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Ethics, intellectualism and Michael D.
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Ethics, intellectualism and Michael D.

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Working and living in Ireland, I am struck by the intellectualism and respect for intellectualism - and also the dangers of abstraction and a real hatred of intellectuals in certain quarters. It 's nice to live in a country that names its ferries after some of its great writers and has a President who makes 2013 "the crisis in ethics and the crisis among the intellectuals"....a President, Michael D. Higgins, who was once a Lecturer in Sociology and Politics. But it is striking for me as a newbie to Ireland to hear and see how much trust has been lost in the institutions and how profound an ethical insecurity that involves. The political scientist Hyden once outlined the importance of civic idealism in development and I am not sure that Ireland has discovered its own version of civic idealism yet, public work remaining seriously limited by familial ties and local history. Anyway here is a passage from a recent interview with Michael D.:

 

"Q. Your theme for next year is the crisis in ethics and the crisis among intellectuals. What do you hope to do in that context in 2013? 
 
 
A. There’s a new phase of speeches coming. They will take the argument onto the next stage. The London School of Economics speech (on February 21st 2012) was on the role of the public intellectual. The one of gave in NUI (Janaury 21st 2012) was about the universities in a time of crisis and then I spoke in Trinity (February 3rd 2012) at an economics one on investigating the assumptions of economics. 

But what I have to do now in the next part is to take on the question `what is achievable, both in the short to medium term, in terms of making changes that will give us a more ethical life together’ 

I actually think that Leonard Cohen is useful there. You know that song he has about `the cracks that let in the light’..….It isn’t sufficient any longer to say that extreme individualism and unrestrained, unregulated markets create a post-ethical or unethical existence. It is how are you going to lodge ethics in the society? This raises issues for education, for professional practice. 

I actually think some of the areas where I worked are losing now. I believe that the commitment to human rights, for example, was much stronger in the 1990s than it is 20 years later. Therefore I’m going to try in these next speeches to look at…the lodgement of an ethical perspective. For example, and it is a good question, can economics be made ethical? Can efficiency, innovation, adaptation be delivered in a way that is ethically driven? Can education itself transcend neo-utilitarian excesses to the point at which it takes account of the total person in a holistic way? 

Then you move on..…..There has been such a sacrificing of trust, complete loss of trust in some professions…..some people threw over what were traditional restraints in the name of being modern. With that alleged modernity came a total suspension of ethical standards. This is certainly true in the case of some parts, not all, of the financial sector, the legal profession. Then over in the medical profession……. 
  
Q. What about the political profession? 
  
A. I think that one needs to address….institutional inadequacy. How is a legislative proposal initiated and where does it come from? How is it processed and is it processed with participation? How is it administered? I’ve seen advocacy groups work for 20 years on getting as far as a piece of legislation but then the implementation of the legislation is frustrated by a whole set of bureaucratic blocks. 

And there is a very serious bureaucratic problem in this country…a very serious problem of hierarchy. It’s very fine to ask public servants to be flexible but there is a hierarchical structure there. There are still many elements of patriarchy and what I think is extraordinary to me at this stage of my life looking back on it after nearly a half a century as a sociologist, I find it shocking the ease with which authoritarianism emerges and the expressions of authoritarianism…..I spoke about it recently to a very senior person, about where people are almost waiting for their authoritarian moment…"

The rest of the interview is here.

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