Quick thoughts to get your discussion started....
Why be moral?
Small children can be infuriating when they keep asking ‘Why?’, challenging sensibly imposed rules. Ethics, in encouraging the same habit, can be equally frustrating. Morality is the result of applying reason to the interface between our actions and our values. If we had no values, nothing would matter and no moral rules would be needed.
So we may challenge the basis of moral arguments – that we should seek the greatest good for the greatest number, for example, or that we should seek to treat others as ends in themselves rather than means, or live in accordance with human nature, rationally interpreted. But each time we do so, we reveal our own value system – even if it is a nihilist system that attempts to eliminate all value.
Being moral may not necessarily lead to an easy life, nor enhance my relationships. It may – as many a person taking a moral stand against the prevailing norms of society has found – cause me real grief. So why do people still ask about right and wrong? Why not allow natural self-interest and inclination free reign and to hell with reason?
Perhaps, of course, because the resulting anarchy would destroy the very fabric of society upon which our own happiness is likely to depend. But perhaps also because we are rational creatures, thinking beings who will always want to make sense of life and live accordingly, and a key part of that is developing a critical view of right and wrong.
Should you be free to injure yourself?
Heavy drinking, drugs and smoking are all injurious to health, some sports are dangerous, even unprotected sex has its hazards. If you are the only person to be injured by any of these things, should you be free, morally and legally, to do them if you so choose? In the 19th century, J S Mill argued that you should, and that the only reason for limiting your freedom was to prevent you from harming others.
Most people instinctively believe that what they do in private – or within a group of informed and consenting adults – is their own business and nobody else’s.
However, it is often not that simple. If you view child pornography in the privacy of your own computer screen, that action also involves the original harm done to the child, even if you are not directly involved. The supply of drugs involved both the exploitation of suppliers and criminal activity. So it is far from clear that private activity is unconnected with the welfare of other people.
Equally, your own life and death will most likely impact on others, whether family or friends; there are few things more harrowing that the prospect of a loved one deliberately harming themselves. The most difficult situation is that of a terminally ill person seeking euthanasia. Where friends and family support that decision, it is reasonable to argue that suicide is not self-harm, but self-benefit. Others will experience hurt at what has happened, but that hurt is mainly caused by the illness, not by the ending of life. It is never an easy choice.
At the other end of the scale, it is generally assumed by those of a liberal disposition, that the self is autonomous and will flourish once freed from external restraint. It is far from clear to me that a free-market economic system, or an ‘anything goes’ attitude socially, have necessarily produced the greatest possible level of happiness or general welbeing. Following John Donne’s perception that ‘no man is an island’, I fail to see human society as no more than an archipelago criss-crossed by loose economic ties. That way lies the madness of seeing everyone as an economic functionary, or impersonal provider or goods and services, rather than as a fellow member of the human species.
At one level, I accept Mill’s principle that one should only be restrained in terms of doing no harm to others, the problem is knowing how to work that out in practice. Too often it is used as an excuse for not probing deeply enough into the interlocking causal connections within our society, or indeed – in environmental terms – the whole biosphere.
It’s all relative!
Relativism is sometimes seen as the greatest threat to morality. After all, if nothing is absolutely right or wrong, but only becomes so in the context of a particular society and its values, then anything goes.
But relativism is only an extension of the old principle that laws should be applied sensitively, taking into account particular circumstances. It has always been recognized that situations are unique. What is different now is that we live in a multi-cultural and multi-faith society. We can no longer assume a set of values that are held by society and against which the actions of the deviant few may be judged. We also have the benefit of instant media coverage of events throughout the world, and any amount of comment from every possible perspective. The events of war are celebrated on one side and grieved over on the other, a terrorist is also called a freedom fighter, a social deviant is hailed as making a stand against a repressive society. What does this do to a sense of morality?
Without in any way diminishing the value of cultural diversity, it is possible to explore the common ground needed for people to live together without harming one another. The problem with this is that it tends to produce a lowest-common-denominator approach to ethics. The real challenge is to explore what human flourishing involves – in other words, to examine what it takes for people of all cultures to fulfill themselves as individuals and within society.
Perhaps the threat of relativism is just another aspect of the threat of being required to empathise with someone who is utterly different from yourself. To believe in a single, definitive moral code gives assurance: we know who’s right and who’s wrong. To acknowledge cultural diversity requires that you stand back from your own situation and its values and recognize that it is not the only one, or necessarily the best. That takes courage, but is fundamental for any sense of justice to be achieved across cultural, social and political differences.
Revenge or self-defence?
Consider this situation, based on fact. Three young men ambushed a family as they were returning home, forced them into the house, physically abused them and threatened to kill them. Eventually the robbers were overcome and chased out of the house, where one of them was hit over the head with a cricket bat and suffered a fractured skull and brain damage. The robbers were given a non-custodial sentence, while the householder was sentenced to two and a half years in prison. It was argued that, while self-defence within the house was justified, chasing the robber out of the house and attacking him there amounted to revenge.
