Archive for September, 2008

Ethical approaches

Posted on September 23, 2008. Filed under: Ethics |

Wondered if ethical approaches could be put in a kind of matrix or typology, along the following lines:

a) Judeo-Christian = emphasis on goodness, idealised versions of humanity (eg Christ figure); dualistic, with God= Good; Satan = evil. Purpose of religion is to ensure highest ethics with heavenly rewards. In time, ethics and role of religion become entwined with support for social stability (though revolutionary ethics also found in S.American Church leaders). The standards are set by an external, watchful deity to encourage goodness, punish badness.

b) Classical ethics – Aristotle = virtue ethics, emphasis on personal character, what makes a good man? Different dimensions of virtue – do not need to be absolute to be virtuous. Discussion is centred on the individual not transcendent Power. Sense that character involves negotiation with self, caught between conflicting impulses. Reason is instrument for determining ethics.

c) Eastern/Asian ethics – Tao, Confucian approaches = man contains good and bad; goal is to create harmony not goodness. Bad cannot be excluded any more than night can; union of opposites (yin/yang ). Perhaps also distinction between ego-driven behaviour and self-acceptance as basis for ethics? God is implied as internal rather than external presence – esoteric not exoteric law making.

I’d guess most western ethics rests on a) and b). Writers like Neitzsche and Jung are drawn to the third  – harder to articulate in many ways – not integrated into the culture like the others, but offers a rich mix of philosophy and psychology. Seems both blindingly self-evident and an inexplicable secret.

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Nietzsche – good for a laff

Posted on September 11, 2008. Filed under: Reading | Tags: |

I suspect Nietzsche is one of those writers you absorb by cultural osmosis – through rock lyrics and T shirts and graffiti (my favourite being the one about the abyss looking back) – on which basis I have always assumed him to be a miserable bastard, the Leonard Cohen of philosophers. But then I adore Mr Cohen (Edinburgh castle concert = highlight of 08) and don’t find him remotely depressing. Perhaps when young, the relentless gaze into the bleakness is associated with a doomy romanticism but, decades on, the bleakness makes me laugh.

So I had no idea I’d find Nietzsche funny, but it now makes perfect sense. Kafka is funny too – and I got his humour as an undergraduate.

Picked him up as he’s an important influence on Jung and tho I’ve only read Beyong Good and Evil (BG&E) so far, can already see why. Partly the style – conversational, aphoristic, full of asides and en passant observations – which can be found in late Jung, like Memories, Dreams and Reflections. It is so NOT academic, reflecting a time and culture perhaps where a thinker’s insights were declared, or offered, without a peppering of references and footnotes. Not that N writes in a vacuum, there are many references to contemporaries and predecessors, just that he doesn’t bolster his own claims with citations. There’s a freedom here, which allows for battiness and ghastiliness – the dismissal of women in BG&E for one – but also marvellousness.

I loved the quality of writing – as translated by Hollingdale in the Penguin Classic – in phrases like:

We Europeans of the day after tomorrow, we first-born of the twentieth century – with all our dangerous curiosity, our multiplicity and art of disguise, our mellow and as it were sugared cruelty in spirit and senses…………….

Sugared cruelty!

Somewhere else he talks about the English church – which makes Sundays so tedious the population long for Monday morning and work….

However most of the quotes I’ve harvested are to do with morality and ethics and this is where the connection to Jung really  kicks in. N forensically exposes the cant & hypocrisy of his age & particularly religion, showing how it creates ‘slave’ morality of conformism and abdication of personal responsibility. And while his Ubermensch solution is not mine or Jung’s, his critique of the culture clearly resonates with Jung’s rejection of his bourgeois background and generations since (my own background was pure bohemian, so harder to reject, but I still identify with the spirit of it all). He also talks frequently about the psychology of morality, helping create the space for Jung, and others, to explore fundamental approaches to ethics and being.


For to translate man back into nature; to master the many vain and fanciful interpretations and secondary meanings which have been hitherto scribbled and daubed over that eternal basic text ‘homo natura’; to confront man henceforth with man in the way in which , hardened by the discipline of science, man today confronts the rest of nature……that may be a strange and extravagant task but it is a task – who would deny that?

His struggle for core meaning echoes that of Jung and both accept the centrality of spirituality or the transcendent, containing the union of opposites. Because N also proposes, as is implied by the title, the rejection of the good/bad duality that characterizes most religion and this is at the heart of my own ‘take’ on Jung as an ethicist: that wholeness, reality, authenticity (all loaded words that need unpacking) is a truer (ditto) basis for ethics than observance of others’ rules. Dangerous stuff tho – be careful where it leads…….

Note to self: Jung states he was most influenced by Twilight of the Gods and Thus Spake Zarathustra, so those come next, along with various books, chapters and papers on the connection between these two thinkers. Must be careful not to get too sidetracked  as this relationship is not a central theme, but a way of setting Jung in his intellectual and philosophical context.

