What Finsbury Park and the Grenfell Fire has to tell us about how we come to an ethical understanding.
Whilst I was still in the police I had a good friend who was a care assistant. We had an interesting conversation about your responsibilities at a time of great distress for others. I remember that the reason the topic had arisen was that in the care home she worked at an elderly woman, who was well liked, had died. Her colleague had responded by dissolving into floods of tears which continued throughout their shift. She had rebuked my friend for not being in a similar state. My friend responded that the situation wasn’t about her, it was about the family; they were there to help them, not the other way around.
I’d agreed with her assessment. After dealing with numerous sudden deaths I was struck that there was never an occasion when the family of the deceased had not thanked me because to deal with it ‘would have been hard’. However I’d have been mortified if I’d felt that it was my behaviour that had promoted this selfless thought for others in trying circumstances. Like my friend I saw my job as being one of making the situation as smooth as possible; liaising between doctor and family if need be, to deliver difficult news about how the deceased had passed, organising the movement of the body, providing information on ‘next steps’ along with contact details if, in the stress of the situation, further questions arose when people were able to think more clearly.
At times when the death was sudden and their were difficult circumstances involved I or other officers have been requested to attend the scene to provide comfort for the victim whilst colleagues have fulfilled the work required for such an event.
This was all brought to mind following the aftermath of the tragedy at Grenfell Tower. Theresa May, it would appear, has fallen victim to not being ‘feminine’ enough. I don’t mean her style of clothes obviously, but her demeanour and actions following the fire. You see we live in an age were ethics are no longer seen as objective truths on the whole (unless they’re the ‘new’ ethics of course), which we meet or not, but rather people are good or bad and the ethical choices are a natural response from their being good or bad.
By people being good or bad I’m talking of their innate virtues, or their qualities. This idea of virtue was originally an approach to ethical thought cultivated by the Ancient Greeks; yet at this time they could be seen as, if not masculine, certainly of a stoic nature. They were temperance, justice, courage, and prudence. You can see how these attributes have parallels with the idea of ethics as duty.
However feminist thinkers have been successful in not only reframing this idea to include traditional, feminine qualities such as empathy, communication etc but it seems that now it is only these virtues that are seen as positive.
The political person in this news cycle that has most demonstrated these feminine attributes has been Mr Corbyn and, paradoxically, it is Mrs May that has been vilified for her duty based response.
It is worth considering in this heated political cycle that Kant, eons before the term virtue signalling, questioned this form of ethical thought as insufficient. He proposed that moral actions should be fulfilled out of duty.
Firstly, you needed to know what their intention was. After all someone may be acting from self interest, a charge that could be laid at Mr Corbyn’s feet, or it could be done because the actor felt a twinge of compassion.
The latter statement, that the actor could feel compassion but that this does not point to the act being necessarily moral, may seem surprising if not shocking. After all, as stated previously, our society has developed the idea of feminine virtue ethics to the point where it is now seen as a good in and of itself.
Let me utilise the example of Craig David who has been prompted by the fire to give his time to the tribute song being produced to raise money for its victims. However he was also involved in a tax avoidance scheme that was found to be illegal. His response then could be considered to be one of self interest and, even if it is one coupled with compassion, the latter could be questioned. After all, one can indulge in compassion, giving a little of the abundance that we are keeping for ourselves. In this way compassion is limited and becomes a commodity to serve ourselves, not the other.
Kant continues to critique this idea of feelings based morality pointing to the will to do the right thing; morality is something we have control over, but we don’t have control over our feelings. All people can be moral by choosing duty, even when they don’t feel as virtue ethics dictate. So, in the fairytale of Beauty and the Beast the prince may have been repulsed by the old woman asking for help, but this is irrelevant. It was his neglect of his duty towards the apparent old woman that makes him immoral.
The other irony is that those promoting this emotion based form of ethics would rightly not condone the Finsbury Park terror attack at recently. However, the driver of the van used emotion to provide impetus for his actions. You may argue that his was the wrong emotion, but if he said it was a desire for justice, it would surely come to judgement about who is able to define what truly equates a desire for justice, rather than revenge.
Emotion without reason cannot provide a basis for sound, moral judgement. Kant argued the way to understand what the moral thing to do is to universalise the morality; it must hold for everyone in all cupircumstances.
So acts of revenge, even if from a ‘just’ sense of emotion, would lead to a society were there would be violant acts without the opportunity of others to defend themselves, and without mercy. Would you want this standard applied to you and the wrong you’ve done?
Let’s return to Mrs May. Although people are berating her for carrying out her sense of duty, and not responding with evident emotion, spending time with the victims of the Grenfell fire, what if we universalise this. This would mean that all people, in all roles, would put their emotional response before the role that they occupy. Although sometimes these things may overlap, how would we expect fire officers to hold and comfort the people on the ground instead of fighting the fire?
Or for medical staff to respond first with emotion, not with their medical expertise?
We have one Prime Minister, yet other people who can fulfil the need for comfort, which they did.
What of Mr Corbyn’s suggestion that house be reqiusitioned; do we want a society based on that idea? If morality is forced at the point of law how moral is our society? How do we universalise this?
How to can we criticise the response that led to Finsbury Park whilst maintaining that a violent response tot her fire, the threats and intimidation directed at Mrs May, are ok?
We cannot want a world where our morality is dictated by emotion without reason, or we will have a world where we have no standard morality with which to critique the actions that led to Finsbury Park, or the other recent atrocities, without to wholly subjective perspectives. We cannot have a world were emotion is elevated above duty or the will to forgive after such atrocities will be negated if we don’t feel like forgiving.