There has been a considerable amount of recent high profile discussion about the wearing of religious symbols in public. First was the comment by the Cabinet Minister, Jack Straw, that he preferred to see the face of his constituents when they came to his surgery for advice. Then came the case of the languages teaching assistant who has been disciplined for wearing her veil in lessons and now a BA employee has been asked to conceal her cross under her uniform, and not have it prominently exposed.
These debates centre on the extent to which the expression of personal faith should be accepted in the public sphere by society at large. The freedom of religion, enshrined in international human rights agreements, has specifically been said to include the external expression of religious belief, in other words you are not just free to choose a belief in private but should not be discriminated against because you do it in public.
Religious believers have different ideas about what is central and fundamental to their faith. There is no expressed requirement in Christianity to wear a cross or crucifix, though witnessing your faith is part of the idea of discipleship. Many millions of Muslim women do not choose to cover their face in public or in the presence of men, but some do. This is not a case of absolute moral laws but rather a tension between the individual conscience of the believer, and the norms of society.
Tensions between conscience and community expectations in religion have a long history. Men and women have refused to be involved in war efforts, sometimes a great personal sacrifice, because of religious convictions about pacifism. People have given their lives rather than break what they considered to be the dictates of their faith. It was precisely this which meant that some Christians, living in Roman times, faced punishment and execution when they refused to swear oaths to the Roman Gods. The practice of swearing oaths to those Gods was used by Rome to ensure cohesion and unity across the Empire. They did not prohibit people from worshipping their own Gods, so long as Roman Gods were also acknowledged. The peace of the Empire rested on this point of consensus and one could not have people failing to offer the Roman Gods their dues as that would endanger the prosperity of the Empire as it might bring about the wrath of the Gods. Allegiance to the Roman Gods was the common ethic underpinning the Empire. Today the UK has a more secular flavour but still has an idea of some common norms and today, these are in tension with religious identity and conscience.
The questions which we must face now are the extent to which the common consensus of behaviour exerts itself over individual religious conscience, and the extent to which individuals are allowed to express their religion publicly in the manner of their own choosing. We might hope that the way these disagreements are resolved are somewhat different from the roman punishments of Christians.
The summer months have been dominated by discussions about the London bombings, their causes and appropriate responses to that. Debates in the media frequently refer to the tension between the civil liberties that citizens ought to enjoy and the need to have tighter security in order to prevent further attacks, as much as possible. This touches on an important ethical tradition, Libertarianism. John Stuart Mill famously wrote in his text On Liberty (1859), that there is one very simple principle underpinning the governance of people and the extent to which individual liberties should be restricted. He said that the only principle was self-protection. Power can only be exercised over another member of the community to prevent harm to others. In a time when there are direct attacks on the civilian population, fear and anxiety is heightened and there is a sense of feeling that freedom must be restricted. So we consider things previously placed out of bounds such as the use of lethal force against suspected suicide bombers. This is in keeping with the rule of self-protection that Mill underlined. But Mill warns us of other dangers to our freedom. He is concerned about our protection from the government. Will Muslims carrying backpacks on the tube be identified as suspect suicide bombers? Will the measures put in place at a time of anxiety move the country away from its liberal democratic credentials?
Mill is also concerned that we are protected from the majority opinion, a serious weakness which he identified in Jeremy Bentham’s form of Utilitarianism. Simply doing the greatest Good for the greatest numbers might lead to injustices being done to a minority. There is a backlash against British Muslims with a very significant rise in threats and attacks on mosques and Muslims. The hostility shown doesn’t represent the majority opinion in the British public but what if further attacks take place and the prevailing climate in the country should change to one of hostility towards a group perceived to be the source of the threat? The shadow of the holocaust should remind us of what is possible when a government identifies a minority group as the cause of the county’s problems. Mill is just as concerned that the liberties of such a minority are protected from popular hatred. In this time there is an increase in the dialogue of ‘them and us’. This distancing of a minority community from the perceived majority community is dangerous to the principles of liberal democracy in which diversity and difference have important roles to play, and can lead to the alienation and exclusion of a group. Mill felt that “while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions; so it is that there should be different experiments of living.” (On Liberty p.260). Mill advocates that there will be diversity in the world and difference approaches to life and this feature of Mill’s thinking has become embedded in the idea of liberal democracy found in the modern world. John Rawls, the important contemporary libertarian notes that in a democratic society, a plurality of ideas about how to live is inevitable and any system of Government must work with that inevitability. Mill’s work can teach us a lot about how to respond to the current situation and from a reading of On Liberty it is clear that freedom and plurality and diversity in liberal democracy must not be the causalities of the war on terror.
Recently a French parliamentary committee has recommended a partial ban on women wearing Islamic face veils in hospitals, schools, government offices and on public transport (news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8480161.stm). Anyone showing visible signs of “radical religious practice” should be refused residence cards and citizenship it said. According to the French interior ministry 1,900 women in France wear the full veils. The French government has refused to grant citizenship to a foreign man who forces his wife to wear the full Islamic veil. The French prime minister said the man, “has no place in our country … The civil code has for a very long time provided that naturalisation could be refused to someone who does not respect the values of the (French) republic… This case is about a religious radical: he imposes the burqa, he imposes the separation of men and women in his own home, and he refuses to shake the hands of women”. France has taken increasingly strict steps to enforce a sense of the values of the republic by prohibiting outward signs of religious belief which, it argues, confer values incompatible with the republic.
This raises the question of whether it is right to impose a cultural identity on others with a different identity. One argument goes: If you move into my patch and I am in the majority you should follow my way of life. In other words my way of life is better than yours and if you want to come here you have to change.
However, a very different approach is taken in Canada, in Quebec, where the French identity is protected and preserved. Charles Taylor has written about this in his work Multiculturalism: Examining The Politics of Recognition. He notes that societies are becoming increasingly multicultural with more migration. The idea that one culture should impose itself on others suggests that one culture is superior. This means minority cultures will diminish and perhaps even vanish. Whether or not a culture is recognized or not recognized influences a person’s identity. The failure to recognize a culture causes damage to an individual or group. For example the failure to recognize women or black people in society led to great injustices and great suffering for women and black people in the past. Human beings need some kind of recognition. There needs to be equal recognition.
