The UK government has announced that there are going to be changes to Religious Studies A Level to make it more challenging in line with other A Level developments. So what do I think we should be thinking about regarding ethics?
Ethics has long been a mainstay of the A Level offering a theoretical and practical rigour but there have been some clear problems in recent years that need addressing:
1) Crude simplification of ethical theories that dislocate them from the philosophy and leave them as a seeming random list of principles. So, for example, many learn to recite Kant’s categorical imperative without realising how it relates to his philosophy of the person and that it is his philosophy of the person that leads his thought to reject utilitarianism. So we need to have questions that really dig into to the theory and not simply seek to test theory through application.
2) Crude use of testing theory through application. This is the kind of question that says apply utilitarianism to war, for example. Of course a particular war or other ethical issue with some details would make an interesting case, if we had case studies, but the tendency to simply name an issue topic in a question encourages the issues outlined in 1, above, and also leads to a poor treatment of the ethical debate surrounding ethical issues in their own right.
The only way to deal with 1 and 2 is to have better questioning in the exam papers and better marking by people confident in the literature, beyond the summaries of revision guides. We need questions that get candidates to explore the frameworks in ethical theories critically, as well as look at issues.
3) what about ethical problem solving? To encourage innovative deeper thought, I propose an element of the exam which poses ethical problems to solve for candidates to draw from across their religious and philosophical thought to resolve. This would help avoid the boring reciting of standardised answers and reveal depth of understanding.
So case studies, case studies, case studies…. This would be a fine innovation for a levels.
4) should we keep ethics? Of course! But I would say that as I write ethics books. But more importantly than my own self interest, with so much RE devoted to what I see as phenomenological features of religion, and so many problems in life related to moral problems, I believe ethics is simply too important not to keep centre stage as an option for A Level RS. Personally I would love to see more scripture studied at A level, and schools do have the option to combine a philosophy paper with a textural one. So that option balance should remain.
As part of a study tour-cum-family break, I find myself in the most wonderful bookshop I have ever visited: City Lights in San Francisco. This is a little gem associated with the 1960s free speech and revolutionary movements that continues to provide an astonishing selection of inspirational creative and philosophical thought. And here I finally cross a threshold and read some Badiou. I pick up his book Ethics: an essay on the understanding of evil (Verso, 2001) and find it immediately engaging. An important (the most important?) French philosopher of the present age, he is both informed by and a critic of Kantian ethics so at once my hunch is confirmed – I really should have read him earlier. So now I am beginning to recompense for my former failings. Peter Hallward’s good introduction (he is also the translator) pin points some interesting features of the links between Kant and Badiou. Badiou, like Kant, separates moral decision making from sensibility. We should not be relying on sentiment, feeling or emotion to inform our moral decisions. Also like Kant, Badiou thinks moral actions are only legitimate when they are based on the universal. However, Badiou and Kant part company. Badiou sees every ethical obligation as particular, exceptional and subjective. This flows from his general philosophy that knowledge is objective, but structured by those who dominate the particular situation and that moral actions, those linked to a fidelity to truth, seek to subvert that dominance. There is no general ethic, but instead an ethic of singular truths. The particularity of an ethical obligation results from human experience which is situational and particular. So while Kantian ethics has a legalistic ethics linked to duty, obligation and conformity, which means moral behaviour is for the sake of the law, such connections are rejected by Badiou. That’s how Hallward describes Badiou’s ethics so now I need to read it and try to unpack what all this means!
There is of course a lot more – notably that Badiou rejects ethics of otherness, an ethic based on respect for the other. I think Badiou takes an interesting position of critique against human rights, as they are often interpreted.
One of the debates after the opening ceremony of the London Olympics centres around the fact that the 7000 propel who performed all did so for nothing. So the question of motivation is quite striking. The UK economy has been thrown into damaging recession in large part to irresponsible behaviour by people motivated by personal profit bonuses. The London Olympics opening ceremony shows that people can do great things without such motivation. During a news discussion programme, one writer for the ceremony suggested that perhaps some people are motivated by money, but there are better people who can do better things. These people need higher motivations. The ceremony made this point with its bow to the creator of the Internet, British inventor Tim Berners-Lee, who wanted the whole world to benefit from his creation, and so gave it away for nothing.
