National Seminar – The President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative

Sat 28th Mar, 2015 | 11:00
location: Áras an Uachtaráin

Speech at the President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative National Seminar

Áras an Uachtaráin, 28th March 2015

Ladies and Gentlemen,

You are all very welcome to Áras an Uachtaráin for this National Seminar, as we draw together the various outcomes from the many events which have made up the President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative.

This Initiative was designed by me as an invitation to the Irish people to engage in a national conversation about ethics. It started with an appeal I made to Irish third level institutions and to community and advocacy groups, to embrace the challenge of discussing the principles and values by which we might wish to live together as a society, in the wake of a crisis that starkly requires us to interrogate our vision of social bonds and human relations, and our conceptions of “prosperity” and “the good life”.

As President of a society which has been affected acutely by the recent global financial meltdown, I consider it crucial that we collectively reflect on the structural, and indeed moral and philosophical, questions raised by this most recent crisis in order to ensure that we learn from the experience.

In bringing forward this Initiative, my starting point was that it is not possible to change economics or politics without addressing the values and assumptions that underpin them. That such a change is necessary has been acknowledged at the global level by many eminent scholars. Kaushik Basu of Cornell University, who is currently Chief Economic Advisor and Vice-President at the World Bank, and was formerly Chief Economic Advisor to the Ministry of Finance of the Government of India, is among them. In his seminal book Beyond the Invisible Hand, Professor Basu wrote of his rejection of the norms that prevailed in the Bengali household of his childhood:

“To think of such norms and shared beliefs, and the social pressures that they place on individuals, as trivial or inconsequential to the functioning of the market would be a great mistake. On the other hand, taking account of those properly is an extremely difficult job.”

Examining the underlying values behind failed policies is indeed difficult. In an Irish context, we might ask, for example, how property ownership and the individualism on which it is based influence our views on the ethical quality or the social equity of policy. Across Ireland, there are many such conversations underway; conversations that interrogate our values and our assumptions, and explore the means by which we might transform our society and the world around us. To a certain extent, these conversations are informed by a real anxiety that is often inchoate, but they are producing a profusion of ideas, projects and activities that suggest avenues for change.

By inviting all those interested to take part in the President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative, my purpose was to give recognition to these many positive endeavours; it was also to provide a possible framework and a catalyst to those already engaged in crafting more solid foundations for our shared present and future, and to inspire, perhaps, new activities and new collaborations.

Many of you who are here today have been directly involved in the Ethics Initiative, through your participation in events hosted by universities, civic society organisations, or held in the community. Others have written to me directly to express a personal interest in the Initiative and outline your own views on the challenges of living together ethically at the beginning of the 21st century. To all of you I wish to convey my sincere appreciation for helping to make the President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative a vibrant and rich experience over the past year, and for coming here today, on a fine Saturday in spring, to continue this discussion with me and with each other.

When I was elected as President, I committed to shape my Presidency as one of ideas and transformation. In my inaugural address, I outlined how:

“It is necessary to move past the assumptions which have failed us and to work together for such a different set of values as will enable us to build a sustainable social economy and a society which is profoundly ethical and inclusive. A society and a state which will restore trust and confidence at home and act as a worthy symbol of Irishness abroad, inviting relationships of respect and co-operation across the world.”

The wealth of conversations and encounters I had throughout the Presidential election campaign, and the numerous visits I have made since taking office, to so many villages, towns and cities across Ireland, as well as to foreign countries, have only strengthened my conviction that there is a groundswell of popular demand for a fundamental re-examination of the assumptions and values that underpin the dominant economic and political discourse of our times.

Ethics offers a conceptual language that is useful, I suggest, in capturing these diffuse demands and in connecting ongoing discussions about dignity, human rights, education, quality of life, and social and community values – all of which are perceived as being neglected in the mainstream public discourse.

At a moment of great loss, when trusted institutions have failed the citizenry, when the fallacies at the heart of established and dominant modes of thinking are exposed, and when values of social responsibility are shown to have been neglected, or even abandoned, on a grand scale, it might be tempting to respond to the question “Is it possible to live ethically in the contemporary world?” with despondency, fatalism, and even cynicism.

