The Abuse of ‘Ethical’

Andy Miah calls the “surge in popular activism, broad democratic demands and institutional reforms” an “ethical turn”. I’m not at all convinced, particularly about the activism. Rather, and feeling most cynical, it seems that a particular middle-class liberal conception of what is valuable and good has had a marketing success by managing to monopolise the term ‘ethical’.

Ethics generally encompasses a whole range of issues about the way we should live, how we ought to act and the kind of people we should be (or try to be). It typically includes considerations of justice, harm to others and respect for others. Often, perhaps most often, it involves our day to day conduct with respect to those with whom we come into contact. On the world stage, besides the environment and the finance industry, there is poverty, persecution and war.

The ‘Ethical living’ section on the Guardian website is not about being ethical in anything like this sense and the BBC’s ‘Ethical Man’ clearly wasn’t ethical in this sense either. Both, of course, are really just ‘Green’. (Somewhere along the line ‘Greenies’ (and the vegetarians) became ‘Ethical’). Of course there are very serious and pressing issues about the environment and the treatment of animals that are part of ethics but they hardly constitute ethics or being ethical.

What is most problematic about this use of ‘ethical’ and the campaigns associated with it is the way in which it operates on individuals. Miah mentions (seemingly with approval) the idea that failing to recycle is stigmatised. We can also think of the guilt (in certain circles, presumably mostly Guardian readers) associated with feeding children junk food. The scandal associated with the parents who delivered chips to their children at break time alternately pictured these parents as neglectfully ignorant and libertarian stalwarts.

The real world ethics of individuals is often difficult and complex. A working single mother might not have the time or energy either to sort the plastic bottles from the glass or to fight with children about whether they ate their broccoli. The week’s family holiday in the sun in Spain might just give everyone the break they need (and the vitamin D!) to face their daily lives. This is not just about the guilt either. The ‘nobility’ and ‘self-righteousness’ of those who do diligently recycle, have carefully colour-coded meals every mealtime and go on holiday on a train is the flip-side of the guilt.

All of the developments mentioned by Miah are mostly good and importantly useful — it is good that people think about the environment and that they are concerned about the treatment of animals. But we should recognise the popular manifestation of these developments for what they are — marketing successes — and not confuse them with genuine ethical issues or solutions. The genuine ethical issues involved are much deeper and complex. Finally, it is important to be wary of the marketing missionary: the ethical campaigner who totes a quasi religious ideology and massages popularist individual guilt in the name of ethics.

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3 Responses to The Abuse of ‘Ethical’

  • Jimmy says:

    Hi I agree that popular media issues like the environment and healthy eating do not encompass the whole of ethical behaviour and are not even the most important ethical issues we face. However, they do seem to fit into your definition of ethics, notwithstanding your examples of why one might fail to live up to them.

    You give examples of why people might fail to eg recycle- but ethics as you say is about what we should try to do- the fact that it is difficult and even that it is harder for some than others surely doesn’t affect that.

    It seems reasonable to me that living perfectly ethically is difficult or even impossible, and that people may decide that their self interest or other considerations outweigh this and may even be justified in doing so. I think that the reponse to recognising this should be to work make it easier for everyone to act ethically rather than to redefine what we should do to ensure that noone feels any guilt.

  • Mark Sheehan says:

    Thanks Jimmy,

    I certainly did not mean to imply that the issues in question were not ethical issues. My main complaint was about the use of the term ‘ethical’ seemingly to imply that being green (mostly) was being ethical. In some individual cases it seems clearly that being green is not the right thing to do or, at least, not the overridingly right thing to do.

    The second point is mostly about the focus on individuals rather than governments and corporations. Instead of individual people adding extra burdens (and so called ‘ethical failures’) onto their already ethically complex lives, the obligations to the environment fall on governments and corporations. This is why your last point is exactly right – the real impact on emissions will only come at the national and international level and part of this (but only a part) will involve making recycling etc easier. This is not about avoiding guilt but avoiding misconstrued obligations on particular individuals.

  • Iain says:

    Ha! Yup: this is one of my particular bugbears, too. It reminds me of a time I was on a train between Edinburgh and Stoke. As is the way on long journeys, I got chatting to the bloke next to me. He asked me what I did for a living, and I said I was an ethicist. Immediately, he looked at his ham sandwich and apologised.

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