The political philosopher Sandel, points to an interesting experiment which raises a similar question. During a fundraising event in Israel some young people are given an inspirational speech before being sent out to raise money. Others are told they will be given a portion of the total amount their raise themselves. You might expect those motivated by self reward to have been more effective at raising money. In fact, those who received a motivational talk raised far more than those who had a performance bonus.
This leads to a fascinating possibility – for human beings, belief in the virtue and value of what you are doing motivates people to do and be better than individual acquisition.
Today we hear that a number of leading banks, notably Barclay’s bank, have been lying to the markets about their inter-bank lending rate, a key rate to give a false impression of the strength of the bank. This has gone on throughout the financial crisis. This manipulation was done to make money for the bankers at the expense of the businesses and individuals who took loans. It was a greed driven activity.
It would appear that banking is ethics free. No resignations today, no sign that this is deemed illegal. No comment from the head of Barclay’s. It is hard to imagine such malpractice being allowed to go unpunished in the public sector and hard to imagine that a teacher or a headteacher being allowed to keep their job after systematically lying, fixing their pupils or school grades for instance. At a university if a student lies about their work, for instance claiming something about their work which is not true, they can be censured or even thrown out. A lecturer who manipulates student grades to help with a promotion can be disciplined, perhaps sacked. Today we hear of fines but who has taken responsibility for this? No one so far.
The professional expectations found in public sector professions seem to be absent from the financial sector, and yet it is education and health among other public sector bodies that are bearing the brunt of government cutbacks because of the bailout of the banks. It seems there is one rule for the public sector and another for the world of banking. It would appear that the world of banking is free from being encumbered by ethics. Is there any sign that the Government intends to change this? What major reforms have been put in place to bring about a more ethical and responsible financial sector? I can think of none. There seems to be a great deal of change in the public sector instead. What major reforms have been announced? Hardly any.
There is an ethical crisis at the heart of our most important industry. For a long time the mantra that what ever makes a profit is acceptable has dominated the industry. ‘Greed is good’ as Michael Douglas said when playing the corrupt trader in the 1980s film Wall Street. Greed has been encouraged and rewarded and it has led to the crisis of our generation.
At present, there seems to be little alternative to this mantra and that explains the silence about how to change the financial sector. It is as if we have run out of ideas. Perhaps we need a new big idea.
This week, unless the TV stations change their mind, the F1 race in Bahrain will be transmitted. Will you be watching? There has been some discussion about the human rights situation in Bahrain including ongoing demonstrations against the race within thin the country. Do you know what is going on in Bahrain? To find out visit the following pages. To watch is a moral choice.
Greg Smith wrote a letter of resignation but unlike most employees, rather than sending it to his boss, he sent it to the New York Times. The Times might not have printed it, where it not for the company he worked for – Goldman Sacks, a world leading financial institution – and the fact that he was an executive director. In his letter, “Why I am leaving Goldman Sacks” he did not hold back. He describes a place that he once loved, having lost its moral compass. To be a leader in the firm means
“persuading your clients to invest in the stocks or other products that we are trying to get rid of because they are not seen as having a lot of potential profit”
and getting your clients to,
“trade whatever will bring the biggest profit to Goldman” even if it means getting your clients products they won’t really want.
Mr Smith may simply be expresses the negative feelings that any former employee might feel on leaving a company they no longer want to work for, perhaps because they do not feel properly rewarded. But one cannot help wonder if anything has changed in the global finance industry. Clearly a lot has changed in the economies of the world, and major changes are rippling through many sectors of public services in the UK. But are the right kind of values, attitudes, virtues or professional ethics being encouraged in the firms that will determine whether the world will face yet another financial meltdown, is not at all clear. We might have expected a major set of changes to the regulation of the financial services and banking industry, after what has happened. But such changes are not at all clear. More than that, do we accept that professional ethics, codes of conduct and moral considerations have a place in business and professional life?
Has it become up fashionable to make moral comments? Is it somehow out of place to say when you think something should not be the way it is, or to argue that a certain characteristic is desirable, over and above others? Only time will tell whether or not the culture of greed and unrestrained and unreasonable risk taking that drove the economies of the world to the edge of the cliff, have in any way be seriously challenged or curtailed. But for the present, Greg Smith’s letter gives little comfort for such a hope.
In the Guardian, Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association argued that schools should teach morality for the here and now, and not out of some kind of religious life hereafter consideration. On the face of it, to teach children who may come from any or no religious background a kind of morality that has reference to religious beliefs seems unreasonable. After all, surely you have to have some confidence in the basis of those morals and if you do not share the beliefs then it would hardly lead to a resilient moral education.
