Virtue

Coronavirus: Dark Clouds, But Some Silver Linings?

By Charles Foster

Cross posted from The Conversation

To be clear, and in the hope of heading off some trolls, two observations. First: of course I don’t welcome the epidemic. It will cause death, worry, inconvenience and great physical and economic suffering. Lives and livelihoods will be destroyed. The burden will fall disproportionately on the old, the weak and the poor.

And second: these suggestions are rather trite. They should be obvious to reasonably reflective people of average moral sensibility.

That said, here goes:

1. It will make us realise that national boundaries are artificial

The virus doesn’t carry a passport or recognise frontiers. The only way of stopping its spread would be to shut borders wholly, and not even the most rabid nationalists advocate that. It would mean declaring that nations were prisons, with no one coming in or out – or at least not coming back once they’d left. In a world where we too casually assume that frontiers are significant, it doesn’t do any harm to be reminded of the basic fact that humans occupy an indivisible world.

Cooperation between nations is essential to combating the epidemic. That cooperation is likely to undermine nationalist rhetoric.

2. It will make us realise that people are not islands

The atomistic billiard-ball model of the person – a model that dominates political and ethical thinking in the west – is biologically ludicrous and sociologically unsustainable. Our individual boundaries are porous. We bleed into one another and infect one another with both ills and joys. Infectious disease is a salutary reminder of our interconnectedness. It might help us to recover a sense of society.

3. It may encourage a proper sort of localism

Internationalism may be boosted. I hope so. But if we’re all locked up with one another in local quarantine, we might get to know the neighbours and the family members we’ve always ignored. We might distribute ourselves less widely, and so be more present to the people around us.

We might even find out that our local woods are more beautiful than foreign beaches, and that local farmers grow better and cheaper food than that which is shipped (with the associated harm to the climate) across the globe.

4. It may encourage altruism

Exigencies tend to bring out the best and the worst in us. An epidemic may engender and foster altruistic heroes.

5. It may remind us of some neglected constituencies

Mortality and serious illness are far higher among the old, the very young, and those suffering from other diseases. We tend to think about – and legislate for – the healthy and robust. The epidemic should remind us that they are not the only stakeholders.

6. It may make future epidemics less likely

The lessons learned from the coronavirus epidemic will pay dividends in the future. We will be more realistic about the dangers of viruses crossing the barriers between species. The whole notion of public health (a Cinderella speciality in medicine in most jurisdictions) has been rehabilitated. It is plain that private healthcare can’t be the whole answer. Much has been learned about the containment and mitigation of infectious disease. There are strenuous competitive and cooperative efforts afoot to develop a vaccine, and vaccines against future viral challenges are likely to be developed faster as a result.

7. It might make us more realistic about medicine

Medicine is not omnipotent. Recognising this might make us more aware of our vulnerabilities. The consequences of that are difficult to predict, but living in the world as it really is, rather than in an illusory world, is probably a good thing. And recognising our own vulnerability might make us more humble and less presumptuous.

8. Wildlife may benefit

China has announced a permanent ban on trade in and consumption of wildlife. That in itself is hugely significant from a conservation, an animal welfare, and a human health perspective. Hopefully other nations will follow suit.

Continue reading

Be Excellent: How Ancient Virtues can Guide our Responses to the Climate Crisis

Written by Roger Crisp

After world chiefs and youth leaders gathered in September in New York at the United Nations Climate Action Summit, many of us as individuals are left feeling powerless and overwhelmed. Making big personal changes can appear costly in terms of happiness. And anyway, why should I bother when any difference I can make will be negligible? As we contemplate our future, we can seek insight from the great philosophers of the ancient world to guide our choices.  Continue reading

The Doctor-Knows-Best NHS Foundation Trust: a Business Proposal for the Health Secretary

By Charles Foster

Informed consent, in practice, is a bad joke. It’s a notion created by lawyers, and like many such notions it bears little relationship to the concerns that real humans have when they’re left to themselves, but it creates many artificial, lucrative, and expensive concerns.

Of course there are a few clinical situations where it is important that the patient reflects deeply and independently on the risks and benefits of the possible options, and there are a few people (I hope never to meet them: they would be icily un-Falstaffian) whose sole ethical lodestone is their own neatly and indelibly drafted life-plan. But those situations and those people are fortunately rare. Continue reading

The Re-Greening of Abraham

By Charles Foster

Some odd alliances are being forged in this strange new world,

I well remember, a few years ago, the open hostility shown by dreadlocked, shamanic, eco-warriors towards the Abrahamic monotheisms. They’d spit when they passed a church.

The rhetoric of their distaste was predictable. The very notion of a creed was anathema to a free spirit. ‘No one’s going to tell me what to think’, said one (we’ll call him Jack), the marks on his wrists still visible from where he’d been chained to a road-builder’s bulldozer. And the content of the creeds, and the promulgators-in-chief, didn’t help. ‘I’m certainly taking no lessons’, Jack went on, ‘from some patriarchal sky-god represented by a paedophilic priest.’

