Archive for the ‘ethics’ category

Teaching morality

November 3, 2010

Recently I received an email from, as they say, a ‘member of the public’ who was not aware that I had stepped down as President of Dublin City University. The email was written in what was clearly an angry frame of mind, and my correspondent wanted to let me know in no uncertain terms that I employed academics who were likely to corrupt Ireland’s youth. Did I not see it as our role, he asked, to teach high moral standards?

The reason for his writing to me along these lines was that his daughter had told him about a comment made by a lecturer in a class, which he regarded as immoral. Let us not pursue what the topic or the particular comment had been, and let us just consider the general proposition. Is it the university’s role to ‘teach morality’? I find it impossible to provide a simple answer. One might suggest that it is our duty not to support any acts of disobedience to the law. But then again, civil disobedience to immoral laws has a long pedigree, and it is not to difficult to think of examples of where law and morality were clearly in conflict: was it a German academic’s moral duty in 1938 to teach racism?

So if the law does not provide us necessarily with a moral code, what does? We might possibly agree on certain propositions: academics should not encourage cruelty or abuse, or corruption, or exploitation. But then again, an academic attempting to persuade their audience to be cruel or corrupt is unlikely to be influential, or to have a long career for that matter. Generally speaking those concerned about the need to teach morality are likely to be swimming in rather muddy waters of moral ambivalence or contention; issues like stem cell research or sexual morality might be the subject matter.

In the end, academic studies often have to probe the limits of social norms, and doing so can easily appear to some to flirt with immorality. On one occasion during my presidency of DCU I was told that a colleague was expressing racist views. I absolutely abhor racism, so I looked into the matter with some urgency. It turned out that the academic in question was raising issues about housing policy, and while his position was an arguable one it wasn’t in any direct sense racist.

Often moral issues are raised by people who take the view that morality is not about trying to grapple with complex issues and seeking to make appropriate judgements, but about following rules. It is not about asking what is right, but declaring what has been determined as right. Indeed, there are debates about how we identify morality in neuro-scientific terms, and whether it is all just driven by specific brain activity without any objective basis. Those of us following a religious frame of reference, or indeed a humanist one, may believe we have criteria to determine ethical standards, but at least some of these will be based on our beliefs and may not make sense to those who do not share those beliefs.

I found it hard to answer my correspondent’s question. I would hate to state that universities do not recognise any kind of objective morality. But I would equally not want them to be the guardians of any particular outlook or tradition. In the end I fudged the issue by stating that his particular concern was related to private morality in which the university could not interfere, and I also wrote that universities need to be places where different viewpoints are assessed and analysed. But if his complaint had been, say, racism, I probably would have answered differently.

In the end DCU has shown its recognition of the role of morality by establishing its Institute of Ethics. But it, like other universities, cannot be a general enforcer of anyone’s morality, and it must respect freedom of opinion and expression. We cannot ‘teach morality’, but we can and should hope that those who take our programmes or follow our research will leave us better equipped to assess and work out today’s big ethical dilemmas.

Catholicism and the spirit of the age

July 21, 2010

There has been a fair amount of news coverage over recent days of the Vatican documentNormae de Gravioribus Delictis, which was actually completed by Pope Benedict on May 21 of this year but has only just been published. Before commenting on the substance, it may be worthwhile pointing out what this document is. It is in essence a series of regulations (or ‘norms’) which list the most serious ‘crimes’ identified by the church. To get a sense of how the Vatican sees the context, one might consider a ‘summary’ of what it’s about issued by Vatican press secretary Fr Federico Lombardi and attached to the document. The key passage in that summary goes like this:

‘The serious crimes to which the regulations referred concerned vital aspects of Church life: the Sacraments of the Eucharist and of Penance, but also sexual abuse committed by a priest against a minor under the age of eighteen. The vast public echo this latter kind of crime has had over recent years has attracted great attention and generated intense debate on the norms and procedures applied by the Church to judge and punish such acts. It is right, then, that there should be complete clarity concerning the regulations currently in force in this field, and that these regulations be presented organically so as to facilitate the work of the people who deal with these matters.’