It would be easy, too, to diagnose the cause of our difficulties as being merely rooted in failures of compliance, individual failures or misdeeds which could be named and punished before we continue as before. Indeed it is not enough to say, for example, that the upheavals caused by an unprecedented banking collapse and property bubble can be fixed if the right supervision and regulatory mechanisms are put in place.

As I emphasised in my first speech dealing explicitly with the topic of ethics, in September 2013, “the proliferation of ethical manuals and codes of conduct in the various professional sectors will be of only limited consequence if we do not also ensure that their purpose is embraced and understood by, and not just enforced upon, those for whom they are designed.”

The current crisis has moral and intellectual ramifications that run very deep. It calls for an interrogation of our vision of what it is to be human, and the conception of human relations that animate us as a society. The risk, as I see it, is that if we do not tackle the assumptions that have inflicted such deep injuries on our moral imaginations, we will resile to a position of “business as usual”. We must not, then, miss this opportunity to seek, together, a new set of principles by which we might live ethically as a society. 

In that regard, I am happy to observe that the Irish people’s response to the economic crisis has not been, in my view, one of fatalism or simplistic solutions. Beyond issues of accountability, and notwithstanding divergent views on specific policy questions, Irish citizens have collectively shown a deep desire to examine the root causes of what has happened and to reconnect what has been sundered in our society and in our public discourse.

This radical demand stems from a growing frustration with existing institutions and the dominant, and mostly unstated, ideologies which have contributed to the economic and political meltdown of recent years, but it also carries with it a constructive willingness to think and act in different ways, even if the pathway for thought and action is not yet defined but must be fashioned through enduring intellectual work and social action.

I would suggest that the contemporary moment is defined by challenges which established modes of thinking and a version of politics are ill-equipped to meet, and the nature and scale of which demand a radical rethinking of how we live and how we organise our national and international systems of governance. This means that it is not only possible to live ethically in our contemporary world, but it is, in fact, imperative that we re-engage with ethics if we are to survive and flourish and meet these great challenges of our time.

There is firstly a need to revive political economy, and to reconnect economic thinking to its ethical foundations. We should never forget, for example, that the Adam Smith of The Wealth of Nations is the same person who wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments some years earlier; and that the two texts are deeply connected. Out of the instability and the material and social losses suffered by many across Europe in recent years, is springing a demand for sustainable and secure models of socio-economic development, which are accountable to elected governments, rather than being at the mercy of remote financial fluctuations, or “externalities” presented as being of a natural kind. If we are to construct a stable and prosperous future for our people, based on sound foundations, and avoiding a replay of the errors of our recent past, then we must engage directly with those issues of ethics that have, over time and for many and complex reasons, become marginalised in our economic and fiscal discourse.

One step, for example, towards a re-peopled concept of economics would be to treat essential social goods such as housing, health and food differently from other commodities in their relation to the market. All across Europe the consequences of the economic crisis have been visited disproportionately on the poor and the marginalised – of those who, in the words of Jürgen Habermas:

“Unlike the shareholders, [do] not pay in money values but in the hard currency of their daily existence”. 

It is my conviction that we cannot effectively, or even meaningfully, address poverty in our communities without reflecting on the ethical questions that are posed to all of us and to our institutions, by the unacceptable current levels of inequality – inequalities that threaten to be transmitted from generation to generation, with very serious consequences for our peaceful co-existence.

Homelessness is just one of the manifestations of this inequality – perhaps the most pressing of all in Ireland today, and one which I have sought to highlight throughout the past year. In this area we see writ large the consequence of a commodification of social life and social goods, whereby policy has become separate from its ethical grounding in a conception of the fundamental requirements of the dignity of individuals and families. The ethical dimensions of such a social plight as homelessness are complex; they call for, at both individual and collective level, not just the impulse for charity as an immediate response, but also a recognition of the requirements of social justice in terms of policy design and political choices. Indeed the current levels of inequality pose nothing less than a fundamental challenge to the legitimacy of institutions and the morality of the state.

The relevance of ethics in the social sphere is also immediately apparent in the area of work. We are challenged to interrogate current conceptions of the worker as being a mere unit of labour, rather than a human being and an active citizen engaged in a range of activities and social relations. Any consideration of the ethical and social dimensions of work and the workplace must challenge such an atomised view of the individual; it requires us to see the worker and her productivity, in her fullness as a citizen, connected to others through her family, her community, her participation in public or political endeavours, and living a full life which includes work, play, culture, spirituality, and study.

