Posted tagged ‘ethics’

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.

A moral perspective?

December 22, 2009

The news media in Ireland have, over the past week, been full of angry statements about two issues with a serious ethical dimension. The first of these concerns the ‘will-they-won’t-they’  procrastination of various Roman Catholic bishops in Ireland on whether to resign as a result of the role they played in the Dublin archdiocese when it was busily covering up child sexual abuse by priests. The second concerns the truly extraordinary goings-on in Listowel, Co Kerry, where a significant proportion of the townspeople seem to be anxious to show solidarity with a man convicted of a sexual assault. There are two aspects that link these stories: one is the role of priests, with Fr Sean Sheehy being amongst those in Listowel who supported the perpetrator; the other is the fact that such things seem to be happening in part because we have no real idea of what constitutes an acceptable moral code.

Take the Most Revd. Eamonn Walsh, one of the auxiliary bishops of Dublin who was in office for some of the time when cases of sexual abuse were being covered up (but who was not directly criticised in the report on the Dublin archdiocese). There have been calls on him (and on the other bishops in office in Dublin at the time) to resign. He has resisted this, and on December 18 he stated that while he might have to go if he had become a ‘block on the gospel’ (I’m not absolutely sure what that means, by the way), but that if this happened it would be an ‘injustice’. Asking for someone’s resignation always raises difficult issues. But here the bishop is showing a sense of personal indignation at his own probable fate, sending out the signal that the genuinely huge injustice of the sexual abuse has still not been accepted for what it is. In fact, I had been unsure about what should happen to Bishop Walsh, but once he made this statement I began to think he had to go.

Amidst all this mess, it is at least heartening that the Dublin diocese now has an archbishop who commands respect and who has been doing the right thing in seeking to clean it up. And I feel for the many good priests and faithful who have been let down so terribly.

And how do you even begin to talk about the behaviour witnessed in Listowel?

And yet, all the moral outrage that has filled the letters pages of the newspapers seems to me to be missing something: that these men (and it’s all men) gained their ethical compass in the same way that the rest of Irish society did. I remember being absolutely stunned at a student debate in Trinity College in 1975 at which a prominent Roman Catholic priest said that Irish catholics were uniquely privileged because they would never have to ask searching questions about morality: all the answers had already been provided for them and were ready to be displayed to them by the church whenever the occasion required it. The topic of the debate was contraception, but anything else would also have prompted the same ethical framework. And now that these unique privileges have been lost or rejected, we don’t know where we stand. Who is telling us now about right and wrong? And why is it so difficult to get it right?

My concern is that the academic community has made no major contribution to this debate. There have been plenty of academics to discuss child abuse, sexual misuse of power, and lots of other topics. But who has made any really visible contribution to a debate about morality and ethics in modern Ireland? Why is our academic community so uninvolved in what is perhaps the defining question of our era?

I don’t really know the answer, but I hope that DCU’s Institute of Ethics, established a couple of years ago, will play a leading role as it develops its agenda. But I also hope that the academic community more generally will get active: not as a new community of moralisers, but as an academy that can set out the issues we must face if we are to be a genuinely ethical society at all levels.

What now for science?

July 24, 2008

In my last post on this site I mentioned that, for my final school exams in Germany (the Abitur), I was tested orally in Philosophy and Physics.  In my Physics oral I had to conduct an experiment measuring radiation with an ionization chamber. Everything went very well, and I was able to demonstrate what I needed to demonstrate. The examining panel of 25 or so contained about six scientists – all the others were teachers of other subjects. Afterwards the French teacher (who was one of those present) told me that the scientists had been hugely excited by my presentation. ‘I couldn’t see what the fuss was about, myself,’ he added; ‘after all, nothing happened that I could see; the dial on an instrument moved, and that was it.’

At the time I was very good at Physics, and my teacher spent some time trying to persuade me to study it at university. But in the event I first became a banker (I have the German qualification of ‘Bankkaufmann’), and then a lawyer, and then a lecturer in industrial relations. My Physics teacher kept in touch for a while, but he thought that I had betrayed the profession by not pursuing my potential. ‘Any fool or scoundrel can be a lawyer,’ he wrote in his last letter to me; and of course he was quite right.

Of course society needs people with a whole array of experiences, qualifications and skills, and not everyone has to be a scientist. But on the other hand, as we assess the issues that are likely to require urgent attention in the near future, many of them require us to have scientists so that we may address them satisfactorily. These issues include the problems we face in public health, in transport, in communications, in protecting the environment, in developing sustainable energy, in securing adequate food supplies for the world, in protecting endangered species of animals and plants, and so forth.

In the meantime, many developed countries (including Ireland) have experienced a drop in the number of young people wanting to study science at university. Furthermore – and these matters are related – those with science degrees often find that in their places of employment there is a ‘glass ceiling’ not unlike that which affects women. Scientists disproportionately rarely make it into the top levels of business and management, and even when they are successful they often earn much less than those with other qualifications, and indeed sometimes than those with none.

