Accessibility links

Let me start by saying how deeply, deeply sorry I am not to have posted on this site for so long.  I would offer up all the usual excuses but the bottom line is I failed against the standards any reader of a blog has a right to expect.  In short, I let you down and, in doing so, I let myself down.

OK, I don't really feel quite that sorry but it seemed an appropriate way to start a post about whether today is a milestone in an 'ethical revolution'.  It seems that gradually, in a range of areas, we are now talking about how ethical standards can be raised.

It started, of course, with the banks. The general view that unrestrained greed led to the Crash has gradually prompted a wider debate about corporate activities.  That debate reached a milestone today with the PM and Ed Miliband both trying to outdo the other with speeches on 'croney capitalism'.  Fascinatingly, this deeply moral debate now incorporates far more than excessive banking bonuses.  Tax avoidance, corporate takeovers, and the treatment of consumers also seem fair game on both sides of the Commons.

Then there is the media. The moral shock and professional introspection caused by phone-hacking has just reached a new pinnacle with the news that Jude Law received a considerable payout.  And again, just as bonuses led to a wider ethical consideration of corporate Britain, so phone-hacking has created a deeper debate about journalistic ethics centred on the extraordinary Leveson Inquiry.

Into the mix, we can throw the Summer riots and youth crime.  While there are some who are deeply concerned at the way the courts have reacted, polls show that the extra tough sentences have wide public approval.  However, there is also a deeper discussion underway about why so many young people took part in that orgy of violent materialism.  Many are now asking what sorts of social, economic and ethical degeneration lie behind such behaviour.  That debate was given a significant boost today by the news that violent crime had risen significantly in the last year.

Whether these disparate concerns might turn into a more expansive questioning of standards across all classes, ages and professions probably depends on whether they can be joined by one single narrative.  Broken Britain which has long been a political theme does not quite capture the potentially comprehensive nature of the introspection because its focus has always been on the crime and anti-social behaviour aspect. An ethical revolution in the 2010s, to match the social revolution of the 1960s perhaps, would have to begin with a debate about the very nature of our ethics as a society. If it remains focused purely on certain professional or age groups, it is little more than a self-satisfied and sometimes hypocritical pointing of the finger.

Maybe, as in the 1960s, the key is popular culture because of its pervasive nature and huge influence. So it is interesting that concern about ethical standards in popular culture seems to constantly bubble below the surface waiting for an event to kick off public debate.  For example, the X Factor came close to a major scandal this year over its treatment of vulnerable contestants.  In the wake of the riots, some questioned the role that the music business plays in  promoting lawlessness. And the advertising, fashion and pop music industries' relentless use of sexual imagery seems regularly on the brink of major challenge. 

Of course, a big question is whether such an ethical revolution, were it to happen, should be welcomed. My feeling is generally positive but with some concerns.  I think a world where people are less self-centred and where the achievement of success has clearer boundaries is a better world.  I simply don't buy the crass version of Adam Smith's invisible hand theory which states that self-interested behaviour leads to better outcomes for all.  (Incidentally neither did Adam Smith!)

My concern is that a more strident ethical sense does risk shading into intolerance of difference.  The post-war period, for example, was characterised by strong ethics but one built around a very restrictive notion of what constituted correct behaviour or lifestyles.  The same could be said of the conservative right in the US where higher ethical standards of the sort discussed here are muddled up with intense hostility to secularism and gay people.

In fact, maybe it is the very notion of an ethical revolution that combines higher standards of professional and personal behaviour with respect for diversity and difference that can provide the narrative to weave the fragmented concerns together.

Now, I really must prepare my apology for writing such a long blog post.


Be the first to write a comment

Please login to post a comment or reply.

Don't have an account? Click here to register.