We must listen to intellectuals, not mock them
Principles are what we should live by, not what we drop when the going gets tough, writes Emer O'Kelly
Published 29/12/2013 | 02:30
THE President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, is about to initiate a project concerning national ethics. Dear God in heaven, there he is, with a gammy knee, in his 70s, in an office which by statute precludes all political involvement; and he hopes to turn us away from the path we have, on all the evidence, trodden for the past 50 years at least? He wants us to learn to behave honourably.
Apparently President Higgins has been building towards this over the past year, in the speeches he has delivered, notably at Dublin City University and at the Sorbonne in Paris. So he has been thinking about it for a long time, and is certainly not going off at half-cock. Does he have the faintest idea what he's trying to take on?
He hopes that the initiative will culminate in a conference at Aras an Uachtarain next autumn. Now there's proof of an idealist if ever there was one: that there might be hope of turning us away from our narrow-minded, belligerent "me-feinism" and cute-hoorism, and above all our climate of aggressive clientelism ... all in the space of a year?
When he spoke at DCU in September, President Higgins said we needed an approach towards the economy that was not focused on the markets and their values. He believed, he said, that "maintaining and enhancing human livelihoods" involved work outside the market economy. Six months before that, when he spoke at the Sorbonne, the president called for a broader concept of Europe: "bound by culture, morality, and history".
Those are the two headlines, and he never said a truer word. He also spoke a lot of what some might call highminded waffle. Maybe that was why the speeches didn't exactly bring the world to a halt. Or maybe some of the people who were listening were glad of the accompanying waffle: it stopped "ordinary" people getting the message. And the message is/was that we are destroying what we call our own souls, which we are possibly entitled to do, but along the way, we are also destroying the souls of others: a destructive, immoral, and ultimately desolate path. And if that sounds a note of recognition for our dreadful problem of youth suicide, it should.
But now some third-level institutions here are combining subjects to offer a degree course in ethics. And some are working with the wider communities in their areas to raise an overall awareness of an ethical approach to life and society. And between now and the planned conference, various themes will be explored; they will include the future of Europe, and the meaning of "global dependency". The people involved, apparently, also plan to concentrate on issues "of interest to young people".
And there's where I start to part company with the president. Ethics are universal and ageless. By tailoring our thought processes concerning them to a particular age group, we are putting limits on them. By speaking of changing the focus of Europe, it seems to be implied that the EU as we know it is quintessentially "immoral". Because ethics is merely another word for morality. And, a market economy is not necessarily immoral. And to define the market economy as unethical/immoral is to take a politically ideological stand. Once we do that, we cut ourselves off from influencing half the world. Because to be politically opposed to the market economy is confusing politics with morality. And over the long, weary and destructive years of the cold war, we saw how far right-left ideological clashes got us: into a stalemate of mistrust.
If the president's initiative is to work, it has to start small: it must not try to "go global." We need to concentrate on the immoralities in our own society, of which there are many, none of them ideological. We need, above all, integrity in public life. It means an end to the culture that is one thing on the surface, something to keep the little people happy, and something far darker in reality, a silent club that retains all real power in a closed circle with its own secret codes.
That means valuing the people who tell us what we don't want to hear. It means electing intellectuals to represent us in the Dail instead of sneering at them. It means refusing to trust the empty promises. Day by day, our complacent power structures crumble around us, showing that the backrooms of our society have been inhabited for many years by what some of us call a cynical clique whose main aim is to maintain control of our daily lives and share the benefits among themselves. We are beginning to realise that most of us have not had a say in what we call our democracy. But we show no signs of wanting to change utterly the system that allowed this to happen; we even have family dynasties of politicians.
Condemning the market economy is not going to change that. Learning to use it with honour just might. During the years of our spurious prosperity, we became vilely vulgar. That would not have happened if we had a worthwhile value system in the first place.
In fifth year in school, I remember attending an outside course at a place called (I think) the Catholic Institute of Sociology. I got a diploma too: in social ethics. And all I remember of the course was the summation that true ethics were to be found only in Catholicism, that all others were inherently deceptive and false. I didn't agree, even then. So, the definition of ethics can be subjective if it is viewed either religiously or politically. The supporters and practitioners of apartheid, after all, convinced themselves that it was ethical to keep black people in subjection ... they would not be able to cope with political freedom and education. What the president calls "an ethical consciousness" can only be fostered outside ideologies. It starts with the old adage of teaching people how to think, not what to think. It means giving them a value system from an early age, where principles are what you live by, not what you drop when the going gets tough. It means an education system based on thought and reason, not on social engineering to feed the needs of the economy.
It means learning from history rather than blindly defending or ignoring it. It means a political system which does not snigger at intellectualism.
And that, of course, means de-constructing the current trends in education. We have to go back to the classical system of using education for itself, to give us the ability to reason and make judgements for ourselves rather than blindly accepting the status quo.
It means, for instance, valuing an excellent third level technical institute for what it is, rather than feeling the necessity to call it a university. That would show that we value all levels and types of achievement equally. It would mean maintaining standards in education rather than dumbing down to win the educational numbers game.
The president has suggested that philosophy should be taught in schools. It would be a hell of a start. But that would be the core of a revolution. And I have a feeling he's not going to achieve it, not even in 10 lifetimes.