In the past there was an idea that society was structured by the old concept of honour. Thus those who had more power and wealth had greater importance than those with less power and wealth. In the modern age we have a new idea – dignity. This is a kind of universal and egalitarian idea of worth. There is a sense that every individual has an original identity. People are carriers of culture so each individual carries a culture forward. Charles Taylor writes:
“Equal recognition is not just the appropriate mode for a healthy democratic society. Its refusal can inflict damage on those who are denied it… The projection of an inferior or demeaning image on another can actually distort and oppress, to the extent that the image is internalized.” (1994: 36)
Equal recognition can mean one of two things. It can mean universalism – the sense that everyone has equal worth, equal rights and entitlements and equal citizenship. It can also relate to difference, building on the idea of individual identity. Every person should be recognised for his or her particular identity. An individual should not be assimilated as this leads to a loss of distinctiveness and peculiarities. In the sci-fi series Star Trek the Borg are a race of creatures that absorb every race they encounter. All of the particularities of the species are lost in the greater Borg but what you have left is Borg. The politics of difference “…asks that we give acknowledgement and status to something that is not universally shared. Or, otherwise put, we give due acknowledgement only to what is universally present – everyone has an identity – through recognizing what is peculiar to each. The universal demand powers an acknowledgement of specificity.” (Charles Taylor 1994: 39)
By applying universal dignity we are blind to the differences of people – everyone deserves equal respect. If we apply the politics of difference we do not discriminate by acknowledging the differences and treating people in a differentiated way. Cultures and identities deserve equal recognition, but not necessarily equal treatment. In France the Government sees republican values as a universalism. In French Quebec, however, the politics of recognition allow for special laws that preserve French identity in a majority English speaking Canada.
The question is how recognition of difference is balanced against a universalism of dignity in responding to issues of religious diversity. One way of considering this dilemma is to think about national identity, patriotism and a sense of civic homogeneity. An alternative approach is to encourage a more diverse and cosmopolitan vision. If we think we have discovered the best possible way of living already perhaps a universalism is the way forward. If we think we have not yet discovered the best possible way to living, perhaps there might be something in different cultures to learn from. Otherwise, in an effort to universalize, we might eliminate a way of life which has something to contribute to the best possible way of living. One could draw a parallel with the biodiversity argument and the preservation of the rainforest. If we destroy life forms we know nothing about, we might lose future scientific cures. Perhaps the same is true for cultures.
British Prime Minister David Cameron delivered a speech on Saturday 5th February 2011 that set out his views on radicalization and Islamic extremism (read the speech in full here
His speech raises philosophical questions of an ethical and political nature.
Cameron is concerned that the major threat British civilians face is from attacks carried out by British citizens. Terrorists are frequently political in nature be they dissident Republicans in Northern Ireland are not satisfied with the political settlement there, Anarchists in Greece and Italy or the Red Army Faction in Germany. These political groups are not defined by a particular ethnicity. However, he goes on to argue,
“Nevertheless, we should acknowledge that this threat comes in Europe overwhelmingly from young men who follow a completely perverse, warped interpretation of Islam, and who are prepared to blow themselves up and kill their fellow citizens.”
Cameron characterizes the origins of this particular form of terrorism as the existence of an ideology, Islamist extremism. He continues,
“We should be equally clear what we mean by this term, and we must distinguish it from Islam. Islam is a religion observed peacefully and devoutly by over a billion people. Islamist extremism is a political ideology supported by a minority. At the furthest end are those who back terrorism to promote their ultimate goal: an entire Islamist realm, governed by an interpretation of Sharia.”
He goes on to acknowledge that there are those who may reject violence, but who accept various parts of the extremist worldview, which includes hostility towards Western democracy and liberal values. He distinguishes between religion and political ideology and warns against terms such as moderate Muslims and devout Muslims as these conflate politics with religion as if all devout Muslims must be extremist.
“This is profoundly wrong. Someone can be a devout Muslim and not be an extremist. We need to be clear: Islamist extremism and Islam are not the same thing.”
“This highlights, I think, a significant problem when discussing the terrorist threat that we face. There is so much muddled thinking about this whole issue. On the one hand, those on the hard right of the political spectrum ignore this distinction between Islam and Islamist extremism, some argue that Islam and the West are irreconcilable and that there is a clash of civilizations.”
Here he is pointing to Huntington’s theory that such a clash is inevitable and unavoidable. Such an argument implies a need to break away from those of this religion for it is incompatible with Western values. He disagrees,
“…I completely reject their argument. If they want an example of how Western values and Islam can be entirely compatible, they should look at what’s happened in the past few weeks on the streets of Tunis and Cairo: hundreds of thousands of people demanding the universal right to free elections and democracy.
The point is this: the ideology of extremism is the problem; Islam emphatically is not. Picking a fight with the latter will do nothing to help us to confront the former.”
Cameron also sees a problem on the political left who he accuses of lumping all Muslims together, compiling a list of grievances, and arguing that if only governments addressed these grievances, the terrorism would stop. This view often sees all Muslims as affected by poverty, ignoring the involvement of middle class Muslims in terrorist actions.
If the argument about irreconcilable viewpoints is incorrect and the argument about poverty is incomplete, then what other reasons can we find for the growth of radical extremism in liberal and open societies?
“I believe the root lies in the existence of this extremist ideology. I would argue an important reason so many young Muslims are drawn to it comes down to a question of identity.
What I am about to say is drawn from the British experience, but I believe there are general lessons for us all. In the UK, some young men find it hard to identify with the traditional Islam practiced at home by their parents, whose customs can seem staid when transplanted to modern Western countries. But these young men also find it hard to identify with Britain too, because we have allowed the weakening of our collective identity. Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream. We’ve failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values.”
Cameron believes that in an attempt to include all, the sense of collective identity has been weakened and a sense of individual particularity and difference has been encouraged. There has been a fear to challenge viewpoints that need to be stood up to, resisted and rejected.
“The failure, for instance, of some to confront the horrors of forced marriage, the practice where some young girls are bullied and sometimes taken abroad to marry someone when they don’t want to, is a case in point. This hands-off tolerance has only served to reinforce the sense that not enough is shared. And this all leaves some young Muslims feeling rootless. And the search for something to belong to and something to believe in can lead them to this extremist ideology.”
This makes possible the move to radicalization and it is encouraged by Internet chat rooms that provide virtual meeting places where such attitudes can be shared, strengthened and validated.
“In some mosques, preachers of hate can sow misinformation about the plight of Muslims elsewhere. In our communities, groups and organisations led by young, dynamic leaders promote separatism by encouraging Muslims to define themselves solely in terms of their religion. All these interactions can engender a sense of community, a substitute for what the wider society has failed to supply. Now, you might say, as long as they’re not hurting anyone, what is the problem with all this?”
To respond to this, we need to strengthen our shared sense of national identity.
“So first, instead of ignoring this extremist ideology, we – as governments and as societies – have got to confront it, in all its forms. And second, instead of encouraging people to live apart, we need a clear sense of shared national identity that is open to everyone.”
The ideology must be confronted and undermined, preachers of hate must be banned, organizations that incite terrorism must be proscribed.
