Do we care? Ethics in the 21st Century.

To corrupt: cause to act dishonestly in return for money or personal gain

(Oxford Dictionary)


Dishonest: behaving or prone to behave in an untrustworthy, deceitful, or insincere way

(Oxford Dictionary)

It should not be too hard for the world of politics, economics and our society to focus at least occasionally on the ethical foundations on which we have to operate to survive. In order to live with each other and prosper together, there are written and unwritten laws which lead us to reduce dishonesty to a minimum and rid ourselves of corruption.

Society as a concept is one in which all participants should have respect for each other even if we disagree with each other’s beliefs.

The central core of society is that we should not be dishonest or act dishonestly.

Underlying the way society works is the split between the various sections of that society – and, in a well ordered state, the division and co-operation between legislature, executive and judiciary (as marked out in the USA, and less clearly in the UK). Making law, executing the law and ruling on the law are fundamental to any just society – but, the debate (that we hear and see through all the media) is about the mechanisms that rule society more than the ethical under-pinning.

In the UK and the USA (and many other nations), the law (its formation, its implementation and the rulings on it) seems to be the pervasive elements that dominate everything we do.

The debate is constant – no government feels it has done anything without changes in the law on a constant scale. The legal apparatus has overtaken so much of what we do and think. Even though the number of lawyers in parliaments may have diminished in many countries (viz statistics from Dawn Oliver and Gavin Drewry, The Law and Parliament, 1998) the debates in legislatures (which formulate laws, of course) are based on the premise that a range of laws exist and need to be tampered with regularly.

In the UK the situation is made worse by the fact that the Executive (those whose remit is to implement the laws) are also part of the legislature – where they are seen by the public most often.

Ethics in the Centre

Tinkering with laws – whether social issues or economic – represents the norm in many societies where the rule of law has been in place for some time and where the division between the three branches of the system operate. Of course, elsewhere, the attempt is made to copy the tenets of those countries’ already established procedures. This is basic and proper in many cases if it correctly enshrines the ethical basis of a society.

Recently, the new country of South Sudan was formed after many years of extreme strife (and continuing strife with Sudan). South Sudan has recently formulated laws that attempt to take into account the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) divisions in society between regions, tribes and religions but the society is based on a legal system and laws. The ethical basis of that society in its various legal charters is subsumed within the economic struggle to survive – which is leading to grotesque corruption.

In the same way, many other nations are set up with detailed legal systems (as was the U.S.S.R. under Stalin – which did not stop millions being executed and many more sent to the gulags) but where the law is not enacted as the ethical underpinning does not exist.

It is not just a legal system, which has to underpin society – it is an ethical stance that is the grounding for that legal system and for society in general that has to be formed and around which society has to operate. People do not stop killing each other because of the law except where terror rules (although many in parliament believe that is the only thing that stops us) but because an ethical process and system exist within which cultural norms apply.

Ethics – the moral principles which guide our behaviour may well change over time and geographically. A continuing debate about our ethical grounding is key and often lost in the debate over which tax is being increased or reduced. Often laws overtake the ethical consideration; often economic decisions (many short-term) discard ethical consideration; often politicians have no ethical stance or forget it.

Forgetting ethics

Recently, many examples come to mind (some minor, some major), which highlight a forgotten set of ethics. Here are some but I bet we can all see many more every day:

Example 1: George Osborne slaps a limit on tax deductions by the wealthy when making charitable donations – a tax decision, an economic decision but completely bereft of any apparent ethical standards.

Example 2: the death of Neil Hayward in China highlights the completely different ethical basis on which Chinese politics rests. The hushing up of the death because Bo Xilai’s wife may have been involved is reminiscent of 18th Century ethics in the UK. How do we deal with this? One way is proposed by Martin Davidson, the CEO of the British Council – see:

who proposes continuous normalization of relations.

