Time for an Ethics Forum in Ireland?

For those of us who lived in Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s, we will remember that debates about ethics tended to focus on a somewhat narrow range of topics, mainly to do with human sexuality and reproduction, with pregnancy issues and with the institution of marriage. It was the age of the referendums in which these issues were raised, and the debates around them tended to be a battleground between those who were committed to a traditional view of what were described as ‘social’ issues (which really were not much connected with anything social) and those who wanted to modernise society. On the whole the traditionalists tended to win the debates, but in ways that increasingly suggested that the victories would be temporary.

In the current decade, ethical issues have become much more varied in the context of public debate. It’s a very long time since I have heard any public comment about either contraception or divorce, and I doubt that a serious debate on either could still be initiated, or at least one in which there was any doubt about where the majority stood. The ‘right to life’ issues are still there, including abortion and (reflecting scientific discovery) embryonic stem cell research; but alongside these we have become much more interested also in broader ethical issues around war and peace, world hunger, political and business integrity and the eradication of poverty. Ethics has grown up.

But while our focus on ethics has matured, our capacity to process ethical debates has not. However interesting they may be, the ‘letters to the editor’ pages of the main newspapers are not a substitute for a proper forum on ethics. Given the scale of the issues we have to deal with, and the importance of having a shared outlook on the key moral issues that affect society, it would seem sensible to look at the idea of a more structured national forum on ethics. We have to come to grips with what happened in our past: not just abuse, but also war and violence, exploitation, discrimination, and so forth. But we also need to have a greater capacity to move confidently into the future, at ease with what we are doing and how we are doing it. It is time for us to be innovative as we pursue a path to a successful but also ethical society.

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2 Comments on “Time for an Ethics Forum in Ireland?”

  1. Johan Says:

    This is essential if success is to be sustainable, it doesn’t take a genius to know that.

    How can this get started?

    Create a website with interactive feedback moderated by candidates voted for by member participants is one way.

    The outcome of each forum should be a clear action plan with steps to reach out to national and local agencies to put in place a broad standardisation of at least baseline ethics to begin with.

    The standards should be be measurable and accountable as with anything worthwhile.

    The key point here from my perspective is that it must be a separate entity focused on pure ethics and not distracted by any political agenda, just wanting to contribute to creating a better society. Much like your column.

    I’m sure if you asked for donations to create such a forum people would contribute, I would be among the first

  2. Mathieu Says:

    I totally second this proposition not only for Ireland but for all democratic countries.

    I will just give one example here. Last year in France, a book entitled “Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel” was published in which the author, Sylvain Guggenheim, refuted the dominant and prevalent theory according to which Europe owed much of its scientific knowledge to the islamic world in the Middle Ages. The very serious newspaper Le Monde praised this work which was, according to many historians, full of errors. Yet or because of this the book was an editorial hit and sales have been good. Why?

    Because, according to a renowned historian heard yesterday on the radio, people in France have been increasingly frustrated: the 2005 referundum on the European Constitution was instrumentalized by the politicians to their own agendas. People wanted to debate about whether or not Europe was a Christian territory, whether or not the EU had to fullfill a social role and not just an economical role. But the politicians actively prevented this because they didn’t want these questions perturbing their petty power struggles.

    Now, people buy in the neo-conservatist theories of a badly written book, expressing their frustration in seconding someone who says that Europe has nothing to do with muslims.

    Two totally different debates are mixed and mingled up thanks to political cowardice.

    What I’d like to see, in these times of upcoming European elections — politicians who would take their job seriously and, alongside their logical concerns of winning power and being elected, would also try to actively further the great social and ethical questions that people want to be discussed. It’s time for a more direct democracy; representative democracy was created in the 19th century by a bourgeoisie elite for a growing middle-class with bourgeoisie values. The 21th century needs a more popular democracy, a true democracy for the people who want to have their say in how the affairs of the nation are conducted and not just casting their vote once in a while.


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