The national identity that he speaks of is one that should embrace and encourage universal human rights including for women and people of other faiths, equality of all before the law, democracy and the right of people to elect their own government. Furthermore they must encourage integration rather than separation.
“Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and a much more active, muscular liberalism. A passively tolerant society says to its citizens, as long as you obey the law we will just leave you alone. It stands neutral between different values. But I believe a genuinely liberal country does much more; it believes in certain values and actively promotes them. Freedom of speech, Freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality. It says to its citizens, this is what defines us as a society: to belong here is to believe in these things. Now, each of us in our own countries, I believe, must be unambiguous and hard-nosed about this defence of our liberty.”
Key features to encourage this national identity include encouraging English, the introduction of a National Citizen Service and encouraging meaningful and active participation in society.
“It will also help build stronger pride in local identity, so people feel free to say, ‘Yes, I am a Muslim, I am a Hindu, I am Christian, but I am also a Londoner or a Berliner too’. It’s that identity, that feeling of belonging in our countries, that I believe is the key to achieving true cohesion.”
Some Muslims groups have accused Cameron of patronizing them.
“Communities are not static entities and there are those who see being British as their identity and there are those who do not feel that it is an overriding part of their identity,” said one representative of an interfaith group.
Inayat Bunglawala, chairman of Muslims4UK, said:
“The overwhelming majority of UK Muslims are proud to be British and are appalled by the antics of a tiny group of extremists.”
Mohammed Shafiq of the Muslim youth group The Ramadhan Foundation, said:
“The speech by British Prime Minister David Cameron MP fails to tackle the stooge of the fascists EDL and the BNP. Singling out Muslims as he has done feeds the hysteria and paranoia about Islam and Muslims…. British Muslims abhor terrorism and extremism and we have worked hard to eradicate the evil from our country but to suggest that we do not sign up to the values of tolerance, respect and freedom is deeply offensive and incorrect.”
He also criticises Cameron’s characterization of multiculturalism.
“Multiculturalism is about understanding each others’ faiths and cultures whilst being proud of our British citizenship – it would help if politicians stopped pandering to the agenda of the BNP and the fascist EDL.”
The speech raises complex ethical, as well as political questions. Firstly, we can see in Cameron’s depiction of multiculturalism a criticism of cultural relativism. Cultural relativists advance an idea that cultural differences on moral values and beliefs cannot be judged from outside those cultures. They are right ‘for them’. It is the view that there are ‘no right or wrong answers’. The ethical problem here is that it means we cannot criticize moral practices which we may feel are wrong, if they accord with the culture. So if a culture accepts female genital mutilation as a rite of passage in becoming a young woman then it is right for them. Others would say it is an abhorrent crime that must be prevented. Cultural relativism is rejected by those who think it is possible to come to an understanding of right and wrong, for example as articulated in the liberal values of human rights, equality and dignity.
In short, Cameron is arguing against cultural relativism, and for a sense of shared values and moral beliefs which he thinks should be promoted. The process of integration is the process of taking on board and contributing to those shared values, rather than living parallel lives in which a very different set of moral beliefs are articulated and maintained. Of course that means it is necessary to look closely at what he is arguing for and ask whether the moral norms he has articulated as underpinning British society, are held in a consensus, and, assuming this is the case, whether they can be justified on any other grounds than simply the fact that people believe them to be true. Perhaps a belief is all that is needed politically, but ethicists might want a stronger basis than belief, not least because philosophers of human rights have often found them difficult to defend. This is important if all religious, cultural and philosophers worldviews are to adopt them.
Just about every plastic bottle that has ever been made still exists, according to David de Rothschild, an environmental campaigner and sailor of the Plastiki, a catamaran made of pressured plastic bottles. In crossing the Pacific Ocean de Rothschild entered the vast area filled with millions and millions of tiny microscopic fragments of plastic, stretching across a huge arc of sea. Currents bring the plastic from across the oceans to this point. The dumping ground, which contributes to the death of a million sea birds and 100,000 sea mammals every year, is very hard to see. You cannot photograph it, because the flecks are too tiny, but their presence is part of the reason for the global collapse in fish stocks which some estimate to have dropped by up to 80%. It is difficult to imagine that when we throw away a plastic bag in the bin of our kitchen, thousands of miles away fragments of that bag choke the life out of the Pacific Ocean. Ironically, these flecks are consumed by the sea animals and then end up on our kitchen tables in the fish and chips we buy. There is no away. We then find ourselves eating our own garbage. De Rothschild calls this plastic, dumb plastic. Stuff that is used to wrap up other stuff – a disease that will one day choke the life out of the oceans, unless we change.
To find out more about the Plastiki expedition visit:
There you can also read about other projects for reusing discarded plastic.
The issue of abortion remains a highly controversial one for Christians. Recently, Sr Margaret McBride, a senior administrator in a hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, USA, was on a committee that agreed a procedure to terminate an early pregnancy, 11 weeks old, to save the life of the mother. Bishop Thomas Olmstead, the Catholic Bishop of Phoenix, promptly excommunicated her. Excommunication is the severest penalty that the Catholic Church can confer on a person. It means they are considered a stranger to the Church, with no right to receive communion, or any of the sacraments.
Most Christian Churches recognise that in cases where the life of the mother is in jeopardy, an abortion is justified, if not actually a good. This can be thought of as something similar to self-defence. Within the Christian tradition killing is sometimes justified to defend life, such as in the Just War theory that allows for proportionate use of force, even lethal force, for a just reason. Also, execution of certain criminals is sometimes considered justifiable for reason of public safety. More commonly, self-defence of an individual can also warrant lethal force that is justified in Christian eyes. Though these three examples are acceptable within the Catholic tradition, the application of this kind of moral thinking to abortion is not recognised.
Within the Catholic tradition there is a possibility governed by something called double effect whereby a procedure designed to save the live of a mother, may have the unintended secondary consequence of leading to the loss of the pregnancy. Examples of this are found in ectopic pregnancies where the fallopian tubes are removed to prevent the death of the mother, or in cancer of the womb of a pregnant mother where the womb must be removed or treated. In these cases the Catholic Church differentiates between the intention of the doctor (which is to save life) and the outcome which includes a second unintended consequence, the loss of the life of the unborn. Intentions clearly matter in moral thinking. If a child refuses an axe wielding murderer who asks him the whereabouts of his father we would not begrudge the child saying he could not say where his father was for he is under strict instructions not to speak to strangers. The intention is to do good. The intention of a doctor treating a pregnant mother in the ways described here are good.
However, in the case of Sr Margaret McBride, the termination was not a secondary effect. The patient was suffering from pulmonary hypertension. Were the pregnancy to continue the mother’s life would be seriously endangered – a heart attack could occur. This is caused by the pregnancy itself. The abortion was carried out to remover the risk to the mother. The Bishop decided that such an abortion cannot be considered permissible under the double effect ruling. The problem in this case seems to be that it is the pregnancy itself which causes the risk of death. Ending the pregnancy means ending the life of the unborn. The two ethical perspectives seem inseparable.