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Conferenced out – pt 2

Posted on September 4, 2008. Filed under: Conference reports |

So, on to the next gathering: the conference on professional ethics organised by the Professional Association Research Network (PARN) and the Centre for Applied Ethics (CAPE) at Kingston University, which was a stimulating gathering of senior professionals, representatives from professional bodies and a scattering of academics. Having had several discussions in Stirling about the relationship between theory and practice (I confessed to a certain boredom with practice-based PR research – a minority view), I found it really engaging to deal with the practical and ethical issues facing a range of professionals including accountants, physicians, nurses, psychologists.

I noticed in a slightly sneery way that many presenters gave cod philosophical underpinnings for their 3 points of ethics or 5 principles for best practice, throwing around words like ‘trust’, ‘transparency’, ‘truth’, ‘accountability’ etc. as if the words were unproblematic and their deployment provided instant remedies for the ethical problems facing professionals. The favourite word was ‘integrity’ which was presented as an easily accessible quality – appliqué rather than applied ethics. But then realised that they were profoundly engaged with those dilemmas, trying to negotiate the complex and contradictory demands of modern professionalism – how to maintain standards in a modern business world.

One presenter from the Securities and Investment Institute encapsulated my split response: the first half was an utterly uncritical look at the difficulties facing financial institutions, poor mites, and how there were only a few Enrons, and World Coms and Parmalats, and anyway the BBC was in trouble too, so there, and lack of trust hurts us all and besides it’s all the media’s fault…. Then he offered a blinding example of a company whose MD discovered his pitching team were basing their proposal to an important prospective client on papers left behind by a rival firm. We were offered a range of responses, from congratulating the team on their enterprise to pulling all bids for the business. Astonishingly most of the audience and the business involved actually chose the latter. So, for all the dubious waffle, hard choices are being made.

The best speakers were the key note presentations which started each session, notably that from Andrew Weissman, chief prosecutor in the Enron case who gave vivid examples and memos that illustrated the corporate culture that ensured so many perfectly intelligent professionals could conspire to rob their shareholders and employees. (My favourite memo involved ‘seagull tactics’: make a lot of movement and noise to distract the customers, dump a load of shit – and fly away). He talked about the ‘silent insiders’ not only at Enron but at Anderson, Merrill Lynch and others who enabled the whole operation and the current problems following the Sarbanes-Oxley act to correct past abuses. Other speakers included John Saunders, Chairman of the Royal College of Physicians Committee on Ethical Issues in Medicine, who used Kant to validate his ideas but ended up as a model of patrician ‘objectivity’, promoting professional bodies as more reliable guarantors of ethics than democracy. Stan van Hooft from Deakin University, Australia, was the main academic speaker and he outlined the principles of Socratic dialogue – which we later explored in practise (see below).

Parallel session offered a wide range of case studies and practical examples of how professional bodies are developing ethical ideas and practices. There was strong representation from the various fields of health, finance and education as well as social work, computer and other biotechnical ethics.

My own paper was pleasantly received with an encouraging array of questions, requests for full papers and exchanges of cards. Most people seemed to respond to Jung’s idea that integrity occurs as the result of a profound internal struggle and that holistic ethics need to be preceded by recognition and negotiation of the personal and professional ‘dark side’. The most challenging question was one I’ve faced before: why would any professional body expose its own shortcomings? My answer is similar to that I’d give to an individual resisting therapy – no one volunteers to explore the issues they’ve spent years avoiding unless the current situation is too painful to be tenable. Of course professional bodies would be engaging in this debate in the public sphere not private consulting rooms – it will take moral leadership to encourage such self-awareness. But then ethical debate offers just such a framework, doesn’t it?

Found exposing my PhD to fresh air somewhat sobering – the ideas are interesting enough, but there’s no shortage of interesting ideas out there. Maybe I get a bit over excited by world changing potential of stuff I’m reading and writing – conference papers provide a healthy corrective.

A special extra to the event was the opportunity to participate in a Socratic Dialogue facilitated by Stan van Hooft. About 10 delegates spent two hours exploring a particular idea generated from amongst us, defining its parameters and deconstructing its key elements and assumptions until we were able to agree a summary of the situation, at which point we would have started again… I found it an enjoyable and interesting experience, as one who is always happy to wade into an intellectual argument, but felt at the end that it achieved a majority view rather than a true consensus as the ‘spiral of silence’ kicked in. In the end, so much communication is emotional, driven by fear, pride, display and concealment: to expect a perfect harmony as an outcome may be unrealistic, but it was an engaging journey and one that provides an excellent teaching tool at all levels.

So, a stimulating and varied conference – very well organised by PARN and Intercape. But curiously unself-critical: no-one raised the current crisis in attitudes towards professionals as a whole, or the scepticism about the ethical claims made by various professional bodies. The literature paints a picture of existential angst as the professions loose their status in society and try to bolster their diminishing esteem by Just Say No brands of ethics. But these people seemed confident about their fields and hopeful about developing ethics – are the critics too removed from the practice or are the professionals simply deluded?

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