There were red faces at the BBC recently when children's favourite Blue Peter was caught fixing a phone-in quiz. But perhaps their blushes could have been spared, if only Blue Peter staff had had a little more training in ethics.
Tim Chappell is a professor of philosophy, and director of a new Ethics Centre being launched at the Open University. He has spent most of his academic career pondering questions of good and bad behaviour. He explains: "Ethics is the study of what's right and wrong - not just a set of 'don'ts', but about thinking creatively about how to live in the world. We must get away from the idea that morality is just about rules or commandments. It is about rules, but it's also, and more deeply, about the question that Socrates identifies in Plato's Republic: 'How shall we live?'. It's how we answer that question that determines what rules we should accept."
As Chappell's comment suggests the study of ethics is a very old one, going back in the western tradition to the ancient Greeks. But the late 20th and early 21st century have seen a renewed interest in the topic, and one which goes beyond rarefied academic debate. From investigations over alleged "cash for honours" at Westminster to unfair bank charges, rarely a week goes by without allegations of unethical behaviour by businesses or politicians. A number of universities now have ethics centres, most of which are closely linked to particular disciplines which throw up practical ethical dilemmas, notably medical research, healthcare and law.
The OU Ethics Centre, as envisaged by OU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brenda Gourley who started the ball rolling on the venture, will have a much broader remit. "The emphasis will not just be on medical ethics or legal ethics or environmental ethics but on all of ethics; ethics in the round. We are looking for enthusiasts in all these disciplines to develop agendas of their own," says Chappell.
Academic research will form part of the Centre's work, but alongside the study of great moral thinkers such as Aristotle, Plato, Hume, Kant and Mill will be debates on important public issues which raise ethical questions such as: Was it right to go to war in Iraq? Should businesses be moral as well as money-making concerns?
In a world where many of the old moral certainties have evaporated, we need to be clear about what we think on these big ethical issues, and why, says, Chappell.
"An ethics centre is not there to commit itself to one side or another of the ethical debate," he says. "But we do want to be a forum for ethical debates to take place."
Ethical understanding is empowering, he believes, because it gives us the ability to articulate our beliefs clearly and strongly, and so influence events. It also helps us to establish ethical codes of practice which give us a frame of reference when we are faced with the question, "Is this right or wrong?". Of course there is a danger, he admits, of the vocabulary of ethics being subverted to disguise unethical agendas.
"Codes of ethics are proliferating, and a lot of them are just verbal air freshener.
"No doubt some cynicism about these codes is merited. But how much? They surely do move the debate some distance in the right direction."
What may have an even bigger effect on society than debate is the Ethics Centre's plan to extend its activities to teaching in the university, and that doesn't just mean new courses about ethics. In fact an audit of the uni-versity's existing courses recently revealed that 98 of them have some sort of ethical component - ranging from the fairly obvious, such as Environmental Ethics, to a more subtle presence in courses such as Managing Care, Winning Resources and Support, and Death and Dying. The Centre, though, is seeking to introduce an ethical dimension to subjects across the curriculum. "The vision is for ethical thinking to permeate everything the Open University is doing in one way or another," says Chappell. …