Some argue that this shows a flaw in the application of double effect theory. Tina Beattie argues that it is questionable whether you can split intention from secondary outcome. She suggests that this example shows that the two are interconnected and that the rule of self-defence is a more helpful one to apply. She suggests that the alternative, of allowing the pregnancy to kill the mother, is to impose martyrdom on the mother, which should never be the case as martyrdom should be chosen not imposed. Beattie also thinks that Britain’s abortion rate is unacceptably high and regrets that women theologians are not involved in the pronouncement of Church teaching.
Of course there is arguably a difference between self-defence in cases of just war, the death penalty or literally fighting off an attacker, and abortion. In the first three categories there is an adult aggressor. In abortion there is an unborn innocent. So perhaps this is why the different approach is justified in Catholic teaching.
However, that case is not so straightforward. Suppose, as part of a just war, it was decided that a military installation had to be bombed. Perhaps weapons of mass destruction were being developed there. Suppose that it had been located next to a maternity hospital with pregnant mothers, women in childbirth and mothers and babies were based. Even a targeted bombing raid could easily inadvertently directly strike the maternity hospital with horrific consequences. In other words innocent people die as a result of the self-defence rule.
A further challenge is how we make sense of the spontaneous abortions that women suffer in one in every three pregnancies, and the reality that if abortions are not permitted in some medical situations, both mother and unborn may die. This approach of letting nature takes its course seems almost unique in moral decision-making. For some abortion is a unique case, requiring unique moral consideration hence the double effect provision. For others it can be included through the application of the self-defence rule. One thing these moral dilemmas reveal is that it is rather difficult to separate moral theories from moral issues.
Use the Internet to research the question of Sr Margaret McBride and convene a panel of ethicists to examine all aspects of the case. Identify as many ethical dimensions to the case as possible (such as the role of a nun on an ethics panel in a hospital) and then decide which are central to the judgement and which are secondary.
The British government is trying to make many millions of pounds of savings. It has decided to stop 700 new building projects for schools. However, it will continue to maintain the Trident nuclear submarine programme. If the nuclear programme was cancelled, there would be enough money to build the schools. Can we use ethical theories to test this government policy decision?
Utilitarianism and Kantian ethics offer possible ways of measuring this and you should review how those theories make moral decisions. In the meantime some background information is needed.
The argument for Trident is that it provides a military deterrent from possible future enemies. It gives the UK strength in global politics to argue for its point of view to be listened too. Against this is the argument that there are no clear enemies for such a deterrent as the USSR no longer exists and relations with Russia and China are good.
Some 700 new schools will be built providing state of the art facilities and essential replacement of buildings which in some cases are 60-100 years old. Those new schools will keep building companies in business. If each school has 1,000 pupils then the number of pupils who will benefit is considerable. A further 700 schools that were going to build have had their plans cancelled. So in some towns there will be brand new builds next to old leaky and crumbling buildings. Some children will get to go to the new buildings while others will not.
If it is true that there is not enough money to fund both projects, what should happen?
Apply two ethical theories to the policy decision and each of the projects. What is the moral thing to do? How effective are ethical theories in helping us judge political decisions?
Michael Moore’s new film Capitalism: A love story (see www.michaelmoore.com) takes a critical look at capitalism and in it he interviews a number of priests and asks them whether they think capitalism is compatible with Christianity. It might come as a surprise that most said they thought it was not! There is a great deal of discussion about the situation that the world economy now faces. Ethics is now viewed by many as a crucial element to business. Within the Abrahamic traditions a number of senior religious leaders have addressed the moral question of the market. Two responses show the value of a distinctively religious perspective, one from the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and the second from the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.
Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Writing in The Times in March this year in a piece entitled “Morals: the one thing markets do not make” (available at www.chiefrabbi.org/ReadArtical.aspx?id=1482) Rabbi Sacks cautions against the pursuit of scapegoats but questions whether we might think more deeply about our values. Sacks recounts a conversation with a retired leading industrialist who had been astonished when his successor took a salary of ten times as much as he had taken. Then his successor systematically destroyed the company. Another man he spoke to had commented that in the past the first thing he had to do when making a deal with someone was establish the character of the person. But now it is all about the lawyers. What seems to be disappearing is values, a cluster of principles which we might find coming from religion, morality, conscience, tradition or a code which put limits on what should be done. He writes “without that internalised code of honour and trust, no institution can be sustained for long”. Behavioural economist Herbert Gintis referred to this in a recent paper:
“Current models of economic relationships teach students that managerial and employee contracts cannot be based to any significant degree on trust or trustworthiness. This view, in turn, sets in motion a self-reinforcing cycle in which students come to see opportunistic behaviour, including lying and cheating, as unavoidable and hence as morally acceptable.
Neoclassical economics… encourages an ethic of greedy materialism in which managers are expected to care only about personal financial reward, and in which such human character virtues as honesty and decency are deployed only contingently in the interests of personal material reward.”
Sacks sees the modern era as one which has lost the belief that you need some sort of moral sense. We have lost the distinction between the value of things and the price of things. A house has a price, but a home has a much greater value providing shelter, a haven and personal space. House prices soared – their attraction as investments grew and people saw an opportunity to make money without any regard for what would inevitably happen. In a recent radio interview a mortgage broker admitted that he and his fellows would lie to people to make sure he got them to sign for the mortgage and what is more that is what many of his fellows were doing. He knew he was not telling the truth. He knew that they would not be able to make the repayments. Sacks argues that markets need morals, as they do not guarantee equity, responsibility, integrity or honesty.
“When it comes to flagrant self-interest, they combine the maximum temptation with the maximum opportunity. Markets need morals, and morals are not made by markets.”
Sacks argues economics need ethics but those ethics or morals come from all sorts of influences: schools, media, custom, tradition, religious leaders, moral role models and people. But if religion loses its voice, then the media, which worships success, will replace those morals with its own. Sacks has made an interesting link here between the pursuit of money and success. In modern times success is the desired goal, at least in the ideas of the media. Yet this is encouraged elsewhere. In schools, a focus on performance, and success on an individual or school level will not provide the moral character Sacks alludes to. There is not space for integrity on school reports, no place for honesty in Government league tables. Yet these things matter.
Archbishop Rowan Williams
Writing also in March 2009 (see full text here: www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/2323) Williams develops similar themes. He focuses on patience and trust as virtues needed for the economy. In the modern world there is an emphasis in the markets on quick performance. The idea that an enterprise might take time to come to fruition seems to have disappeared. This in turn affects trust. Trust in relationships takes time to grow. It is earned gradually, rather than automatically. It includes human judgment in terms of one’s own character and that of others. It is found in a shared culture of understanding.
