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What kind of ethics dominate our public life?

2014 October 17
by Paul Vallely

The alphabet did us a favour. It meant that the order in which we addressed the seminar was: Paul Bew, me and then Rowan Williams. It also gave, fortuitously, a logic to the argument.

A year-long series of seminars on Ethical Standards in Public Life was launched at the Von Hugel Institute in Cambridge last week.  They set out to address the question “Is there a collapse of ethical standards in so many public institutions, or have we suffered from just a few bad apples?”

Lord Bew, who chairs the Committee on Standards in Public Life, set out its lofty brief to defend the Seven Nolan Principles of Public Life:  selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. In practical terms his latest initiative is to try to persuade the prime minister to set up an ethical induction course for MPs.

But there is a paradox here. In practice the ethical standards now set for our parliamentarians are among the highest in the world. And yet, said Professor Bew, the British public are 20 per cent more likely than the Dutch to say that our political system is corrupt – even though empirically corruption in both places is very similar and very low.

How can that be? My contribution offered two suggestions. First that the declining ethical standards of our public institutions merely reflect a decline in behaviour throughout society.  We live in a more dishonest country than we did a decade ago. A survey in 2010 by the Centre for the Study of Integrity at the University of Essex showed the British public are more likely now, than we were in 2000, to lie on an application form, buy something which we know is stolen, or drive under the influence of alcohol.

Expense-fiddling MPs, greedy bankers, paedophile priests, policemen accepting backhanders and dodgy journalists are just the public equivalents of the rest of us dodging fares, keeping money we find in the street or failing to leave a note after damaging a parked car.

The second factor is that when society responds to this by tightening rules and regulations we merely increase levels of suspicion and mistrust. What is needed is a return to virtue built on good character. But how, when society increasingly rejects the perspectives of religion?

Rowan Williams offered some ideas. By abandoning the toxic assumption that other people are out to defraud us most of the time. By dropping society’s cynical reluctance ever to acknowledge and praise what is positively good. By asking ourselves what is the sort of person we want to become. And by remembering that we have responsibilities that we have not chosen or invented but in which we have been metaphysically immersed from the word go.

So, we might conclude, society needs both virtue ethics and a consequentialist calculus. The army needs rules but also honour. The judiciary needs case law but also a sense of natural justice. And the Church needs precise and aspirational theology but also a sense of mercy and compassion. The seminars, run in conjunction with St Mary’s University Twickenham,  continue through the academic year.


Paul Vallely is visiting professor in public ethics at the University of Chester


from The Church Times



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