Thursday, 19 May 2011

Trade in moral dilemmas: the moral maze – moral panic


At the time of writing, Queen Elizabeth was on her first state visit to Ireland.  This visit is quite symbolic and it is clear that there are still some sore wounds.  We’ve nothing to add, except to wish the people of these islands peace and prosperity. 

There had been a proposal to restyle these islands as IONA (Islands of North Atlantic).  This was to be a diplomatic fudge, which would have had the efficiency of Belgium and the cheerfulness of the Dutch – or as the Americans would say, Washington DC has the efficiency of the South combined with the friendliness of the Yankees.  That’s enough stereotyping.

Last week there was a referendum in Zurich in Switzerland.  The Swiss have referendums for almost anything.  I can remember many years ago a referendum on whether Switzerland should join the United Nations and another (Abstimmung) about whether to have public transport round the clock in Zurich itself.  The systems of cantons in Switzerland can be confusing, though the Swiss seem to have coped with referendums as part of their national psyche. 

Referendums elsewhere, especially in the UK, can reach demoniacal heights, as a recent referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) proved.  You will doubtless remember that Obreption had been campaigning for months against AV on two grounds:  firstly, it sullied a form of Hindu philosophy, Adveta Vedanta; and secondly, it would only give more credence to psephologists and the Liberal Democrats - who appear to be imploding as we write.  In fact there has been a hue and cry, Huhne and Cry-Baby and Hewn and Cry-off (Icelandic bankers will be pleased to note that the price of cryolite has been worth following).

Seriously, the Swiss vote in Zurich concerned the availability of assisted suicides to foreigners, predominantly from other EU countries such as Germany, France and parts of the UK.
In a previous post we mentioned that Scotland had its own legal system and a proposal in the Scottish Parliament has been made by Margo MacDonald to ‘legalise’ assisted suicide.  The BBC covered this issue in a matter of fact way with the Swiss-based Imogen Foulkes doing some interviews for domestic BBC radio and the BBC World Service

One of the comments made by a Swiss was that it was not the job of Switzerland to police other countries’ moral dilemmas – in other words if other European countries could not discuss these topics in the public sphere, then that was their problem.  The trade was as a result of the reluctance or reticence of some politicians in discussing ethical issues.  For many religions suicide is a no-go area and like many topics, it is almost taboo in some cultures.  It is not the only moral dilemma which is not counted in the trade statistics.  Other moral dilemmas include abortion, contraception, divorce, marriage and sexuality. 

Western Europe has experienced a trend in secularisation in both north and south to an extent that ethics, religion and morals are usually seldom dealt with in a congenial manner. 

News Update:

** NEWS UPDATE ** 3/6/11

Jack Kevorkian: 'Doctor Death' dies in US aged 83

Dr. Kevorkian in hospital with pneumonia, kidney problems

This brings us conveniently to the issue of the Moral Maze.  This is one programme which I had long ago given up; in fact it really never recovered following the death of Hugo Gryn, and the occasional brilliant David Starkey.  The panel changes now and again, but many of the panellists are a mix of ramblers, one trick ponies and jargonistas.  You can probably attach a label to the panellists yourselves.

On this occasion, the panellists were: Melanie Phillips, Claire Fox, Kenan Malik and Matthew Taylor. 

However, the programme has been chaired in the last couple of weeks by David Aaronovitch, who manages seamlessly to keep order.  While the panel has remained much the same, the quality of the guests or expert witnesses has improved remarkably to the extent – and this is an historical event - that I found myself agreeing with Melanie Phillips while she challenged the jargon laden Mathew Taylor who trots out trite tosh. 

There was a lot of jargon on the programme such as ‘moral panic’, ‘social learning theory’.  This almost makes the Regius Chair of Obreption Studies look old hat.  The first guest witness was the proponent of Slut Walk – and if you care to recall one of our earlier posts, it featured that well-known Flemish word Tent Slut, which was the most popular word in the Flemish part of Belgium. 

The new controller of Radio 4 had promised that the Moral Maze would be given an injection of “umph”.  The ‘expert witnesses’ included:

Elizabeth Head, organiser of Slut Walk London
Rachel Russell, Senior lecturer in sociology, Glasgow Caledonian University
Dr Linda Papadopoulos, Psychologist who wrote a report on the Sexualisation of Young People and commissioned by the Home Office last year
Jennifer Selway, Assistant Editor of the Daily Express (not my usual reading material)

There seems to be some confusion about Ritalin and Rohyphol by one of the guests, so it could be that the green room had the booze cabinet locked up and Michael Burke had taken the key.  Programme worth another try.  (I can’t believe I said that I agreed with Melanie Phillips!)

News update: 

Ken Clarke dismisses calls to resign over rape row(


Following the Moral Maze, there was a 15 minute talk by Jake Wallis Simons in a series called Four Thought.  Mr Simons had once been a Tibetan Buddhist but left.  His talk was totally jargon free and mentioned the NKT – New Kadampa Tradition – and the conflict with the Dalai Lama.  (Http:// )  If you thought Buddhists were peaceful, this might change your mind.  Much of the experience of the Buddhist ‘fraternity’ in the UK is through white middle-class, middle-aged men, though more prosperity based traditions, mainly Japanese imports, and syncretism of Buddhism with anything else have arisen.  Prosperity theology is usually behind many of them.  Mr Simons summed up human nature thus: to be part angel and part ape is to be human. 

Anne Atkins tried to be thoughtful in her Thought for the Day slot on Thursday 19th May, and while it was one of her better ones, once you removed the rapture, it seemed that some, if not all, religions seek to make angels or even saints of some of us, while sadly condemning the great unwashed to the status of apes.  An interesting contrast, though Jake Wallis Simons is a definite find for future essays and one which shows how poor some of the Thought for the Day slots really are.

PS: I still can't believe I wrote that I agreed with Melanie Phillips - on one point!  I have also mentioned that Shirley Williams was the only decent Liberal Democrat around, and if you search far enough I did make a kind comment about John Paul II suggesting that he might have had a point - so there!


  1. Talk of trading in death, reminds me of another moral maze that involves the trade in life – i.e. sperm donations. Danish sperm banks have been in the news recently, but it seems this is a not a new thing.

    A quick search on the internet will reveal stories from the early 2000s talking about this, so not sure if this is something that people get worked up about every 2-3 years!

    2003: 'Viking sperm' may add to the gene pool again

    2006: How Danish sperm is conquering the world

    2009: New Viking invasion as Danish men offer hope

    2009: Brits opting for IVF 'Viking' babies

    2011: Why Women Want Viking Sperm

  2. Have you by any chance been reading 'Amortality' by Catherine Mayer? I heard her on the World Service a few days ago discussing some interesting topics in 'World Have Your Say' - you might be able to find it as a podcast here:

  3. Don't feel bad about agreeing with Mel, P Ob. I agreed with her too! Never mind Slut Walk, more like Crap Talk! I mean, would you go flashing your wallet in a council estate?

  4. Now that the Moral Maze is finished, are you going to review the series. You're far too hard on Matthew Taylor 2 weeks ago. He's a well-respected contributor to debate in the public sphere. I think the church representation on the panel and even one of the guests - the canon - were definitely outclassed. Even Claire Fox was good.