There are no instant answers to these problems, but there are some things we know we need to do. We need to make research careers more attractive; we need to ensure that schoolchildren are able to learn science with the help of proper, state-of-the art science equipment and laboratories; we need to address the gender imbalance amongst those studying science; we need to ensure that science is taught by those with genuine expertise and a real passion for their subject; and we need to ensure that mathematics is taught well at school. These are just some of the things we need to get right.

In Ireland, the key problems were assessed in a comprehensive way by the Task Force on the Physical Sciences, chaired by my predecessor as DCU President, Danny O’Hare. The report was published in 2002, and while it identified a number of problems and issues, it also concluded that these could be overcome by prompt action. Six years later there has not even been a formal government response to the report, though one was promised in 2004.

It is fair to say, however, that governments in Ireland and elsewhere have acknowledged the importance of science to our future, and funding to support science research in particular has been generous. But this funding will become ineffective – and indeed hard to spend at all – unless we ensure that the pipeline of world class scientists grows and is then maintained. While this is not an easy objective to fulfil, it is not an impossible one, either, and we know fairly well what needs to be done. We just have to get on and do it.

In the meantime, in this age of interdisciplinarity there are also many new opportunities for interaction between the sciences and the humanities. To link my last two posts, the topic of ethics in science is becoming more and more significant, as society seeks to ask deeper questions about which discoveries are worth pursuing and which ones need more cautious treatment. But successful and innovative science is something we will need in plentiful supply if we are to be confident about the future of this planet. The moving dial on the instrument is telling us things that are vital to our future.

Ethics in business

July 24, 2008

I am constantly amazed at the low level of interest seen in Ireland in broader questions of ethics. We seem to equate making a judgement on ethical issues with calling for someone’s head, as if ethics is just a question of condemning what others do wrong, rather than what kind of society we feel we ought to have. This has produced some stunning lapses of morality in our business world.

It is time that we elevated discussions about ethics above the level of personal judgement and condemnation, and looked instead at what kind of society we want, and how we would expect to see that reflected in the actions and decisions of people at work – and not just in top management positions. My university has recently established a Institute for Ethics which will focus on such issues and which, I hope, will stimulate a national debate. The time for that has come.

Finding our ethical compass

June 28, 2008

This morning I attended a meeting here in DCU at which our new Professor of Ethics, Dr Bert Gordijn, posed some very interesting questions. What, he asked, are the key ethical issues being debated publicly in Ireland, and who is leading the debate? And what are the taboo issues that are not being debated, and why not? This prompted a lively and interesting discussion amongst those present, and one of the recurring themes was whether in Ireland we really debated ethical issues at all.

All of this is worth dwelling on for a minute. We all know that the Ireland of 2008 is a very different country from that of 1978 or even 1988. Back in those days there were strong institutional influences – chiefly the church (or churches) – that fairly successfully entrenched, or appeared to entrench, a code for both private and public life. This code was strongest in what were euphemistically called ‘social issues’, which were really issues of sexual morality. 

This apparently dominant framework came under pressure, first from the various referendum campaigns of the 1980s on divorce and the right to life; the referendum results appeared to reinforce the old order, but not quite overwhelmingly, and the debates opened to public view alternative perspectives that got significant air time. There then followed the era of scandals, in business and in public life and later the church. And all that pushed us into the age of the tribunals of inquiry, which revealed all sorts of doubtful conduct and significantly enriched a large group of lawyers along the way, mostly at the taxpayer’s expense.

In the 1990s I was working in England, and I remember returning to Ireland one June early in that decade on an Aer Lingus plane, and as we were coming in to land at Dublin airport, the pilot (who was in jovial mood) quipped that we could be confident we were landing in Ireland because it was raining heavily and because the newspaper headlines were all about the Beef Tribunal. And in fact, any visitor to Ireland since then can have been confident that they would be able to read about this or that tribunal of inquiry during any given year, and probably still for some time to come. It’s hard to move on.

But is this how we need to behave in order to get a grip on ethical issues in Ireland? It often seems to me that we have started to see ethics through tabloid spectacles, and that we think morality is largely about identifying somebody else’s mistakes and then passing judgement on them. Immorality in this frame of reference is what ‘they’ have done, not what we do or what we tolerate. And so, while we still obsess about what happened in the planning of Quarryvale or whose money was used to buy a house in Drumcondra, we almost completely ignore much wider issues about business ethics, poverty, human rights, racism, and so forth; and this is probably because tackling these issues forces us to take a good look at ourselves, rather than pursuing the much more congenial pastime of condemning others. And despite my legal background, I don’t think that paying large fees to lawyers at the tribunals compensates for these omissions.

I am of the view that these tribunals have long outlived their usefulness, and far from helping us to create a more ethical society are actually serious obstacles to that end. We need to re-establish a sense of community that includes some shared understanding of ethics, an understanding that needs to be relevant to our own conduct in our daily lives. We need to be confident that those in positions of responsibility act in a morally upright manner, but we also need to be sure that we are doing so also, and that we have a society in which ethical behaviour is reinforced and valued. It is my hope that DCU’s Centre for Ethics and its new Professor will play a key role in that task.