Beyond the human community, climate change constitutes a threat to life on this planet and presents a compelling case for the impossibility of persisting with our current models of economic development or indeed, for those of us in the wealthy parts of the world, with the lifestyles we have recently acquired. The ecological reality of our fragile planet exposes the fallacy of models of economics and growth which ignore the human and environmental context in which goods are manufactured and traded. This challenge of marrying ecology, economy and ethics can also be seen in the issue of farming, land use and global food production – and that great aspiration of providing nutrition to all of humanity without discrimination.

In the sphere of the relations between peoples and nations, the contemporary historical moment is marked by changing forms of conflict and the rise of extremism in many regions, including on the fringes of Europe. This calls for new modes of thinking, and for a new practice of diplomacy, one that reaches beyond the narrow pursuit of national interests. This will entail the creation of new global institutions, accompanied by new agreements, and perhaps even new systems of international law, as well as the restructuring of existing institutions.

The last great moment of international institution-building, in the period immediately succeeding World War II, was founded on a clear ethical bedrock; in that case the drafting and approval of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Were the international community to succeed in the great tasks it currently faces – in relation to conflict, shifting power-relations, intolerance, climate change, migration and inequality, to name but a few – then it must once again ground its work in a strong ethical framework.

As we tackle all of these great challenges, challenges which are public and political in nature, we must recognise that the very sphere of “the political” itself has been undergoing a very profound crisis over the last few decades, and that this has far-reaching consequences.

Political participation itself is generally in decline across the Western world. There is now a widely shared realisation that much of what has gone wrong, and that has weakened and eroded our society, has involved the alienation of political choices – such as those which I have just named – from the people affected. We have witnessed, in public commentary, in the media, including the social media, a reduction of issues that are crucial issues for our society to the status of merely technical problems, sometimes presented as the sole competence of experts and practitioners drawn from a very narrow field, where, very often, context is ignored, theoretical assumptions undeclared, and ethical reasoning bracketed off. In order to counter this trend, we urgently need, I suggest, to develop among our citizens an engaging, inclusive economic literacy that will demystify what is too often presented as being too complex for them.

Against this backdrop, the President’s Ethics Initiative has aimed to stimulate the kind of intellectual reflection that might suggest new ways of tackling these challenges and identify opportunities for solutions. This Initiative has sought to be, at its heart, a process and a discourse about democracy and empowered citizenship, about recapturing the public space so as to reinvigorate discussions around the issues that matter most to our citizens.

Very deliberately, this Ethics Initiative was not presented as a prescriptive enterprise, in that I did not seek to pre-empt the issues or themes which should be addressed under it. Neither was it designed to come up with a single strategy for how any one set of values or views on society should be realised. Rather, it was about opening up a national discussion centred on values, with the conviction that a richer national discourse, one that is grounded in ethical reasoning, could lead to better social outcomes, and that a more ethical society can indeed be fashioned by citizens joining together.

To address this crisis of legitimacy in our politics requires of us as citizens to claim and build a space for discussion in which everyone can participate. It has been widely welcomed, but it has also found itself, in certain circumstances, having to force its way in, and to create a space where such a reflection might be allowed. It requires, I repeat, citizens to be empowered, to be given the tools to participate effectively in that discussion, particularly in the sphere of economics, where we need no less, as I have already said, than a widely diffused campaign for an economic literacy that facilitates democratic engagement with policy options.

It was my view at the time of my election as President, and this view has been affirmed throughout this Ethics Initiative, that if we embrace a deeper sense of critical examination, if we rekindle ethical thinking, Ireland can be seen as having taken advantage of being at the cusp of a radical transformation. However, this will require being willing to take a bold step forward – a step of both an intellectual and practical kind. Rather than suggesting despondency, I consider such a collective examination of ethics in our society to be an expression of hope and an effort to utilise the strong moral core at the heart of our community. The response to the Ethics Initiative at all levels has shown that there is indeed, across all sectors of Irish society, a great willingness to take on this task.

