On Ethics in Public Life

The role of ethics in contemporary society is resurgent; its reach sprawling out across the social landscape at what many must find an alarming rate touching capitalism, banking, politics, policing, journalism, our own lives. The notion of ethics has the power to conflate these disparate issues under a more understandable set of parameters and ask more searching questions.

“Is it ethical?” demands a different response than “does it make money” or “is it legal?”. It demands real engagement and, in fact, empathy. To act ethically one needs to be able to assess the various impacts a decision may have and weigh these against what some have called a moral compass or code. It is without question that many have been able to dispense with such a code in some areas of human endeavour; the current crisis in public life with few institutions covering themselves in glory has been the unintended if inevitable consequence of this. Public trust in many institutions is at an all time low yet those with power still claim a monopoly on moral integrity.

For a society to function for all citizens we argue that decision making must be ethical, meaning ramifications must be explored, impacts and risks charted. This is not to say that this will always mitigate against negative impacts; it is to say that by exploring them one is also investigating connections, examining the links that bind us. Is it possible to redefine the ethical basis of public life? For the public to be involved in setting parameters for acceptable practice? If institutions and professions are to regain the trust of the public who better to involve in determining the new direction? We’ll now look at the two issues regarding ethics that have dominated the public’s imagination.

The debate around ethical capitalism has gained ground in recent weeks with all three party leaders tackling the issue in speeches this week; this discussion encompasses the extraordinary pay of many FTSE executives and the renumeration of ‘ordinary’ workers and the role of markets in securing positive outcomes for more than an elite few.

The St. Paul’s Institute report makes very interesting reading, questioning the disentanglement of money from the human; suggesting that it is easier to make rash decisions that may adversely affect others when transactions only occur on computer screens, making the impact of the decisions more difficult to assess. An excellent IPPR report explores the idea of ‘ethical capitalism’ in greater detail and suggests an economic model that is not only based on ethical principles but attempts to build sustainability into a redefined system, one that is based on partnership between government, the financial sector and people.

The debate around press ethics is crystallised by the Leveson Inquiry, if we are to believe many of those called the practice of phone hacking was common place, the desire to fill column inches taking precedence over ethical considerations. Whilst giving evidence former Sun newspaper editor Kelvin MacKenzie conceded that he rarely considered the ethical dimension of a story before publishing it, this seems representative of much tabloid practice. Encouraging tabloid responsibility is not without difficulty, the great British public have an appetite for salacious celebrity tabloid stories whilst being appalled when the pursuit of those stories becomes illegal. This dichotomy highlights the plurality of any society. We are not advocating a knee-jerk reaction that limits the role of a free press, rather we suggest that tabloids learn from the public outrage and reinvigorate investigative tabloid journalism focused on more than celebrity gossip.

Adopting an ethical framework for public life is not without difficulty and must avoid moralising but this re-engagement with ethics is to be welcomed. It affords us the opportunity for us to reshape contemporary society and citizenship based on transparency, trust and equity.

Sourced from: The Huffington Post