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New Internationalist Magazine Editor, Vanessa Baird, Discusses How She Formed Her Ethics


How are we to live?

question mark graphic

When I was seven years old and preparing for my First Communion, the nun taking the class got us to close our eyes and imagine the state of our souls.

I knew that there was no way mine could be clean. Already there was the deeply etched mark left by original sin -our inheritance from Adam and Eve (thank you Adam, thank you Eve).

But apart from that? How bad was I really? Just how smudgy was my soul? I set about recalling my sins. The dark smudges appeared thick and fast and began to spread like spots of ink on blotting paper. Soon there were hardly any light bits left.

I remember becoming aware of the other children around me, their eyes obediently closed. I wondered what state their souls were in. The child in front of me, for instance, whose hair always fell neatly and whose socks stayed up. I bet she had a clean soul. Original sin plus another two or three manageable specks.

But, we were taught, confession and holy communion could take away all those stains. However bad you were you could come out with a clean soul, providing you admitted all your sins, were genuinely sorry, and promised not to commit them again.

This was very appealing to me. I enthusiastically compiled a list of all the sins I could possibly have committed - and some intriguing ones I'd only heard of like 'bigamy' and 'adultery' - to cover me for anything I forgot in my next confession.

Each Friday I came out of the confession box with a clean soul - and it remained that way for all of ten seconds. For wicked thoughts are wicked deeds, we were told. And my imagination was constantly throwing up ideas of naughty things to do. My soul never stood a chance. I'd sinned before I was out of the church gates every time.

Today, when I hear people using words like 'moral' or 'ethical' I have two immediate gut reactions. First, I automatically assume they are talking about something unattainable - a few goody goodies might aspire to such an ideal but the rest of us might as well pack up and go home. Second, I ask myself: who the hell do these people think they are, trying to tell others how they should live their lives?

There is an awful lot of it about - people telling other people what they should and shouldn't do. Whatever the culture, humans have a tremendous and abiding interest in morality, only exceeded by our interest in immorality. Much popular entertainment - be it Brazilian soap operas, Australian tabloidjournalism or Hollywood action movies - is fixated on good and bad behaviour. We are invited to join in the judgement of characters and their corrupt, violent,sleazy, lecherous or even, sometimes, honourable actions.

This gives us a sense of security. Even when we are following more serious news stories there is that moment of satisfaction that comes when we can identify who are the goodies and who are the baddies. It's often quite inappropriate. During the height of Somalia's civil war, for example, the West and most of its media backed one warlord against another for no particular reason other than that it's always easier to divide up people into 'good' and 'bad'.

But just how much does judging others help with the crucial and infinitelycomplex question: 'How are we to live'? Or, perhaps more relevant: 'How am I to live?' Could it be that the clamour of moralizing voices drowns out any chance for genuine, reflective, ethical inquiry?

We are told that we are living in times of moral crisis, that we have lostthe more certain and orderly world of yesteryear.

If the 1980s could be dubbed the decade of 'greed' the 1990s seem to be that of 'uncertainty'. The reasons given for this uncertainty are vast and varied - ranging through Pre-Millennial Tension, Post-Modern scepticism, decline inreligion, collapse of the nuclear family, corruption in public life and the endof the Cold War.

The last of these is more plausible than at first it may seem. The vacuum left by the collapse of Communism has been filled not by a new socialism but bythe single pseudo-ideology of the free market. The market makes us and unmakes us. It makes us into consumers first and foremost. But it then unmakes us by taking our jobs away. The globalized free-market economy chases cheap labour around the world, while heralding the death of the idea of 'a job for life'. For many unemployed people without the means to be consumers, the question 'how am Ito live?' rapidly becomes 'what is there to live for?'

Viva viva apathy!

Some people - especially young people without hope of ever getting a job - have responded by taking to crime. Burglary and drug-dealing are often the professions most readily available for today's young would-be worker of the industrialized world.