The purpose of today’s Seminar, then, is to reflect back on what we have learned through the past year, and to discuss the steps we have identified, or might consider, so as to lay the foundations for an ethical society. The President’s Ethics Initiative is now drawing to a close and a final report will be prepared in the coming months. The seeds sown, however, will, I hope, continue to take root and flourish into the future.

So let us, together, engage with today’s National Seminar as an opportunity for taking stock of the fruits of the Initiative and also for looking to the future.

Within the course of this day, we will hear from the different constituencies that have been part of the Initiative, who will share their experiences and reflections. The first panel, this morning, will be composed of representatives of some of the third level institutions which have been most active in the Initiative. These institutions form an important resource in the life of our community and have an essential role to play in helping us to address the challenges before us.

I have, on several occasions, described the crisis of recent years as being an intellectual crisis as well as an economic crisis. If we recognise that the challenges of our time are intellectual in nature, we are forced to consider what role our public intellectuals and our institutions of learning have in supporting the building of a republic of ideas. By inviting the various universities to play a leading role in the President’s Initiative, my intention was to assist in that process. There is an unashamedly intellectual dimension to the job of work that has to be done and that is why the university sector, with its human capital and resources, was at the centre of this Initiative in its early stages.

The task of re-imagining our society from an ethical perspective requires reflection and open debate and the 60 events in the various universities have delivered rich outputs. I have been most impressed by the creative quality of what has taken place in the universities, the broad range of issues, and in particular the interdisciplinary emphasis of many of the events. There has been a great variety in the scale, form and content of the different events. Interestingly, where the results were most positive they were driven by those willing to give leadership on the project, to break down the barriers between disciplines, between institutions and between the academy and the community. I had the feeling, too, that academics, often within the same institution, were taking the opportunity to become aware of each other’s work on these issues of ethics.

The university events themselves have identified some main themes which map a set of priorities for future action, and others where heretofore considerations of ethics had been marginal. Among the themes identified, but not in a way that might be considered an exhaustive list, are:

· The role and duties of professional bodies and other stakeholder bodies in society;

· The ethical challenges posed by emerging technologies in the social and biological areas ;

· The ethical questions raised by urban planning and the built environment;

· Ethics in journalism and in the mass media;

· Religion in public life;

· Housing, homelessness and direct provision;

· The role of the State in present conditions of economic, social and political change and the growing gap between economic policy and the standards contained in treaties such as the Revised European Social Charter;

· The future of democracy in Europe and the fragility of the concept of Union in the European political landscape;

· Human rights and their relevance to the social issues of our time;

· The nature of contemporary conflict and the related challenge of building peace;

· The position of the conscientious objector and the ethical issues arising;

I am happy to see that many of these academic endeavours and initiatives are continuing or have inspired further projects and I hope that the Initiative will also continue to inspire new connections and collaborations between scholars and schools in the institutes of education. We need a pluralist intellectual environment and an activism that is radical in its moral reach, informed as to diversity, research based in an engaged manner, and above all dialogical, and able to engage in a discourse in an open ended way. For example, the need to break down disciplinary barriers, the need to become involved in public debate and in the media, the responsibility to serve equality through access to education at all levels.

University College Cork has made particular efforts in this regard which I want to acknowledge, through the establishment as a response to this Initiative of a Centre for the Study of the Moral Foundations of Economy and Society, which I will be opening in May, and through inter-institutional collaboration with Waterford Institute of Technology. Several other institutions have advanced inter-disciplinary cooperation internally and I commend them for that.

There can be no doubt that, in some quarters, a utilitarian view of education as a commodity and as an instrument of economic policy has, in recent years, sought to assert itself, often at the direct cost of academic integrity and academic freedom. Indeed this has been the specific topic of some of the events that have taken place under this Initiative, such as the Workshop in Critical Pedagogy hosted by the University of Limerick. This is also an issue I addressed at the beginning of my Presidency in a paper to the London School of Economics and it is one which I have returned to on several occasions since then, and I believe that the denigration of intellectualism in contemporary politics and policy formation is in fact one of the great ethical issues of our time in its own regard.

