How to Answer GS 4 (Ethics) Paper in UPSC Mains

By | February 3, 2020

Note: This is the third and final free chapter from my book, Fundamentals of Essay and Answer Writing. I have previously published two excerpts on GS-2 and Introductions to Essay. The book has similar detailed chapters on Essay and answer writing for GS-1,2,3,4, including the Anthropology optional. You can get the book here.

GS-IV can be confounding. That’s because the questions in this paper tend to be subjective with no single correct answer. There can be multiple ways to answer a particular question and all of them might be right. Hence, though aspirants are clear about the syllabus, they are often confused about how to answer ethics questions. Given this subjectivity and confusion pertaining to this paper, it becomes challenging to come up with a convincing framework for answer writing. However, some broad principles can guide us in structuring our responses.

In this chapter, we will go through some of those guidelines that can help you argue your case more clearly and make your ethics answer compelling.

GS- IV syllabus can be divided into two segments:

I. Theory
II. Case Studies

I. Theory

In this portion (and to some extent in case studies) questions are usually of three types. One, the definition of an ethical value; two, the significance of the value; and three, the application of that value in our daily lives. To put it simply, theory questions ask you to explain a value along with examples.

Let’s take the term integrity. Three questions that could be asked about it are:

  • What do you understand by integrity? [Definition of the value]
  • What is the importance of integrity? In its absence, what are the consequences for an individual, society, country or in different walks of life? [Significance of the value]
  • What are the challenges in cultivating integrity? How do you overcome them? [Application of the value]You may substitute other ethical values for integrity to guess the kind of questions you may face in the test. Anticipate such questions and formulate a basic answer to all ethical terms given in the syllabus. This exercise will help you immensely in preparing for the theory portion.

Prepare a Definition for Each of the Terms in the Syllabus

If the question pertains to a specific ethical value, you must introduce the answer with a crisp definition, followed by an example. The definition can be a personal one, reflecting what it means to you.

Example 1: Integrity

Integrity means being honest and doing the right thing even when nobody is watching you. It can be conveyed through a simple example: Stopping at a red light signal at 3am in the night, even when the entire road was clear. This is an example of my integrity.

Example 2: Leadership

Leadership is the act of motivating a group of people towards achieving a common goal. Leadership provides inspiration, motivation and a vision for the future. Eg: Mahatma Gandhi showed exemplary leadership to unite the country in the fight for independence.

Always prefer a simple definition and avoid jargon. Simplicity is clarity. Another useful way of introducing your answers is by starting with an interesting quote and then proceeding to define the term.

Example 1: When you are answering a question on Emotional Intelligence, it can be started with the following quote: “As much as 80% of adult success comes from EQ” – Daniel Goleman

Example 2: A question on RTI can be introduced with this quote: “RTI is the master key to Good Governance” – 2nd ARC

Value mapping

In this exercise, you think of an eminent personality and then map him or her onto the values they stood for.

Below is a table with some examples of prominent leaders. You can add other values that you think match with a particular leader and repeat this exercise for all eminent persons.

LeaderValues they stood for
Babasaheb AmbedkarSocial Justice, Human Rights, Rule of Law, Empathy and Compassion
JRD TataEthical Capitalism, Philanthropy, Professionalism
Mahatma GandhiProfessionalism, Integrity, Moral Courage, Humility, Leadership

As you map values onto the list of the most important leaders, philosophers, or administrators, it will become easier to recollect and quote relevant thinkers in your answers to give weight to your Ethical analysis.

Flow charts and Diagrams

For some topics such as Emotional Intelligence, Good Governance, and Civil Service Values, illustrating their features through flowcharts and diagrams makes your answers concise and neat. Prepare these flowcharts and diagrams beforehand and incorporate them in your mock tests so that it becomes easier to use them in the final test.

Make a database of real life examples

Examples are what make your answer come alive. They not only make the concept clearer, but also convey how the ethical principles and conflicts manifest in real life. Without them, an ethics answer would be a pointless theoretical rambling. Remember that the examiner is not evaluating how much you know about ethics. They want to see how well you can apply those principles in your day-to-day life. For this, examples are crucial.