Other, generally older, people have taken to crime in a different way:either in the law-enforcement business or scoring cheap political points with 'get tough' policies. The social crisis caused by this perceived rise indelinquency has unleashed a wave of moralizing. This brings with it a call for areturn to traditional values and the nuclear family, 1950s style, where motherstays at home and brings up children while father goes out to work and keeps the whole family in order. The many citizens who do not fit this picture -homelessbeggars, single mothers, difficult children, working mothers - have become easy targets for politicians in many parts of the globe.

In this climate sexual morality has staged a takeover. The growing interest in sex scandals in many parts of the world shows how close the link remains in people's minds between immorality and sex. Actually, sex raises no unique ethical issues, even in the age of aids. That we treat each other with honesty,respect and consideration is important in all personal relations. Sex is no different. But the idea of sticking to the straight and narrow in sexual matters, and condemning those who don't, provides a sense of security for many in these confusing times.

An even more dramatic reaction to the uncertainty of our age has been toseek solace in fundamentalist religion. What fundamentalism - be it Christian,Islamic or Hindu - offers above all is certainty. It provides clear rules to obey and authority figures to deliver them. And it gives a sense of belonging that holds people firmly in place: stifling maybe, but secure.

A third response to the 'malaise' of uncertainty is to retreat intoself-interest, limiting one's circle of concern to oneself or perhaps a few close friends and family members. A privatization of life is under way, especially in post-industrial consumerist cultures. Look after Number Onebecause that?s all you can be sure of. Use your freedom of choice to chooseconsumer items or sexual partners. More complex or abstract choices you canleave to others.

It has also resulted in a withdrawal from politics that amounts almost toapathy. Many people are not happy with things as they are. But rather than give voice to their unhappiness and demand change, the tendency increasingly is to 'exit'; to turn one's back on disliked things altog-ether and go elsewhere for satisfaction. A growing number of people in Western democracies are not even bothering to vote in elections.

Democratic governments like that of the US, Australia, Britain and Canadaare not exactly providing a lead. They too exit from responsibility, effectively handing over to multinational corporations the power they could have exerted to make a moral difference in the world. It's an economic equivalent to appeasement, with the old industrialized democratic world collaborating with oppressive regimes such as Burma, China and Indonesia, not so much through formal political association as through multinational corporations which link their economies.

Calling community

Sex: a religious and media obsession - but a subject that raises no unique ethical issues whatsoever.

Faced with this general suspension of moral and political responsibility,concerned people, both on the Left and the Right, want to get a grip on things, want to rescue the idea of 'responsibility'.

The buzzword doing the rounds and inspiring hope is 'Community'. Some see it as a return to community; others as building community.

In A Theory of Justice philosopher John Rawls asks us to imagine a collection of ahistorical beings who come together as a group to agree a future community in which they and their children will live.1 The beings are rational, self-interested and equal in status. They are all in the dark about their own financial prospects or likely status in the community and are asked to invent a series of rules that they think will make the future community fair and just. The veil of ignorance ensures that the least privileged members of society will get some protection because everyone will want to insure themselves against a future life of poverty.Rawls, somewhat optimistically, suggests that such a group would emerge with the two principles of 'liberty' and 'difference'. Everyone would be free to live their own lives yet have different goals.

Other thinkers, like 'Virtue Theory' philosopher Alasdair MacIntyr, take a more traditional view. People are, he says, basically communitarian and community life is held together by tradition and by the virtues that groups encourage in individual members.

This view is winning support even from sections of the Left. But it does beg the question: what traditions and whose idea of virtue? It's easy to wax nostalgic about 'community lost'. But it might be more instructive to look at the traditional communities that exist today and to examine what happens to those individuals who do not conform or who are not in a dominant position by dint of gender, class, race,religion, ability or sexuality. Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin (see article 'A Disobedient Woman') comes from a culture with a strong sense of community ties and values andaccepted virtues. Her suffering at the hands of her community - she lives under a sentence of death for her outs pokenness - is extreme. But almost inevitably communities, even liberal communities, exclude as much as include, suffocate as much as nurture. They may offer what Post Modernist thinker Zygmunt Bauman calls 'the craved for coziness of belonging' - but at the price of freedom. And the community, he argues, 'does not create moral selves. It replaces the torments of moral responsibility with the certainty of discipline and submission. And the disciplined selves are in no way guaranteed to be moral.'2

Like religion, like nationalism, like ethnicity, community puts 'belonging' before 'being'. Being human and moral is not necessarily cozy and comfortable.It may entail loneliness and uncertainty - and, of course, disobedience.