While some see greed as the cause of the problems, Williams argues that it goes deeper. Like Sacks he thinks it is easy to blame the current situation on an accumulation of greed. In fact the situation came about because of a crisis of moral ecology – of unregulated capitalism which led to a spiralling crisis of moral indifference, institutional crisis and market failure, each feeding the other. Yet there seemed to be no recognition that there was a vulnerability. Williams argues that it is essential to realise that there is a vulnerability, a weakness in the situation – a powerlessness. Hence the test of a civilization: judged by how it treats the weak members of its society – children, elderly, sick or disabled. He writes: “To be an ethical agent is thus to be aware of your own frailty.” And there is a specifically Christian ethics that comes from this “the duty of care for the neighbour as oneself is bound with an injunction to forgive as one hopes to be forgiven”. Early forms of capitalism seem to have been much more aware of this. They sought to limit liability and share profit. They sought to provide security in the risky endeavour. It acknowledged a lack of control. But modern financial products have become the favoured basis for the economy and when the market is not regulated effectively no one is watching for the scarcity of credit. The absence of regulation might seem attractive to governments wanting to encourage expanding spending power of their electorates. The legitimacy of a government becomes its ability to let you spend more. It encourages us to think that we are individual agents and that the most important thing is greater and greater choice possibilities. But there is a tension between an unhealthily controlled economy and a poorly regulated economy. If that tension is forgotten then confusion and fantasy is the result. Consider the endless adverts which say you can have whatever you want – you can afford things you do not have the capital to buy. The cascading offers of credit cards and interest free purchases had to increase exponentially to almost frenzied levels to keep the stack of cards going. Massively inflated credit meets crisis when it is called in. Williams says that economic understanding is difficult but that we are all economists now (or need to be) and he suggests a numbers of steps including these three:
1. We must move away from models of economics based on generating money, away from the idea of risk-less profit and the place of trust must be restored.
2. Economic calculations must include environmental costs.
3. We must rethink the role of government in market monitoring and regulation at an international level
As a priority he remembers the most vulnerable. Ethics, he suggests, is about negotiating conditions where the most vulnerable are not abandoned. A religious perspective has a distinctive offering. When viewing the financial crisis we can ask, “‘what for’? what is growth for? for what or whom is wealth important?” The world is not fully understood by human beings but there is a greater reality which does understand, one that religious traditions call God. It is to this world that human beings belong. God made the world and called it good, but it is broken now and human beings must lament that brokenness. In addition Williams proposes three ways forward, informed by this tradition, and he presents them as virtues:
1. Trustworthiness: That faith depends on a god who keeps promises and can be trusted. So to live in harmony with god means being promise-keepers in all aspects of life, including finance.
2. Realism or humility: The view of faith is one in which human beings are aware they are a part of creation with great power but not wholly in control.
3. Resistance to policies which benefit some at the expense of others: Living as part of creation brings a sense of the common destiny and common predicament of humanity. The ideal human community is one in which the welfare and giftedness of each and the welfare of all are inseparable.
Both Archbishop Rowan Williams and Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks identify virtues in the Christian and Jewish traditions which offer a stronger basis for a sounder and more ethical economy. Whether these virtues will be encouraged by government, business or even education remains to be seen.
Professor David Albert Jones thinks we may be and warns against it. In an article inThe Tablet Catholic newspaper available online he comments on the decision by UK Law Lords in favour of Debbie Purdy, granting her the right to information about how the Director of Public Prosecutions decides whether to prosecute in cases of assisted suicide. This in no way legalizes euthanasia. What she wants to know is whether the DPP will prosecute someone who accompanies her to a country where euthanasia is legal (such as the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland). This is an example, Professor Jones suggests, of the slippery slope in action. This may effectively encourage people to go to other countries seeking assisted suicide. Professor Jones expresses serious reservations about the possibility that people may feel pressured into ending their lives. It may lead to people who feel they are a burden to be encouraged to take their own life when with different kinds of treatment they may actually have felt differently. The ruling gives encouragement to the euthanasia movement so may be a thin edge of the wedge.
For more information about the ruling, search for Debbie Purdy in any news website or search engine. To read the article in full: www.thetablet.co.uk/pdf/3264.pdf
The British Humanist Association is in favour of a change in the law and criticizes the slippery slope argument and some of the elements which Professor David Albert Jones uses in his piece, such as references to Nazis in the argument. For more information see: www.humanismforschools.org.uk/pdfs/Euthanasia%20(final).pdf
Jean Charles de Menezes (7 January 1978 - 22 July 2005) was a Brazilian national. He was shot dead by police at Stockwell tube station in London, England. He was shot in the head at close range by Metropolitan Police who misidentified him as a suicide bomber about to explode a device on the London Underground. Soon after the police realized they had made a terrible mistake.
There had been a terrible terrorist attack in London. Security Services believed a follow up attack could take place. On 22 July, 2005, London police were searching for four suspects in four attempted bombings which had been carried out the previous day. Three of these unsuccessful attacks were at Underground stations and one was on a bus. The attackers had not died and the police were trying to track them down.
Armed police had been ordered to follow and apprehend someone they believed might be a terrorist with another bomb. In the rush hour tube people were making their way quickly towards the trains as they do every day. After the shooting of the innocent man, mistakes and errors came to light as well as what was alleged to be attempts to cover up aspects of the mistake.
1) How much responsibility rests with the shooters, the people giving the direct information, the supervisors above?
2) Given that suicide bombers are very dangerous and very difficult to stop, how should police approach suicide suspects in crowded places?
3) What guidance should armed police have to follow before deciding to kill a person they suspect is a suicide bomber?
Read more details about the case on news websites and then make a judgment about whether you feel the police were justified in the way they acted at each stage of the events.
Human Animal Cybrid Embryos is a new phrase for students of genetic ethics to get to grips with. The Bill going through parliament will allow for the insertion of a nucleus of a human cell into a hollowed out cow’s egg. Permission has already been given for such experiments to take place. Scientists are very interested in understanding the development of embryos at the molecular level finding and believing that treatments for degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and motor neurone disease will come from such research.
What are the religious objections? Some religious traditions, such as the Roman Catholic Church, are traditionally opposed to the destruction of an existing human embryo and this will come about as the human-animal embryo will not be allowed to live past 14 days, and indeed in most cases will not be allowed to live past 5 days. In addition religious opponents argue that there are alternative ways of producing adult stem cells for such experimentation. This ultimately comes from the belief that the point of conception marks the start of the human person. While it does not look like a human being, at the point of conception all the necessary genetic ingredients are there and a unique human being can emerge. The Catholic Church has decided that it is at that point that the dignity of the human person is to be recognised. The person begins when the embryo begins.