Some important sources from which to collect these examples are:

  • Newspapers— When you read the newspaper, look out for interesting incidents and news that can be used in your ethics paper. There are tons of examples that are reported everyday. For example, when you read about ‘Selfie with Daughter’ campaign, you must be able to correlate with ‘Social persuasion’ topic of the syllabus. Or, say, a newsarticle about civil servants working in remote districts of the country and how they are transforming them for the better. Even happenings in international affairs can be used as examples. Think of Cyber espionage, Syrian refugee crisis, Snowden controversy, Cambridge Analytica scandal and the moral issues pertaining to big tech companies like Facebook and Google. Such everyday examples are numerous, all you have to do is to link it with the syllabus and note them down for future reference.
  • Personal Life (School, College, Family): Littering on the street, jumping a traffic signal, cheating on a test, lying to your parents, shirking work at office. You can think of many examples from your everyday life to quote in your answers. Also, don’t restrict yourself to your own perspective. For instance, there might have been cases of extreme ragging in a certain college and the administration might have turned a blind eye to it in order to protect its image. You can discuss such ethical violations from other’s perspective which has come to your knowledge.
  • Workplace: Every profession has its peculiar set of ethical dilemmas. So when you are brainstorming for examples, think of doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, civil servants etc and imagine the moral challenges they might come across in their respective professions. For instance, a lawyer defending a client who is guilty faces an ethical dilemma. An SDM who has to protect government lands and remove encroachments might, in the process, make some poor families homeless. Once you brainstorm, you will have a rich repository of such examples to cite from in your theory answers and case studies.
  • From the Lives of Leaders, Philosophers, and Administrators: Anecdotes, actions, stories, and quotes from the lives of eminent personalities can also be used as examples to drive your argument. Even mythology can be a rich resource to collect good examples. Lincoln’s fight against slavery is an example of moral courage. Dr. Kalam’s commitment to space and nuclear field is a testament to his professional competence.
  • Crowdsourcing: Many online portals such as Insights, IASBABA, ForumIAS, CivilsDaily run a daily module for answer writing practice. Sift through them and you will find some really good answers other people are writing. Reading these can help you build a blueprint for makes an excellent example and prepare your own list.The point of this exercise is to have enough examples for different kinds of situations so that you can easily pick the right one in the right context without wasting much time in the exam hall.

II. Case studies

More than the theory part, case studies bring out our ethical dilemmas and logical reasoning sharply. Done well, they can propel your score beyond 110. Gone wrong, they may restrict your marks to under 90.

The purpose of case studies is to make you ready for the field experience. Once you enter the civil service, you may face situations in which competing values clash. Would you strictly adhere to rules or stay flexible at times to help the needy? Would you suspend an erring subordinate, thereby curtailing his income, or overlook his misdeeds and close it with a warning, considering his dependent family? These are the real-life situations a civil servant confronts on a daily basis. Through case studies, the examiner can understand how you might behave if you were in a similar situation. So, one of the foremost tips (and one of the obvious) is to put yourself in the shoes of an administrator, and consider yourself a problem solver. This makes the whole exercise enjoyable and inevitably your answers exude passion and cogent articulation.

In this component, we will go through some pointers which can help you answer the case studies well.

A standard framework for answers

Having a concrete framework ready while answering gives a sense of flow, coherence and structure to your case study. Else, it

faces the risk of steering away from the question and exceeding the word limit. Therefore, it’s helpful to categorise your answer under the following subheadings:

• Subject Matter: Briefly in a line or two, capture the entire case study. E.g. In a case Study dealing with an IAS aspirant heading for Interview but sees an accident on the way, subject Matter could be: Dilemma between achieving career ambition and responding to the accident as a good samaritan.

• Stakeholders: List down the set of people who would be directly and indirectly affected in the case. For instance, you are the CEO of a PSU which is facing severe unionism and strikes, affecting company profits. Stakeholders are yourself, employees, government, public at large, local families, investors, and shareholders. You may also represent this information through a spoke and wheel diagram.