Some people, however, have stretched the definition of community very wide.They talk about an international community - and the community of humankind (see Peter Singer's article). Or even a more holistic, environmental community of all living beings. This does seem to make way for a kind of morality that escapes the parochialism and conformity inherent in more conventional views of community.

Opening out

What we need today are ethics that expand our vision rather than contract it, that address issues we have only just begun to think of in moral terms - science and technology, the environment and non-human species, consumption. We need ethics that look forward rather than backwards; that are equipped to tackle the vital issues thrown up by global warming, toxic waste, globalization of the world economy, and the widening gap between rich and poor. It is obvious once you start to think: it is unethical to maintain our current lifestyles at the expense of the environment, and at the cost of illness and death on the opposite side of the world. But it's a hard ethical issue to tackle. Industrial economies are built on the idea of limitless economic growth and consumption. No wonder political leaders go for the soft targets when they feel the need to display some moral muscle.

Many of the major problems facing us today are closely connected with developments in science and technology. But evolving the ethics that will address these takes time and funding - and there is strong resistance from sections of the scientific community who still cling to the belief that science and technology are somehow exempt from ethical inquiry.

Time is running out. This is nowhere more true than in the boom area of genetic engineering. It will soon be technically possible to carry out eugenics programmes that Hitler would have envied. Foetuses carrying certain genetic defects can already be identified in the womb and aborted. Before long it will be possible to detect a very wide range of defects and the social and medical pressure to abort can only increase in the absence of relevant ethical codes. Meanwhile, definitions of 'defect' can be manipulated to fit anybody's racist,sexist or disablist agenda. James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA, has declared himself in favour of women aborting foetuses carrying the disputed 'gay' gene.

Pleasure principles

So how are we to live ethically - in this age of uncertainty, self-interest, fundamentalist backlash and dizzying technological change?

There are no all-embracing solutions. But a few simple guidelines might be:

  • Question everything. As Socrates said, a moral life is one of continuous questioning.
  • Value uncertainty. It's much better and braver to live with the discomfort of uncertainty than to opt for the certainties of totalitarianism or fundamentalism.
  • Get stuck into ethics. Don't leave it up to religious people and politicians to decide what's right and wrong. Make sure you have your say.
  • Obedience can be a deadly virtue. Be prepared to disobey orders you don't agree with.
  • Look at your circle of concern. Has it shrunk over the years? Could you widen it?
  • Ask ethical questions about things that aren't usually connected with morality. They may well be before long.

It took me many years to realize that living ethically was not about some unattainable virtuous ideal from which I already felt disqualified at the age of seven. It can be quite modest and practical. In the words of Peter Singer: 'To live ethically is to reflect in a particular way on how you live and to try and act in accordance with the conclusions of that reflection.'3

People are living responsibly in a number of ways. They are taking care in their personal relationships; treating the environment more gently; choosing to consume ethically; supporting causes they believe in; giving to those in need.Many are expanding their circle of concern to include lives that are not within their immediate circle or community.

Living ethically does not have to be about denial and self-sacrifice. Infact it can help us feel fulfilled because it makes us stop to think and re-evaluate what really matters in our lives. The deep, simple pleasures - a walk in nature, a talk with a friend, a warm, loving relationship - have little to do with greed and environmental destruction.

It seems an almost revolutionary concept in our over-consuming yet self-punishing culture: ethics and pleasure can go together.

1 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Harvard University Press 1971. 2 ZygmuntBauman, Alone Again: Ethics in an Age of Uncertainty, Demos 1994. 3 PeterSinger, Practical Ethics, Cambridge University Press, 1993. Go to the Contents page Go to the NI Home page


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