The rest of the summary then focuses almost entirely on clerical sex abuse, indicating that this is where the Pope’s mind was when finalising the document. And that of course is well and good, except that the ‘norms’ cover all sorts of other stuff also. So for example, article 3(1)(4) refers to ‘concelebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice .. with ministers of ecclesial communities which do not have apostolic succession and do not acknowledge the sacramental dignity of priestly ordination’ as a ‘grave delict’ – meaning that joint celebrations with non-Roman clergy are highly sinful. Actually the terminology used there is perhaps more ambivalent than the Vatican itself may have intended, in that, for example, Anglicans would regard themselves as having ‘apostolic succession’ and recognise the ‘sacramental dignity of priestly ordination’. But that’s by the way; the intention was to brand non-Roman sacramental actions as gravely sinful. In an age where all religion is subjected to a fair amount of scepticism this approach might be considered a tad counter-intuitive, but there you go.

Article 5 has a go at the ‘attempted sacred ordination of a woman’, which it says is a particularly ‘grave delict’.

Article 6 then deals with clerical sex abuse.

The publication of the document was followed by a fair amount of outcry over the perceived status of women’s ordination and concelebration with non-Roman Catholic clergy as being similar in seriousness to clerical sex abuse. The church and its supporters have pointed out that this is not implied at all, but that this is simply a list of things that are grave moral delicts, set out in separate articles. But in the end that justification doesn’t work: it’s all still in the same list, and is decreed as having the same sinful status. And because of that, it presents the church as an organisation that appears to be incapable of understanding the ethical perspective regarding the issues into which it has strayed. Even if it wants to hold on to its opposition to women’s ordination – a position which increasingly its own members don’t accept, and which is bound to become harder and harder to explain to them – listing it in a series of delicts that also includes sex abuse shows at best a naivety which is astounding.

The Roman Catholic Church has adopted a position that holds that the revelations and enlightenments of this (or any) age don’t count, and that its own internal culture needs to be enclosed in normative judgements that were set in a very different age. For it, departing from that culture is gravely sinful, and that sinfulness is no less outrageous than sinfulness associated with crime and abuse.

I actually have a broad sympathy for the church, and a desire for it to prosper; I am myself a catholic Anglican. But the Roman Catholic church won’t do that until it learns to accept that our understanding of the nature of humanity must always evolve as we learn new things, and that this is not incompatible with divine purpose. There is nothing too astounding about this, as the church itself has abandoned all sorts of Old Testament prescriptions, and indeed has quietly abandoned more recent ones when it suited it to do so.

It is time – urgent time – for reform.

Synthetic life?

May 21, 2010

Well, here’s something to take our minds off the fruit bats. Craig Venter, the scientist and entrepreneur who was one of those who developed the human genome project a few years ago, has according to news reports managed to create a living cell through an artificial process. It is being described in the media and elsewhere as ‘synthetic life’ though if I understand correctly the process that he has used, it may not be an entirely accurate description, in that he used an existing cell that he then programmed with new genetic information. Or something like that.

And as you might imagine, a group of bishops were off and running the moment the starter’s pistol fired. An Italian bishop offered the following comment this morning:

‘In the wrong hands, today’s novelty could lead to a devastating step into the unknown tomorrow. Man comes to God, but he is not God: he remains human and he has the possibility to give life through procreation, not through constructing it artificially.’

Right now the scientists are not talking about ‘creating’ living creatures, but rather the potential of using this developing technique to treat or cure diseases. But it is clear that the longer term potential of such discoveries should prompt an in-depth ethical debate – which, however, might have to include the question why ‘procreated’ life is ethically more sound than ‘created’ life. But equally we need to ask how far we would go to develop life forms and for what purposes we would ‘use’ them.

There are interesting times ahead.

Addressing corruption

January 20, 2010

Once a year Transparency International, an international organisation assessing the state of corruption across the world, produces its Corruption Perceptions Index. This assesses and measures the degree of ‘public sector corruption’ in 180 or so countries. The results of this can be seen on a map produced by the organisation, and this shows one thing immediately: there is a significant link between corruption and poverty, so that poor countries do not just suffer deprivation, disease and starvation, but also exploitation by those who rule them. But the map also makes clear that the relative absence of corruption is quite heavily localised, and whether we find this easy to believe or not, here in Ireland we are in a country that has comparatively low levels of corruption, and moreover one that has improved its record fairly consistently over the past ten years or so.

