Ethical arguments claim to guide our judgment and action. They explain not only what we should do by why we should do it. Some periods in history demonstrate widespread ethical agreement about right and wrong. This is not one of those times. Indeed, one of the distinguishing features of our social order is that our ethics is fragmented. We disagree about right and wrong, even in our internal conversations.
The MP for Wycombe, Steve Baker, provided a perfect illustration last week. Unlike many of his colleagues on the right, Mr Baker supports the measures the Government is taking to reduce the spread of Covid. When asked why, he reiterated his credentials as a free-market Conservative. However, he claimed to support restrictions on liberty “on utilitarian grounds”.
Utilitarianism, let it be remembered, judges actions by their consequences. In its classical Benthamite form, it teaches that we should do whatever creates the most good or averts the most harm. Its judgments are about the total good for the whole community. Mr Baker claimed that whilst in normal circumstances he values rights and liberties higher than communal goods, in this case he did not.
He therefore provided an example of ethics understood as a smorgasbord from which we choose whatever principle suits our preference at a particular time. This approach, so common in our times has two fatal weaknesses. First, it means that we have no consistent guide about right and wrong. Second, you need not be Immanuel Kant to know that if you are inconsistent in your ethics, then you have no reason to choose to be guided by ethics at all; you might as well act on whim. Mr Baker, perhaps unwittingly, demonstrates just what a mess we are in and why disputes in our social order are always resolved by power rather than by reason.
Ron Beadle – Professor of Organization and Business Ethics, Northumbria University