What Copson is really worried about may be that we limit our behaviour, in negative ways, because of the fear of hell, or out of a desire to please some deity. He clearly believes this is not a good way to live.
However, there might be reasons to question this. First, is it not at all reasonable to consider how we may look back on our actions afterwards, even towards or at the end of our life, when thinking about the big decisions in life? Surely I will want to feel that I have made decisions I am content with. I will surely feel some consolation if I can look back with some sense of having done the right thing. This means it is not enough to consider the here and now when making moral decisions. Perhaps a kind of “God’s perspective on our life” is a way of lifting us out of the moment when we make moral decisions to think beyond the immediate. Is this really such an unhelpful thing when making moral decisions? To have some consideration for how our future selves will view current behaviour is one way of avoiding impulsive action that we may later regret.
More generally, Copson refers to the separation of moral education and religious education, but it is not clear that moral education can be taught or understood without reference to beliefs. Human rights themselves can be seen as things people belief in. Values such as equality, dignity, liberty and compassion and ideas that are believed in and inspire moral conduct. It is not clear that there are any moral systems which do not have some reference to beliefs of some sort. In some cases these are beliefs about the divine, but in many other cases it is beliefs about virtues, values and beliefs about what makes a good live.
While it would be unwise to teach British children exclusively from the moral canon of a single religious tradition, it would be equally unwise to teach them morality without reference to belief. It is hard to see how such a thing could be possible.
Better, to teach about the moral understandings found in the many ways of life experienced by humankind, religious and philosophical and especially those understandings that are commonly held by many, or all, such as compassion and dignity.
The news is still changing after the dreadful Norway attack which BBC is now reporting has left over 80 dead, mostly the young students and the Labour rally on an Island outside Oslo. Increasingly it would appear that this is a far right extremist attack, by someone known to have anti Islamic and anti multicultural views. It is perhaps closer to Oklahoma than the 9/11 Militant Islamist.
The last decade of the 20th century and the early stage of the 21st have been marked by extremist acts of terror which show that we as a species have lost none of our propensity to produce individuals who take innocent human lives to make political points. The terror which has struck at the heart of Norway, and which has struck in such a devastating way, the politically interested youth is a late manifestation of this. It shows the callous and curious tendency for extremist groups of contrasting political opinions, such as right wing fascists and Islamist militants, to borrow strategies for one another. The use of a mass bombing in a city centre has echoes of the IRA bomb in Manchester and Oklahoma. But the use of a double attack is something seen by Islamist extremists and mass shootings echo the Islamist attack on a hotel in Mumbai.
It is not only in the tactics that such extremists share, but also the total disregard to the dignity of the human person in the pursuit of a political statement. Yet the expression of concern for the dignity of the human person is the fundamental political and ethical responsibility – the concern for the other, rather than the sole interest of the self. Militant extremist attacks cloak themselves in some greater common task, some sophisticate communal movement, but this obscures a radical individualism that totalises self interest and the self orientated view of the world. It is an act of utter selfishness, that feeds an overblown sense of self importance and significance; a grotesque murder dressed as a political statement to be lapped up by a global media.
FIFA is having difficulty with it’s ethics. It would appear that the billion dollar industry that is world football, is not as transparent, honest and moral as it ought to be and perhaps things like the decision making process that chose the lucky recipient of the world cup, may not have been done ‘on the level’. While FIFA struggles to keep it’s closed operation from spilling over into the clear light of day, and Mr Blatter calls out ‘problem, what problem’, the upstanding bastions of truth and justice, Sony and Coca-cola, have decided that they might not want to appear to be associated with corruption at the heart of the world’s favorite sport. Let’s hope we can rely on market forces to clean up the shadier side of … well, market forces.
Ratko Mladic is a wanted war criminal who has been on the run for 16 years, accused of overseeing genocide, the killing of thousands of Muslim men and boys in concentration camps, and the oversight of systematic rape of Bosnian Muslim women. These killings and crimes against humanity, were carried out within Europe, within a couple of hours flight from UK airports. Finally, after living in hiding for many years, justice has caught up with him. For years it seems that he was protected but at last it seems as though there is a chance that his many many victims will see him tried for what he is accused of. Today is a good day.