It may be worth saying this, because if you read some comments in the media (such as this piece in the Irish Independent by Kevin Myers) you might be forgiven for thinking that corruption pervades everything in Ireland. This is not so. Ireland ranks as the 14th least corrupt country in the world, better than (for example) the United Kingdom, the United States, Belgium and France; equal in standing to Germany; but not as good as Luxembourg, most Scandinavian countries, Singapore and New Zealand (which is the least corrupt country). For the record, the most corrupt country is Somalia, which in turn is only just ahead of Afghanistan, Burma and Sudan.

But back to Ireland. For 2009, Transparency International summarises the position here as follows:

‘Ireland has made substantial progress in strengthening legal and institutional safeguards against corruption over the past fifteen years. In addition, the scale of ‘petty corruption’ is perceived to be amongst the lowest measured anywhere in the world. In spite of a number of revelations of political ‘grand corruption’ during the 1980s and 1990s, there is little evidence that this type of corruption currently poses a major threat to the integrity of the State.’

There is an important point in this. Those who promote the ‘Ireland-is-systematically-corrupt’ thesis with such energy probably do more than most to impede the fight against the corruption that we do have, because they over-egg the pudding and prevent a proper focus on what matters. We do need to combat all forms of corruption, but we need to do it from an objective perspective on what it is that constitutes the main problems here.

In fact, Transparency International does highlight some issues in Ireland. Some of this is described in the country report as ‘legal corruption’ explained as follows:

‘While no laws may be broken, personal relationships, patronage, political favours, and political donations are believed to influence political decisions and policy to a considerable degree. The situation is compounded by a lack of transparency in political funding and lobbying.’

More specific weaknesses in our national framework are also identified, including political weaknesses (with the Oireachtas too heavily influenced by the government, and with lack of transparency in political funding), inadequate audit checks in local government,  inadequate protection for whistleblowers in the public and private sectors, inadequate procurement safeguards, and so forth.

Corruption raises both ethical and practical issues. A corrupt system is morally unacceptable, but it also compromises business and trade and hinders economic and social development. The third world cleptocrats who have ruined some countries did not just steal their citizens’ resources, they also undermined the capacity of these countries to escape from poverty through trade.

National integrity can be easily lost and is hard to regain. In Ireland we are not in a bad position, but we must always be vigilant. It is perhaps one of the tasks of the academic community to support that process by taking a direct interest in issues of corruption and integrity and to assess it in a variety of different contexts. DCU has its Institute of Ethics, and other universities have other individuals and groupings that provide scrutiny and analysis. As we seek to recover from our economic problems, these activities are more important than ever.

Guest blog: Dissidence

January 18, 2010

By Helena Sheehan

Until her retirement last year, Helena Sheehan was an Associate Professor in the School of Communications, Dublin City University. Her personal website can be found at http://webpages.dcu.ie/~sheehanh/sheehan.htm


When Ferdinand asked me to do a guest blog here, it was to provide a dissenting point of view. This has provoked me to reflect on the subject of dissidence.

The image of the dissident is either that of the heroic critic of dictatorial regimes who may be martyred or imprisoned for their outspoken views or else that of a cynic or crank who is weary of the world and would never be satisfied with anything. However, much dissidence is neither. I want to focus not so much on the grand gestures, but on the everyday reality of dissidence, dissidence that is serious, rational, engaged with the world, not dissenting for the sake of dissent.

Let me take three broad areas in which thinking and engaging with the world has forced me into a life of dissidence.

