Slow ethics will tackle moral winter

We need to calm our frenetic lives and let virtues such as integrity, patience and respectfulness prevail, reflects Ann Gallagher

January 10, 2013

It appears that we are in the midst of a moral winter. We are chilled by revelations that those we think ought to know and be better, cannot be relied on to do the right thing. Members of the police force are discovered to be dishonest; politicians are outed as untrustworthy; members of religious orders are found to be predatory; nurses are revealed as callous; journalists are exposed as exploitative; and a much-admired cyclist turns out to be a cheat.

By way of response, inquiries are rapidly commissioned, individuals are demonised, ethical frameworks imposed, compassion training demanded and regulators accused. There is a tendency to identify single causes, to explain moral deficits as the lack of values such as dignity or compassion, and to believe there is some panacea training solution. We should, however, dismiss singular and simplistic explanations, resist quick-fix responses and demonstrate a willingness to learn from the past and from research in a range of academic disciplines. In short, we need some “slow”.

In the opening to his book, In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed, Carl Honore describes an article he came across as he queued impatiently at a flight gate. It was entitled “The one-minute bedtime story”. Honore tells us that his initial response was delight as he had regular conflicts with his small son regarding the lack of time devoted to bedtime reading. He wondered how quickly Amazon could dispatch the full set. But then he had an epiphany and asked: “Have I gone completely insane?” He concludes that he is not alone as everyone around him “is caught in the same vortex”.

The “slow movement” is the antidote to our obsession with fast - fast food, fast travel, fast parenting, fast life. We do not have to look far to find manifestations of this in our own fields of practice. The slow movement emphasises virtues such as integrity, patience, courage and respectfulness. It values quality over quantity, heterogeneity over homogeneity, and the local over the global. It values the achievements of communities that thrive, sometimes against the odds.

So how might the slow movement inform our tarnished professions, perhaps suggesting a more constructive response to what appears to be our moral winter? What might the implications of “slow ethics” be for all of our professional practices?

Slow ethics provides for a more sustainable and tempered approach to professional ethics. It would go beyond simple monomaniacal explanations, quick fixes and single values and algorithms. It would involve learning from the past, appreciating complexity and taking time to critically interrogate concepts, explanations and recommendations relating to unethical practices. Insights gleaned from the Leveson and Francis inquiries, for example, are invaluable. Slow ethics would highlight the “upstream” work that needs to be done to prepare young people to join our professions. It would require the institutionalisation - indeed normalisation - of space, time and coaching so that people more fully understand the implications of their actions and omissions; actions and omissions that can result in distress, humiliation and even death. It would go beyond performance management that focuses on technical competence, and instead engage meaningfully with humanistic dimensions of practice.

By all means, let us have “fast ethics” when we have a crisis to respond to and when immediate action is required to protect vulnerable people. However, it is slow ethics that is necessary if we are serious about sparing people further suffering from the insensitivity of the professions. The features of this would include: listening to and learning from the experience of those on the receiving end of our practices and also from professionals; engaging with a range of perspectives on the moral life - for example, moral philosophy, the humanities, social sciences and neuroscience; and refocusing on ethical leadership and positive role models. Professionals also need to look after themselves if they are to respond ethically to others. They need to take time to be with family and friends, prioritising bedtime stories over emails. This may involve challenging the institutions they work within.

We need to consider how to live and work more slowly and mindfully and to appreciate, celebrate and reward exemplary ethical practices in our local contexts. We should resist impositions from research funders, policymakers and executive boards who are keen to speed up, “roll out” and “cascade down” across diverse settings. One size will not fit all. If slow ethics is embraced, time will be taken to understand a bit more, blame single causes a bit less, embrace a richer pluralist ethics more in step with our diverse cultural contexts, and respond more effectively for the benefit of all.

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