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Do Right Man

Manus Charleton

On the Importance of Ethics: A Report on the President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative, compiled by Ciaran Lynch (LIT), Kieran Keohane (UCD) and Chris McInerney (UL), 43 pp, available on the president’s website

During his campaign for office in 2011 Michael D Higgins promised he would use his presidency “to build something better out of the worst of times, something both visionary and practical.” As president, he carried out his promise through an ethics initiative which invited citizens to think about and discuss how they could live “the good life” in “an ethical Republic”. It was a unique initiative for the president of any country to take, but highly appropriate for a president’s leadership role. The initiative began in 2013 and included “Presidency Seminars” exploring themes such as “Being Young and Irish”, along with over sixty events – conferences, lectures, seminars, and “citizen conversations” – involving higher education institutes, civil society organisations, members of the public. Launched on February 1st, 2016 and with a foreword by the president, who also addressed some of the events, the report on the initiative provides a brief overview of a range of issues considered, such as social justice and poverty, citizen participation in democracy and the role of the media. It also identifies challenges related to the nature of the undertaking.   

One of the challenges is to develop a consensus from people’s different views about values and how they should apply. As the report acknowledges, Irish culture is “increasingly plural and its identities diverse; we have become a society without a single moral authority or single set of values that are widely held”. This diversity relates not only to cultural and religious differences but to various shades of opinion on political ideology and economic philosophy. One seminar included discussion of “who or what would determine ethical principles to be followed, now that traditional voices such as the Church and the media seem to have lost much of their moral authority”. At the same time, the report finds that diversity hasn’t lessened recognition of the importance of ethics. “People continue to have deep need to live meaningful and ethical lives.”

The turn to ethics derives from a perceived need to replace the attitudes and thinking that drove the false boom and led to the 2008 economic collapse and subsequent years of austerity. The crisis and its fallout lay behind and informed a number of discussions. Also, the involvement of Dochas ensured that global problems were discussed. They include the persistence of global poverty, the predicted devastating effects of climate change, the emergence of health epidemics and the refugee crisis affecting Europe. These are problems which “are rapidly becoming the concern of all and not merely those affected” and are crying out for an adequate ethical response.

While a variety of groups were involved, the report gives the impression of contributions from people who are already persuaded of the need for deeper ethical understanding to inform policies for a fairer and more inclusive society, and who want to see this understanding having more influence. The contents of the report would perhaps have been more valuable if views contrary to the general trend could have been included. Some people, after all, cherish a libertarian ethic more than an egalitarian one. Neo-liberals prioritise individual freedom over equality. In their view individuals and organisations, in their voluntary interactions with market needs and requirements, should be the overriding agents for the way economic and social benefits become distributed.

Also, Irish business and financial sectors would no doubt have difficulty accepting measures for the greater good if this means restrictions and costs which would make them less competitive in a volatile global economy. And the initiative’s aims are in contention with the way the forces of global capitalism work at present. One conference reflected on the degree to which the 2008 crisis was “a systemic feature of the processes, logic, and institutional rationale of the financial sector”. At the same time, the initiative’s aims dovetail with international calls for reform to ensure a more equal spread of wealth. They have come from diverse sources, such as the Occupy Wall Street Movement, Pope Francis, economists such as Thomas Piketty and Joseph Stiglitz, and the latest Oxfam international report, which found that “the gap between rich and poor is reaching new extremes”.

An obstacle to the initiative realising its aims is a perception of ethics which limits its relevance to examples of wrongdoing. One finding is that there is “ethical minimalism” within the business and financial sectors, a reduction of responsibility to legal and regulatory requirements. This has led to executive decisions which, while legally compliant, violated “the social morality that inspires and underpins the law”. Also, ethics in the professions is “compartmentalised” and “confined”, with rules and codes of conduct for each profession overseen by an ethics committee. The effect is that “the wider and deeper questions of the common good of society as a whole are passed over”.

The main thread running through all of the events and discussions was “our common concern with the decline and hollowing out of our integrating social structures, institutions, associations and communities that as moral foundations sustain and enable us to be ethical people”. This reiterates the need to develop the perception of ethics as not just about personal behaviour, but as forming the moral fabric of society through values and principles operating within society’s institutions and practices.

Questions which have engaged philosophers from Aristotle to the present about how we might live an ethically good life together are “fundamental to the aims of the Initiative”. The initiative is radical in the sense of seeking to re-engage in the present with ideas which have roots deep in Western culture and which underlie current positions taken along party political lines. This makes education central. In its contributions, the higher education sector highlighted the need for critical thinking in teaching and learning, through which underlying assumptions can be examined and evaluated to make room for moral imagination to envisage and articulate a better society.

In Ireland, however, moral education takes place largely in the context of faith formation. From different perspectives, the social ethics of Christianity and other religions supports the initiative’s aims of developing a just and caring society. But Ireland lacks a tradition of cultivating in schools knowledge and understanding of values and principles based on the store of ideas and thinking available in philosophy. One of the report’s conclusions is the need to cultivate and develop in children “the language, the concepts and the clarity of mind” to connect ethics with law, government and public policy. The report expresses the hope that this “might be achieved through the planned Philosophy syllabus at second level”. This course is an important, though belated, recognition of the need to cultivate deeper critical thinking. However, it is merely an optional course offered in Junior Cycle.

A notable absence from the report is a contribution from the arts community. Art has a lot to offer to bring about social change. This is not merely through politically engaged art, or through art-based social practice to help meet community needs and overcome problems but through art’s power to move us through an experience of the strangeness of being in the world and to stir questions of who we are and what we could accomplish. 

A number of events were held on the theme of the ethics of commemoration, with particular reference to the centenary this year of the 1916 Rising. The Proclamation of the Provisional Government drew from the ideas that inspired the American Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution, ideas of commitment to freedom, equality and opportunities for all citizens. The report finds a new proclamation for our time would be part of a fitting commemoration. And it would be, if it could attract broad support and be written in language which would make implementation of its ethical ideas more likely.   

For the president, the initiative “marks the beginning of a wider process of building a True Republic of Ireland”. One of the founding ideals of any republic is that it should benefit all who live in it. The reality, however, is that many citizens experience poverty as children and don’t have proper housing or the same level of access to the health system. The report recognises that the initiative will require “a renewed focus on the common good” through “negotiation and deliberation, within which respect for difference and diversity must be guiding principles”. It also sees a need “to build and to provide structured occasions and forums” to enable and support discussion. If the initiative can continue along the lines it has opened up and draws wider support, it offers the prospect of underpinning and informing the kind of policies and practices which will provide living conditions more in keeping with a republic’s ideals.

1/5/2016

Manus Charleton has lectured in ethics, politics and morality and social policy on the Institute of Technology, Sligo’s degree in social care and served as external examiner for ethics on Limerick IT’s social care degree. His essays have been published in the Dublin Review of Books, and essays, short fiction and a short memoir in Irish Pages, a Journal of Contemporary Writing.

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