1)    Religion. I am an atheist. Although I was once a fervent catholic, my philosophical development led me to consider the arguments for the existence of God, to reject theism and to come to an alternative view of how the world came to be. For decades now I have lived in a world in which theism was routinely assumed. In Ireland this has been particularly acute. It is not as bad as it once was, but it is still a problem. The existence of God is enshrined in our constitution. The angelus on RTE, although now more artsy and multicultural, still puts it in your face every day, as do phrases routinely pronounced on auto-pilot such as ‘God bless’ and ‘God willing’ in daily conversation. During the holiday season just past, there were once again the references to ‘the true meaning of Christmas’ and the constant presence of songs asserting a particular origin myth as if an agreed story of the history of the world. When and how to dissent is a question posed to me and to many others every day. If someone I hardly know in a shop, says ‘God bless you’, I let it go, but when a colleague in a university constantly says it, I sometimes do say that I think not. Some years ago, a university president habitually said ‘God willing’ at academic meetings and in individual conversations. I once pointed out to him that it was inappropriate to assume such a shared belief in an academic environment. Trinity still confers its degrees ‘in the name of the Most Holy Trinity’ in a way that is insincere and  objectionable, as it does not reflect the actual beliefs of many involved. My PhD was conferred in such a way as was the BA of my son and we are both atheists, as have been many others so conferred. Does it matter? I think that it does. Otherwise, words lose their meaning and gestures lose their point. Much of religious speech and practice in Ireland is hollow these days. Many come to church only for baptisms, communions, confirmations, weddings and funerals without ever giving a thought to the belief systems underlying these rituals. I have to let much of it pass, as I don’t have the time or the power to contest every inappropriate practice or assertion. I can’t accost every parent on the street asking them what they think they are doing dressing their daughters as brides and telling then that they are eating the body of a dead god.  Nevertheless I do feel called upon to take every appropriate opportunity to speak up and to act. I have joined Atheist Ireland, which is campaigning for a secular constitution and against the new blasphemy law. I make my argument on the media and in classrooms and in publications as opportunities arise. For example: on Christmas day in 2008 I was on radio engaged in a panel discussion with clerics on the truth status of biblical stories. I have written the story of my disbelief in Portrait of a marxist as a young nun.

2)    Politics. I am a socialist. Day after day I listen to a discussion of the current crisis that fails to engage in any kind of systemic analysis, that incorporates all of the assumptions of capitalism without articulating them or scrutinising them. The crisis has resulted in an intensified redistribution from below to above, as private debts are converted into public obligations. There is fury at the greed of bankers and property developers and the complicity of the politicians and regulators. Many see how the government is using the state as the instrument of an oligarchy against their own interests. What is not so widely perceived is that it is in the nature of the system. The greed and the complicity are not simply matters of individual immorality (although they certainly are that too), but they are bred and sustained by the system itself. What to do about it? As do many, I often feel quite powerless in the face of these forces. However, I take every opportunity to speak, to write, to demonstrate (and in the cold and dark and rain of December, it was not easy). Has this made any difference? Not that I can see. Still what is the alternative? If I didn’t do the modest bit that I can do, there would be one less voice saying what I believe needs to be said: that capitalism can be transcended and that there is still a case to be made for socialism. Perhaps occasionally I plant some seed somewhere, so I have to keep trying.

3)    Academe. I am a marxist. I am opposed to many of the current orthodoxies dominating our universities. Philosophically I engage in critiques of both positivism and postmodernism. Both inhibit systemic thinking. These days they do so in a way that is so taken-for-granted. There was a once – in my lifetime – strong and impassioned debate between conflicting paradigms. There were well articulated rival theories regarding questions at the theoretical foundations of most academic disciplines. Today this has nearly disappeared. It is not as if all of these problems have been solved or that the current orthodoxies have won in intellectual terms. It is a matter of power and not of knowledge. Universities have become ever more closely harnessed to the dynamics of a system that does not call attention to its nature as a system. The ethos of commercialisation that has overtaken our universities does not serve the advance of knowledge or the good of society. On this too I have been a dissident. It has been hard here too not to feel powerless, but the fact is that academics do have power, not to immediately defeat this trend, but to query it, to undermine its hegemony, to articulate and live by alternative values. Academics have power to oppose the commodification of knowledge in how they teach their courses, in what they write in their publications and how they address the direction of universities in many fora. I took every opportunity to do this in my years at DCU, primarily in teaching and publishing, but also in debating the president on the commercialisation question. For Ferdinand’s position, many entries in this blog give expression to his point of view, the dominant position. For my arguments, see Are the humanities threatened by the increasing commercialisation of universities?

In the autumn I was at several events at Harvard or Boston University where students asked such eminent radicals as Howard Zinn ‘What should we do?’ as if some guru from dissident movements of the past could give them the answer, could give them the key to unlock their frustration and powerlessness in the face of a world order alien to their emerging sense of things. Another person on a panel, Chris Marin, a producer on the history channel, told them not to expect some master answer from a sage, but to focus on what they care about, who else cares about it, what they can do about it and to do it every day ‘like exercise’.  Wise words, I thought.