The counter argument then is that at 14 days the Cybrid has very little that is recognisably human. At 14 days the cells have flattened out to a disc. It has human chromosomes but arguably it is not a human person. If it is not a human person then it is not a moral person that should be taken into account. Some argue that rationality and the emergence of other features such as the possibility of having relationships need to be present in a human person. The early embryo has no consciousness and no nervous system.
Some religious traditions have a less strict and absolute view seeing the emergence of a human life as developmental. For instance Muslim traditions see 120 days or 40 days as the point at which the soul is present in the embryo. It is then that the dignity of the human person is recognized.
It is arguable that taking the absolutist position of conception at the start of the person is incoherent. If an embryo is equal to a born human being, then how should we view the 30% of all conceptions that do not succeed? Should there be funerals for these unsuccessful pregnancies?
An additional argument is that taking the absolutist position places the interest of a potential person over the interest of a suffering human being who needs help now.
A counter argument to this is that early life is fragile and should be protected and that we protect many things that are not human beings, such as animals, and the environment. Arguably the Christian ethics is not based on recognising what a human being has achieved, but protecting the vulnerable. While there is little in the bible to support the view that the human person begins from conception, there is clearly a powerful ethic of protecting the weak, from the writings of the prophets, through to the actions and teachings of Jesus who associated with the marginalised, healed the sick and had a concern for the poor.
These views were explored in a special edition of BBC Radio 4’s Beyond Belief – (www.bbc.co.uk/religion/programmes/beyond_belief/)
Catholic Culture – Looking at ‘Cybrids’, Human-Animal Hybrids:
New Scientist – Scientists hit back at Catholic church over ‘cybrids’:
It has been reported that obese people are to be denied some surgical procedures in an attempt to cut costs in the NHS. Three Suffolk primary care trusts have decided that patients clinically determined to be obese will not get operations like hip and knee replacements. The reason given is that the risk of complications after treatment for obese patients are higher than other groups, but it is also said that financial limits are forcing hospitals to make difficult decisions. There are a number of responses, the ethical thinker might make to this. On the one hand it might seem to go against the idea that everyone should receive treatment on the basis of equality. We might say that, in our welfare medical system, everyone should receive treatment free at the point of need. But should we treat people the same? Should people who have chosen activities which harm then be treated at great expense to the greater number of people? What about criminals? All treatment must be paid for by someone, and with the NHS it is the tax payer. Hospitals have limited funds because the government takes a limited amount of money through tax. Medical treatments cost more and more because as every new treatment appears, more money is needed to pay for it. How should we decide who gets treatment, and what treatments are to be given? What sort of ethical thinker might we want to run our hospitals? Kant might find it very difficult to ever say no to a treatment. If we are going to treat one person this way, we should treat all who need it this way. There might be a tendency to universalize the decision – costs could run out of control. Joseph Fletcher might want to treat each case on its individual merits but is that really practical in the busy business of health care and would people accept it? There is already considerable public upset about the idea that in some parts of the country, some treatments are available but that they are not in others. So perhaps we do need utilitarians to run our hospitals, to make calculations in the interests of the greater number even if some minority groups loose out. Consider the other philosophers you have studied. How would they manage a hospital with the limited budget? How would they decided between patients and would they have objections to certain treatments, or to treating certain patients?
Switzerland is in the thick of a religious and political dispute of the rights of Muslims to build mosques with minarets. Right wing politicians have succeeded in having a popular referendum on the issue on November 29 and the people voted to change their constitution to ban the future construction of minarets. Minarets are an important symbol for the call to prayer but are also perceived as symbols of religious extremism.
It is not uncommon for some religious minorities to find it difficult to build their places of worship. In Turkey Assyrian Christians find it very difficult to get permission to build churches and there are debates in Britain whenever a mosque with a minaret is wanted in a classic cityscape. Russell Powell on his Oxford blog, Practical Ethics News, argues that this is prejudice which forgets the history of persecution of Jews and Muslims, but he does feel that the kind of booming call to prayer is not acceptable in every country and location. The removal of religious rights, however, marks a dangerous turn, he writes, and an example of the tyranny of the majority.
What about bell-ringing? If a majority of a local population don’t go to Church and don’t like bells, or Church towers, or spires, should they be allowed to ban them? In other words, do our religious rights depend on the views of the majority, or are they universal?
Ten years ago, there was an extraordinary birth at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh on 5th July. Dolly the sheep, was the first mammal to be cloned from adult cells. Ian Wilmut and Roger Highfield in their new book, After Dolly: the uses and misuses of human cloning (Little Brown: London, 2006) explore some of the difficult questions their work and all that has followed throws up.
In particular, they address the question of cloning babies. Back in 1978 the first test-tube baby, Louise was born. This has led to a radical change for those couples unable to give birth naturally with greater possibilities for having their own children. It has also led to concerns about the morality of in vitro fertilisation. For instance, the Roman Catholic Church deems such procedures as immoral and its attitude to cloning technologies is similar. However, for the wider public IVF is accepted, but will this be the case for reproductive cloning?
Some say that infertile adults will want to use nuclear transfer, the process by which babies might be cloned, but Wilmut and Highfield think this unlikely. There are great risks attached to nuclear transfer and many alternatives from IVF to adoption. To be sure of success you would need 300 eggs, and twenty-nine willing women prepared to have an embryo. Most of these women would face the emotional trauma of a failed pregnancy. Wilmut and Highfield feel such suffering is far too much to justify but there is more to come. Four in ten cloned lambs died within weeks and there are all sorts of abnormalities that vary between species. Ultimately it seems that reproductive cloning is unreliable and unsafe, a bit like tossing five coins and getting five heads or tails.
Much more important is the research evidence that can come from the early stages of cloning as this will help in developing therapeutic cloning. Wilmut and Highfield are more positive about the benefits offered by therapeutic cloning, which can offer the chance to heal people of existing medical problems. The ability to grow replacement cells and organs and modify genetic structures offers more promise though even gene therapy has risks. Some of the human trails of experimental treatments have not gone well.
Wilmut and Highfield make a last point in the book which Wilmut has reinforced in interviews. He believes that the public must take responsibility for making decisions about which technologies are developed and which are not. It is not for scientists to make the moral decisions. We have to take responsibility for understanding the science so we can fully appreciate the moral issues at stake.
