Ethical Questions

One of the disadvantages of being a nun is that many people think there are a number of questions on which one should not express any opinion. It is acceptable to be against injustice, poverty, war and disease, of course — and to say so quite vigorously to anyone who will listen. Among Catholics it is acceptable to be pro-life, though not all would agree that to be pro-life means being against the death penalty or having reservations about the use of military force in certain situations. But to have opinions about politics or economics or the ethics and purposes of business or science, that is a much more questionable proposition. Why should that be so? I agree, for example, that it would be wrong for me to engage in party politics, but does my being a nun mean I should forget everything I ever learned about the world beyond the cloister or forfeit any right to have an opinion because I’m no longer actively involved in business and am definitely not a scientist? I certainly can’t say I’m no longer involved in politics. I have a vote, and I use it. Similarly, the monastery needs goods and services to function, and that involves us in making decisions about the use of resources and the ethics of the decisions we make. And as readers will know, I take a close interest in some scientific questions because they have a direct bearing on my own health.

How far is a politician’s personal morality to be taken into account when assessing his/her fitness for office? Does it matter if a politician lies or makes promises that cannot be fulfilled? If I say, for example, that I find both Mr Trump’s and Mr Johnson’s relationship to the truth somewhat curious, am I overstepping a limit or simply voicing what many others think? Either way, I am expressing an opinion. I ought not to do so lightly or without taking into account the possible consequences, knowing that it would be wrong to harm someone’s reputation. If I argue that making money is not the sole objective of business, am I saying anything very extraordinary? I don’t think so, because I believe that ethical questions are not abstract but affect us all very deeply. In the same way, scientific advances often run ahead of our ability to think about them critically. It is easy to tie ourselves up in knots, especially if we know that we have an imperfect grasp of facts or that the conclusions we come to may be unwelcome.

Take, for example, my question about the ethics and purposes of business. Most people would say that it is wrong to mislead or make false claims while recognizing that a whole industry (advertising) has been built up on the premiss that one can enhance the value of a product by presenting it to the public in the most flattering light. Unfortunately, that may mean ‘massaging the truth’, which is where it becomes a little more complicated. What about a business’s end purpose? Isn’t that to make money for its owners, the shareholders, and those who participate in its activities, the workers? Yes and no. If that were the sole purpose of business, it surely would not matter what a business did. Oughtn’t business in some way to contribute to the common good, and the way in which it does so ought to be consistent with that good? Given the number of companies scrambling to ensure that they have a greener footprint than they did ten years ago, that seems to be a message that has got through. But who decides these things or enables businesses to make ethical decisions?

With that question, I think we come to the heart of the matter. Ethics committees are only as effective as the people who constitute them. In recent years we have encountered a number of difficult cases in the world of science, where individuals have undertaken experiments because they could, not because there was an ethical argument for doing so. Many of us haven’t even begun to think about the kind of questions that the advance of A.I. will pose, but we can’t close our eyes to the fact that we do need to think about them. Whether we are Aristotelians, Kantians, Utilitarians or whatever, both as individuals and as a society, we need to consider how our personal values affect our existence, how we arrive at ethical decisions and the part those decisions play in both our present and future. I don’t think anyone should be excluded from that process — not even annoying nuns like me.


23 thoughts on “Ethical Questions”

  1. Amen, dear Sister Catherine. The Lord sent you to us all for a purpose. To stop us in our avaricious tracks and to consider what life is all about. To be kinder to each other, whoever we are. May the Lord bless and heal you. Peace and love be with you xx.

  2. Oh sister Catherine, you are never annoying, you’re a wise voice of sanity in the church and in the world, and, I thing responsible for keeping many feminist women in the church as you represent the best of it.

  3. You are spot on, dear Sr Catherine. Someone has to ask the tiresome questions, to speak truth to power, to be a thorn in the side of the ungodly…it doesn‘t matter how it is described really. You have a platform which allows you to reach far more people than most. You will surely stimulate a sleepy conscience here and there, which must be good. Carry on being annoying!

  4. Dear Sister Catherine,

    As someone from a non-conformist background, christened and confirmed into the CofE with a Catholic education who now follows no religion; I, always find that you give me food for thought!

    With all good wishes,

  5. You have a lovely voice. Thank you for your thought provoking commentary.
    I look forward to your daily prayers for people around the world.
    I pray that God will bless you and your health improves. Much love,Joanne

  6. Thank you for your words of wisdom. You so often say what I have thought but cannot express. God restore you to full health, and the Spirit continues to inspire you. Please pray for me as I recover from concussion.

  7. As a voice of integrity and thoughtfulness, others may try to silence you as they have their own agendas which could be anything from envy of a clear listened to voice, fear of such voices to disagreement on subjects that you express yourself about.
    Don’t be silent or make yourself smaller, or more ordinary Sr Catherine. We need voices such as yours to stimulate thought action and conscience in the rest of us.

  8. Not sure why it would be wrong to indulge in party politics. If you believe that a political party, guided by God, provides the best hope for humankind, should you not nail your colours to the mast?

    • By convention, members of the clergy and religious do not endorse political parties. It could be construed as exerting undue pressure on others. I am happy to follow the convention.

  9. I find it refreshing that a person in a position to contemplate issues that have a direct effect on our well being, both physical and spiritual, is sharing her thoughts about such matters in an open forum like this. Thank you Sister. It strikes me that difficulties arise when we adhere to our opinions and vigorously defend them without keeping an open mind to alternative views. “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free”, nothing there about “massaging the truth” for our own convenience.

  10. Of course we have a right to view our opinions. Did not our forefathers and mothers give there lifes so we could?
    Lest we forget? I will never forget! Values are important.
    Blessings dear esister, I’m with you on this!

  11. The Truth Will Make Thee Fret.

    Terry Pratchett’s knowing ‘typo’ is as true as the ‘free’ slogan. I try not to be fretful, but I am fond of the truth. As thee is, Dame, as thee is. Truth just has to be put up with; no matter what a demagogue denies it. It is the Ground of our Being. Speak it as always, Catherine. The Light Within, whch is Christ Jesus, shines so brightly, knows the Truth. Stick with that and we’ll be right!

  12. I agree with all the others. Your writtings are always wonderful & thought provoking; not annoying. Lord please restore sisters’ health, she is such a blessing to so many.

  13. I for one am pleased that there is not an official “Christian Democrat party” in the UK, as for instance ruled Italy for several decades. Or a party officially endorsed by the churches. Instead we have devout (and not so devout) Catholics and Anglicans in all parties. Messy – yes. Intensley annoying when someone of the same faith has very different political views compared to one’s own.
    But better than the alternative I think.
    And yes, this is a very fine blog that engages such a wide range of people. Long may it continue.

    • Thank you. I’d want to add how blessed we are to have members of the Free Churches, Quakers, Jews, Hindus, Muslims and humanists of various descriptions, etc., who care and think deeply about ethical questions, as well as Catholics and Anglicans.

  14. Just caught up with this! One of the questions I used to regularly ask the CEO of the organisation I last worked for was “what considerations other than money are taken into account when planning/making decisions?” I never had an answer…. but when I left he thanked me for “challenging me”. I expect he was glad to see the back of me, but how important it is to keep asking the uncomfortable questions!
    I love your turn of phrase as ever. “relationship with the truth” – so different from “liar”
    Welcome back Sister…. I’m about to pinch some of your blog on tolerance for a sermon on Sunday!

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