Sunday, February 21, 2010

Layer 250 . . . Citizen Ethics

It shouldn't really make any difference which actual number is used to differentiate one blog or piece of writing from another - none has any real significance, except maybe the first and the last. All the same, a quarter century of unintended writing seems like some kind of milestone.


I realise I haven't finished - nowhere near finished - my "stocktaking" of the events of 2009, but I shall come back to it, and it will be finished. Eventually.

After 250 blogs it might be an idea to re-think whether there's any real purpose in this kind of writing, and whether the apparent purpose really serves any purpose, or whether the purpose ought be re-thought, re-established, and reconfigured.


This blog's about taking stock of our current moral and political philosophy, our guiding ethics, our political process, our sense of purpose in the world, social justice, emotional and spiritual intelligence, social responsibility and empathy, citizenship, moral engagement, inequality, our economic system and what we mean by living a good life.

Oxzen may not have too much to say about such matters, but Oxzen recognises that these matters actually matter, that they affect people's lives, and that the good writing that's published elsewhere about them deserves to be recognised, widely disseminated, brought to people's attention, and seriously considered.

My main purpose in highlighting and drawing attention to what others have written about these matters, however, is for my own benefit - so that I have points of reference, milestones and signposts to return to, to chart my home territory, to remind me of the way to go whenever disorientation sets in or memory fails.

Yesterday The Guardian, in association with Citizen Ethics Network, published a supplement called Citizen Ethics. I think everyone should take some time to read the document that's available to be downloaded in PDF format from this website -

You can also get it on the Guardian website, as well as download it from there -

As ever, I'd like to summarise and to promote it with a few snippets:

We Need A Public Life With Purpose

By Michael Sandel

As frustration with politics builds . . . we must seize the chance to explore a new politics of the common good.

How can we achieve a just society?

Today, most of our political arguments revolve around welfare and freedom - increasing economic output and respecting people's rights. But a just society requires something more: reasoning together about the meaning of the good life.

Whether we're arguing about financial bailouts and bankers' bonuses, or the growing gap between rich and poor, or how to contend with the environmental costs of economic growth, questions of justice are bound up with competing notions of civic virtue and the common good.

In 2008, Barack Obama tapped Americans' hunger for a public life of larger purpose and articulated a politics of moral and spiritual aspiration.

As frustration with politics builds on both sides of the Atlantic, it is worth asking what a new politics of the common good might look like. Here are four possible themes:

1. Citizenship, sacrifice and service.

2. The moral limits of markets.

3. Inequality, solidarity, civic virtue.

4. A politics of moral engagement.


Part One

How do we decide our values?
How do we cultivate virtue?

Empathy, not individuality, is the key to humanity.
By Rowan Williams.

It is the extra things that make us human.

We learn this as children through fantasy and play. We keep it alive as adults through all sorts of "unproductive" activity, from sport to poetry.

This is closely connected with understanding and sympathy with others.  

This is a moment when every possible agency in civil society needs to reinforce its commitment to a world where thoughtful empathy is a normal aspect of the mature man or woman.

As for the character of human mutuality, this connects for me with the (Christian) belief that if someone else is damaged, frustrated, offended or oppressed, everyone's humanity is diminished.

We need to be able, in the political and economic context, to spell out what our commitments are and why, and what kind of human character we want to see.

Politics left to managers, and economics left to brokers, add up to a recipe for social and environmental chaos, and threaten the possibilities for full humanity.

It necessitates the the cultivation of virtue . . . the qualities of human behavior that make us more than reactive and self-protective - courage, foresight, self-critical awareness and concern for balanced universal welfare, which, under various names, have been part of the vocabulary of European ethics for 2,500 years.


Courage, modesty and wakefulness
By Philip Pullman

I want to praise virtue, and say why a nation, as well as an individual, needs to be virtuous.

When it comes to public virtue, William Blake's great poem Auguries of Innocence reminds us that the personal and the political, the small and the great, are one:

A dog starv'd at his Master's gate
Predicts the ruin of the State.
A Horse misus'd upon the Road
Calls to Heaven for Human blood . . .
The Whore and Gambler, by the State
Licens'd, build that Nation's Fate.

Are there any virtues in particular that ought to characterise a good state? I can think of three to start with.

The first is courage. Courage is foundational: it's what we need to do so as to be able to act kindly even when we're afraid, in order to exercise good and steady judgment even in the midst of confusion and panic.

A courageous nation would not be afraid of its own newspapers, for example, or toady to their proprietors; it would continue to do right even when loud voices were urging it to do wrong.

The second virtue I want to praise is modesty.

The third virtue I'd like to see in a nation is intellectual curiosity, a proper regard for history and for the arts and the sciences: wakefulness, in a word.

Such a nation would be active and enquiring of mind, quick to perceive and compare and consider; it would know at once when a government tried to interfere with its freedoms . . . and an attack on any of them would feel like a personal affront.

I saw [an example] recently of public virtue at work. [It was on] a television programme about the work Michael Rosen did not long ago in a school in South Wales where books had been undervalued. He showed everyone the profound value of reading and all it could do to enrich their lives, and he did so not by following curriculum guidelines and aiming at targets and putting children through tests, but by beginning with delight.

Delight is like a canary in a coal mine: while it sings we know that the great public virtue of liberty is still alive. A nation whose laws express fear and suspicion and hostility cannot sustain delight for very long. If joy goes, freedom is in danger. A nation that was brave, and modest, and curious would understand that, and would never forget the value of telling its children stories.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please leave a comment