The war in Iraq has tested notions of a just war to the limit. Traditionally, just war theories required a number of tests to be cleared before the use of military action could be considered moral. These are relevant here. Firstly they included ensuring all alternative peaceful means would have to be exhausted before military action, secondly that the suffering caused had to be less than would otherwise be the case and thirdly, there had to be a reasonable chance for success. In these three areas, the war in Iraq seems to make a weak case. Before invading Iraq, there were those in the international community who wanted more time to achieve cooperation, and more time to search Iraq for weapons of mass destruction. As for causing less evil than would otherwise be the case, there were tens of thousands of civilians killed during the war and since, including those killed by militant groups allowed into the country once Saddam Hussein was removed from power. Thirdly two years on, the country does not seem close to peace. Supporters of the war point to a very large turnout at elections and this is promising, and the crimes of Saddam Hussein are still being unearthed. Yet the just war theory too has received a blow as well. The conditions set seem outdated. After all, they were crafted at a time when the potential for devastation was much less. Weighing the risk of the use of weapons of mass destruction is a new moral consideration. How do you respond appropriately to such a risk? How do you measure the significance of such a risk? What possibilities may be safely left as a possible outcome if Governments do not act? Is a one in a million an acceptable risk when set against the threat of the deaths of millions?
The just war theory requires people to look into the future and make educated guesses, about what good or ill will come of it, and about whether alternatives to war might be better. The problem with making a moral decision based on a future prediction, and this can be said of all teleological theories, is that it is very difficult to set limits on the repercussions of an action. For Iraq, the potential good that may come out may take a decade to emerge. Is that beyond the scope for reasonable justification for action? And what about the risk of terrorist attacks spurred on by the war – are they to be included in the judgement of the morality of action? Certainly they must, and yet that raises another interesting problem for teleological ethical thinkers. Suppose there had been WMD in Iraq and the capability to deliver them to Western targets. If an atrocity is committed by a terrorist, motivated by the, perhaps just, war in Iraq, the moral rightness of the war changes at that point, because when thinking teleologically, the consequences are relevant in determining the rightness or wrongness of the action. As with all options, once one is taken we cannot know the outcome of any possible alternatives. Possibly better futures, never happen, and so are never known. This makes judging the morality of the action difficult because you may never realise the full extents of the repercussions. That viewpoint of total moral knowledge is beyond human vision. All this leaves both the just war theory and teleological ethics weakened by the problem of Iraq, not to mention the moral case of the war itself.
There has been considerable discussion about the new laws (April 2007) which will mean that homosexual people will have their right to not be discriminated against by those offering services to the public upheld. For instance, from April a B&B could not refuse a homosexual couple without facing possible prosecution. While this extension of equality is largely excepted when we talk about race or gender, the law has not included sexual orientation up till now.
The Catholic Church in England and Wales has complained that their adoption agencies should be excluded from the legislation on the grounds of conscience and fundamental belief. Catholic adoption agencies (funded by the Government) currently would not consider gay or lesbian couples as appropriate for adoption. After April they will not be able to continue with this approach, unless the law changes.
What we are witnessing here is a clash of ethics based on conflicting absolutist principles. In the red corner is the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church draws heavily on natural moral law theory, a deontological ethic, which holds that certain actions are right or wrong in and of themselves according to whether they fit certain purposes of human nature, which include worshipping God (and by extension honouring his teachings such as biblical references taken to prohibit homosexual acts) and procreation. As a result, the Church does not support or encourage homosexual acts and believes homosexual couples should not be sexually active.
In the blue corner are human rights. Human rights are also absolutist and deontological. Human rights have a fundamental idea that human dignity must be maintained. Actions that deny human dignity by removing rights from a person are in contravention with the purpose and detail of human rights law and ethics. These actions are wrong because they are orientated against human dignity (as understood by human rights thinking). Long lists of individual rights detail their extent in international and national agreements.
This dispute then is a clash between two understandings of absolute ethics. In asking for an exemption from the law on grounds of conscience and fundamental religious beliefs, the Church is asking for something rather surprising – a form of plural relativism whereby specific groups are allowed to live according to differing moral codes, respected because of their tradition. This is surprising because the Catholic Church is opposed to relativism. It is also surprising because the Church has become a great defender of rights with a long history of commitment to workers’ rights and the rights of the oppressed, the unborn and the discriminated against.
In the case of religions these divergences are coming under more and more scrutiny at a time when people are more and more concerned about what morals people all hold as basic and common. Women’s dress and Islam, and wearing crosses in the workplace are examples of this tension. However, sexual orientation is a much greater step as it involves a more basic and fundamental discrimination on a type of person. This will prove a very difficult tension to resolve and it may lead to the withdrawal of some religious institutions from the public sphere, such as the Catholic Adoption Agencies. That step is a step towards segregation.
This illustrates one of absolutisms weaknesses. It is not flexible and yet reaches a long way touching people’s individual lives and personal beliefs. Perhaps it is not ambiguous enough for modern living, or perhaps one kind of absolutism is simply right and we need to work out which it is and relegate all the others to the bin of bad ideas. It would appear that the clash of absolutisms will be resolved with homosexual rights trumping Catholic conceptions of natural law. Inevitably, when absolutisms clash, there can be only one winner.
John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (Penguin, 1954) is a classic tale of environmental disaster which provides fruitful source material for ethical discussions. Life on Earth has come to a sudden stop with a almost total blinding of the whole population, probably through a malfunctioning orbiting defence system. The Triffids, man eating walking plants, also thought to have been created by deliberate mutation by the Russians, are taking advantage of the situation killing large numbers of the blinded population. A few sighted people escaped the blinding and are leading larger groups of the blind. One such group, held up in a country house, faces the challenge of making a radical change to the way they live and the intellectual leader of the community, a Doctor Vorless, a Professor of Sociology, makes a speech. These selections are taken from pages 118-121 in the Penguin edition.
Doctor Vorless begins by reflecting on the variety of human institutions in different cultures.
“‘We must all see, if we pause to think, that one kind of community’s virtue may well be another kind of community’s crime: that what is frowned upon here may be considered laudable elsewhere; that customs condemned in one century are condoned in another. And we must also see that in each community and each period there is a widespread belief in the community and in each period there is a widespread belief in the moral rightness of its own customs.
‘Now, clearly, since many of these beliefs conflict they cannot all be “right” in an absolute sense. The most judgement one can pass on them – if one has to pass judgements at all – is to say that they have at some period been “right” for those communities that hold them. It may be that they still are, but it frequently is found that they are not, and that the communities who continue to follow them blindly without heed to changed circumstances do so to their own disadvantage – perhaps to their ultimate destruction.’ …
‘Thus,’ he continued, ‘you would not expect to find – the same manners, customs, and forms in a penurious Indian village living on the edge of starvation as you would in, say, Mayfair. Similarly the people in a warm country where life is easy are going to differ quite a deal from the people of an overcrowded, hardworking country as to the nature of the principal virtues. In other words, different environments set different standards.