At the level of the broader education system, we must also probe the deficiencies and weaknesses of a model of education that has become increasingly and excessively instrumental in focus, emphasising a conception of the student as a future worker rather than as an active citizen. I referred also in my earlier speech on ethics how

“Our schools’ curricula and pedagogical methods reflect the kind of humanity our society seeks and nurtures. The society we so dearly wish for will not take shape unless we acknowledge the need for an education of character and desires, the need to encourage and support critical reflection and a more holistic approach to knowledge.”

While I made this point with specific reference to the value of teaching philosophy in our schools it is also of validity to the wider question of social and economic education.

Bridging the gap between the academy and the community, in both its teaching practices and its research, is one of the questions facing that sector and the Community Voices project, which has been initiated by a partnership between the University of Limerick, UCC and Limerick IT. This is a strong example of how this can be achieved and I look forward to hearing about the outcome from this university-community project this afternoon, and also to participating in the World-Cafe model which Chris McInerney and his colleagues have developed. This is one of many of the projects in the President’s Initiative which I am pleased to say will continue beyond this period and will provide a future source of inspiration.

Finally, this afternoon, we will hear from civic society organisations, whose mission has always been intrinsically engaged in promoting values in our society and in our politics. To many there is nothing new in this, but it is worth restating that the community and voluntary sector has always had its roots in an ethical worldview, often based in faith traditions or in the traditions of human rights and equality.

Civic society – that is the joint enterprise between groups of individuals around shared values and shared public objectives – is the lifeblood of a healthy community and a healthy nation. Participation in civic society, in the public space, is the opposite of individualism, atomisation and isolation. The continuing vibrancy of this sector, despite the great challenges it has faced in recent years, is itself an expression of how ethics and a concern for the dignity of others infuses the social action and the work of so many individuals and organisations and shows how this work is cherished in our society.

Five national community and voluntary organisations have responded to the President’s Ethics Initiative with their own projects and events and we will hear more about them this afternoon. The list of themes identified through the various events and activities is not exhaustive, but it does reflect some of the most pressing issues of our time.

Work and the position of the worker, is the subject of the Irish Congress of Trade Union’s “Ethical Workplace Initiative”, which is seeking workers’ views on the relevance of ethics to contemporary labour. This is a theme which I addressed in the Edward Phelan Lecture to the ILO and the NUI in February of this year.

Poverty and inequality was the theme of my address to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Annual Conference in September 2014 and the Society and the wider Vincentian movement has also responded by making the Initiative the main focus for the work of the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice in 2015.

The challenge of achieving equality and the protection of women’s rights was the theme of a major international conference hosted by the National Women’s Council of Ireland and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission in February.

Development, ecology and sustainability, and our place in the world are the focus of the European Year of Development, which is being run in Ireland by Dóchas, and I addressed the launch event of the European Year in January.

The occasion of the centenary of 1916 inspired The Wheel to undertake a national consultation process entitled “Community Voices” seeking to stimulate discussions about community values in a wide range of community settings, including in prisons and in other closed settings.

All of these projects will continue to generate ideas into the future and carry the idea of an ethical transformation more widely out into the community. The response to this Initiative and to the university and civic society projects has demonstrated the appetite that is there for further and deeper debate and also for the project of rebuilding and renewing our society in a more ethical and sustainable way. For all of us this Initiative can be seen as a call to action and a call to engagement and collaboration.

In my first speech on the topic of ethics, where I mapped out a vision for this Initiative in September 2013, I said that my Presidency would seek to develop an ethical discourse that places human flourishing at the heart of public action. In my Presidency, I have found that the framework of ethics has been a very useful mechanism for engaging with citizens and with themes of concern to citizens in a coherent and consistent way. What I have sought to do, in addition to those areas named, is to bring an ethical perspective to the centre of the Presidency, such as in addressing the present decade of commemorations from the perspective of an ethics of memory, and also in engaging with global affairs during my official visits to other countries, where I have approached issues of development, climate change and human rights from the perspective of human dignity and the ethics of sustainability and justice.

As we begin our discussions today, I invite you all to join with me in an open-minded and open-hearted discussion about the principles and values on which we might build a better future for our people. I believe that this is a moment of great hope and possibility for Ireland and our people, but that hope can only be fulfilled if bold changes are made in many aspects of our thought, our institutions, and our action. As we approach the centenary of the founding visionary document of our nation, this is an ideal moment to set about this ambitious task

Thank you.