UPSC Ethics GS 4 Diagram

• EthicalDilemmas/KeyPrinciples:Enumeratetheethicalissues in the case study. This is a crucial part of your answer since you explicitly mention the conflicting values you face in your judgement. For instance, in a case involving mining in a tribal inhabited forest, ethical issues will be: development vs. nature conservation; public interest vs protection of tribal land rights; economic growth vs equitable prosperity. Mention these issues in bullet points, sequentially.

• Options Available to You: Write 3-4 choices you have in the scenario, along with the pros and cons of choosing each alternative. Two choices inevitably will be the extreme options, which are generally avoided as your choice. The remaining ones should be the practical courses of action you wish to pursue.

• Choosing an Option: Under this subheading, write about the course of action which can be a combination of the above mentioned options. It should be followed by clear articulation of your arguments (more on this below) along with quotes and examples to substantiate your point of view. The best option to choose in any given situation is not the most original but the most practical. If you come up with a spectacular innovative idea, but isn’t easily implementable, it’s as good as doing nothing. Search for options that can be executed amidst the constraints a govt servant faces. For instance, let’s say in your district, tribals are agitating against a mining company planning to raze the forests and explore the mineral wealth. In such a case, a decision to put a complete ban or a moratorium on mining in your district is impractical and sub-optimal. By

prohibiting any form of mining, you will not help the cause of tribals who would have benefited from the new employment opportunities in the region. So choose an option in which you balance competing interests.


Articulation is the beating heart of a case study answer. This follows ‘choosing an option’ section we discussed above.

In this segment, you reason out why you chose a particular option and elaborate on the further of course of action. More than the option you choose, it is the reasoning that led you to choose that particular option that matters more. It’s helpful to narrate from the first person point of view: Use I, wherever possible. It will personalise your answer and therefore carries the weight of a good argument. But, use your discretion based on your experiences on which perspective you want to use.

The course of action you wish to pursue must be mentioned in detail, enumerating the steps clearly. Put yourself in the shoes of the administrator, dive into the details, and make your answer as vivid and concrete as possible. Let me illustrate this through the following examples:

Consider a case study dealing with gender issues in the district. Don’t write something vague saying you will ensure women empowerment in the area. Describe concrete steps by writing on

the lines of: I will try to set up a livelihood opportunity based on their skills, help them produce marketable goods, procure that material in all govt departments, and then encourage local private sector to buy these goods. Quote examples of successful models like SEWA, Prajwala, Lijjat papad etc.

In a case relating to negligent monitoring of government schemes or projects, instead of saying I will collaborate with NGOs to ensure third party accountability, a better way of conveying would be: “I will speak to the reputed local NGOs, hold a meeting with them to take their views. I will give them specific inputs as to when they can go and inspect the schemes and project works discreetly and report to me in person or through WhatsApp.” You can substantiate with a real life example how such Socialcops played a terrific role in effective implementation of Ujjwala Yojana.

Consider a hypothetical case in which you are posted as the DM of a resource-poor district that has a history of vector-borne disease outbreaks. Monsoon season is approaching and you have to prepare for the challenge with limited funds at your disposal. You can narrate the following concrete steps. “Based on the previous years’ data, I will rank specific blocks in terms of their vulnerability and prioritise these hotspots for immediate attention. Fogging shall be done and anti-mosquito nets shall be distributed to these blocks on priority. Intense training sessions will be provided for ASHAs to help them detect of malaria/dengue promptly. I will use the District Mineral Fund (if available) and local CSR funds to procure rapid diagnostic kits. I shall designate every Friday as Dry-day where households in the district will be encouraged to drain out

stagnant water along with conducting a weekly review meeting with all health workers from village level to district level to assess preparedness and correct any issues.”

For a case on eradicating child marriages in a remote area, instead of saying “I will ensure awareness on the subject and adherence to law”, write— “I will take part in bi-weekly Gram Sabha sessions and make the community take a pledge against child marriages. I shall encourage rallies by school children and officers of all government departments. To monitor the on ground situation, I shall depute my officers as special officers responsible for set of blocks where they will tour, discreetly inspect and report back to me. I will monitor complaints and grievances on the issue and ensure a resolution within 30 days.” It helps to mention Govt. schemes like Sukanya Samriddhi Yojana or slogans such as Meri Beti-Mera Garv.