‘ I point this out to you because the world we knew is gone – finished. The conditions which framed and taught us our standards have gone with it. Our needs are now different, and our aims must be different. If you want an example, I would suggest to you that we have all spent the day indulging with perfectly easy consciences in what two days ago would have been housebreaking and theft. With the old pattern broken, we have now to find out what mode of life is best suited to the new. We have not simply to start building again: we have to start thinking again – which is much more difficult and far more distasteful…
‘In the time now ahead of us a great many of these prejudices we have been taught will have to go, or be radically altered. We can accept and retain only one primary prejudice, and that is that the race is worth preserving. To that consideration all else will for a time at least be subordinate. We must look at all we do, with the question in mind: “Is this going to help our race survive – or will it hinder us?” If it will help, we must do it, whether or not it conflicts with the ideas in which we were brought up. If not, we must avoid it even though the omission may clash with our previous notions of duty, and even of justice.
‘We must have the moral courage to think and to plan for ourselves … We can afford to support a limited number of women who cannot see, because they will have babies who can see. We cannot afford to support men who cannot see. In our new world, then, babies become very much more important than husbands.’ …
A tall, dark, purposeful-looking, youngish woman had risen. While she waited, she appeared to have a mouth not made to open, but later it did. ‘Are we to understand,’ she inquired, using a kind of carbon-steel voice, ‘are we to understand that the last speaker is advocating free love?’ And she sat down, with spine-jarring decision.
Doctor Vorless smoothed back his hair as he regarded her. ‘ I think the questioner must be aware that I never mentioned love, free, bought, or bartered. Will she please make the question clearer?’ The woman stood up again. ‘ I think the speaker understood me. I am asking if he is suggesting the abolition of the marriage law?’
‘The laws we knew have been abolished by circumstances. It now falls to us to make laws suitable to the conditions, and enforce them if necessary.’
‘There is still God’s law, and the law of decency.’
‘Madam. Solomon had three hundred – or was it five hundred? – wives, and God did not apparently hold that against him. A Mohammedan (NB note below) preserves rigid respectability with three wives. These are matters of local custom. Just what our laws in these matters, and in others, will be is for us all to decide later for the greatest benefit of the community.”
(Note: This term for a Muslim is now considered disrespectful and can cause offence but at the time of writing it was quite frequently used by well-meaning academics without intending offence.)
Ultimately the community decides that every sighted man will care for a sighted wife and two blind wives, and have children, who would be sighted, with all three. The community could not support many blind men and they relocate on the Isle of Wight where they can better defend their borders and eradicate Triffids. In the story some resist the idea and try other routes, with two sighted people caring for twenty blind, but these fail. The only community to flourish is that which has chosen a route which breaks away from traditional Christian morality, and makes a utilitarian decision about who can be saved (women and sighted men) and leave most blind men to a grim death at the hands of the Triffids, plague, or the groups of bandits.
The ideas in the extracts raise all sorts of fundamental questions. Is the survival of the human race desirable? Some radical environmentalists, including James Lovelock, argue for a reduced human presence in the world to allow the biosphere to flourish and there is a strong sense in The Day of the Triffids that the catastrophe is a kind of judgement on humanity’s failings. There is something of the tower of Babel in the story as it is suggested that humanity’s hubris is creating monsters and monstrous weapons breaks the natural laws and therefore the bounteous world in which they live turns against them and becomes a hard place to live. Men and women have, once more, been thrown out of Eden to live hard lives beyond the paradise of God’s garden.
Should brutal utilitarian judgements be made to abandon the most vulnerable for the sake of survival? It is quite clear in the story that survival means abandoning many to death. To try to help the helpless is to endanger the future of the species. In desperate situations, compassion for the weak is a luxury which is abandoned for the greater good.
Are the rules of living as relative and situational as the Professor suggests or is the woman correct to defend God’s laws, bringing to mind a classic natural law defense? Is a sexual morality which includes polygamy morally justifiable in this case or any other case? The survival of the community requires a high rate of childbirth. In John Wyndham’s world the only way to grow enough food for the ageing population is to ensure a good supply of new workers and blind women have a role to play. They need a guide in the world so a sighted couple look after two women. In the story, the main character and narrator, Bill Mason, is in love with a sighted woman he has met called Josella. When faced with the new moral rules, she quickly decides they are acceptable and will fit their life together. She tells Bill that she will choose two blind women to join their marriage. Can any kind of sense of rightness be given to this sort of marriage from a Christian theological perspective?
“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself. “Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” It held up its chain at arm’s length, as if that were the cause of all its unavailing grief, and flung it heavily upon the ground again. (from “A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens)
Charles Dickens was aware of the contradictions at Christmas time in his own period with the message of salvation and joy conflated with the abject poverty of many of those at the lower end of society. Scrooge’s attitude to the poor masses lead him to conclude that poverty reduces the surplus population, but he is challenged by a vision of that outcome for his own remaining family, when the ghosts of Christmas present and future point to the consequences of poverty for his own nephew, Bob Crachet, and a vision of what the loss of Tiny Tim does to his family.
Dickens’ seasonal ghost and morality tale contains this outburst of regret from Jacob Marley’s ghost which underpins the story of Scrooges redemption as he realizes there is more to life than material gain.
In our own times seasonal good cheer and the fantasia of Christmas presented in shop windows and on advertisements masks the high rates of marriage breakups, suicides and the enormous tensions caused by the expectation of material gain. Scrooge is a sharp business man, but also a person who has lost his humanity. This attempt to bring humanity into business ethics is a challenge. Recently a large company has had to substantially change the pension arrangements for its employees. They are going to get a worse deal when they retire because the company cannot afford the more substantial deal on offer. Another large company has folded and laid off its workers. To some this is simply business as one company struggles to survive in the market place, while another fails. Good will to all is no substitute for good business. A bad business with a good conscience is no business. This has led some to say that the only ethic that business must follow is to stay in business. However, good business can exploit, can cause suffering if it has no sense of corporate responsibility. In places where workers have no choice about who to work for a business can take advantage of its strength by having dangerous conditions or poverty levels of pay. This can be the case in unregulated developing countries, or in places where there is no alternative work. If that is the standard that drives the price, business that treat its workers reasonably, that honour their workers’ human rights and pay a fair wage, can go out of business because others exploit workers and get the lower price. The consumer has a moral responsibility here. If the systems of justice fail to rebalance this and consumers purchase products produced by near slave conditions, they contribute to the downfall of morally conscious companies. The consumer and the corporation are both moral agents that affect the quality of life of the workforce. To leave things open to a ‘free market’, to trust that you have no moral duty to know about the history of a product, is to abdicate moral responsibility. To say you did not know about the conditions of the workers who made the product you supported by buying shows a lack of interest. Bad business ethics is not just about bad companies, but bad consumers as well.