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.

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Children: Gift of God, Human Right, or Lifestyle Choice?

The announcement that the Coalition Government looks set to back the introduction of a three-person IVF technique raises all kinds of ethical and, I imagine, legal issues. Most of us have neither the science nor the philosophical training to engage with the experts, despite the best efforts of some to explain what is involved and why it will create a storm (see, for example, the BBC’s offering here.) On the one hand there is the prospect of eliminating serious genetic disorders, on the other there is the prospect of altering the genetic make-up of future generations in ways that we can, as yet, not predict. While one’s heart goes out to those who have suffered the effects of mitochondrial diseases, one’s head says, ‘Wait. It isn’t just a case of eliminating disease. More is at stake here, and we need to think through the question very carefully.’

A recent comment from a reader helped me to understand why discussion of this matter is so difficult in a society which no longer has a common theological or moral ground. She said, in effect, that children are no longer seen as a gift from God but as a lifestyle choice: one has, or does not have children, according to personal decision. I think one could go further and say that some see having children as a human right. If one is infertile, or too old to conceive naturally, then science can come to one’s aid because one has a right to have children. The Catholic position is, of course, very clear. God is in charge, not us. Human rights are a much more complex area than many suppose. Medical research makes many things possible that our ancestors could only dream of, and no one is suggesting that combating disease or making life better for those whose minds or bodies have been injured is in any way is anything but a good thing. However, the fact that something is possible does not necessarily make it right. If we are to make wise decisions, we need to be clear in our thinking. Maybe this morning we could spend a little time thinking through our attitude to children. Gift of God, human right or lifestyle choice? The answer may be less straightforward than we’d like.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Law and Life

The murder of Stephen Lawrence and the report of the Commission on Assisted Dying both highlight, in different ways, the difficulty many of us have in thinking through the relationship between law and life. We no longer agree on the ethical basis of society, which makes it more difficult still.

I was revolted by Stephen Lawrence’s murder but I must confess to uneasiness about some reactions to the Dobson/Norris trial. It is partly that I have difficulty with the dropping of the ‘double jeopardy’ principle which allowed the trial to take place in the first place and the outpouring of visceral hatred in the name of justice which followed*. I don’t see that murdering someone whose skin colour is different is any ‘worse’ than murdering someone whose skin colour is the same — and that holds whether the skin colour we are talking about is black, brown, or white.

Are we in danger of saying, for example, black equals good, white equals bad, or seeing racism where we should perhaps see rather brutality and lawlessness? Have we lost our sense of society being greater than the sum of its parts? Or are we taking the idea of ‘positive discrimination’ to its logical conclusion and favouring some more than others, instead of maintaining that we are all equal under the law? Perhaps a lawyer would comment on this point.

I don’t believe, however, that law is something we can leave to lawyers alone. The laws a society makes for itself, the way in which it applies them, the penalties it exacts for breaking them, are all shapers of that society. They have a directive force even when they don’t affect us individually with compulsive force. What happens when emotion comes into play? Is there a danger that we react to the emotion rather than to the law? It will be interesting to see how the Dobson/Norris trial affects the way in which the Metropolitan Police deals with future murder cases. It will also be interesting to see how the various groups and action bodies that work to eliminate racism deal with future incidents.

What of the Commission on Assisted Dying? It is being reported in the media as a panel of experts which has concluded there is a ‘strong case’ for legislation to allow assisted suicide to those who are terminally ill. It was apparently funded by those who are working for a change in the law, which, if true, calls in question its claim to being objective. Less contentious because demonstrable may be the fact that Canon James Woodward has dissented from the Commission’s conclusions, and the BMA refused to take part at all.

How we think about life will inevitably be translated into law. Murder and suicide are different ways of ending life, but they both assume a right I genuinely believe we don’t have. Can we condemn murder but permit ‘assisted dying’ without getting into a strange moral quagmire where law no longer protects the weak but serves rather to advance the interests of the strong — those who can argue better than we can, or who can make decisions they have decided we can’t or shouldn’t? Ultimately, all these questions are personal, not just abstractions. Is my life as a white woman worth less than yours as a black man or either of our lives worth more than hers as an unborn child or his as an octogenarian? Remember, how we answer those questions will be reflected in our laws. What a responsibility we  bear!

*I am not, in any way, disputing the verdict. Like everyone else, I would like to see all who are guilty of his murder brought to trial and sentenced for their terrible crime.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail