Considering Ethics and Society

In engaging with the President's Ethics initiative it seems logical that we take some time to consider what we mean when we talk about 'Ethics'.

The origin of the word “ethics” -ethnos, ethos- means ‘a people and their culture’; a people and their ‘character’. Ethics are the ideals that inspire people and that people aspire towards; the core values that belong to people as members of communities and societies by virtue of which they make good judgements and wise decisions about what is right and wrong, fair and unjust, ugly and beautiful, good and evil, be it for an individual person, a community, or for society as a whole.

Ethics is about good things. Ethics is less about criticizing and denouncing, accusing and condemning things that are bad and wrong with the world, though we all know that our problems are plentiful. Ethics is more interested in asking questions and thinking about how we ought to live our lives, as individuals, as members of families, neighbourhoods and communities; as members of this community and as citizens of this Republic.

Ethics is interested in talking about the guiding ideals by which we ought to live our lives; the ideals that inspire us and that we aspire to live up to. When we talk about ethics we are talking about the ways in which we are –or at least the ways in which we try to be- at our very best; when we talk about ethics we are talking about those things that we do, and that we try our best to do, that are True, Beautiful and Good.




So, we can see how ethics are important to us, and why the President of the Republic of Ireland would want us to have this conversation!

But what authority do we have to have this conversation about ethics? Perhaps a discussion about ethics should be left to professional philosophers and ethicists?

Not necessarily. The world’s first Philosopher –and still acknolwedged as the greatest Philosopher- was a man called Socrates, who was an ordinary Citizen of Athens 2,500 years ago. And the Athens of Socrates’ day was a city and a Republic in a state of crisis and confusion –a lot like Athens is today, and perhaps a lot like the state that Ireland is in today.

Socrates was not a professional philosopher. He was an ordinary citizen, a member of his community. In the Athens of Socrates’ time there were a number of people called ‘Sophists’, (from which we get the word ‘sophisticated’). Sophists were Athens’ professional experts –Lawyers, Consultants, Image Managers and Special Economic Advisors we would call them today- who (for a hefty fee) could teach the arts of rhetoric, teach them how to use clever and sophisticated arguments to convince other people whatever they wished: how to persuade citizens that people who had done criminal things were in fact completely innocent, and that people who behaved immorally, corruptly and selfishly were in fact doing good and serving the common interest of the public. (And there would appear to be good grounds for saying that Sophists are alive and doing very well in contemporary Ireland!)

Socrates was not a Sophist. He didn’t profess to teach anyone anything. Socrates charged no fees. He was a voluntary worker. He did his work in the public space of the city, in the market square, in the streets. He was not only the world’s first Philosopher, but he was the world’s first voluntary community worker. And his work, he said, was to be the city’s ‘gadfly’ (a gadfly is like a horsefly, causing annoyance by asking pertinent questions and pricking people’s consciences.)

Perhaps some of you are leaders in your communities, workers and volunteers, and if you don’t like to think of yourselves in terms of biting flies, Socrates had another, more attractive model that you can liken yourselves to: his mother, who was a midwife. And like his mother, Socrates saw himself as someone who’s role was to help people to ‘give birth’; that is, to help people to bring into the world the knowledge, the truths, the ideas that people had already conceived of by themselves.

Socrates believed that members of his community, Citizens of the Republic, are intrinsically good people; people who already know themselves what the difference is between lies and Truth, what is ugly and what is Beautiful; what is unjust and what is Fair; what is bad and what is Good. We know these differences already; they are given to us by our shared culture; we have core values and high ideals, and by the light of these ideals we can think about our society –our Republic- and we can decide what is best for us to do and how it is best for us to be; and when we see what is the best for us, then we are motivated to be better people and to build a better society.

The problem, then as now, Socrates would say, is that the True, the Beautiful and the Good –our core values and ideas- while we already know them, they have become ‘taken for granted’ as it were. They become obscure and forgotten to us; overlooked, because of the demands of everyday life in a fast moving and ever-changing society, where we have to make a living, pay the bills, make ends meet, live with our families, get along with our friends and neighbours, and basically ‘get on with things’, especially one might say, ‘in times like these’ –times of austerity, recession, cutbacks, uncertainty and confusion, which of course are the conditions of our own times just as they were the conditions of Socrates’ Athens. And, of course, the problem is made very much worse by the professional sophists, who make it their special mission to confuse people and to convince us that ‘climate change isn’t really happening’; that ‘we are all equally responsible for the financial mess’; that ‘things will soon return to normal’; ‘don’t worry’ ‘keep calm and carry on’; ‘it’ll all be grand’; ‘leave it to the experts!’

Instead, despite what the sophists say, Socrates believed that we, members of communities, we citizens, ought to pause for a while every now and then; that we need to deliberately take time out to reflect, to talk, to think, and to share ideas with one another, so that through our thoughtful conversation we can remember our core values and clarify for ourselves and with one another what our ideals of a Good life are. That is what ‘Ethics’ is, and, in the spirit of Socrates, President Michael D. Higgins  invited us to have this conversation about ethics together.

An ethical life is a particular life; a life that belongs to some place in particular. Ethics belong to a life that is grounded by dwelling together, sharing traditions, histories, memories; core values and high ideals. Each of the places, people and communities that have hosted Community Voices for a Renewed Ireland have their own individual ‘takes’, points of view, opinions, on these ethical issues, and while these may seem to be ‘merely’ people’s opinions we need to listen to them carefully and take them very seriously.  Hannah Arendt, a philosopher writing in the aftermath of WWII tells us that Socrates took people’s opinions very seriously, because the world opens itself up differently to every one according to one’s position in it, but despite all the differences between people and their positions in the world, and consequently their differing opinions, it is the same world that we all share. Socrates believed that there is a grain of truth in everyone’s opinion, and that by working through ordinary opinions we could gradually re-collect and bring in to the light ideas of the True, the Beautiful and the Good that we might all come to share.

In a similar vein, the philosopher Martin Heidegger, a friend and contemporary of Hannah Arendt,  says that when we are lost in the forest, as it were –as indeed perhaps we are now!- the pathway  that leads into the clearing in the forest, a place wherein we might see the wood for the trees, lies near at hand.

It is these grains of truth, these pathways, that Community Voices for a Renewed Ireland has endeavoured to uncover.