When I was young, I was a 60s generation activist and I wanted to change the world. Much older now, I still do. The ensuing years have brought many disappointments and defeats. It has been difficult to sustain dissidence over the decades. The secret of doing so was to learn not be so all or nothing about it as I was then, to find what I believed and what I could do about it and to do it every day ‘like exercise’.  I haven’t changed the world in any grand way, but perhaps I planted a few seeds that made it just a bit different than it would have been otherwise.

All the news that’s fit to print

December 29, 2009

One of the key questions for modern journalism is about where to draw the line between news which the public have a legitimate right and expectation to know and items that are really just an intrusion into a person’s privacy. And before we go down that road, there is a corresponding question that needs to be asked of us, the general public: what do we want the media to tell us, and are we consistent between what we say in answer to that question and what we are prepared to read or listen to?

Of course the trigger for such a discussion right now would be the report by the Irish television station TV3 that the Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan TD, has pancreatic cancer, a story they released despite the fact that they knew he had not told all of his friends and family and was intending to do so over the Christmas period. As far as I know, TV3 have not stated why they released the news in this way; the only statement from the station that I have come across was from Andrew Hanlon, Director of News at the station, who said: ‘We held it for two days to enable him to inform his family’. Apart from the attempt to portray the station as having behaved sympathetically, I cannot see in that statement why they did it at all. To be fair, it is perfectly correct to report on the Minister’s illness, as his role is crucial in the government and his personal ability to handle the issues facing the economy is a relevant issue; but there can be no real argument that this needed to be known during the Christmas holiday and could not have waited another week.

My own view is that the station got it badly wrong and behaved inappropriately in a very sensitive matter. The issue here is one of timing rather than of substance. And of course the reason why they did it was that they believed that it would provide them with publicity that would be commercially useful to them; the tut-tutting of the other media was not only not a problem, but perhaps was an additional bonus in PR terms. Such news items work for the media because, in the end we, the public, go for it. We may join the ranks of the tut-tutters, but we do so having read or listened to the item.

The problem in all of this is that it is difficult to formulate a set of principles on the public interest in such matters, or indeed on public accountability for those who exercise power, which is clearly set apart from what is just salacious interest. The French media did not report the existence of François Mitterrand’s illegitimate daughter while he was President, although the story was well known. Was that the correct position? Or was it right to suggest, as some British journalists did at the time, that Mitterrand’s marital infidelity should have been fair game because it showed that he could not be trusted to keep his word, and that this was a matter of public interest?

Generally speaking, it is my view that the Irish media behave with a significant degree of responsibility. But even here we may need to develop a better understanding of what constitutes news that should be printed (or broadcast), and what is simply a matter of private concern that the public does not have a right to know.

Hand games

November 19, 2009

For a period during my teens I played a lot of handball and got really rather good at it. For those who don’t know it, the quickest way of describing it would be to say that it’s like a trimmed down version of indoor soccer played with the hands rather than the feet. Back then, I was a prolific goalscorer. And from that vantage point, I can tell you that Thierry Henry’s skills at handball are excellent: his move to control the ball with his hand before scoring was a classic. The only slight problem is that he wasn’t playing handball.

OK, so what am I talking about? If you don’t know the answer you are not Irish and have not seen any Irish news media over the past 24 hours. No harm to you, here’s the brief explanation. Last night the Irish football (soccer) team played its last qualifying game for the World Cup in South Africa next year. It was the second (and final) game against France; the first leg had been played last Saturday in Dublin, and last night (in Paris) Ireland needed to win the game in order to qualify. Things were going well, with an Irish goal courtesy of Robbie Keane, when just before the end the ball fell to French player Henry, who handled it deftly and allowed team mate Gallas to score. The goal should have been disallowed and Ireland should have had a free kick, but the referee didn’t see it and allowed the goal, and Ireland were cheated out of their place in the World Cup.

In case you think this is a partisan account, let me quote Thierry Henry himself:

‘It was a handball, but I’m not the ref. The ball hit my arm, fell in front of me and I played it. The ref allowed it. That’s a question you should ask him.’

Well of course, all sorts of people are asking the referee. And there is now a campaign for a replay. What has happened here is that an admitted foul was the basis for an undeserved French win. It really should not be allowed to stand. The people should rise up in anger! I fear justice will not prevail, but we should never let it go by default.