Clearly, everyone has a natural right to protect his or her own life. The question is, if provoked (and threatened with death) is it realistic to expect someone to show restraint? How far should extreme provocation go in excusing what happens next? There is often a clash between what morality and the law deem to be right, and what human nature and the heat of the moment dictate.
Ethics should be rational and based on seriously held principles and values; but is should also take into consideration the particular circumstances of each action; no rules should be applied without some consideration of the particular case. Self-defence tips over into revenge; flirting tips over into sexual harassment; harsh words tip over into intimidation. The difficulty is in knowing exactly where that tipping point happens.
Do you own your genes?
Having a database of DNA profiles is a valuable took in fighting crime; that much is certain. Whether the profiles of those who have been arrested for a crime but subsequently acquitted, or never charged, should be kept on record is quite another matter. There is a deep feeling that the innocent have a right to their own privacy and that includes their genetic make-up. Of course, there are occasions when I may need to prove who I am. But what about my genetic profile? That, after all, is the absolute way of establishing my identity? Why should the innocent not be perfectly content for their identity is held on a computer somewhere, if only in order to eliminate them from police enquiries?
But it raises another, rather more difficult issue: Do I actually own my genes? If someone were to amputate my hand and run off with it, I would rightly regard that as theft – it’s part of me and I have a right to it. But genetic information is just that – information. It is the information that my body needs to reproduce its cells, the vital data that, from the moment of my conception, made me a unique human being. Should I not insist on genetic privacy? Is getting genetic information from someone a form of theft?
Like it or not, for medical or legal purposes, genetic information is going to be increasingly needed. Perhaps we’ll have to think of it rather like having our photograph taken, as a necessity on some occasions, but be on our guard against subsequent misuse.
Do you have an absolute right to live or die?
The saddest thing must be that single ticket to Zurich – the journey taken by those who want to be helped to die in the Dignitas clinic, confident that their loved ones will not subsequently be accused of their murder by helping them to do so.
Those who follow a utilitarian ethic – that one should seek the greatest benefit for the greatest number – the choice of death if one is in an unbearable final stage of illness, seems to be right. Why should one have to face terminal suffering if an easy and painless option is available?
For those who follow a ‘natural law’ approach – especially from a religious standpoint – the situation is quite different. The ultimate purpose of our life is not ours to choose or manipulate but is given by our very essence as a human being, or by the creator God. To attempt to escape from that given path of life by destroying ourselves, is seen as wrong, and as leading , via a slippery-slope argument, to a devaluing of all life.
But who cannot but admire the determination of those who, if full awareness of what they are doing, choose to end their suffering? Like the philosopher Socrates, condemned to death, they take the hemlock with dignity. Arguments about whether it is morally right will continue, but it stands as a testimony to human courage and reason.
What if torture gets results?
Defending harsh interrogation techniques used against terrorist suspects, the former American vice-President Dick Cheney argued that it was not fair to publicise information about those techniques without also showing the amount of useful information that had been obtained through them, information which, he claimed, had made the United States safer. So, can torture be justified on the basis of the value of the information obtained through it?
There are two problems with this. The first is that you never know, or accurately weigh, all the results of an action. You may get important information through torture, but might it damage the reputation of your country, with damaging consequences? The second is that it is an argument that knows no limits. If respect for, and proper treatment of, an individual can be set aside for anticipated benefits, where do you draw the line? Mugging a wealthy little old lady might release funds to be distributed to the starving! J S Mill, argued that utilitarianism should take into account not just the immediate effects of a particular action, but the wider effects of either obeying or setting aside a general moral principle. In this case, the principle that it is wrong to torture, outweighs the information gained; not least because it would justify (and possibly encourage) an enemy capturing and torturing your own people in order to gain a military advantage.
Is there a drink in this for me?
You go into a government department, hoping to be able to tender for some work. The official greets you, explains what is needed, comments that the job is going to be important for your company and then asks ‘Is there a drink in this for me?’. What do you say? If you decline to offer something, you are unlikely to get the work, and your own company suffers. If you offer the proverbial thick brown envelope, you are going against the generally accepted moral principle that you should not give or receive bribes. But who is at fault? Clearly, the person soliciting for a bribe is going against his own terms of employment, whether written or implied. But if that is the way the world works – and it is certainly the case, more in some cultures than in others – who is to say that each individual act is wrong? It happens between governments as well as between individuals, and most political leverage involves, if not bribes to individuals, then preferential treatment for the countries concerned. The key question for morality here: Is it wrong to go along with an established and socially accepted system, even if – on rational and moral terms – it is questionable and unfair