In a case where you, as the Chief, must change the work culture in your office— “At the start of every month, I will conduct a one-on-one meeting with each of my officers, take them into confidence and set mutually agreed goals. At the end of the month, I shall review each officer’s performance against these preset goals and rate them as per objective criteria. Best performers shall be given a letter of appreciation under my letterhead and put a copy of it on the notice board for others to see. The laggards shall be given a warning and if they don’t heed, I will initiate disciplinary action as per the rules to ensure deterrence.”

I don’t mean to say these are the only solutions to these case studies. The point is whatever be your decision, be concrete and specific. It will strike the examiner as practical and implementable.

Towards the end of your answer, quoting a relevant thinker’s opinion or quote gives credence to your decision. For instance, if the ethical issue is about professional integrity, E Sreedharan and his leadership in executing a complex rail project should be quoted as an example. Or let’s take a case study in which you are faced with a decision whether to give clearance to an important road project through a National Park (thereby helping the government save taxpayer’s money) or devising an alternate, but more expensive option (thereby preserving the ecosystem, but hurting govt finances). If you opt for the second option, you can stress on the importance of environmental economics and end with a quote saying:

As environmentalist Wangari Maathai said, “We need to promote development that does not destroy our environment”.

Just the addition of the above sentence makes the argument more powerful. Your arguments now have the moral backing of an eminent personality. The value mapping exercise we did for the theory section will be helpful here. So for every case study, try and add such relevant quotes to substantiate your points. It will show that you not only read the works of those eminent people, but also understand how to apply their teachings in real-life.

Observe Time Limit

There is a tendency among aspirants to dedicate disproportionate time to case studies. But, remember that they are worth only 120 marks. Irrespective of whether you start with theory portion or the case studies, dedicate time proportionate to their weightage for marks. So for case studies, you should spend the maximum of 90 minutes i.e. 15 minutes per case study.

Further, you should realise that UPSC can change how it distributes marks across questions, but it cannot change the 250 marks assigned to a paper (without prior notice). So, whatever be the number of questions or distribution of marks across those questions, your target must be to write 80 marks worth of answers in the first hour, another 80 in the second hour and 90 in the final hour. This translates to 40 marks in the initial 30 minutes. So whether you start with Part A or Part B, aim to finish questions worth 40 marks in the first half-hour and then repeat this process. Always have an eye on the clock and if you think you are falling behind time, accelerate.

Gain Adequate Practice

Ethics paper has an emphasis on articulation and practical examples, which comes only with adequate practice. Besides, case studies across the years tend to have similar themes and ideas. So answering a lot of these beforehand will give you a sense of confidence to tackle any type of question.

III. Sample Answers

Q. How could social influence and persuasion contribute to the success of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan? (10 Marks)

Social influence is the process through which a person’s attitudes, opinions, or behaviour are changed through social communication. Persuasion is a method of social influence.

UPSC Ethics GS 4 Diagram

Social influence and persuasion contribute to Swacch Bharat Abhiyan (SBA) through:

• Behavioural change among all the stakeholders: By changing attitude toward open defecation in the society through campaigns and media. E.g: Darwaza Band campaign and rallies by school children to build awareness

• Social pressure and peer pressure: By naming and shaming people who don’t have toilets, they will be forced to build one.

E.g: Children persuading their parents, Gram sabhas reading out names of households without toilets. Positive peer pressure in the form of prizes and rewards for building and using toilets can also help people change.

• Role-Model effect: When celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan persuade for SBA, it can bring about a change in orthodox opinions about open defecation.

• Community Ownership: Through Gram Swachhdhoots, SBA can be made community driven to make it . Such persuasive methods were very successful in Bangladesh.

• Healthy competition among stakeholders: through initiatives like Swacch Survekshan.

Thus social Influence and persuasion techniques, by effectively targeting the social psyche and behaviour can accelerate the goal of Swacch Bharat Mission.

Q. You are aspiring to become an IAS officer and you have cleared various stages and now you have been selected for the personal interview. On the day of the interview, on the way to the venue you saw an accident where a mother and child who happen to be your relatives were badly injured. They needed immediate help. What would you have done in such a situation? Justify your action. (25 Marks)

Subject matter: Dilemma between achieving career ambition Vs responding to accident as a good samaritan.