The death toll

November 17, 2009

Earlier this year Amnesty International issued a report setting out the data on executions worldwide carried out in the criminal process. In 2008 a total of 2,390 people were executed, overwhelmingly in Asia. During the same year, 8,864 people were sentenced to death.

Currently 59 countries still have the death penalty, but only 25 of these actually executed anyone last year. In fact, executions are only part of the problem. Often those sentenced to death then spend considerable periods of time in prison – ‘death row’, as it is often called – in hugely stressful conditions. The fact that from time to time some of them are released, with indications of a mistrial, underscores the ethical hazards of the system. Sometimes we hear that people, including people in positions of authority, are willing to take this kind of risk. The noted English judge Lord Denning said in the 1990s:

‘We shouldn’t have all these campaigns to get the Birmingham Six released if they’d been hanged. They’d have been forgotten and the whole community would have been satisfied.’

It is worth bearing in mind that the Birmingham Six were indeed released, with overwhelming evidence of their innocence.

Even in circumstances as extreme as the Nuremberg trials there appear to have been miscarriages of justice. Nazi German General Alfred Jodl was executed on 16 October 1946 for war crimes, but 7 years later he was posthumously acquitted.

Against this backdrop we should be very wary of the reported comments by the retired President of the Irish High Court,  Mr Justice Richard Johnson, that the death penalty should be ‘revisited’. He suggested that the government should look at its reintroduction, and that the people should be asked (by referendum), and ‘if the people want it they should have it.’

This is one of those situations where it is far from clear that the people should have what they want, assuming that they do indeed want it. The death penalty on the whole these days is considered for murder, but very many homicides are crimes of passion rather than planning, and the death penalty would not in any sense be a deterrent. Furthermore, the costs of managing the system, maintaining those sentenced to death and carrying out the executions are prohibitive, so that even the cost argument doesn’t work. But most of all, criminal justice is not a science, and guilty verdicts are not necessarily secure. The idea that we may execute the innocent, however rarely, should be a conclusive argument against the death penalty.

I confess I would share the alarm of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties that this proposition has been raised again. Calls for the death penalty have the effect of coarsening society and unbalancing the relationship between punishment and justice. We would do better without this issue returning to public debate.

Could this scam really work?

June 27, 2009

No doubt many others receive regular emails promising them millions of Dollars/Pounds/Euros. On the whole the quality of these scams has declined, to the point where they seem so obviously laughable that you would wonder whether it’s worth anyone’s while writing such stuff. Below is one that I received today. Given its incoherent message and illiterate style, and the fact that anyone reading it would be doing so without any prior context, it would seem totally unbelievable to me that anyone at all could possibly take it as genuine. And yet it was written and sent, so presumably the author thought otherwise. Can there really be suckers out there who would fall for this?

For anyone wondering, the objective here is to make you give them a copy of your passport. Everything else is just padding around that.

—–

International credit settlement
Office of the director of operations
Mr Mark Farraday
Overseas Bank International plc.

Attn:beneficiary,

This is to officially inform you that we have verified your contract/inheritance file and found out that why you have not received your payment is because you have not fulfilled the obligations given to you in respect of your contract/inheritance payment.

Secondly we have been informed that you are still dealing with the none officials in the bank all your attempt to secure the release of the fund to you.

We wish to advice you that such an illegal act like this have to stop if you wishes to receive your payment since we have decided to bring a solution to your problem.

Right now we have arranged your payment through our swift card payments Asia Pacific, that is the latest instruction by the new elected President Federal Republic of Nigeria. President Umaru Musa Yar’adua (gcfr) on his speech when swearing in as the president Federal Republic of Nigeria.

This card center will send you an ATM card which you will use to withdraw your money in any ATM machine in any part of the world, but the maximum is (five thousand dollar per day).

So if you like to receive your fund this way please let us know by contacting the customer care service card payment center and also send the following information;

Your full name:

Your phone and fax number

Your age:

Your current occupation:

A copy of your identity card:

Your country of origin:

Your address where you want the ATM to be send:

Customer care service.
Rev. Michael Iwo
Integrated Payment Department.

[followed by ‘contact details’]

Time for an Ethics Forum in Ireland?

May 27, 2009

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.