But it’s changed. Jack still heaves bricks through bank windows (he says), and still copulates inside stone circles, but now he’s mightily impressed with Jesus, has a Greek Orthodox icon of the resurrection next to his bong, and pictures of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris on his dartboard. He’s not alone. He’s part of a widespread movement that is reclaiming and recruiting the intrinsic radicalism of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in the fight against Neo-Liberalism and the destruction of the planet. Continue reading

Harnessing the Power of Moral Identity to Improve Morality

Written by Doug McConnell

Over the last 25 years there has been an explosion of psychological research investigating the influence of ‘moral identity’ on agency with a recent meta-analysis of 111 studies concluding that people’s moral identity has as much of an effect on agency is either their moral emotion or powers of moral reasoning (Hertz & Krettenauer, 2016). Although the mainstream view of moral psychology is that moral self-concept plays a significant role in moral agency, the practical ethical implications of this view remain underexplored. Here, I argue that one of those implications is that, in situations where we need to improve morality, such as decision-making in the boardroom, consumer behaviour, and reform of criminal offenders, we should do so (in part) by developing people’s moral identities. Indeed, in many cases, changes to moral identity have the potential to efficiently deliver relatively large moral improvements. Continue reading

The Dangers of Biography

By Charles Foster

A friend of mine has written a brilliant and justly celebrated biography. I am worried about her, and about her readers.

The biography is brilliant and engaging precisely because of the degree of rapport the author has established with her subject, and the rapport she brokers between her subject and her readers. What is the cost of that rapport?

My friend has had to keep the company of her (dead) subject for years. Her book is an invitation to others to keep that company for hours. Two ethical questions arise. Continue reading

What’s Wrong With Simulation in Football?

Written by Doug McConnell

The 2018 edition of the football world cup has brought with it a renewed bout of hand wringing over ‘simulation’, e.g. players falling, diving, and tumbling under imaginary fouls, rolling around in mock pain, or clasping their faces pretending to have been hit. Stuart James writes in the Guardian that “play-acting has been commonplace at this World Cup. It’s become a cancer in the game, not just a stain on it, and Fifa needs to find a cure.” But what exactly is wrong with this behaviour? Why is the rise of this behaviour ‘a cancer in the game’? Continue reading

Doing Good and Being Bad: The Presidents Club, Charity and Moral Licensing.

Last January, an article in the Financial Times broke a story about a men-only charity event run by the Presidents Club, a charitable trust set up to raise money for “worthy children’s causes.” Allegations were made by undercover journalists who attended the black tie event as ‘hostesses,’ 130 of whom were hired to attend the event where they were required to wear a uniform of short tight black dresses, “sexy” black high heels and matching black underwear in order to “keep [the attendees] happy – and fetch drinks when required.” According to the FT, the selection criteria for women to work at the event were that they be “tall, thin and pretty”. Women interviewed by the FT described being repeatedly groped, propositioned for sex, and instructed to “down that glass, rip off your knickers and dance on that table.” The Presidents Club has closed as a result of the negative attention following the article, and many prominent figures in business, entertainment and politics have been publicly named as attending the dinner, and required to defend their involvement.

Continue reading

Paddington Bear and the Evangelicals

 

By Charles Foster

Last night, long after everyone else I know, I went with the kids to see Paddington 2. As everyone agrees, it’s wonderful. It’s a modern morality tale. There is plainly a big appetite for morality.

Interestingly, though, it is a Christian morality tale.1 Paddington’s behaviour neutralizes violence. In the face of his goodness, and emolliated by his marmalade sandwiches, the hard men at the prison uncurl their fists and bake strawberry panna cotta with pomegranate glaze instead. His vulnerability is irresistible. He turns selfishness into altruism. ‘Nuckles’ (sic), (Brendan Gleeson) whose motto has always been that he doesn’t do nuffin’ for no one for nuffin’, jeopardises his own liberty to liberate Paddington – and wins his own perpetual freedom by doing so. There’s even a sort of resurrection – in which Paddington, trapped in a watery grave, is released. And as he is released, more of his redemptive power is unleashed too. Continue reading

‘Being a burden’: an Illegitimate Ground For Assisted Dying

The issue of the legality in England and Wales of physician-assisted suicide has recently been revisited by the Divisional Court. Judgment is awaited. The judgment of the Court of Appeal, granting permission for judicial review, is here.

The basic issue before the Court of Appeal was the same as that in Nicklinson v Ministry of Justice and R (Purdy) v DPP: does the right to determine how one lives one’s private life (protected by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights)  confer a right to have an assisted death?

Many factors have been said to be relevant to decisions about assisted dying. They include intractable pain (rather a weak criterion, given modern palliative methods), hopeless prognosis – likely to result in death in a short time –  and simple autonomy (‘It’s my right to determine where, when, and in what circumstances I end my life, and that’s an end of the matter’). One factor, commonly in the minds of patients asking for help in ending their lives, but rarely mentioned by advocates of assisted dying, is that the patient feels that she is a burden to her family and carers. Continue reading

Authors

Subscribe Via Email

Affiliations