

  • Reaction – what participants thought and felt about the training. This is usuallymeasured immediately after the workshop and generally gets positive scores.
  • Learning – the resulting increase in knowledge and/or skills, and change in attitudes. A small quiz may be organized at the end to ensure key learning is internalized.
  • Behavior – transfer of knowledge, skills, and/or attitudes from classroom to the job. This evaluation
    occurs 3–6 months post training while the trainee is performing the job. Evaluation usually occurs through  observation. After 3 months, we must ask the managers of trainees if there is evidence of a change in behavior. For example, after an FNFE workshop, are the trainees now submitting much more financially savvy  proposals that made overall sense for the company? If not, what is the point of the workshop even if it got a 9 out of 10 score?
  • Results – This is always difficult to measure and attribute specific business results to training alone.
    But we absolutely must agree on the measures upfront, install a control and do the rigorous due diligence of seeing whether business results improved as a result of the workshop. For example, in the same telco above, the regional head observed that the circle which had most internalized our Business Acumen workshop had also become EBITA positive ahead of target. Or for a pharma retail client, the mystery  shopper  audit  scores  went  up  from  35%  to  55%  after  our  sustained  customer  service intervention. Or in a semi-PSU, the scores on  High Performance Organization moved up from ‘Sub- optimal’ to ‘Good’ after 9 months of Leadership  Development intervention. This may not be exact science, but we get very clear directional evidence which are very satisfying for the trainer and justify the cost of training to the client.Also realize that pure training will usually not solve the entire business problem. In a Fortune 50 MNC, the Regional Sales Manager asked us to improve the Profit focus of his Area Sales Managers. But when we asked  what the ASMs were rewarded on, he said “Obviously volume of sales. Isn’t that standard across all sales  teams?” See if we measure people on volumes alone, they will obviously promote volume growth, even when it as at the cost of profitability. The monitoring and reward systems and culture need to be in sync with training.Training is ultimately like Money… There are certain problems it can solve brilliantly well. But many
    ‘fundamental issues’ require structural changes, and simply throwing training (or money) will not solve them.  Training (and money!) is just one of the arrows in our quiver to make us more effective and efficient. Ultimately, its impact will depend on how intelligently we use it!

–    Nishant Saxena
[The author is CEO of Elements Akademia, and a Guest Faculty at IIM Lucknow. He can be reached at n.saxena@elementsakademia.com]