Ethics Initiative Garden Party

Published: Tue 1st Jul, 2014 | 16:49

Remarks by President Michael D. Higgins
At a Garden Party to mark the President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative
Áras an Uachtaráin
Wednesday, 25th June 2014

Dia dhaoibh a chairde, Sabina and I are very happy to welcome you to áras an Uachtaráin – fearaim fíorchaoin fáilte roimh gach duine atá linn tráthnóna. We are both looking forward to sharing your company for an afternoon of enjoyment, friendship and stimulating conversations.

Today’s garden party is held under the auspices of The President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative, which I launched in November 2013 as a project to stimulate discussion across all sectors of Irish society on the challenges of living together ethically, and what is demanded at this beginning of the twenty-first century.

May I thank each and every one of you for travelling from all over Ireland to join us this afternoon. Whether you are here as representatives of community groups, charities or professional bodies, or as members of third level institutions who have engaged with the Ethics Initiative, or simply as citizens who have written to me to express your interest in this Initiative – and you are many –, I wish to convey my gratitude for your contribution in initiating, or expanding, the public discussion that is now underway on the values and principles by which we wish to live together as a society.

I am also delighted to welcome some representatives from the daily print and broadcast media. The fourth estate has an essential role in reflecting, provoking, and even stimulating, this national conversation on collective values.

I want to thank you for the coverage you may have given to this Initiative to date and the enthusiasm which you have shown for it.

Of course, I am well aware that there are many complex and interesting questions as to ethics which speak directly to journalists, editors, and media owners too – although maybe I should leave that for the more liberated and animated conversation during our refreshments!

A collective assessment of our contemporary ethical norms and values is both important and timely, as Ireland is emerging from a crisis that has not only economic but also political, social, intellectual and moral ramifications. More broadly, the Irish people – as indeed other nations of the world – are called upon to tackle the great challenges of uncertain and volatile times, be it in relation to developments in technology and science, economic and financial globalisation, unsustainable high levels of inequality and poverty, the scale of migrations worldwide, or – most urgently – global climate change.

In short, we are collectively and urgently challenged to find a distinctive, engaged and moral voice, to be conscious actors rather than passive targets in the current global flux of disintegrating models of social, economic and political life – circumstances that challenge the participatory core of democracy itself.

We are challenged to articulate answers that are intellectually original and morally grounded to those complex issues facing our society.  And as we endeavour to do so, the first intellectual step might be, I would like to suggest, that of “unlearning.”

Indeed it is my profound conviction that in order to recover the ability to generate fresh and innovative thinking, we may first need to “unlearn” some of the unquestioned assumptions that underpin contemporary public discourse on what is taken to constitute ‘prosperity’ or ‘the good life.’

There is, in particular, a pressing need – you will have heard or read in my speeches, and I repeat it – to critically examine the ethical implications of some of the assumptions that guide the hegemonic theories within the discipline of economics, assumptions that are not morally neutral, and that have come to permeate very deeply not only policy making, but also the way we conceive of our living together.

Assumptions that suggest that generalised competition is the core impulse of human life; suggestions as to the inevitability of unrestrained self-interest; and conceptions of value as being confined by methodological definition to what is measurable: such ideas have become so pervasive, and caused so much damage, in our collective life that we are morally challenged to confront them.

In seeking to invigorate a wide public debate on ethics, I thought it appropriate to begin by inviting Irish third level institutions and the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) to rise to the challenge I outlined to them, and to do so in whichever form they thought most suited to their ethos and academic strengths. I find greatly encouraging the positive response that Irish universities, institutes of technology and the RIA gave to that invitation, the profusion of stimulating ideas they put forward, and their commitment to organise some 50 events over the course of this year and beyond.

This demonstrates that our academic institutions can play, when invited, an important part in nurturing alternative ways of thinking; it shows that the Irish academic community is eager to recover the moral purpose of original, emancipatory scholarship. May I extend my sincere thanks to all of you here who have contributed to this collective endeavour.

My hope is that, having made such a good beginning among students and academics, the debate on ethics will garner momentum at all levels of Irish society. Of course, I am conscious of the difficulties entailed in getting ethics, as I put it in another speech earlier this month, “out of the ivory tower and the pulpit, back down into the market square”, but I have an instinct and trust that such an enterprise is resonating with the wider public, for the simple reason that it is a reflection many Irish citizens have already undertaken.

As members of a small society which has been affected more than most by the global financial crisis, Irish people have been led to an abrupt and painful realisation that the challenge of living together in a way that permits human flourishing cannot be delivered by relying merely on the operation of the market in areas essential to our lives together. Scholarship and experience tell us that humans are far less calculating than the so-called Homo Economicus of the contemporary economics textbooks, and that the invitation to view the citizens of the world as rational, self-interested utility maximisers has inflicted deep injuries on our moral imaginations – including our capacity to conceive of our relations with others, at home and abroad, and with our natural environment.

I am convinced that our citizens are willing to move beyond anger and recrimination as a simple, unreflective response to recent difficulties. They are eager to discuss a new set of principles by which they might represent and project their lives together, and with all those with whom we share our common and fragile planet.

Needless to say, I very much welcome, and will welcome, your suggestions on how to best encourage a public discussion of ethics that is as wide-ranging as possible, and engages communities across the island of Ireland. I also wish to avail of this occasion to announce that I intend to host an event in Áras an Uachtaráin in the Spring of 2015, that will bring together the results of the various strands of this Ethics Initiative.

In the meantime, for this afternoon, Sabina and I invite you to enjoy the day and the company. We have delicious food prepared at break of light by the staff this morning and great music for you, and we hope that this afternoon will be propitious to novel encounters and interesting discussions.

On your behalf and my own, I thank all the staff here, in Áras an Uachtaráin, for their hard work, unfailing good humour and – not least – culinary skills, all gifts which contribute in no small part to the success of this afternoon’s party. We are grateful, too, to the assistance of the Civil Defence, the Army, Captain John Dicker and the Vehicle Workshops, and the 2nd Cavalry Squadron.

May I also thank our talented MC this afternoon, Claire Byrne, and our fantastic entertainers: Róisín O, Kieran Hanrahan and his special guests, The Henry Girls, and Dominic McGorian. And of course I am particularly delighted that my old friends Steve and Joe Wall, of the eponymous band The Walls, are performing for us today.

May all of you enjoy the house, the gardens, and make yourself at home.

Bainigí sult as an lá, agus bígí ar bhur suaimhneas!