Stakeholders involved: The mother, child, me, my family, society at large and the UPSC.

Ethical dilemmas:

• Personal ambitions vs. Moral responsibility to help others
• Being punctual to the interview vs Saving life
• Personal and family’s dream to be civil servant vs Moral

obligation to relatives

Options Available

Ignore the accident and head to the interviewPunctuality will bemaintainedPersonalambition will be fulfilledMorally abdicating my duty to save lifeSelfish and against my consciencePoor example of an aspiring civil servant
Skip the interview and help the victimsMoral obligation towards my relatives will be metA good example to the societyHampers the years of hard work to be a civil servantFailing my and my family’s dreamUnbalanced decision making in response to multiple needs
Admit them to a nearby hospital and quickly try to reach the interview venueRescue the relativesRealise mycareer goalsClearconscience• Risk of missing the interview

Final Course of action

I shall choose the last option because I have a moral responsibility to help the victims, and a personal responsibility to myself, my family and my career. I worked hard to reach the interview stage, so it makes sense to balance both these obligations.

So my immediate response would be to quickly move the victims to my cab. Using Google Maps, I’ll check for nearby hospitals and find the shortest route possible to get there. I will call the hospital and ask them to arrange emergency services by the time we reach.

Along the way, I will also call the relatives’ family and ask them to reach the hospital. I will admit the victim to the hospital and pay any charges, if required. If it gets late for the relatives to reach, I will entrust the cab driver to kindly look after her, pay him his waiting charges and proceed to the interview.

In the meantime, I will also check if I can reach out to anyone who can inform the interview panel about my situation and that I may reach late. If I do get delayed, I will make every attempt to convince the authorities involved as to the reasons why it happened. As soon as the interview is done, I will come back to the hospital and check on the victims’ condition and help them in anyway I can.

As remarked by Gandhiji “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”. By helping people, we not only make the world a better place but also stay true to our conscience. It leads to harmony, balancing social good with personal ambition.

Note: This is the third and final free chapter from my book, Fundamentals of Essay and Answer Writing. I have previously published two excerpts on GS-2 and Introductions to Essay. The book has similar detailed chapters on Essay and answer writing for GS-1,2,3,4, including the Anthropology optional. You can get the book here.

12 thoughts on “How to Answer GS 4 (Ethics) Paper in UPSC Mains

  1. Anonymous

    Hey anudeep, thank you so much for the invaluable insights you have provided us in your book. Its a wonderful piece of your hard work. I got so much to learn from it. Thank you so much. God bless you 🙂

      1. Chetan

        क्या आपकी पुस्तक हिंदी में या फिर English में

  2. Chetan

    Kya main BA karke CSE apply karskta ho
    Apki 5 tips aur konsi konsi books Leno chahiye…

  3. Ruchi Kushwaha

    Good Evening sir, I want to write GS paper in English and take Hindi Literature. It’s possible or not.


      Yes,Of course.
      Explanation: If your optional is a literature paper then you have to write those optional papers in that very language. Except them, all papers, Essay and G.S I, II, III, IV are to be written only in Hindi or English. So, You can choose English as your medium and Hindi Literature as your optionals.

  4. Ayush

    Wonderful Sir
    Salute to your hard work and perseverance
    You are a true IAS officer,dedicated to Steve your country’s people.

  5. Sunayana

    Sir. 1.May I know which online platform for prelims and mains test series is the good one ?
    2 .whether to join integrated prelims and mains or separate prelims and separate mains test series?
    3.what is the right time to join ?

  6. Vaidik

    Sir I am unable to open the video lectures of your those videos are unsupported in my mobile…sir Its a …….please send me those videos in my gmail account as your each video and lecture is very important to me and all the upsc aspirants..


    Really it is very helpful for the beginners..
    Thank you so much anudeep sir.

  8. Madhu

    for beginners it will give full clarity on how be a good thinker and on track aspirants it will give value addition. we good to see u providing this enormous information which u are giving for aspirants. THANK YOU BRO..KEEP ON GIVE THIS BOOST TO ASPIRANTS


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