Scruples under Scrutiny ; Morality in Modern Life Will Be Put under the Microscope at a New Open University Ethics Centre. Margaret Johnson Reports
Johnson, Margaret, The Independent (London, England)
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.
And ethical thinking is something modern society badly needs, he believes. Since the mid-1980s, in his view, we have as a society been encouraging a kind of moral "short-sightedness" with the result that "all we are interested in assessing is our success against a very closely limited and defined set of criteria", which too often tend to be fame, money and the need to get results.
Hence the Blue Peter debacle. "That was an illustration of how two things can go wrong. First of all, people don't have a clear sense of their identities, and that includes their professional identities. If you have a clear sense of what your role, your persona, is as a Blue Peter representative, you have a clear sense that it is not part of that persona to engage in petty cheating.
"The other thing is this confused, almost lemming-like desire to get results at any price, which again is symptomatic of the way our society is; not always, but too often. We want results, and we will do anything to get them. And that forces us into all kinds of activities which are really self-demeaning - one thinks immediately of a phenomenon like Big Brother, too.
"We need to take the longer view, we need to think about life in the whole, and we need to integrate the different things that we do in different contexts in order to make sense of our lives overall. And that's what ethics is about. It's not just about how can I be a good administrator, or a good sportsperson, or a good journalist; it's about how can I be a good human being?"
If it all begins to sound a bit like a religious crusade, it's not, says Chappell. While ethics has often been seen as the province of religion, you don't have to be a believer to be ethical. Something very like an ethical outlook is found in every human culture and as such is probably, he suggests, part of our biological make-up.
"Human beings are extraordinary creatures because one of the things we value most of all is something you might call dignity or self-respect. People often want to know why they shouldn't take the quick, unethical way, but the fundamental question is always going to be: what does it say about you? What kind of dignity do you have, if these are your values? And what kind of respect can you expect from others? I would argue that our need for respect and dignity is just as fundamental to our natures as our bodily needs.
"Think of revenge, for example. What are people really looking for when they seek revenge? I'd say they're not looking so much to hurt the person who wronged them, as looking for that person to recognise the wrongness of what they did. The desire for that recognition, and the question that lies behind it - 'Don't you respect me?' - seems to be about as universal in human nature as anything is.
"Certain things are so omnipresent that you have to think they go a bit deeper than nurture and are, maybe, part of nature. A sense of human dignity, and with it a moral sense, is something that is found in every society, although it obviously is culturally modified."
Our ethical side is only one side of our nature, though. Human beings are "a curious amalgam of civilised instincts and uncivilised ones", as Chappell puts it, and it's not always the civilised side that wins out; which is why we need the discipline of ethics to help us along.
One task of the new Ethics Centre will be to look at imaginative ways of teaching, perhaps using role-play or getting students to pass judgement on real-life ethical dilemmas. Chappell believes the Centre is in an excellent position to have a real influence on the world outside academia, through its teaching.
"The OU has a huge cohort of students, nearly 200,000 of them - and our core market is people who are often in very distinguished positions in mid-career, who have the time to think harder about what they are doing.
"From my encounters with them, they are a very remarkable set of people, and I think by and large they probably do have more influence on society than other student university bodies, not just because of their quantity, but because of their quality."
The Ethics Centre launches with an Inaugural Conference in Milton Keynes on 23 May. Speakers and participants will include Lord Puttnam (Chancellor of the Open University), Professor Brenda Gourley (Vice-Chancellor), Catherine Cameron (co-author of the Stern Review on Climate Change), Professor Brad Hooker (ethicist from Reading University), and Jeremy Hunt MP (Shadow Minister for Disabled People). For more details, see www.open.ac.uk/ethics- centre/
The monthly bulletin of the
Open University Community…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Scruples under Scrutiny ; Morality in Modern Life Will Be Put under the Microscope at a New Open University Ethics Centre. Margaret Johnson Reports. Contributors: Johnson, Margaret - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: April 3, 2007. Page number: 44. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.