MORALITY— our character, manners and the way we conduct ourselves with others — is currently the subject of considerable attention, producing in the process much confusion, controversy and cant.
Perhaps this has always has been so. But just some of the topics involving moral dilemmas, publicly focused on recently, include: women’s right to technologically assisted birth at 60; human cloning; euthanasia; arms sales to both sides of a major conflict (India and Pakistan); the use of illegal and legal drugs; immigration policy; the rights of people to feel secure in their own land (Israel/Palestine); the so-called ‘war on terrorism’ (more uninvolved civilians have been killed by Americans in Afghanistan than died in the atrocities of September 11 in America last year); political party funding from pornography; sex education in schools; legal penalties for antisocial behaviour; and imprisoning parents for not ensuring their children attend school.
Many of these particular problems didn’t exist a hundred years ago but there is one constant: the large number of people in any age and time who are prepared to take a firm stance on any such issue. We may think we are capable of reaching ethical decisions. Yet all too often we start not with an open mind, prepared to review and consider the full facts, but from a ‘position’.
So it is that, from a religious stance, for instance, some doctors will view the taking of a life as wrong in any circumstances -— thus ruling out abortion and euthanasia. But our biases may be considerably more subtle than that. Our culture has not yet absorbed the important fact that what we view as ethical behaviour is, in fact, socially conditioned, and that moral philosophy merely articulates the morality of some particular social and cultural standpoint.(1)
In one culture, paying prime attention to the needs of each individual may be considered the ethical thing to do, so that everyone has the same opportunities for education, advancement, happiness and so on; whereas, in another, it might be deemed important to give first consideration to how an individual’s behaviour impacts upon the wider group.
At one time in our own recent history, it was accepted that children should be seen and not heard and physical punishments were the means to keep them in line and help them develop into responsible adults. Now, it is viewed as unethical to discipline a child physically in any way — although we have not yet fully thought through how best to deter unruly, disruptive children from running amok in schools and terrorising teachers.
Institutions established as part of the civilising process, to oversee our needs for education, medical and social care, law and order, commerce, etc, all have codes of ethics, yet, on closer inspection, may have much in common with tyrannies. Their major unacknowledged aim is to preserve an existing power structure. Such bodies commonly employ closed systems of thought and have inward-looking agendas that promote a limited, prejudiced view, in order to protect their power base. The true needs of a situation inevitably come second.
For example, doctors may sometimes close ranks to protect one who is responsible for serious medical negligence that has resulted in a personal catastrophe for a patient; social service departments may place the need for the smooth operation of their systems ahead of the needs of the individuals they are supposed to be helping (thus failing to offer practical help at all); judges may rule according to precedent, rather than in the light of the circumstances of particular cases; and businesses may put the need to satisfy their shareholders before the needs of their customers.
If we are truly to act ethically and be capable of making ethical decisions, we have to operate from knowledge, not from a stance which is socially conditioned or which is prompted by unrecognised emotions such as greed and the desire to maintain power. For that to start to be possible, we have to have a fuller understanding of human nature.