Wednesday 24 August 2016

Higgins gently pushes the boundaries of his office with public discussion on ethics

Published 26/06/2014 | 02:30

Michael D. Higgins.
Michael D. Higgins.

Once more unto the "ethical" breach then for President Michael D Higgins. Only this time, it would seem, a little more gingerly. The President returned to his "Ethics Initiative" in remarks delivered at a specially hosted garden party at the Aras yesterday.

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His previous foray into this territory last September had caused quite a bit of controversy, amid accusations that the President was being ideological and one-sided.

These latest comments were a lot more careful. His September speech, entitled 'Toward an Ethical Economy', had – his critics said – exclusively extolled left-of-centre thinkers and resorted to name calling by the use of the label "neoliberal".

This time there wasn't a mention of neoliberalism or its advocates Milton Friedman or Friedrich Von Hayek. And there was no extolling of the virtues of the likes of Andre Orlean or Emile Durkheim.

That, however, is not to say the President's views have changed in the interim period. Hardly.

The language may have been more couched – not least because these were pretty short remarks welcoming the specially invited guests to the garden party, as opposed to a formal speech. But anyway the subtext was hardly different.

The President spoke of the need to "unlearn" some of the "unquestioned assumptions" that he said underpinned contemporary public discourse on what is taken to constitute 'prosperity' or 'the good life'.

And when he talked of the need to "examine the ethical implications of some of the assumptions that guide the hegemonic theories within the discipline of economics", it was pretty obvious which 'hegemony' he was referring to.

His critique of what he terms "pervasive assumptions" about competition as the core impulse of human life, "unrestrained" self- interest, and conceptions of value being based on what can be measured, will strike a chord with many people, and not just in Ireland.

As will his line that the "challenge of living together in a way that permits human flourishing cannot be delivered merely by the operation of the market".

Although he clearly prides himself on being a deep thinker, the President is realistic enough to know that there are difficulties in getting ethics, as he put it, "out of the ivory tower and the pulpit, back down into the market square".

Despite his belief that many Irish citizens are reflecting on such matters and his ethics "enterprise" can resonate with the public, the suspicion is that most people are too busy making ends meet to have the time or inclination to linger on such lofty, though important, matters.

The President's use of terms such as 'hegemony' and 'Homo Economicus' (the notion in economic theory that humans are 'rational and narrowly self- interested actors who make judgements towards getting to their subjectively defined ends' – in case you're wondering) probably doesn't help in terms of getting the issues discussed in the "market square".

However, despite the somewhat lofty approach, it's hard not to admire President Higgins' 'glass half full' approach when he spoke of his belief that citizens were "willing to move beyond anger and recrimination as a simple, unreflective response to recent difficulties".

Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore might disagree given the pasting their two parties took at the polls last month. But the President believes people 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".

Politicians privately doubt such sentiments, believing that many people will vote for parties and individuals who tell them what they want to hear. Despite the flowery language about 'projecting our lives together', the more cynical will hold to the view that self-interest is what drives most voters – witness Fine Gael's determination to get tax cuts onto the political agenda for the upcoming Budget.

But, notwithstanding the worry that this debate will go over the heads of most people and the practical difficulties about actually achieving this new ethical collectivity (it sounds suspiciously like Tony Blair's 'third way'), the President should probably be commended for trying to create discussion around the issue.

As part of this public discussion, he intends to host an event in the Aras next Spring to "bring together the various strands of this Ethics Initiative".

The wider public might not be holding their 'collective' breath, but it will be fascinating to observe how the President negotiates what is likely to be tricky terrain, given the strict confines of his office.

Guests at the Aras yesterday were entertained by the brilliant Galway band 'The Walls'. One of their best known hits was 'Brewing Up A Storm'. Despite the measured tone of the President yesterday, don't be surprised if this 'Ethics Initiative' manages to achieve just that.

Shane Coleman

  • Shane Coleman is the presenter of the Sunday Show on Newstalk 106-108FM.

Irish Independent

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