Example 3: Transparency International produces its annual corruption perceptions index. Corruption (see above) is a key indicator of ethics (or lack of) in a society. The index is seen by many yet is not generally held to be a decisive indicator of action by those in power – to whom practical issues like exports are far more important.

Example 4: the death of Sergei Magnitsky in a Russian jail (as highlighted by Bill Browder – a hedge fund owner for whom Magnitsky worked) while investigations were under way over corruption making Browder appear to be guilty of fraud shows a manipulation of the legal system and power in Russia and an ethical framework, which is defunct.

Example 5: care homes in the UK are filmed by the BBC showing mistreatment of patients.

Example 6: reports show elderly patients in hospitals in the UK are malnourished and allowed to die as efficiency statistics become more important than patient care.

We can multiply these examples by millions…….

So What?

Society in the 21st Century moves on. Developed countries are saturated with products so that economic discussion is more about the next iPad or its equivalent. Elsewhere, the production processes are ramped up to meet the rising demands of increasingly developing nations such as China, Brazil, India and, maybe, Africa. Worldwide, short-term economic issues are central to all decision-making.

Other issues are sidelined in the pursuit of short-term economic growth. Externalities (like resource depletion) are sidelined and economic growth, the measure of success, is the politician’s mantra.

So, society becomes focused on a prospective nightmare. We may well now be at a critical point in the world’s history – a point where economics by numbers cannot be the central objective of mankind, where a resurrection of ethical considerations should begin – not just in universities but also throughout all we do. The basic tenet of how we live has to be that we weigh whatever we do against crucial ethical norms.

So what? Well, it becomes essential that our politics, our economics, our legal systems, our strategic decision-making and the way we operate in the world be ethically based. In the 19th Century and before, the ethical basis was religious and formed the backdrop to Empire-building; in the 20th Century, economics and totalitarianism were the backdrops to communism and fascism as human ethics disappeared down the throat of centrist power building.

Today, economic short-termism and a blindness and inability to act on what is right provides societies worldwide with real risks. It is not just climate change that can impact our society in the future (although it will in ways we don’t yet fully comprehend). Just as great is the risk that we have developed simply into short-term, economic robots, where real society-driven ethics are lost.

As John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in “The Affluent Society” in 1958:

“To furnish a barren room is one thing. To continue to crowd in furniture until the foundation buckles is quite another. To have failed to solve the problem of producing goods would have been to continue man in his oldest and most grievous misfortune. But to fail to see that we have solved it and to fail to proceed thence to the next task would be fully as tragic.”

The next task is the re-establishment after hundreds of years of conflict over land and resources of a global set of ethics which should form the bedrock of our societies: an ethics system that swings us away from the corruption-centred economic system so prevalent that we can think that reducing charity income is some sort of solution, that the elderly are a burden, that special needs are wasteful of resources, that we support unethical regimes in order for Formula One racing to continue.

We show every day that we have limited ethical bedrock and that decisions and actions are undertaken in its absence – not after real consideration. Listen to David Cameron on F1 in Bahrain?

“It’s important that peaceful protests are allowed to go ahead. Bahrain is not Syria, there is a process of reform under way and this government backs that reform and wants to help promote that reform,” Mr Cameron said.

We run the risk of self-corruption.

So what?


One thought on “Do we care? Ethics in the 21st Century.

  1. naturally I strongly support all you say – ethics and values are the foundation of our society. here is a slideshare of my take on this (if it is removed try ethics values slideshare lewis in google).

    But two points about change. Firstly, change happens best when we have the positive in the ascendent – so may we state the positive side of ethics – what will be better, is better, how we can make it better, first? It would be great to have a society/civilisation clear about its future and the route to it so all can show dis-satisfaction and disaffection towards those not where we want to be. Secondly, we need a clear statement, a promotion of the down-side of the unethical. Where courts, communities, teams, clubs, families, schools, media, etc., find inapproriate behaviour much should be made of it. There needs to be a sending to Coventry, an exclution and a real sense of loss by anyone who fails the basic moral integrity expectation.

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