Posted tagged ‘morality’

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.

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.

Religion and sex

September 2, 2008

As we all know, US presidential candidate John McCain last week announced his choice of vice-presidential running mate, and it is Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. One of the first things we learnt about her is that she is profoundly religious; and when that was unpacked a little more, it appeared to mean chiefly that she was anti-abortion and held a traditional moral outlook. In fact, at first I was unable to discover anything about her religion that was unrelated to sex, nor could I see anyone asking questions about her religiosity that might have involved, say, her views on poverty or world peace.

I am myself a member of the Anglican Church – the Church of Ireland in my case. And as many will know, the Anglican Communion worldwide has been tearing itself apart of late. The issue is not the meaning and significance of the sacraments, or the reform of the liturgy, or the question whether we are living up to the command by Jesus to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and visit those in prison. The issue is homosexuality.

Church membership and participation has declined enormously in the developed world, and those outside the ecclesial structures must be wondering what on earth (because I don’t think it’s heaven) we are up to. We seem to be obsessed, not just with sex, but with the exact and proper amount of condemnation we want to direct at those whose sexual lifestyles we dislike. We trawl scripture with a tooth-comb to find obscure references to these pet hates so as to justify our obsessions, and ignore the spirit of the New Testament along the way.

I am exaggerating a little, of course. The spiritual lives of many churchgoers are very different from the above caricature, and the work of people such as Desmond Tutu has enriched the world. But we risk losing all of that if we appear to be single issue believers nursing our phobias, rather than the tolerant, charitable people I believe we are meant to be.

It’s time we re-arranged the agenda.

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.